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Black Women Dominate Durham Leadership Roles

Mayor Elaine O’Neal, City Manager Wanda Page, City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg and Police Chief Patrice Andrews share how they came to lead the North Carolina city.

(TNS) — Durham’s city government has more Black women in leadership positions than ever before.

Mayor Elaine O’Neal, 61, is Durham born and raised. She is in her first term, becoming the city’s first Black female mayor in 2021 after being pushed to run.

There are three other Black women on the seven-member City Council, which has had very public disagreements in recent weeks.s

City Manager Wanda Page rose through the ranks of city government over 30 years before being picked for the top spot in 2021.

City Attorney Kimberly Rehberg, 53, came to Durham to attend Duke Law School (where she was a classmate of Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry) and has spent nearly two decades working for the city.

Police Chief Patrice Andrews, 49, started her law enforcement career at the department she now leads.

The four women gathered last month to speak with The News & Observer about who paved the way for them, what this historic moment means for North Carolina, and why rolling back reproductive and voting rights could make it harder on the next generation.

I know that Durham stands out in this state, but do you feel it (Black woman leadership) is unique even in the city’s history?

Page: Yes. It hasn’t happened in the past to the level you see here.

O’Neal: But it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be a thing. We’ve been working ever since we arrived in this country, so we’re glad to have the opportunity to participate at this level. But to a certain degree, we’ve always participated and so I will be glad when it’s no longer a thing.

Rehberg: The mayor and I are the first Black women in our respective positions. It’s been 20 years just about since we had a Black female city manager.

Page: I’m the second female city manager, period.

Rehberg: And the chief of course, her predecessor was a Black woman, but they have been the pioneers.

So for the city of Durham, I think to have all four of those positions coalesce at one time with Black female leadership is amazing. I think it speaks volumes about Durham and the incubator that it is for opportunity and leadership.

Andrews: The city of Durham is so deeply rooted in civil rights. We have Black Wall Street and you can take a civil rights tour. And Hayti. We can’t talk about the positions we’re in without talking about Hayti.

Was this a place that recruited you, encouraged you, supported you on your leadership journey?

O’Neal: I was actually pulled into leadership. Billy Marsh, who grew up on the West End and is a well-known civil rights attorney, pulled me into the political scene after law school. I’ve never felt any limits in terms of running for elected office.

Andrews: Durham has a vitality in her spirit that draws you here. I absolutely felt supported, not necessarily through words, but through actions. But also seeing other women in leadership positions. I think that’s important. Not just here in Durham, but (retired police chiefs) Cassandra Deck-Brown in Raleigh and Pat Norris in Winston-Salem.

Rehberg: Durham just has a spirit about it that makes it feel like home. Even though we’re a city of almost 300,000 people, it still feels somewhat like a small town.

And I agree with the chief, it wasn’t so much that the encouragement of leadership was spoken so much as just envisioned for you. When I came to the city, I was not the first Black female lawyer for the city, which is probably not typical for most municipal law offices in the mid-aughts.

Page: When I came to the city of Durham over 30 years ago, I did not expect that I would ever be the Durham city manager. I had never seen a Black city manager ever in my life. But I set out to learn everything I could about this government, about this community. As my career progressed, I gained confidence from people around me, my peers. And they didn’t have to be my bosses. They could just be my peers.

Whose shoulders do you feel you stand on?

Page: My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. They were always leading something, whether it was in a community organization, a political organization, a church organization. Even if it was just something in our family, a family reunion.

I watched very closely and learned things that you don’t actually get to learn in business school or out of a book. How do you gain cooperation and collaboration from other folks? What do you do when when you get disappointed? How do you handle that?

I actually knew two of my great-grandmothers. Both of them were born in the late 1800s. So I stand on their shoulders, but I like to feel like I’m within their arms, because they surround me.

O’Neal: I stand on my faith tradition, first of all, and then second would be my family. My family, they were community workers going back to my grandfather and grandmother and they taught their children that and we still carry that on today. I was always taught to be a public servant. You didn’t call it that back then, but that’s what they were doing. My mother registered voters. My grandmother was a founding member of a church in the West End.

Rehberg: My dad’s parents were from Harlan County, Kentucky, probably one of the poorest counties in the country. And they were part of that great wave of migration from southern states in the Jim Crow South, up to the upper Midwest. They went to Cleveland so that my dad could have a high school education. And when I think about the faith, and resilience, and perseverance and grit of that generation of people who did that, that just changed the fortunes of those of us today because they stepped out in faith and insisted that there was a better future for those who were going to come behind them.

My great-grandfather was a coal miner. And my great-grandmother was a domestic. They had a fifth-grade and eighth-grade education respectively. And to think that two generations later, I’m sitting here as the chief legal officer for the 74th largest city in the U.S. is stunning, right?

Andrews: None of the women at this table will tell you that we got to where we are alone. If it wasn’t for being pulled aside by a co-worker or counseled by an elder in the church or watching your grandparents do those things as children. All of those experiences brought us here.

My father is from Durham. Every now and again I’ll walk by the mural at the Arts Council and I’ll look up at his picture there and I’ll just stand there for a second. Because we do what we do because of what those that came before us did for us.

How does your identity help you in your work? Does it help you build trust and connections with new people?

Andrews: I would first say that I’m Kennedy and Christian’s mom, you know? So that’s very first. My son is 17 and he’s doing his own thing. But my daughter is very much plugged in to what I’m doing here. She’s 27, a high school teacher and she’s very much involved in advocacy within the criminal justice system. Her husband is with a law firm that specializes in restorative justice work.

