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25 Who Really Made a Difference in Chapel Hill


How do you determine the "people who have made a difference" for a given community? In one sense, it's an absurd question. Any such list must by its very nature be subjective and reflect the biases of those compiling it. "Best of ..." lists of various sorts tell you as much about the compiler as they do about the subject. George W. Bush's list of the 10 best films, if he has one, surely differs greatly from that of Godfrey Cheshire.

To name the most important people in a locality, regardless of how you title the list, is invariably a political act. It is to promote certain values and to obscure others, to assert a place in history for some people and events, to deny it to others. And within that promotion, that assertion and that denial lies an effort to shape our understanding of who and what matters today. In addition, those who would name a top 10 or a top 50 claim for themselves the scope of vision needed to judge history and seek implicitly to tie their own stature to the achievements of those they presume to honor.

Struggling to regain its audience, WCHL radio of Chapel Hill (a subsidiary of VilCom) recently compiled a list of "50 who made a difference" in Chapel Hill and Carrboro as part of its 50th anniversary promotion. For me and many others whom I've heard from on the progressive end of Chapel Hill's political spectrum, their list was either laughable or outrageous. Except for a few key civil rights leaders, it was dominated by mainstream movers and shakers--wealthy business people and developers, high-profile administrators, and the like. This skewing was highlighted by the inclusion of two VilCom executives on the list.

VilCom President Jim Heavner defended the selection, claiming that over the past 50 years there have been "two dominant changes ... the civil rights revolution and the town's growth." His list by and large reflects only those changes. But what about women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, ecology, and a cultural explosion? Where on his list were the people who had made Chapel Hill and Carrboro culturally rich, forward-thinking communities? Apparently, they were flying beneath the radar, unworthy of recognition by the mainstream media.

There are scores of candidates to fill that gaping hole: artists, poets, activists, environmentalists, even a politician or two. They deserve recognition. Some have received it over the years from The Independent through its annual citizen and artist awards. But, the glaring omission of these leaders from the VilCom list demands rectification at this time.

Why, you will surely ask, do I presume to take on this task? After all, I am just a single individual who, as a detractor once put it in a letter to the editor, "doesn't employ anyone but himself."

Here are my qualifications: First, I am an ordinary schmo who, like you, has an opinion. Second, I've been around a while and like to think I've paid attention (at least I read the papers). Third, I am someone who enjoys a challenging idea, a reading, a demonstration, a concert, a cup of non-chain java, and the chance to see the latest Almodóvar in the theater. Finally, and most importantly, I am the one who e-mailed the editor of The Independent to suggest that they write this story to which he replied, "You write it, we'll print it."

What follows is my "25 in 25." That's 25 key figures in the roughly 25 years since I first moved to Orange County. It is limited by my poor memory and by my own interests, which have led me to become aware of certain people rather than others. It most assuredly reflects my subjective view on what matters (a few people made helpful suggestions but I will spare them public association with the end product). Readers familiar with the recent history of Chapel Hill and Carrboro will identify glaring omissions or galling inclusions in my list. I do not claim that these are the "top" 25 and they are not even the only list that I myself could come up with.

There is a paradox in my presenting such a list. As an advocate of strong democracy, I have long argued against the promotion of and reliance on a small coterie of leaders. This has seemed particularly important in a society that makes a fetish of celebrity and that relentlessly disempowers its citizens. The remedy must be to emphasize a renewed sense of citizenship and participatory, egalitarian democracy in all social spheres. Thus, those on the list below are selected partly in view of their commitment to empowering others and their general lack of interest in self-promotion.

They are (in alphabetical order):

Doris Betts--Writer, mentor of writers, esteemed teacher.

Giles Blunden--Brought eco-friendly and solar architecture to Carrboro as well as a community-wide focus on planning for sustainability.

Fred Battle--Along with the late James Brittain and Hank Anderson, kept the NAACP and Rainbow Coalition active and engaged, bringing issues of the black community to the forefront.

Joyce Brown--So many of her positions on transportation, energy, solid waste, development and more remain the progressive standard.

Mark Chilton--In a town whose raison d'etre is students, proved that one could make his mark in local politics (Gerry Cohen did it 21 years earlier, in 1970).

Janet Colm--First director of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, went on to lead Planned Parenthood through 19 years of growth amid continued right-wing attacks on choice.

Michelle Cotton--Sensitive and challenging columnist, fierce proponent of social justice in the school system, NAACP leader.

Gloria Faley--From Many Voices, One Community to Stop Overcrowding Schools to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board, has worked to fight discrimination and improve education.

Frank Heath--His Cat's Cradle remains the heart of Chapel Hill's vital music scene.

John Herrera and Karen Currant--Creators of Fiesta del Pueblo, which gave notice that the Hispanic community was here to stay.

Joe Herzenberg--North Carolina's first openly gay elected official whose diversity of supporters crossed typical political boundaries making him a top vote getter.

Alex Hitt--Founded and nurtured the Carrboro Farmer's Market, helping tie urban growth to sustaining the surrounding agricultural economy.

Ellie Kinnaird--Turned Carrboro around politically. Will a small town in Europe one day claim the title of "the Carrboro of France"?

Estelle Mabry--Took the NIMBY out of neighborhood organizing when she brought a consciousness of ecology and social justice to Chapel Hill's Alliance of Neighborhoods.

Al McSurely and Ashley Osment--Front-line civil rights lawyers, key advocates in countless struggles.

Jacques Menache--Brought the ArtSchool to maturity as the aptly renamed ArtsCenter.

Maria Palmer--In the forefront working for justice, education, and acceptance for the Hispanic community.

Barbara Prear--Led the UNC housekeepers movement to unionization and broke the long history of exploitation of UNC's lowest paid African-American workers.

John Rosenthal--Although his best known photos are of New York, his art is expressive of Chapel Hill.

Bob Sheldon--Built Internationalist Books into a community resource, still inspiring the left 12 years after his death.

Bland Simpson--Red Clay Rambler, writer, and teacher of writers.

Ruffin Slater--Turned a "community-owned" grocery (Weaver Street Market) into a community center and never looked back.

Bruce Stone--Founded the Chelsea theater (which screened the Almodóvar film I mentioned earlier), turned the Carolina Theater into an art house, and preserved the Varsity theater.

Joe Straley--Leader, organizer, and activist on issues of peace, civil rights, civil liberties, and Central America solidarity.

Bill Strom--Has brought a unique and progressive effectiveness to bear on a host of challenges facing the Chapel Hill Town Council. EndBlock

The original list can be found in The Herald-Sun archive at Free registration is required.

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