- Courtesy of the City of Durham Twitter account
Last Monday's meeting of the Durham City Council was—as far as local-government meetings go—pretty empowering for the women in the room.
It started with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The Girl Scouts then stood at the front of the council chambers, wearing their patch-covered vests, while council member DeDreana Freeman (herself a former scout) proclaimed it Girl Scout Week in Durham.
Mayor Steve Schewel then read another proclamation recognizing March as Women's History Month. In keeping with the theme, former council member Eddie Davis, who now serves as the city's public historian, recognized local historian Jean Bradley Anderson, whose book Durham County: The History of Durham County, North Carolina chronicles the history of the Bull City, including the working, religious, and activist lives of Durham women.
Then, members of a newly formed Mayor's Council for Women were sworn in.
"It feels significant that we're here with a proclamation for the Girl Scouts and a proclamation for women's history and starting our women's council," said council member Jillian Johnson. "We're really excited. It's a great night."
There's a palpable sense of excitement around the new women's council and among its members. But what will they put all that energy toward?
The council has a broad mission statement—to improve the lives of Durham women—but how it accomplishes that goal is up to the members, explains Johnson, who will serve as the liaison between the women's council and the city council.
"All of the women who were appointed have particular skills and specialties that they'll bring," Johnson says. "That was something I was definitely looking for were folks who were already committed to Durham in a variety of ways."
The women's council consists of seven women covering different geographic and subject areas, as well as two at-large members (see sidebar). It came together at the urging of longtime city council member Cora Cole-McFadden after representatives from several women's organizations came to the city council as part of Cities for CEDAW, which refers to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The formation of a women's council was among their recommendations for how Durham could improve the status of women.
Gloria De Los Santos was part of that group. The Durham director of Action NC and a women's council appointee, De Los Santos says Durham will be one of just a few cities in North Carolina with such a body. "My whole idea was to give women that live
Durham County already has a Women's Commission, and for the first time women make up a majority of the city council. Having a strong female presence on all of these bodies offers an opportunity for a robust discussion about the issues facing women in Durham and to advance solutions brought forward by women themselves.
"Having a majority of women on the council also feels really significant to me in terms of moving toward more gender parity," Johnson says. "[Council members] can't be everywhere, so having community voices at the table—where people are close to the problems of the community and therefore close to the solutions to those problems—I think is really critical for having a functioning and representative democracy."
The Council for Women's first meeting is scheduled for March 26. Johnson anticipates one of the group's first initiatives will be to examine the status of women in Durham across metrics, like pay, that
While the appointees were already active in their communities, for some the women's council will be their first political endeavor.
Initially, only six women applied for the volunteer gig, and the city had to re-advertise the positions. Johnson and others began spreading the word and sharing the application on social media. The response to the second call for applications was better than she expected; ultimately, thirty-eight women applied.
The enthusiasm is indicative of a surge in civic engagement, particularly among women, taking place across the country in response to the Trump presidency and gerrymandering at the state level.
"More women are stepping up to run because we have an open misogynist for president," says Johnson.
In last year's municipal primary, fourteen people, including six women, ran for three Durham City Council seats (two women prevailed). Twenty-three people, including ten women, applied to fill Schewel's council seat after he was elected mayor (a woman was appointed). And, according to The News & Observer, there are 116 women running for state legislature seats this year.
"Local government seems to me like one of the few places left where people feel like they have any power," Johnson says.
This same phenomenon is happening nationwide. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, as of late January, there were 446 women, mostly Democrats, seeking congressional seats. About 25 percent of elected officials at the state level and 20 percent of officials at the federal level are women, according to the CAWP.
"I commend women for getting out there to do it," De Los Santos says. "It's a large commitment, but I think if we had more women running and winning, we'd have a different political landscape, and it would change the narrative of a lot of issues."
Who's Who on the Mayor's Council for Women
Nana Asante-Smith will represent the public safety sector. Asante-Smith is a Wake County assistant district attorney and a political action committee coordinator for the People's Alliance. She has also served as president of the Durham Crisis Response Center board of directors.
Nida Allam, a MetLife project analyst, will represent the category of civil rights and justice. She is third vice chairwoman
Ashley Canady will represent Ward 2. Canady is a mother, community organizer, and president of the McDougald Terrace resident council. In that role and as an active member of the neighborhood group Moms on a Mission, she has advocated against gun violence, helped operate a food bank, and organized programs in the city's largest public-housing neighborhood.
Gloria De Los Santos will hold an at-large seat. De Los Santos is the Durham director of Action NC, a grassroots group that works toward social and economic equality. She's been a community organizer for ten years. "I do hope the women who are on this board have political aspirations to want to run for city, county or state offices," she says. "We may have a president here one day."
Mina Ezikpe, the Ward 3 representative, is an activist, recent Duke grad, and organizer with You Can Vote, a voting-rights project of the People's Alliance Fund. As a fellow with WomenNC, Ezikpe conducted a research project on formerly incarcerated women of color in Durham.
Amie Koch, a family nurse practitioner, will represent the housing and economic-development sectors. Koch conducted her doctorate work on the health of single mothers living in poverty, particularly those facing homelessness. "Health is a component of our economic success, and health is a component of our housing success as well," she says. "And our housing success and our economic success are directly impacting our health."
Megan McCurley, the only applicant for the women's council who identified as Hispanic on her application, will represent Ward 1. McCurley is the program coordinator for America Reads/America Counts at Duke University, which places tutors in Durham schools. She has a background in anthropology and has researched how Latina mothers in Durham engage with the education system. "All aspects of life for women connect to education in some way or another," she says.
Rebekah Miel, an exhibit and print designer who specializes in social justice issues, will represent the arts-and-culture sector. She recently raised more than $60,000 to pay off the debt of Durham Public Schools students who couldn't afford school lunches.
Dolly Reaves, a formerly homeless single mother and graduate student, will hold the second at-large seat. Last year, she ran in a crowded field for the city council's Ward 2 office.