Monday, October 07, 2013

Follow me at my campaign web site!

I'm blogging at for now. Please follow me there and support my re-election to the Chapel HIll Town Council.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Atlanta bound: National Housing Conference

This morning I'm headed to Atlanta for Solutions 2013, the National Housing Conference on State and Local Housing Policy. Some great North Carolina connections here: Chris Estes, president and CEO, came to the position a year ago from the North Carolina Housing Coalition, where he was executive director. He's well known to many of us working on affordable housing regionally. And one of the keynote speakers is Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity. He's another Tar Heel with local roots: he's the brother of Joe Reckford of Chapel Hill, and their father is Kenneth Reckford, professor emeritus of classics at UNC. Looking forward to connecting with them and many others and learning a lot.

"None of the above": The school-to-prison pipeline and the new Jim Crow.

"None of the Above," the latest production from Hidden Voices, is a truly riveting critique of one of the most troubling trends of our time: the systematic bias against children of color in school disciplinary procedures, under the guise of objective "zero tolerance" policies. Under these policies, something as innocent as bringing a Midol to class for a friend could well be the trigger of a suspension, then an appearance in court--and so the school-to-prison pipeline begins.

You can read much more about this devastating phenomenon from such sources as the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But if you haven't seen the Hidden Voices production, you're missing the human dimension to all of the statistics.

Written by Lynden Harris and directed by Kathryn Williams, the 40-page script was distilled from hundreds of pages of workshop recordings produced over a period of thee years. The performance is in the format of a radio call-in show. Moderator "Ernest Justice" (Philip Smith) deftly manages a conversation with student activists, a defense attorney, a Teach for America teacher, one very outspoken student, other teachers, a restorative justice worker, and other well-intentioned folks as well as call-in listeners, not all of whom are so sympathetic. By the time the evening is over, it is hard not to feel a little numb, and not a little powerless to change such overwhelming structural forces.

And yet doing nothing is the last thing that Hidden Voices intends to accept. "Do one thing," says the program copy, listing two pages of possibilities. A few of them:

Join the Raise the Age movement. North Carolina is one of only two states that charge children for crimes as if they were adults.

Get involved in the Restorative Justice movement. Help give juvenile offenders and their victims an opportunity to address the harms caused productively.

Tutor a child. Mentor a child.

Talk to someone about what's happening in the schools. Reach out. Listen.

If you missed it, there are a few other chances: next weekend at the UNC Stone Center, and Oct. 5 on the Duke campus.

For me, "None of the Above" raises an opportunity to mention a book that fundamentally changed my understanding of our world--sometimes it's not an exaggeration to say that about a book. Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness opened my eyes to terrible racial injustices in the criminal justice system that extend all the way from discipline in the school room to the administration of the death penalty.

Our "color-blind" laws are of little help--in fact they become rather confounding--when we grapple with the Trayvon Martin murder, for example. Last Thursday night, the Town's Justice in Action Committee hosted a panel discussion on "Lessons Learned from the Trayvon Martin case." The room was packed. Our police chief, Chris Blue, explained the procedures he has in place that ask his officers to self-check against racial profiling. Let's hope it's working.

And let's keep talking.

--Cross-posted at

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where were you on September 11? (or: Still missing John Mason, Furniture Doctor)

Over on Twitter, my friend Bora Zivkovic has posted an article on the science of memory, and how your "clear" memories of where you were on 9/11 may not be so accurate--fascinating stuff. I think mine are accurate, but only because I wrote about them not long afterward.

To this day, when I think of September 11, my grief first falls to the man I was talking to on the phone while it happened (little did we know), who was dead himself within the year. Here's what I wrote in the short-lived but lovely Durham Urban Hiker in November, 2002.

Vintage Modern

"It's not all Chippendales"—that's what John would have to remind his staff when I came around with my modern-furniture projects. He called it all "Danish modern," even if it had been designed for Henredon by Frank Lloyd Wright. Never mind that. We agreed on what we loved: the spare lines of the rich walnuts and teaks, the futuristic upholstered chairs with fancily names like "egg," "swan," and "bird."

He had a great eye and knew modern when he saw it, but he appreciated it when I brought in newspaper or magazine articles about modern designers, which I often did. In turn, he gave me right of first refusal on the "Danish modern" pieces he occasionally had to sell.

The way this connection between John and me and modern furniture came about, the way our relationship evolved under the shadow of his illness, is the story I have to tell.

