Michelle Johnson | Candidate Questionnaires - Orange County | Indy Week
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Michelle Johnson 

Carrboro Board of Aldermen

Name as it appears on the ballot: Michelle Johnson
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website: www.michelleforcarrboro.com
Occupation & employer: Self-Employed-Social Worker, Activist, Yoga Teacher
Years lived in Carrboro: 14 years

1) Given the current direction of Carrboro town government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

I believe that there is always room for town government to shift direction but I also believe in balancing out change with a focus on what is going well in our town. The town is moving in a direction that allows us to be thoughtful about growth, encourage citizen participation and work to make the development process less costly to developers while maintaining the time needed for public input.

In the last four years the town of Carrboro has adopted an affordable housing plan, successfully worked on the Rogers Road Task Force to bring water and sewer to the residents of Rogers Road, created a Climate and Energy Task Force, looked at policing issues in response to national institutionally racist policing policies and continued it’s support of the arts, music and local home grown festivals. The diversity of issues and our responses as an elected body suggests that much work is being done and that things are on track and in line with our values as a town.

2) Please identify the three most pressing issues the town faces and how you will address them.

The most important issues facing Carrboro are growth and development, their impact on affordability and environmental sustainability for our town. Many decisions that the Board of Aldermen makes are focused on land use - who can use it, how they can use it, and how that use will impact not only the surrounding neighborhoods but also our community as a whole. Carrboro should continue to support development projects that are mixed-use and that protect the residential neighborhoods surrounding them, maintain a local living economy, encourage green building and green upgrades to existing developments, ensure walkability and bikeability, and provide accessible parking downtown.

I will support and engage in the town’s efforts to focus on local entrepreneurs and a local living economy. Carrboro currently has several programs that support local businesses and promote entrepreneurship, such as the Carrboro Business Alliance, the revolving loan program, Solarize Carrboro and job training workshops. I will work with the town’s economic development director and the Economic Sustainability Commission to assess available commercial properties so that potential business approaching the Economic Development Director will be better facilitated about places in Carrboro for their business. Over the last year the board has grappled with growth related to 300 E. Main, the ArtsCenter, and the impact of growth on other business such as the Cat’s Cradle. I will continue to work on supporting a plan that includes the town in any process of coming up with a proposal for a project that is on such a large scale.

I will continue to support the work of the Climate and Energy Task Force who is coming up with a plan to address the impact of climate change in our community, which includes community education, a focus on green features in developments and an assessment and intervention plan focused on how the town can decrease C02 emissions from town facilities and buildings.

Affordable and inclusionary housing is another major issue facing Carrboro. When we approach issues of growth, we inevitably talk about who gets to live where and why. Many people talk about Carrboro having the highest taxes and the highest density of any municipality in Orange County. Some people who live here or want to live here worry that they cannot afford to. I have served on the Affordable Housing Task Force since 2013 and worked to come up with a comprehensive plan that the Board of Aldermen adopted in 2014 to address sustaining and creating affordable rentals and homes. This plan includes working with community agencies and partners who focus on affordable housing, working with the county and the plan requires the town to both look for what changes to the ordinance need to occur as well as how we can increase subsidy to support our affordable housing goals. I also serve as the liaison from the Board of Aldermen to the Community Home Trust Board of Directors and support the Trust in collaborating with the towns and county to sign an interlocal agreement that allows for more responsibility to sustain affordable housing to be held by the town. I value diversity in our community and I will work to walk my talk related to this value. We must assure that valued attributes of Carrboro such as walkability and bikeability are things that are also available to people living in lower income housing.

3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of the Board of Aldermen? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

I have worked and lived in the heart of downtown Carrboro since 2001 and am well connected in the community. I am happy to live in the first Carrboro schoolhouse. It was built in 1898, and since my partner and I bought it in 2003 we have renovated it using many reclaimed materials from the original structure. I am a clinical social worker in private practice on Weaver Street, an artist working out of my in-home pottery studio, a yoga instructor who can often be found at Carrboro Yoga Company, and an activist in Carrboro and across the state.

