Why We Run: LeVon Barnes

LeVon Barnes is 34-year-old an educator, coach and community leader running for the Ward 2 seat on the City Council of Durham, North Carolina.

What sparked you to run this year?

Durham is the most progressive city in the state of North Carolina, but a lot of the politicians are career politicians. Some of these folks have been holding seats for 40 years, unopposed.

What I’m looking to do is change the dynamic. Our voter turnout is not great because of the fact that we don’t have a lot of young people involved in the process. They’re kind of disheartened about the process simply because there is nobody on the Council that looks like them, so they’re frustrated.

In Durham, we have gentrification that’s going on right now, sweeping through the city. Jobs are few and far between, even though there’s so much growth that’s going on here. But the people who have been here are not feeling the effects of that growth and are, in fact, being pushed out.

Our educational system is not great, and even though the City Council doesn’t deal with education, we can do things about adult education, building up our community colleges, and making sure our community colleges are partnering up with our neighborhoods, especially in those in low socioeconomic backgrounds to get these folks trained and educated for jobs in the future.

So I’m running because I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because we have somebody in office right now, in the Presidency, who’s just making a mockery of the previous President’s work. Now is the time for Millennials to step up and lead the charge and bring fresh ideas and some fire back into politics. It’s time to give the power back to the community and empower them in order to create a cultural change in this country. That’s why I’m running.

What is your experience in politics before now?

None. I have led things but I have not held official office.

So what is your background?

I’m from New York City. I went to college in North Carolina. But I’ve bounced around all different parts of the country. I’m a full-time teacher. But I was also a college basketball coach. So that has given me the opportunity to travel to different places. I’ve been the Dean of Students at a college in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I have a youth group, an empowerment group here in Durham that I started in 2005. It has just completely exploded here. We just had our end of the year banquet and we had the Mayor, the Mayor Pro Tem, other elected officials. The Governor wrote us a note. Barack Obama wrote us a note because we’ve done over 8,000 of community service in the last three years. This is a group of sixth- to twelfth-grade primarily black and Latino boys, at-risk young men, who have decided to change their community. They want to step up and lead.

When was the moment you decided to run how long did it from that moment to filing the paperwork and beginning your campaign?

When I moved here in 2014, I knew I wanted to run. I didn’t run in 2014, 2015, or 2016 primarily because I knew I wasn’t ready. I was still trying to build respect within the city. I wanted people to see me work. I wanted people to see my work ethic.

I made the decision to run for the City Council because I think that it’s the best start for me. In order for you to be a great leader, you need to be great locally first and build your way up. I started making the move to run in the last six months. I filed my paperwork with the Board of Elections around the end of March.

So I’ve been on the ground since late March, just building the team and coming up with the proper plan strategically.

Are you running for a specific seat on the City Council?

It’s a Ward 2 seat, but the entire city votes for City Council. So it’s not a traditional ward per se.

Tell me about your community.

Ward 2 is different. Where I live, which is South Point area, it’s a huge transplant area. We have so much development going on here. The big mall is here. So we don’t have a lot of the crime issues as they do three or four blocks down on the other side of MLK where you’re dealing with much more crime and poverty. That’s where the gentrification is going on. Where I’m at right now, Ward 2, you’re dealing with primarily young Millennials. And you have lots of cul de sacs and things like that. But you also have a lot of college kids in the area, too. There are three major colleges in Durham. You have Duke, obviously, you have North Carolina Central, you have Durham Tech, and you still have people who live here that go to Chapel Hill as well. So you have a whole bunch of young folks mixed in with people who’ve been here for a while.

Durham is mostly 50/50 Black/White, with a Hispanic community that’s growing. But the majority of the people in Durham that are African-American have been here forever and are the ones who are being hit the most with the gentrification and the raising of property taxes and rent raises. That’s what’s pushing a lot of people out of the city and into the county which has caused crime to go up.