It begins with the dining-room table from the house I grew up in. Really, it begins with my father, for it was he, more than my mother, who loved modern design. So, although in the way of things it was she who picked out the furniture, I associate it all, even this simple tapered-leg walnut table, with him.

There is another reason. In one of his rare moments of trying to be a real father to my brother, he spilled model airplane glue on the table, leaving a six-inch wound that the best wood-worker in town could only soften into a scar.

My parents' marriage failed. My father died of alcohol. My brother inherited the house, and the table. That was long ago.

Today, not entirely by coincidence, I live with my own family in a 1950s modern house. Furnishing it is a challenge.

In the design world, "Modern" has become an oxymoron, "vintage modern." Now that the present looks backward, you have to look backward to find the future. Or, you can look on the internet. In the spring of 2000, I ordered a set of vintage-modern dining tables from a website in St. Louis.

They are cane-backed walnut chairs with clean angular lines and a pedigree fashionable again today: designed by Edward Wormley for Dunbar of Berne, Indiana. They reminded me of our old dining-room table. Where had it gone, what kind of shape was it in?

My brother still had it, but it was in disastrous shape. "It's hopeless," he said, sending pictures to prove it. I tended to agree, but I wanted a second opinion. I took the pictures to John.

In a matter of weeks, the table was shipped from Gilmer, Texas, to Lloyd Street, Carrboro. I went to see it sitting out in the sun in front of the shop. It had been terribly abused. There was even a gash in it.

What was unexpected was how small it was, this table that had loomed so large in my childhood. To a little girl who would fill it with place settings of her mother's best china for the sheer spectacle of it, it had seemed immense.

When John said the damage was all "on the surface," I had to believe him. When he said he could even take out the glue stain, I don't think I did believe him. But sure enough, when he was finished, the glue stain was gone. I couldn't tell where the gash had been. The table looked new, better than new, for it was lighter and brighter than I remembered. (All the pieces John ever refinished for me came out lighter and brighter, as if a spotlight had been turned on them.)

The day he delivered it to our house, I took pictures. He was proud of it—proud of its beauty and equally proud of its six coats of something invisible that would make it almost impossible to damage. He admired the Edward Wormley chairs, which matched the table perfectly, but he noticed that the foam cushions were flat, worn out. He said that could be fixed easily.

For John, there was nothing that couldn't be fixed easily. That is why I never believed he would die of his cancer. But at this point, the summer of 2000, the cancer was still in remission.

The chairs came back with foam renewed and joints reglued, and that's not all. He had worked with his upholsterer to reverse the fabric, which was a weave. The side that had been hidden for fifty years was on top! Years of use had worn down its nubby texture and dulled its color. What had been smooth and bland was rich and plush again, like the new chairs I had never seen.

The table, though, never completely satisfied him. He always wanted to bring it back to the shop. The lighting of the dining room brought out flaws he hadn't detected, although at a level of granularity that only he, and I, could see.

In the fall and winter of 2000-2001, the John Mason I knew was in his prime. He had expansive dreams. He was patenting a new polish. He wanted to offer a kind of boutique service to customers like me who loved fine furnishings and whose demands were never-ending. He was constantly behind. His shop lacked resources. His reach was beyond his capable grasp, but he couldn't admit that, and neither could I.

In February 2001, I was talking to him about an ambitious project. We had juts had two walls of bookcases and paneling built into our master bedroom. In our son tucker's bedroom, we had had a wall of shelving, cabinets, and a desk unit build. They all needed staining. Is this something he would even consider doing? Of course. No one could do it better. That was a plain fact.

We stated talking about scheduling. That was always the difficulty, but this time it wasn't just the usual backlog. He mentioned that he was going to see his doctor because he'd noticed something worrisome on his neck.

The next week I walked into his shop, saw him standing there, and launched right in about scheduling my work. I didn't even ask how he was, having convinced myself that the doctor had said nothing was wrong. John fixed his compelling green eyes on me and said, "The cancer's back."

I went home and wrote him a note. My insensitivity had appalled me. I wanted him to know that he didn't have to do my project, that if it was too much he should just say so and I'd make other arrangements, but that no matter what, his health cam first and I'd be with him either way, all the way.

Giving up, as everyone who knew him knows, was not in John's vocabulary. This was merely the beginning of the next phase of our relationship.

It must have been that spring or summer that I memorized the shop’s phone number. Anna and Forsythia learned to recognize my voice.

He did get to the master bedroom some time on up in the fall. The trick was to stain the two new birch walls a honey color that would complement the other two walls of Douglas fir that had warmed, over half a century, to a deep molasses. We worked hard to get the color just right.