I have been involved in human services and justice work for many years and feel that justice work has a place in local government. I care about many issues facing Carrboro, including economic development, human rights issues, affordable housing, the health and safety of our citizens, accessibility to all services for all citizens, parking and transportation, a local living economy, the walkability and bikeability in our neighborhoods, and the protection of our environment locally and globally. During my first term, I have show that I an elected official who is of the people and for the people and that I welcome the opportunity to listen to and learn from the citizens of Carrboro. My record over the past four years, shows my commitment to these issues through the development of the Affordable Housing Task Force, my service on the Day Laborer and Rogers Road Task Forces and through my decision making model. I am a holistic thinker and strive to balance the needs of citizens, developers, community partners and the town. I am thoughtful in my decision-making, clear, and direct and only speak in turn and when I have a different perspective to offer. To me, leadership isn’t about how much space one takes up; it’s about how we use the space that we have been given most effectively in our role as an elected official.
I am a grassroots leader and activist, and have demonstrated leadership in many organizations including: East Chapel Hill High School, the UNC Counseling and Wellness Center, the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, and the Mental Health Association. My profession of social work is very relevant to serving on the Board of Aldermen. Social work is rooted in social justice, and it is important to bring the lens of activism and grassroots organizing to a board that represents the community as a whole. In addition, it is vital to have listening skills, assessment skills, problem solving, and strategic planning skills as an alderman. We are responsible for making decisions in a fair and transparent way, and we need to be able to balance theory with action. This is especially important during a time when our economy is struggling and clear and timely decisions must be made related to our budget, sustaining our town staff, supporting local business, and supporting new development to double our commercial tax base so that people can continue to work in Carrboro and afford to live in our community.
I have served on several boards of directors, including the boards of the Dispute Settlement Center, the Rape Crisis Center, Stone Circles, the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network, and the Mental Health Association. My experience on boards of directors has taught me how to mobilize people and how to lead in an effective, empowering way. During graduate school at UNC, I volunteered in several community agencies. Most notably, I started a program with the Inter-Faith Council’s kitchen to collect food from local restaurants that would have otherwise been thrown out so that it could be served in the IFC kitchen. I have been an anti-racist trainer with Dismantling Racism Works since 1999. I facilitate Dismantling Racism trainings not only in our community and state, but throughout the East Coast. This experience working to dismantle racism and oppression with individuals, in organizations, and in communities is vital for the Board, as we are facing issues such as affordable housing, supporting a day laborer center, valuing the diversity within our community, and serving as a model for other municipalities around the state. My experience on the board thus far highlights my capacity to listen to all constituents. My leadership has shown that my holistic sense of being, my belief that we can be the change we want to see in the world, my experience in leadership serving the community, my human service work, and my political activism as an anti-racist and anti-oppression organizer are valuable assets in town government.

4) Please give one specific example of something you think the town has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the town has done during that span.

I don’t operate in binaries very well because they don’t reflect the complexity of reality, identity or experience. So, I don’t have an example of something the town has done “wrong” in the last year, however; I can think of decisions that have allowed us the opportunity to say, what could we have done differently? In this past year we have been approached by both the 300 E. Main developers, the ArtsCenter, Kidzu and the Cradle to figure out what the future of that piece of property might be and the implications of growth there on existing businesses. The board had many closed sessions about the Cradle, ArtsCenter and the second hotel. We worked hard bifurcate the issues to make clear decisions. We got to the point where we felt like we needed to open up the discussion to the public.

We were being faced with making a decision, out of the normal process, about the potential for a second hotel and a commitment and allocation of 7.5 million dollars to an Arts and Innovation Center for a proposal that we weren’t part of at any stage. In addition, the Cat’s Cradle entered into this discussion because there is increasing pressure on them to be able to afford to stay in Carrboro in their current location and pressure from other venues that can bring bigger acts to the area because of capacity. While I don’t think we handled this wrong, meaning we had many closed sessions and then opened it up to the public and then decided to go back to the drawing board, I do wonder what would have happened if we had entered into a process similar to the process of meditation that we are in with the Lloyd Farm Development. I am curious about what would have happened had all the stakeholders been in a space over a six-month period that was facilitated by a skilled facilitator, outside of a public hearing process. Could we have come up with something that was more creative and worked for everyone? We will be hearing more about this in the upcoming year and I’m hoping we are able to work in an effective and open way with all of the involved parties.

I’ll switch gears here to highlight one example of what we did well this past year.
Alderman Slade’s and my involvement on the Rogers Road Task Force is an example of what effective leadership can create.
Sammy and I worked together as a team to move the process of creating a vehicle for Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the county to contribute to the Rogers Road Remediation plan, which included the building of a community center and the sewer project. We used our political will to encourage our colleagues in neighboring municipalities to move forward with the process of building a community center and furthering the sewer project, which included the funding of an engineering study. I am very aware of the fact that there have been many task forces to look at this issue, promises made and broken and false hope instilled in the community. I feel confident that the work that Sammy and I did on the task force, the passion we brought for the issue and the awareness of injustice that this community has endured, has helped the plan move forward. Carrboro was a leader in the process by being the first municipality to commit its allocation to the community and sewer project. While we have the smallest contribution to give because it is based on population and contribution to the landfill, we used our energy to encourage others to do what was just and right.

5) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I am a progressive liberal, a grassroots organizer, and an anti-oppression activist. This framework and way of being allows me to have a clear understanding about the system we are in and who is most impacted by the system and in what ways. Put simply, I know how power works and I understand who has it and who doesn’t, and the layers and historical context by which some folks have access to things that others do not. My work on the board focuses on sharing knowledge and experience to Carrboro residents so they can feel empowered to engage in their community and work with the Board of Aldermen and town staff to ensure that their needs are met. I believe that if we continue to think of ourselves as individuals rather than as a collective, we will continue to harm each other, our earth, and our community.

I have been doing anti-oppression work for over a decade and understand that oppressions of any kind are related and must all be dismantled. I have been involved in social justice work, including being a lead trainer for Dismantling Racism Works and working with many community organizations to understand how racism impacts their organization on a personal, institutional, and cultural level. I started Diversity Day while working as a family specialist at East Chapel Hill High School. I also started the Diversity Committee at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, and assisted in the development of an African American Outreach Committee, which then expanded to a Diversity Outreach Committee at UNC. I have also worked with a community oral history project called the Heirs Project.

The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

As stated above in my explanation of my political beliefs and framework, I live justice. I feel like my work experience, my service on the board and my lived experience of being a woman of color in this culture and in our country at this time helps me understand justice in a way that allows me to keep it front and center at all times. So, in essence, my presence as a black woman on the board is one way of furthering the INDY’s mission to help build a just community. This is often the case, black and brown bodies in political spaces, just by being, create justice. Our resilience and survival as a people is an example of resistance to the countless injustice’s we experience every minute of every day. Beyond the mere presence of more black and brown bodies, I will continue to think about the diverse needs of our community and encourage folks from various backgrounds to step into leadership for the town through service on our advisory boards or through their involvement with community activities.

I am constantly seeking to understand where injustice is happening and what my response as an individual, but more importantly, as an elected official, needs to be. In my role as an elected official, I will continue to seek out opportunities for the town to have a collective response of grief and action when injustice happens in our community and beyond. I believe that the collective experience of people of color, women, poor people, the elderly, the imprisoned and LGBTQ folks is one of oppression. By design, oppression is in place for us not to see the commonality in our experience of being subjugated to continual violence in our homes, on our streets, in our communities to our bodies, and in our state. An awareness of the collective allows for a response from the masses. We see ourselves in others and understand our duty to create justice for all. [ Mic drop.]

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Carrboro:

6) The ArtsCenter and the Cat’s Cradle are among the most recognized cultural centers in Carrboro. Both face serious questions about their futures. What do you believe the town should do to support these cultural institutions?

As mentioned above the ArtsCenter and Cat’s Cradle were involved in a larger development discussion earlier this spring. And yes, both of these organizations face serious questions about their futures. The town was involved in providing a “Pathway to a New Proposal” to partners involved in the Arts and Innovation Center proposal. We offered several action steps including taking a specific site off of the table, involving all of the stakeholders in the community, coming up with a business plan, and working with the School of Government to do an assessment of whether or not it is feasible to do a project such as the one proposed while maximizing private funding sources to support the project.

The Cat’s Cradle and our Town Manager, Economic Development Director and Board of Aldermen have been involved in multiple discussions with Frank Heath and some of the potential investors and stakeholders who very much want the Cradle to be recognized as the national icon that it is by staying in place.
The Board of Aldermen, myself included, all very much want the Cradle to stay in place. Our Town Manager has been helpful in talking with both 300 E. Main and Frank to figure out a plan moving forward.

The Town can continue to support these efforts by publicly supporting the idea of an ArtsCenter that is financially stable and has all of the resources it needs such as more classroom space and more teachers. We can also publicly support the Cradle staying in place and honor the way that it in itself has shaped who Carrboro is today. In addition, we can see if there is another location for the Cradle in Carrboro and if so, work with the community around the impacts of rock club on a residential neighborhood. If we find a location we can look at expediting the process of development review. We would like to be able to have data about the economic gains for our community from the Cradle’s business. Not only the economic gains from the shows there but also from the neighboring businesses, bars, restaurants, the hotel, and shops who all benefit from the Cradle staying in place or being as close to downtown as possible.

Overall, we need to broaden perspectives so that the community understands that the town doesn’t value one art form over another.

Lastly, we can support these two businesses by continuing the community conversations either through public hearings or informal gatherings to let the community know the facts and to have them help us come up with some creative ideas to move forward.

7) Development in Carrboro has been something of a mixed bag. Large, mixed-use projects now compete with local storefronts for space and customers. What is your vision for the future of downtown Carrboro and its development?

