Community Blog

DCABPI has launched a Blog series in an effort to enlighten viewers / readers about people and local leaders who are making a difference, as well as positive contributions right here in Durham.

For this series, our DCABPI Interns conduct interviews for our DCABPI - Blog page.  Each interview explores the perspectives shared by individuals from different professional backgrounds (eg, politics, healthcare, housing, education, business) to include DCABPI cohorts, Community Activists, and other local residents.

Interview questions and answers address the following issues:

  • Where / how do you see Racial Inequity exhibited in your everyday lives or career path?  

  • What changes could be made in Durham communities to achieve Racial Equity?

Posted on September 24, 2021

Today, Caitlin Leggett (NCWC Class of 22 and Student Intern at National Public Radio) discusses the career path of Attorney Michele Okoh, Senior Lecturing Fellow, Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University School of Law.

Caitlin: Do you mind introducing yourself and what you do?

Atty. Okoh: I'm currently a Senior Lecturing Fellow of Law with Duke Law School.  I specifically work for the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic which is a unique area in the law school.  The important thing to understand about clinical education is that it is focused on giving students practical experience.  All of our students work on real cases.  The clinic is designed to focus on environmental law cases allowing students to work with real clients, All of our students work in teams.  We teach students who are law students, as well as students who are from the Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment.  That's where I focus my work.  I supervise the students in that work, and help them to really develop as burgeoning attorneys.  I also work with students in our Nicholas School who serve as student consultants for our clients.  

My work in general focuses on environmental justice which is where I am primarily concerned.  We understand that people impact the environment, and our environment impacts us as well.  What we also understand is that not everyone is impacted by the environment to the same extent.  So when it comes to environmental justice issues, it's about achieving equity, along with addressing issues in relation to environmental injustice, where not everyone has the same opportunities, nor does everyone have the same access to environmental benefits and burdens. That's especially true with our Black, Indigenous, People of Color (aka, BIPOC) communities. So that's where my work essentially focuses primarily. 

 

One of the interesting aspects about environmental justice is that it's a combination of environmental law, social justice issues, and public health.  For that reason, I'm also currently working towards my Masters of Public Health (part-time), in addition to working full time with the Duke University Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.  Part of the reason why I made that decision is because for me, when it comes to environmental justice, it's inextricably linked to public health.

 

How I ended up there is kind of a winding road.  To a large extent, this is a return home for me to be in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.  I was originally one of the first students in the clinic when it was originally created.  I graduated from Duke School of Law in 2009, and I will say things have changed dramatically in the environmental law community.  At that time, I was very much interested in environmental justice issues, but at that time, I didn't have the background to really connect with my interests.  What I did know is that I was concerned about the environment and how it impacted people.  I was very concerned about the disparities that I saw, however at that time, the environmental law community wasn't really working on those types of issues, at least it wasn't mainstream.  So I found myself being very interested in those issues when I was a Duke Law student taking every environmental law class that I could take. Then realizing that with the practice of environmental law, at least at that time back then, the focus really wasn't on environmental justice as it relates to the social justice issues that I was interested in.  So my career really kind of went more towards working on social justice issues that I wanted to see. I went to work for the North Carolina Department of Justice working in their environmental division for a time.  I also worked with the health and public assistance section where I represented North Carolina's Medicaid program which gave me a further connection to health issues. 

Afterwards, I actually became a prosecutor, and did that for about a little over four and a half years. And you know that was a different perspective.  Being able to see the criminal justice system and being able to function as a prosecutor was very enlightening to me.  This gave me a lot of perspective as to how all these different issues were interrelated.  I then opened up my own law firm representing clients with disabilities.  Often people look to see the joining thread as far as your career paths, and for me it is social justice.  I think that's really important when we look at environmental law issues to see that it's very much related to what happens when we make these decisions in relation to the environment.

Caitlin: I think a lot of that touches on the questions that I had even now, especially when you were going back to social justice issues, and you were talking about equity.  So racial equity is where racial inequity is a topic that's rooted in so much of our society, but we're only just now beginning to have conversations about it.  Where and how have you seen racial inequity exhibited?  Exhibited in your everyday life?  Or even in your career?