(John admired my color sense, which flattered me no end. Recently I bought a classic textbook by Joself Albers, Interaction of Color. "In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually," Albers wrote. John knew all about it.)

Let it be said that the walls were done with meticulous care and are astonishingly beautiful.

After that triumph, the scheduling game began all over again for Tucker's room. By this time I had taken to stopping by the shop weekly, usually on Wednesday afternoon while Tucker was taking his piano lesson. Sometimes I would see John, but more often not: If he wasn't at home resting or coping with pain, he was most likely hard at work in the back. On lucky days when he was available, it was like seeing the Wizard behind the curtain.

These are the times we would talk about politics, local history, education, our kids, furniture. This is how I learned about his father, who struggled bravely with polio, and about the man who gave him his start in the furniture business. That man, it seemed, often put John in positions he wasn't quite ready for. Faced with sinking, he decided to swim.

A quote from Booker T. Washington sticks in my mind: "Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him, and to let him know that you trust him." John's experience showed that to be true—and his politics were leagues ahead of Washington's.

Because he believed so strongly that he would overcome his cancer, I did too. Our conversations were just part of life, so I don't remember them as well as I might if I had thought any one could be the last. The last time I saw him was like any other. Tucker's room is still unfinished.

Clearly, I'm not through talking to him. Since the last time he paid a "house call," I've bought three pieces of vintage furniture that are, in fact, Danish modern. I'm sorry he never saw them. The night he died, I was madly bidding in an eBay auction for an item called "Edward Wormley Danish Modern Wall Unit." Of course, it wasn't Danish—it was made in Berne, Indiana, like my chairs. Thinking fondly of John, I went several hundred dollars higher than I should have. But I was outbid, and it's just as well. I couldn't have shown it off to the one person who would have appreciated it the most.

Of the countless phone conversations I had with him, one stands out with perfect clarity. Still trying to schedule the master bedroom, on a Tuesday morning I called the shop early, before it opened, expecting to leave a message on the machine. To my delight, John answered. He was feeling great. He assured me (once again) that if things went as planned, he'd be at my house the next week. That was September 11 of last year. The news from elsewhere had yet to reach us.

We all long for a pre-September 11 world, but for me it would mean precisely this: the Furniture Doctor is in, and everything can be fixed.

Mother of future genetics researcher Tucker Jones and spouse of internet legend Paul Jones, Sally Greene of Chapel Hill is proud owner of an LC4 and a grasshopper chair. Her J.D. and Ph.D. in English are mere backdrops to an abiding passion for modern design.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Fired up and ready to go.

When the filing period opens at noon tomorrow, I will be in Hillsborough to file for election to the Chapel Hill Town Council.

Today, I'll be at the Eno River to join the 34th annual celebration of the Festival for the Eno.

Yesterday, spurred by events on the Senate floor on Tuesday night, I joined hundreds of others in witness to and peaceful protest of the Senate's passage of a bill that places unconstitutional restrictions on the right to safe and legal abortion in this state. This bill was rushed through the Senate without public notice, without time for deliberation, and in fact it had come from the House in the form of a bill that would outlaw the recognition of "foreign" (Sharia) law (as if the United States Constitution did not fully require that the laws of the United States be only the laws of the United States). Though we doubted we would change the outcome of the vote after the third reading yesterday morning--just as the Moral Monday protests do not measure their success by immediate outcomes--it was important be there.

Serving in municipal government rarely involves such monumental questions of fundamental constitutional rights. Local elected officials do not have the power to say yes or no to abortion regulations or Medicaid money or unemployment payments or whether to rewrite the tax laws or to allow private school vouchers. In some ways, our charge can be read narrowly: We make decisions concerning public safety, land use, and other issues fundamental to the health and welfare of our local community. But all levels of government are interrelated. And local government is up close and personal: it's where we come together to make decisions that reflect values we hold dear. We know that our values can resonate upward and outward as well.

It was a privilege to serve for two terms on the Council, from 2003 to 2011, and since my appointment in January I have been honored to step back into the good work of the Council on such important issues seeing our expanded Public Library off to a strong start, focusing attention on new ways of supporting affordable rental housing, and continuing to serve those in our community who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes. As we pursue implementation of the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, I've been responsive to community members who are devoting much time and energy into discussions of the Central West planning area and the potential development of Obey Creek.

