Peace And Pride: East Durham Neighborhood Works For Balance

Jul 21, 2016

Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series on what area community leaders and residents are doing to balance "peace and pride" in their neighborhoods.

Every Friday in the basement of the Maureen Joy Charter School on South Driver Street in Durham, families get a bag of food packed with oatmeal, fruit bars, noodles, tuna, fruit boxes and more.

The food is meant to help families stretch what they have over the weekend. It's part of the East Durham Children's Initiative summer camp. A few years ago, the same group started a summer lunch program in the same basement. Now it's summer lunch, sandwiched between a summer STEAM camp teaching kids science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

David Reese, the group's president and CEO, says the event offers not only food – but also knowledge.

"[The kids] are safe. We know where they are," he said.  "We can put our hands on them and we know they'll be here everyday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. – learning, playing, having lunch."
 

David Reese, president and CEO of the East Durham Children's Initiative.
Credit Courtesy of the East Durham Children's Initiative

A local response to shootings nationwide

The children's initiative is located in a 1.2-square-mile area of Durham many folks had almost written off. Going by the numbers, this distressed East Durham neighborhood of mostly struggling black and Hispanic residents was known for the lowest performing schools in the city and one of the highest crime rates.

The recent deadly shootings across the country of police officers – and black men stopped by police – have left many people full of grief and on edge about what to expect next.

Reese says he's witnessing a turnaround in the Durham neighborhood But he questions how to keep up the momentum when there's so much bad news.

"How do you talk to 8, 9-year-olds about what’s happening in the world, here and now?" he asked. "They know when there's a police stop and their mom decides 'We're not going to the grocery store because the police are out there doing license checks.' This is real for them. This is probably the next level for kids and we’re still trying to figure out how we talk to parents about discussing this with their children."

Building community one meal at a time

So on these hot humid days, the East Durham Children's Initiative makes sure anybody who needs a meal – parents, grandparents, children – get a meal.

At this site, the Interfaith Food Shuttle and corporate and community volunteers help feed 75 to 100 people a day. The menu includes baked ziti, mixed vegetables, tossed salad, an apple, water and juice. Reese says everyone is welcome, even police officers.

"How do police departments become part of a community? If you're not part of a community then you're actually policing and you're an occupation," Reese said. "How do we not occupy but how do we become part of a community? And I think we’re moving and trying to move towards that in Durham. I don't know if we're there just yet."

Last month, Durham hired a new police chief, Cerelyn "CJ" Davis, an African American woman.* Davis' main task is to mend a fractured relationship with the community. She replaces Jose Lopez who was forced out after many complaints and a rising crime rate.

A report released earlier this year by RTI International showed black men were much more likely to be pulled over by Durham Police in a traffic stop than any other group.

Reese himself remembers being pulled over several times while working in New York, an experience he says he'll never forget.

"What’s interesting about profiling is that, it doesn't matter what you do for a living, it really doesn't matter how much money you have, what it really comes down to is what you look like and do you fit a description," he said.

And that's an experience he hopes the children at the summer camp won’t have to live for themselves.

Back at the camp, before going home on a recent day, some campers prepared a puppet show with sock puppets they made themselves, with big eyes and yarn for hair.

It's been a long few weeks, and for a moment, Reese smiled while looking at the kids, just being kids.

Correction: A previous version of this article, and the on-air story, incorrectly referred to Davis as the first female to lead the Durham Police Department. That is incorrect: Teresa Chambers was Chief of the Durham PD from 1998-2002.