On the night that Mayor Elaine O’Neal officially became Durham’s first Black woman mayor, “no one will be left behind,” she said.
“We all envision a Durham that listens to and cares for every citizen, and we will leave no one behind,” said O’Neal Monday night as she took her oath of office.
At least 100 Durham city staff members and residents filled the council chambers as O’Neal was sworn in alongside city council members DeDreana Freeman, who was re-elected to Ward I; Mark-Anthony Middleton, re-elected to Ward II; and Leonardo Williams, newly elected to Ward III.
“We must make every neighborhood safe,” said O’Neal, a former judge and interim dean of the N.C. Central University Law School. “Parents should not have to worry about their children playing at the neighborhood park. Our elderly residents should not have to live in fear of bullets coming through their home.”
O’Neal replaces Steve Schewel, who exits the city’s political stage after more than 40 years. He leaves behind a successful affordable housing bond to address the city’s rise in gentrification.
But as he steps down, gun violence has taken a record number of lives this year in Durham.
“Our students must be able to go to school and learn in a safe environment,” O’Neal said. “Enough of the guns. Enough of the shootings. Enough of the killings.”
New approach to address violence
All of the new and re-elected council members are partnering with other city leaders and social justice advocates to establish a new sustainable justice movement over the next three to five years under the Hayti Reborn organization.
Former Durham police chief Steve Chalmers, who will serve as the movement’s executive director, has developed a new system to address the needs of the community that he says is fueling the spike in gun violence.
This new program will track Durham youth and young adults and begin offering services like mentoring, therapy and after-school programming. The movement also aims to expunge the records of previous offenders and set them up with jobs with a starting pay of $15 per hour.
O’Neal and others are setting up groups of residents willing to assist in recruiting the youth through Durham’s Partners of Crime (PAC) for the new initiative.
On Saturday, during a meeting for the group, O’Neal collected information from residents who can volunteer a few hours a week. She proposed establishing a 1-800-number for children who need help with any situation with a response expected within 72 hours.
“I am committing my time for these two years and I am asking you to do the same,” O’Neal said.
Lisa Jones, who served as a Federal Bureau of Corrections officer, will oversee the operations of the movement and its expansion. She confirmed that the group has submitted a funding request to the city and county to begin gaining capital to expand the program.
“People want one place where they can come for us to assess their needs. We are currently looking at building spaces downtown to house our operations,” Jones said.