I'm proud that our work on what used to be called Lot 5 has come to fruition in the beautiful 140 West Franklin development and the associated public plaza, and I'm excited about the conversations for the future of the Rosemary Street corridor. This is an exciting time for downtown Chapel Hill, and these discussions are bringing out the best in our residents' creativity.

I look forward to the campaign, and to talking with each of you along the way about the issues that are important to you.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Thank you, Chapel Hill.

After two terms of office on the Chapel Hill Town Council, I have decided not to seek reelection. I extend a heartfelt thanks to all of you who have supported my candidacies of 2003 and 2007 and who during the intervening years have voiced your support for the work I’ve committed myself to doing on the Council. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to work with you and to be part of a council that has accomplished so many worthy goals.

One of my campaign pledges was to convene a community conversation about homelessness. The outcome of our conversation was the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, a collaboration of the town with Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Orange County to harness available resources, identify needs, and seek new ways to serve our homeless population.

Another goal was to broaden and strengthen our affordable housing requirements while also making them more predictable for developers. In 2010, the Council passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance that achieves this goal.

Consistently I have worked to support neighborhood, environmental, and historic preservation. Since 2004, the Council has created seven neighborhood conservation districts. We have placed 92 acres of open space under permanent conservation easement.

All of this, and much more that we have accomplished since 2003, is the product of tremendous collaborative work by citizens and residents of our community who believe in working together through government for the common good. It has been an absolute honor to be part of this important work.

I’m particularly proud to have served under Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s first term, and I support his reelection campaign wholeheartedly. Of the announced candidates for Council, I plan to support my colleague Donna Bell and planning board member Jason Baker. I wish the next Council much success as it confronts the challenges of creating a new comprehensive plan and in other ways managing the town’s growth. Even during challenging times, Chapel Hill remains a wonderful place to call home—as I look forward to doing for many years to come.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rebecca Clark Gazebo

Yesterday many members of the community gathered to remember Rebecca Clark and to dedicate the gazebo in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery to her memory. Speakers included former Town Council member Jim Merritt, Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, and me. I was asked to speak in my role as chair of the Council naming committee--to talk a little about that process. Here are my remarks.

The Town Council does indeed have a process for naming public structures and facilities after people. To have something named after you by the town is a great honor; it’s not something we do lightly. The first requirement is that the person be no longer living. There are good reasons for that policy, but there’s also a downside: Rebecca Clark is not here with us today to see this honor bestowed upon her.

I think of that old song by the Carter Family,

Give me the roses while I live
Trying to cheer me on.
Useless are flowers that you give
After the soul is gone.

It’s a chilling song, and there's truth in the lyrics. So I’m sorry Ms. Clark is not here to see this day. But I hope I’m not wrong to think that she was appreciated, especially in later years, like on her great community 90th birthday. And I hope I’m not wrong to think that she did recognize that the work she had done for so long, especially in the arena of political organizing and getting people to the polls, did really make a difference.

And certainly her presence is still felt and will be felt for a long time to come, through the memory established here with this gazebo but also in the hearts and minds of so many of us who can still remember vividly long phone conversations with her, in which she had something important to explain, something complicated with deep roots, going way back, are you with me? She wanted to be sure you know how some seemingly intractable problem had gotten to be that way in the first place, are you with me? Something was going on, going wrong, and it needed to be fixed.

We’re still trying to fix it all, Ms. Clark. We’re with you—and we’re grateful that you were with us and that you stuck with us and worked with us for so long.

HOPE Gardens

Yesterday it was my pleasure to speak at the dedication of the HOPE Gardens, a community garden on town-owned land sponsored by the Homeless Outreach Poverty Education arm of the UNC Campus Y. The bountiful garden serves as a transitional employment center for homeless people. At the dedication event were workshops on sustainable agriculture, a garden art project, tours and lunch with salad fresh from the garden. Here are my remarks.

Greetings on behalf of the Chapel Hill Town Council, and thanks to everyone involved, including Butch Kisiah and his Parks and Recreation staff, as well as our partners at Active Living By Design, who worked closely with the HOPE group to make this happen. Congratulations to David Baron and the whole HOPE team.

I also bring thanks and greetings from the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, for which I serve on the executive team. HOPE is one of our most important and active partners. We are grateful for all the work they do, including their publication of Talking Sidewalks, which puts a face on homelessness in our community, and the Community Empowerment Fund, which makes the crucial connection between the economic realities of the homeless and the importance of community support.

And then this fabulous community garden. As a council member and a community member I could not be more pleased.

