When Allen Buansi was in seventh grade, bored in the way that only middle schoolers can be, he found his purpose in the pages of history books, reading about Black leaders making strides in both civil rights and politics. 

“I was lounging around the house and [my mother] catches me doing that, and she said, ‘Allen, why don’t you start reading some books?’” Buansi recalls. 

He read about Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman; Thurgood Marshall, former Supreme Court justice; and Charles Houston, the architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy against Jim Crow laws.

Buansi was inspired.

“My mom encouraged me to think about what I want to do with my life and what my calling was. I gravitated towards this idea of public service, advocating for folks who are in need,” Buansi says. “These folks were operating at a time when things were really bleak, especially for Black people, especially for women. And yet they saw fit to do whatever they could to move the ball forward. I wanted to fight for people. I want to do what I can to make life equitable.”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and now, with a UNC-Chapel Hill law degree under his belt, Buansi has worked as a civil rights and municipal lawyer and is serving his first term on the Chapel Hill Town Council. 

In an exclusive interview with the INDY, Buansi laid out his plans to run for the North Carolina state House seat vacated by Orange County Rep. Verla Insko’s pending retirement.

Four years on the council

Though inspired in middle school, Buansi says he did not recognize the power local governments have to effect change until he interned at the Center for Civil Rights at UNC-CH. 

There, he learned more about the continuing legacy of Jim Crow in North Carolina and how local governments can either be actors promoting discrimination or working to end it.

“I had this newfound appreciation for the power that local government can have for actively dismantling systems of exclusion,” Buansi says. “What can I be doing at this point to promote equity right here in my own community?”

In 2017, after taking a full-time attorney position at the civil rights center and working as policy director on attorney general Josh Stein’s successful campaign, Buansi decided it was time to run for office.

Elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2017, Buansi will serve only one term, ending in December. 

Buansi recently welcomed twin boys with his wife, Sarah, a professor in UNC-CH’s Department of Family Medicine. He told the INDY in July that his decision not to run stemmed from the time commitment it takes to mount a campaign, which would pair poorly with caring for two newborns. As Insko won’t leave her seat until December 2022, Buansi figures he’s bought some time.

His council seat is one of four up for election this year.

During his time on the council, Buansi led several initiatives, including a criminal justice debt program, a poet laureate program, affordable housing projects, and a community initiative to reimagine public safety.

Reflecting on the past four years, Buansi says he is proudest of his work with fellow council member Karen Stegman on the criminal justice debt program and his efforts to reform local policing and assistance facilitated by the council during the COVID pandemic.

Buansi and Stegman worked to establish a debt fund to assist non-violent offenders living in poverty and trying to better their lives. The fund is designed to help town residents pay high court fees and costs.

Stegman says Buansi is “deeply committed to public service, a thoughtful and measured policymaker who listens, honors different perspectives, and approaches his role with respect and humility. 

“[Buansi] unfailingly centers equity and fairness, informed both by his experiences growing up in Chapel Hill as well as his work as a civil rights attorney,” Stegman wrote in an email to the INDY. “During his time on the Council, Allen has been a fierce champion for those historically underrepresented in our local government, bringing their voices forward powerfully and with authority. If not for his commitment to collaboration and ability to bring clarity as to what is at stake, [our joint] efforts would likely not have been successful.”

Council member Michael Parker echoed these sentiments, calling Buansi a “truly effective” member of the council. 

“His ability to work and collaborate with the other members of Council has led to him having an important impact in the Town’s response to the George Floyd murder, creation of a criminal justice debt relief fund, and making sure that the voices of those who have underrepresented and marginalized are heard,” Parker told the INDY. “His voice and his leadership on Council will be missed.” 

Following Floyd’s murder, Buansi spearheaded a resolution reimagining community safety, calling for some short- and long-term changes to policing in Chapel Hill. Two immediate changes—one prohibiting law enforcement officers from using chokeholds as a policing tactic, and another that prohibits low-level traffic regulatory stops—will be crucial in alleviating the focus and burdens of policing on poor people. In the long-term, the Re-Imagining Community Safety Task Force will study public safety through the lens of accessibility as well as policing over the next year.

Lasting legacy 

If elected to the General Assembly, Buansi will have big shoes to fill. Insko, who announced this month she would retire at the end of her term, is one of the longest-serving Democrats in the state legislature. She’s held her seat for 24 years, or before the iPhone was invented, as she put it.

Jonah Garson, an attorney and former chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, announced he is stepping down from that role to run for Insko’s seat in the House, according to a report from Chapelboro and confirmed by Will Guzzardi, Garson’s campaign strategist. 

Buansi, a Chapel Hill native, recalls growing up and looking to Insko as a role model.

“I would be committed to carrying on that mantle, that legacy,” he says. “I got to admire her from afar, and as I’ve grown older, especially when I was elected to the town council, I’ve gotten to work with her in a different type of capacity and see her work ethic and values up close and personal. The kind of legacy that she’s created is one of empathy, of a dogged pursuit of fairness, and equality, and equity.”

Buansi says, if elected, he will approach the role as an opportunity to bring local issues to the statewide stage. 

“It’s a real opportunity to take the work that we’ve been doing in Chapel Hill to the state level,” he says. “Work that is centered in making our state and our community more affordable, more accessible, more inclusive, through the state legislature.”

Buansi says his main priorities include addressing climate change, public education, and affordable health care.

Environmental justice is also on the front burner, he says. 

“I’ve got a track record as a leader. I’ve done a lot of work on the ground as an activist,” he says. “I feel I have a lot to bring to the table, and I’m here to serve our people, our district, and all of North Carolina.”

This story has story has been updated from an earlier version to report that Buansi has an opponent, Jonah Garson, in the House District 56 race. 

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