Atty. Okoh: Wow, where have I seen it?  It's probably more unique not to see it to a certain extent.  The American Bar Association recently released a report last year that cites 5% of attorneys are black.  So I am within a very small group of people in the profession, and that has definite impacts. And, honestly it can be very frustrating.  We talk about racial trauma, and I think it's very difficult to be a black attorney and not to experience that.  It was interesting to see when I did have my own practice, even from my own black community, the idea that somehow my legal skills, despite my background, was not worth as much as my white colleagues.  I remember going to a meeting where one person thought that they were promoting my law firm, and they announced that I was a great lawyer and a Duke Law School graduate.  The person also announced -- by the way, she's cheap.  Why would this person assume that I'm cheap?  Why would the person assume that my services were any less valued than my white male colleagues?

Essentially it’s because that's what I was surrounded by for the most part.  So it's just very interesting to see those assumptions being made and it’s very frustrating.  Professionally I wish I could say that it was uncommon, but unfortunately it is very, very common to have to deal with that even as I look at my Duke Law degree.  I will also say that sadly, a lot of times it is because I'm black -- it's worth less.  I've had colleagues, people who I thought were my actual friends, who have brought up things along the lines of the only reason why I have a Duke Law degree is because I'm black.

It's startling that they would, number one, think that and also even to say it.  That was very offensive.  And it's very challenging to have to deal with that on an everyday basis as an attorney.  You know, just even when I was doing defense work, I was the only black female in my county handling serious felony cases.  That's very isolating, in addition to already dealing with the racism that I described.  It's a challenge to be essentially devalued because of your race, and even more disturbing that someone felt comfortable enough to make that announcement was very disconcerting and very shocking to me.

Let's be honest, it has for us in general had significant impacts on us health-wise.  And I really think it's important that when we think about racism to think of it in a public health context.  I think one of the positive actions that Durham County has taken is to declare racism as a public health crisis.  I think that's appropriate based upon the effects we see related to institutional racism.  There have also been real physical consequences as well.  If you have to deal with chronic stress, that negatively impacts your health.  I think that's all very important when we think about racism, and to realize that there's individual racism, in addition to institutional racism as well that we have to deal with on a regular basis, unfortunately.  

 

So it's very challenging to be in a position where you always have to feel that you have to prove yourself because if you're being devalued, it's not enough to be qualified, you have to be more always as the standard.  You have to be more, which in itself, is very demoralizing and stressful to have to deal with.  So my answer to your question, is yes.

Caitlin: Would you say no, especially, especially at the caliber that you work?  Oftentimes, it's kind of like a crossroads where you find yourself trying to, you want to conform, because part of that is your job.  But then there's also a part of you that wants to maybe speak out against it, and maybe push back a little bit.  Do you find yourself trying to at least aid in the issue?

Atty. Okoh: Yes, but I would say that's also an evolution. For me that was a real challenge.  And even in relation to my work that was a challenge. I was very interested in issues related to social justice, but another challenge that I found myself having to struggle with is I didn't want to be the attorney working on black things.  I didn't want to be put into a box.  On the other hand, to balance it off with what I ultimately realize is that if we're not going to speak for ourselves, who else is going to do it.  That's where I ended up weighing in even though it is definitely a challenge. 

 

You know I wear my hair natural. I think we take for granted as far as our hair, although that's getting more public attention now.  When I started my practice I began wearing wigs because I realized that it fit in more with the professional standard.  I definitely struggled with that to think about, and I think it's very challenging, especially as a black woman to express your identity, and embrace your identity in a world that is essentially designed to be against it.  That's definitely been a challenge.  And I will say that it also takes risks.  You don't know how making those sorts of decisions are going to play out even with my hair. 

 

When I when I wear my hair, it is definitely something that I think about if I'm going before a judge.  How will that judge perceive my hair?  Will they take me as being less professional?  From an academic standpoint, we want to have credibility with our students.  Having to really take that extra effort to realize that, it means that there's a real possibility.  I'll go even further.  There is a real likelihood that we will be devalued because of our race.  To always have to feel that you have to earn that when in all actuality you already have fruit from your credentials and your experience.  But to feel like that is a constant rat race that you have to deal with is pretty significant.