The state of being homeless is such an unsettling, unnerving state that we don't even have a consistent word for it. “Homelessness,” the word we now use, describes a lack—it’s a description for something you don’t have. Generations ago, it was called other things: vagabond, gypsy, tramp, hobo. Sometimes it was just said that you had been put “outdoors.” A character in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove, does that to his whole family: he throws them out of the house, puts them “outdoors.” On this unhappy state Morrison reflects,

Outdoors . . . was the real terror of life. . . . If somebody ate too much, he could end up outdoors. If somebody used too much coal, he could end up outdoors. People could gamble themselves outdoors, drink themselves outdoors. . . .

Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact, defining and complementing our metaphysical condition. [The difference between being put out and being put outdoors was] like the difference between the concept of death and being, in fact, dead. Death doesn’t change, and outdoors is here to stay.

So for me at least the very thought of even this beautiful outdoor garden space is tinged by the knowledge that for a few of those among us, the outdoors is all that is, all that is theirs.

But thankfully there are other ways to think about gardens and the outdoors and bodies in need. Wendell Berry has perhaps said it best:

One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener's own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.

In an essay called “The Body and the Earth,” he observes that “no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it. . . . While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of those other living creatures.”

What Berry beautifully describes is the connectedness of body and earth: The word “health” itself, he notes, is related to the words heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, and holy. “And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors.”

And he links health and community: “Persons cannot be whole alone. . . . Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing.” Connection, too, is healing: “Connection is health.”

“In gardening, “ Berry continues, “one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”

And so this cycle of work and exercise, community and conviviality, wholeness and health and happy eating—the nourishment of the body and the earth—this is what HOPE Gardens is all about. Please join with me in thanking everyone involved in this great project and wishing them lasting success, season after season.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Why I am enthusiastically supporting Mark Kleinschmidt for mayor

It has been my pleasure to serve on the Town Council for six years with Mark Kleinschmidt, and now I want to add my voice to those urging you to vote for him for mayor. Mark has been in leadership positions on important initiatives, helping to create the conditions that have led Chapel Hill—just this year—to being named both America’s Most Livable City and Best Place in the Country to Start a Business. Such honors are regularly earned by Chapel Hill, in large part because of progressive policy decisions that have led to our phenomenally successful fare-free transit system (7 million rides a year), the purchase and maintenance of open space and parklands, and other environmentally important initiatives including a strong stormwater management program and land use ordinances that protect the natural environment. With Mark’s leadership, we have achieved these goals and more, all the while maintaining a AAA bond rating (a rarity for small cities).

As chair of the Council’s economic development committee, Mark oversaw the town’s hiring of its first economic development officer, and he continues to take a leadership position in working to bring new business to town. Mark is also a strong advocate for the Downtown Partnership, which has been working to improve the life of the downtown through creating open wireless network; revitalizing the street life by hiring musicians to perform on the sidewalks; championing a new lighting system; and more.

In our successful negotiations with UNC over the development agreement for Carolina North, I witnessed Mark’s persuasive leadership on important issues such as fiscal equity and the permanent conservation of open space.

In the current climate—when many of us are faced with at least a double hit, from the recession generally and last year’s property reevaluations in particular—the economy, and taxes, are important issues. Mark is committed to maintaining a lean, efficient town government. But I am proud of him for what he hasn’t said: he has not uttered the words “No new taxes.” Why not? Because one Council member alone—even if he is the mayor—does not have the power to make that decision. And further, because such a pledge is bad policy. It puts too much at risk—including the planned expansion of the public library that the voters have overwhelmingly supported in a bond referendum.

As a community we have worked diligently and prudently to establish several long-range community goals. In recent years we've established a debt management fund that makes it less likely that we will have to raise taxes in order to achieve these goals, but adopting the mantra of no new taxes promises only to replicate the failed fiscal policies that endangered public services for our nation in the early 90s and for our state earlier this decade. We knew what a great town Chapel Hill was even before the National Conference of Mayors named us the Most Livable City in America, but in order to continue to live up to that recognition we need to remain true to the community process and the priorities we have set for ourselves. We must not give in to feel-good rhetoric that has the potential to put even basic services on the chopping block. Mark trusts our community to work through issues carefully, through broad and open public deliberations, as the best way of deciding what we value enough to fund and what we can live without.

Mark is a leader, a listener, and a proven team-builder. I’ve seen these qualities demonstrated consistently for my six years on the Council. He will be a great mayor. I urge you to join me in casting your vote for him on Tuesday.