North Carolina politics have been in the news a lot over the past couple of years. How can you work at the city-level to advance progressive ideas in a state where they’re essentially under attack by the legislature?

The great thing about Durham is that it is the most progressive city in the state. Durham specifically is under attack because we were able to get Roy Cooper elected as Governor, when everywhere else was red.

So how do we try to change the state? By making Durham a model. From a local standpoint, one of the major things that we need to be doing is to focus on jobs, specifically clean energy jobs, and making sure that we’re creating jobs for people who don’t have the training or education per se. Another thing we’re hoping to do is to help felons know what their rights are after they’re released. That they’re knowledgeable about their voting rights and helping them to get employed and working with businesses to employ our felons. And obviously our youth. We have to be the leader when it comes to our youth and the future. At the local level that comes down to summer jobs, internships with big and small businesses here.

North Carolina is one of the worst states to be a teacher or a student. The national average student expenditure is $9,000. We’re at $3,000. It isn’t hard to see the effects of that difference. Our kids’ futures look bleak. Crime is going up. It’s a big problem. So what we need to do from a local standpoint is give these kids the best opportunity for them to be successful.

We also need to make sure our seniors are taken care of.

It’s just unfortunate that most of the legislators in the state and that represent Durham have been in their seat 40 years. So their fight is only there so much. They’re not knocking on 10,000 doors, they’re not going to these communities really, except maybe two times a year to get a vote. They’re not really listening to what the people’s needs and concerns are.

Looking ahead what are you most excited about?

I’m competitive. Very competitive. I think that’s the thing I’m most excited about because I’m jumping into unknown territory. But it’s also familiar territory, being an athlete and a coach and all. It’s a cutthroat game this thing called politics. I’m also excited about meeting people. I love listening to people’s stories. I love learning about how they became who they are. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I love being able to help them and give them a whole different perspective. I think that’s what a leader is supposed to do. That’s what government is supposed to do. I think it’s not so much about policy, it is more about giving people a sense of empowerment and hope. That should be how you shape your policy.

How did you build your team?

My campaign manager, she came recommended by an educator. She actually helped her mom win a couple of State Senate elections in Georgia, in the Atlanta area. I have a lot of Millennials on my staff on purpose. I think you need to have that mixed bag of veterans, what we call seasoned here, and people who are just hungry. All of the people, except for two are either a precinct chair, a State Executive Committee body member, or they’ve served under other legislators before and are involved civically in multiple different organizations in some type a leadership capacity. They all just believed in the vision. I have a lot of women on my team. I have a diverse team. Black. White. Transgender.

I’ve taken my time to get to know these people, to build us into a family. Instead of, like, “You work for me.” We work together. And a lot them actually want to run, too. It just so happens that I get to be the guinea pig. Which is fine and if we’re successful, I want to be able to bring my people along and put them in positions to be able to, again, create a culture change. Not just a change, a culture change, in our city, in our state and hopefully across this country.

How has your age been received as a candidate?

Awful. Durham politics is old school politics. A lot of the leaders here are Baby Boomers. Gen Xers. Those who fought in the Civil Rights movement. A lot of them are legends. We have some legitimate Hall of Famers. But they don’t want to give up their seats. They want young people to be involved, but then they’ll tell people “You’ve got to wait.”

We just started a Durham Millennial Caucus simply because we want a seat at the table. I encourage anybody to run for something because the worst thing someone could tell you is “No.” But what’s even worse than that is not even jumping in and being silent and letting these years go by. So when they tell me to wait, you know, how many how many more years do I have to wait? I’m from New York, so I don’t know anything about waiting.

So, yes, I’ve met with some resistance. But I’ve also about lots of encouragement, too.

What’s been the best thing about connecting with Run for Something?

I went to a conference with a group called The Arena. It was life changing. And I just love the fact that what Run for Something stands for is “just jump in the race.”

How can people contribute to your campaign?

Visit my website levon4durham.com. That’s the best place to join our mailing list, sign up to volunteer, or make a donation.