 

I think that is something that I have to evaluate on a regular basis as far as how much you know, to say and, to be involved and expressive in that area.  Although you have to also evaluate the cost, it is still definitely important to me to be outspoken on these issues, and that's really why I returned to environmental justice, because I did feel that actions need to be taken.  I needed to speak out, and I needed to work in this area.

Caitlin: Going back a little bit, I know you talked about some of the programs that Durham has implemented. What changes do you think could be made right here on the local level in order to achieve racial equity?

Atty. Okoh: Durham Equity Taskforce had excellent recommendations, especially in the area of environmental justice.  I think one of the recommendations brought up in that report was also for the City of Durham to also acknowledge racism as a public health crisis.  I think that lens is very important when we think about how to address racism.  I also think that it's important for Durham to really take steps to address issues in relation to gentrification, preserving culture, and also with development to increase community involvement in those types of decisions. Those are all very important actions that Durham can take as far as making efforts towards addressing racism.

 

I definitely feel that the public health lens is very important.  It's great that the county has done that, but it's very important for the City to take a similar action, and really frame its policies around perceiving racism as a public health threat.

Caitlin: Knowing that you worked so closely with public health, and we know there is a history of mistrust within the black community and the public health system, what would you say to someone who is skeptical with things like COVID and vaccinations right now?

Atty. Okoh: Now that is a real challenge.  I will say as far as the mistrust issue, I think a lot of people have a good reason to have mistrust because of the history in relation to health, mental health and medical institutions, and research institutions, but when it comes down to COVID, the risks, the dangers, morbidity, and mortality - all that is not speculative.  These are real people who are dying on a daily basis.  I think one of the things that needs to happen when it comes down to just public health, in general, is more investment in community health workers.

 

You talked about that mistrust.  I'm not having people who are outside the communities coming from these medical institutions, these research institutions on the front lines.  Using community health workers who are grounded as part of the community to share those messages is an important tool in addressing mistrust.  It's also important to listen, and really understand people's perspective.  Oftentimes the same approach towards dealing with mistrust in relation to COVID vaccination, we also see in relation to climate change.  The idea is that I just need to show you more information.  It’s evident that different populations have different reasons for the vaccine hesitancy, and some of it does come to an issue of values.  So what is their value?  What is leading them to be resistant towards receiving the vaccine?  

 

If we actually take the time to listen, we'll learn that taking a listening perspective would be more effective.  Taking a listening perspective can be done better if you are using community health workers to have those interactions to communicate with communities as far as COVID vaccination.  I think it's very important.

Caitlin: That concludes all of the questions that I have. I want to thank you very much for sitting down with me.  It's been great talking with you.

Posted on August 23, 2021

Today, Caitlin Leggett (NCWC Class of 22 & intern at National Public Radio) discusses the career path of

Dr. LaVerne Reid, Interim Dean, College of Health and Sciences at North Carolina Central University.

Caitlin: Do you mind introducing yourself and what you do?

Dr. Reid: I currently serve as the interim Dean of the College of Health and Sciences at North Carolina Central University. This particular College is relatively new. We've been in existence for exactly one year. The College was established in an effort to align the Analytical Sciences with the Health Sciences. There are 10 departments, including Basic Science departments, Biological and Biomedical Science, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Earth Environment, Geospatial Science, Math and Physics. We have five distinct Health Sciences, including Nursing, Kinesiology (Sports Medicine) and Recreation Administration, Communication Sciences and Disorders, along with Human Sciences with concentrations such as Nutrition and Dietetics. Disciplines represented by these departments are the fastest growing professions in the country.

I received an undergraduate degree from NC Central in Health Education and Biology. I received the MPH degree from UNC School of Public Health and the PhD from the Heller School at Brandeis University. I have been a public health practitioner for over 40 years in a variety of settings including three hospitals, 2 state health departments and two county or city health departments.  At NC Central, I am a Professor in the Department of Public Health Education and I have held a number of positions with increasing levels of responsibility. This is my second appointment as a Dean. I previously served as an Associate Dean twice for different colleges, in addition to having served as Chair for two different departments.

