Vibrant paintings by local black artists breathe life onto the walls of the Hayti Heritage Center. Their broad, dynamic strokes speak to issues of race, class and gender. In them, Lamont Lilly finds his motivation.
A Fayetteville native, Lilly arrived in Durham nearly a decade ago. His introduction to the rich culture of Bull City inspired a comprehensive career as a community organizer, public speaker and freelance journalist.
"The culture, the jazz, the hip-hop, the blues. All of these art forms have shown me how powerful I can be and that knowledge was my first step in serving a greater cause," he says.
After college, Lilly began campaign organizing as a way to become more in touch with the Durham community and the issues it faced. Today, he collaborates with activist organizations such as the Durham Solidarity Center to ignite citizen passion for civil-rights reform.
"I think any demonstration that is sincere for some substantive issue is successful, whether you have three people there or three thousand. Any time that there's a collection of concerned citizens who are raising their voice, that's a success."
Though Lilly initially shied away from the front line of rallies, he was first inspired to take the microphone at a 2013 demonstration for Trayvon Martin and hasn't put it down since. Recently completing a speaking tour that included New York and Chicago, Lilly's charisma and skill as an orator has afforded him the opportunity to travel near and far. He's looking forward to the next installment of the journey—a trip to Egypt with the International Action Center.
"There isn't just a local movement to build, there's a national one," he says. "Eric Garner has everything to do with Mike Brown. Mike Brown has everything to do with Tamir Rice. This isn't just a Durham thing or a Chapel Hill thing. This isn't just a Ferguson thing or a New York thing. It's really an American problem. It's not just a race problem, it's also a class and gender problem."
Lilly often employs political theory to explore this intersection of race, class and gender. He sites the work of social revolutionaries—from bell hooks to Malcolm X to Karl Marx— as the impetus for his speeches.
Lilly's journalism supplements his activism. An editor for Triangle Free Press and Workers World Party, he also contributes reporting to the Durham News, The Herald-Sun and Triangle Tribune.
"I think a really good journalist gets out into the community and feels what's going on. You take that all in and you breathe it back out. As an activist, that's what you have to do, too. Bringing them both together has been great for me."
Lilly's influence as a freelance journalist has given him access to networks across the Triangle.
"When there's an issue, he's the person I call to ask to write about it and get the word out," says Elena Everett, co-founder of Durham Solidarity Center. "His networks span across multiple communities, and he's able to make a broad impact and connect across the issues."
Lilly has traversed various categories of activism over his 10-year career in Durham, but he has stayed engaged with the cultural scene that initially inspired him. Co-founder of DoinDurm, a resource that publicizes low-cost arts and music events around town, you can often find him in one of Durham's dance collectives, art galleries or music venues. He says personal expression, whether in the form of words or art, is what will ultimately shape the future of Durham.
"It's an entire generation that needs to speak up," he says.