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Empowering communities for affordable housing, living wages, health care and more 

Durham CAN is composed of faith-based and neighborhood groups that work on vital issues.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Durham CAN is composed of faith-based and neighborhood groups that work on vital issues.

By his own account, the office of Ivan Parra, lead organizer for one of Durham's largest community groups, is unimpressive. But attend a Durham CAN meeting, with hundreds of people and key city and state leaders, and you'll see the nonprofit's influence in action.

"It's very small with only some files and a couple of computers," Parra says. "If you go to our public meetings, you see hundreds of black, white and Latino people working together. That's where I point people to go."

CAN's political influence is fueled by its multi-racial, multi-faith member institutions—Durham Economic Resource Center, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association and First Presbyterian Church— to name a few. Every two years, these organizations meet with thousands of their constituents to construct an agenda of the most important issues in Durham.

For example, one Tuesday night last October, 500 Durham residents piled into the Emily K Center to discuss policies—affordable housing, education, transit, poverty—with city council members, state representatives, the county commissioner and the school superintendent.

"We think that there's a lot of capacity in Durham and a lot of good energy," Parra says. "Our job is to connect that energy, not do anything for anybody. The victories that we have had come from the imaginations of the people in our institutions."

With one full-time staff member and one administrative assistant, Durham CAN has helped make the city a more equitable and just place. Through the group's action for a living wage, it helped rank-and-file workers at Duke University earn a total of $1.3 million in additional income. It worked with the Department of Health to conduct lead testing in the homes of 2,000 school children living in at-risk areas, and developed a campaign to assist low-income residents who require specialty health services.

Mark-Anthony Middleton, pastor at Abundant Hope Christian Church who led Durham CAN's push for police racial-profiling reform, attributes the organization's achievements to its diligent presentations.

"When we make our grievances known, we always have specific policy proposals. We don't have nebulous complaints, and we're very disciplined with what we ask for and how we present it," says Middleton.

Through his campaign, Middleton worked with CAN to analyz 10 years of state data on the percentages of Durham police stops that led to a vehicle search—17 percent for black males ages 19 and under compared to 9 percent for white males of the same age. These numbers inspired the creation of a mandatory written consent form to search vehicles in cases without probable cause.

CAN is an affiliate of The Industrial Areas Foundation, a community network that has trained thousands of organizers, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, since its founding in 1940. CAN operates under IAF's founding rule: Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

Sharon Hirsch, a member associated with the First Presbyterian Church, adds that CAN's public outreach also contributes to its success.

"Last year, we organized folks going door to door to educate the community about the Affordable Care Act. As a result, Durham County has the highest enrollment in health coverage of any county in North Carolina and I think its largely due to the work we did," she says.

Parra hopes that his organization's influence will continue to shape Durham policy, especially in regards to affordable housing, which, given the rapid development and gentrification, is one of the most pressing issues in the city.

"We don't have permanent allies or permanent enemies," he explains. "We only have permanent issues."

  • 2015 Citizen Award Winner Durham CAN

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