Posted on June 9, 2021

Today, Taylor Rosbrook (NCCU Class of 21) discusses the career path of Dr. Rochelle  Newton, EdD, Assistant Divisional  Chief Operating  Officer at Duke Health Technology Solutions.

Taylor: If you could give a little background about yourself and what you do in the community. How have you seen Racial Inequity exhibited in your everyday life and/or career path?   And, what changes could be made in Durham communities to achieve Racial Equity?

Dr. Newton: I am an IT professional, and I have worked in IT for 44 years. In Information technology, systemic and institutional racism is everywhere. There is no part it is not. In the commercial marketplace like, facial recognition, two-factor identification, there is so many places where this exist. This is in large part because the people who design these systems and develop these systems are normally white and male. Black and brown people, rarely, 

are at the forefront of current or emerging technology. If you have a smartphone, if you have social media, you

are using the resources that others developed, at your peril no less. If you use social media, they capture everything you post, every word you type, and they make some kind of judgement. This is partly how the corruption happened in the 2016 election.

 

There are always examples of how the system is always turning inward on those who need the system the most. In IT, black and brown people are first hired, first fired. So, as soon as you come in, you go right back out -- a revolving door. And they are not paid equitably. They are not put  in places where they can have leadership, or have a voice, or even a seat at the table. So, there are a lot of examples where racial inequity shows up in various ways in my field. It shows up in various ways in all fields, and it's not unique to IT. What is happening in IT is happening in ever field.  In the area where I work specifically, you look down the hall and everybody that you are looking down the hall at is usually white and male. So how do we change this?

Posted on April 29, 2021

Today, Taylor Rosbrook (NCCU Class of 21) discusses the career path of Dr. Zaphon R. Wilson, Chair & Associate Professor at North Carolina Central University - Public Administration Department. 

Taylor: If you could give a little background about yourself and what you do in the community. How have you seen Racial Inequity exhibited in your everyday life and/or career path?   And, what changes could be made in Durham communities to achieve Racial Equity?

 

Dr. Wilson: Yes, I am from Wilkes County (NC), moved here from Savannah, Georgia where I was a department chair at Savannah State University and Georgia Southern at Armstrong. I’ve been in higher education for about 35 years.

I started at Appalachian State University, spent some time at Hampton University, and at St. Augustine University for about 5 years. I’ve been here at North Carolina Central University, now going on my fourth year. So, I’ve been around the block a few times. A lot of the work I've done has been in Community Service and working on a planning board.

I have also held offices with several professional organizations.

I have an interest in public administration and public policy because when I was a kid, urban renewal went through our community and my grandmother worked really hard to keep her home. She was able to keep her home and move into another section of the community. That was my first interaction with housing policy, housing inequities, and just a general kind of dynamic that took place in small communities when it came to providing affordable housing. One of my first jobs was with a planning firm in Elizabeth City, NC where we did Community Development and Planning. I’ve been involved in housing for a very long time along with this whole idea of Community Engagement and Involvement.

Posted on March 30, 2021

"Often times, policies within our system can create devastating racial disparities in our community. It is DCABP Inc's mission to bring to the forefront issues related to these disparities that go unvoiced and ignored. We can see these disparities within housing, voting, civic participation, education, etc. As a long-time community member and student of Durham, NC, I believe Durham could benefit tremendously from the efforts of an organization like DCABPI and the conversations they bring to the table of racial equality within the community."

Taylor C. Rosbrook

Senior Political Science Student

North Carolina Central University

Posted on March 26, 2021

"The way that DCABP Inc. strives for racial equality is by attending meetings with the community and speaking up on the concerns of the communities. Making their voices be heard."

Imani Sanford

Senior, Political Science Student

North Carolina Central University

Posted on March 5, 2021

"The 2020 elections proved the extraordinary power of the African American vote in electing candidates that are committed to equity and fairness in our governmental policies.  We are already seeing efforts in many states to suppress the right of African Americans to vote in future elections to enhance the election of candidates that lack a commitment to equality and justice.  The African American community must remain a leading voice in advancing human rights at home and abroad, especially in ensuring that each citizen has a voice in promoting democratic principles and outcomes for all Americans." 

Dr. Allan Cooper

Professor of Political Science

North Central Central University

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