I will talk to both of them about things that happen here in Durham, about policies before I make certain decisions. How do you feel about this? And what does this mean to you?

With my 17-year-old, we’ve talked about the history of policing in the South, especially, and its roots in oppression and injustice and racism, used as a weapon against Black people in this country. I try to change policing for him as a young Black boy growing into a Black man.

Rehberg: The mayor mentioned earlier that we’ve always been here. We’ve always been doing work. And historically, in this country, the work that we’ve done is caretaking. Almost all of my great-grandmothers were domestics. They took care of people, oftentimes other people’s families before their own.

And I think because of that, Black women grow up with a mindfulness about building connection with other people, probably more so than any other demographic. We have to. We’re bridge-builders. It’s just, I think part and parcel of who we are. There’s a reason why Oprah is Oprah. Right?

O’Neal: We are always bringing in that type of mothering, nurturing, trying to make the world a better place for our children and extended families. I just think that’s a part of who we are.

I think that’s why you find a lot of us in public service, because we recognize that government is a place that we have traditionally not been allowed to participate at really, really high levels. When we saw opportunities to come in and work in this arena as real public servants, we gravitated towards it, because it satisfies something that has been put into us over generations.

Page: The places that we all come from form our identities. So when different identities are missing, then you’re gonna have a lack of completion. Maybe it’s just making a statement or asking a question that only someone like me, someone with my identity, could bring to that space at that time.

I sat as a deputy city manager for 15 years with three guys. We would sit in this room many times and I was the only female voice, the only Black woman voice. It’s got to come from me. I don’t claim to represent all Black women, but there are times when I can.

What does this different leadership look like and feel like?

O’Neal: I’ve walked that road before. I guess when I was younger, I probably felt it more. At this point, it’s work that I’m here to do.

When I was chief District Court judge, I was one of two Blacks in the state. There was one Black male, one Black female. I didn’t have a counterpart. When I was Superior Court judge, there were nine of us and my closest counterpart was in Greensboro. When I was the interim dean (at the NCCU School of Law) and you would go to these national conferences, you’re one of five HBCUs in the United States that have law schools. Not a lot of diversity.

So you can’t carry that all the time because you have a job to do. My point is like, why is that even a thing anymore? Are we asking other women or people of color, you know, “How does your identity affect ...?”

I’m Elaine first. And I am a Black woman. I’m also a Black mom. I hope to be a Black wife again soon.

So when I think of myself as being the first Black female mayor, I don’t really think of it that way. I think of myself as the kid from the West End that my friends and family and my professors and all poured into, to allow me to go and be this, because they know that I can execute some things that they want to see happen in Durham.

I’m a Black female, but is that the first thing that comes to my mind when I walk into these spaces? No. It’s like, what is the work that I’m supposed to get done in this environment?

Rehberg: I hear what Mayor O’Neal is saying, and I agree. I think we’ve all had to forge ahead in spaces that were fairly homogenous and not homogenous looking like us.

With that said, I have had a refreshing change in environment over 29 years of practicing law. The first time that I went to a national conference of municipal lawyers was in 1995 and the room was almost entirely male, almost entirely white and fairly gray.

Now when I go to that same conference, it is dramatically different. There are so many more women in the ranks of municipal law now. There are increasing numbers of Black and Hispanic city attorneys, and it’s refreshing.

It makes me feel more assured that there’s like-mindedness in the room — that when I share my ideas, I’m going to have some some affirmation.

Andrews: For me, it can be a little different, because when I walk into a room, I still walk into a room very much like what Attorney Rehberg was describing years ago.

Many of your police department chiefs are still white men.

Page: And city managers.

Andrews: And they’re older. I do realize that despite how I feel about the role that I am in, I still have a lot of proving. That’s just the law enforcement, the profession in general. Right? So you prove your worth being a police officer on the street. You had to prove that you weren’t a liability. You had to prove that you could perform like a man.

I don’t hold my tongue, but I’m very careful about how I will push back on certain ideas. I still do carry with me that, yes, I have a job to do, and yes, I deserve to be where I am, but I’m also in a room of people that maybe a few of them might still overlook me because they don’t believe that I should be where I am.

As the manager was saying, you’re not representative of every Black woman or every Black person, or heck, even every Black chief. But in that moment, if you are at that table and you hear something that will cause ripples, there’s the responsibility that yes, you do have to represent.

Do you still encounter discrimination or stereotyping or biases?

Andrews: Are there humans?

Yes, there’s still bias. There’s still discrimination.

Rehberg: I will say that professionally for me, I’ve not experienced a lot of discrimination in the workplace itself. And I think largely because I’ve worked in Durham. I don’t think I could say that if I had been in many other communities. I haven’t felt like I was pushing a boulder uphill.

O’Neal: I agree with the chief that as long as there are human beings, some of that will always exist. I just think that’s true in the world in general, but in particular, for African-American women. Slavery did a lot to transform the way we are seen as even basic human beings.

What are your hopes and message for the women and girls who will follow behind you?

Andrews: I will say listen, we were where you are in your journey. And understand that everything that you go through is just the recipe to making you the person that you are going to be.

If you want to be in the environment where we get it and we see you and you matter, there is no better place in the city of Durham. Recruiting, hello!

Rehberg: I am just hoping that we can maintain the progress that we’ve had. There are a lot of forces right now that are really working against that, seeking to roll back reproductive rights, seeking to roll back voting rights.

That could really have a tremendous impact on opportunities for girls and women, so I’m hoping that we all mobilize to maintain what we’ve had.

©2023 Raleigh News & Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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