Whenever we consider growth we need to consider our regional carrying capacity (food, water, living economy, waste, power generation, and environmental constraints) and focus on protecting the character of our town. When we start talking about growth, we inevitably have a conversation about who gets to live in our community, because issues of affordability arise. We need to be mindful of our diverse community and be creative in thinking of ways to sustain diversity while enhancing our local businesses and engaging with our local living economy. In Vision 2020, Carrboro expressed a desire to double the town’s commercial tax base, and to do this we need to focus on supporting local entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in our community as well as supporting existing businesses. I am a proponent of transit-oriented development, particularly near the center of town.
As we have seen over the last decade, it is hard for new mixed used development to include local businesses because the rent for these spaces is too expensive, but the developer has to charge a certain amount of rent to sustain their project. This is a tension we will be working with for many years to come. We need to continue to look at development as a whole and not just an individual project. We need to understand the impact that any one development has on the town as a whole and specifically local businesses capacity to be in Carrboro and thrive in Carrboro.

Density is most appropriate downtown and should emphasize local businesses, the protection of existing neighborhoods, and a collaborative process with citizens on growth issues. We need to encourage mixed-use development with a balance of residential and commercial development that is convenient to public transit.

8) A recent study indicated a disparity between how Carrboro police treat minority and non-minority drivers. What are the next steps for Carrboro as far as addressing or correcting racial bias in law enforcement?

To begin to answer this question, it is important to understand that this disparity isn’t just about Carrboro or traffic violations, for me, there isn’t a way to separate this phenomena from the historical and widespread mistreatment of people of color by our criminal justice system. Additionally, all of the institutions connected with the criminal justice system have participated in the construction of race, participated in racist policies and practices and defined cultural norms that create bias. While I want to hold hope out for a shift in the norms that create bias, I’m not sure that our culture as a whole has any intention of correcting how policing is enacted in our communities.

The Carrboro police department with the support and help of Aldermen Seils, myself, town staff and many community organizers wanted to respond in some way to the killing of Michael Brown and the uprising that was happening from Ferguson to Durham. We started this with a vigil at Town Hall the day before Thanksgiving and our police chief spoke about a desire to have policing be fair for all citizens. Then a plan was created with the police department, members of the board of aldermen and the town staff to put a comprehensive plan into place to address racial bias. This included police forums, implicit bias training (specific to police officers), identifying the need for a data analyst to help the police force to get very clear data, and attendance and participation in a racial equity training. The town has held two forums which were well attended, has sent some of it’s staff to implicit bias training in the hopes of training all of it’s staff and sent some of the officers and the police chief to Racial Equity training.

Through these efforts, we are gaining an understanding of how cultural and institutional racism impact our police department through its policies, practices and cultural norms. The ideas that came from the police forums focus on big changes that will take time, not on band-aid approaches. It is important to understand that while we can change the way that our police department operates in Carrboro, and be a model for other departments across the state we are still in a larger culture that doesn’t support a shift in policing. My point here is that we cannot separate ourselves from the larger culture’s norms. We can look at this problem in a vacuum, by just focusing on Carrboro or look at it more broadly and try to explore and understand what policing looks like nationwide.

9) Downtown traffic congestion is among the most frequently cited complaints in Carrboro. Recent town discussions have invoked proposals of various traffic-calming measures, such as converting some downtown roads into pedestrian-only roads. Where do you stand on this proposal? What are your ideas for improving congestion downtown?

I have noticed that whenever we discuss new development traffic is a major issue for residents most closely impacted by the development. Two things have happened related to pedestrian only roads since I have been in office. The Carrboro Bicycle Coalition approached us about an “Open Streets” event a little over two years ago. We have had two open streets events now and they have been very successful. Open Streets is a program that happens one day a year and we close down both West and East Weaver Street from 9:00am-3:00pm to encourage people to use the street in other ways besides just driving our cars on the roads. Open Streets engaged local businesses and invited them to participate in the programming for the day.

During the first Open Streets event I taught yoga as a representative from Carrboro Yoga Company. The programming also included acupuncture, a climbing wall, dance, and demonstrations of how to place your bike on the bus, zumba, music and more. I heard very positive feedback about these events. Because Open Streets was such a success, the Carrboro Bicycle Coalition approached the town again to ask about an additional event called, “Summer Streets.” Their proposal was to close off East Weaver Street in front of Weaver Street Market from 9:00am-2:00pm and to have the space to walk, bike, dance, do yoga, draw with chalk and more, in the street. The difference in this event and Open Streets is that there wasn’t any formal programming, so it encouraged the community to be creative in how they engaged with the street. When we were approached about Summer Streets, we agreed to a pilot, which included Weaver Street being closed for three Sundays during the hour of 9:00am-2:00pm, one each during the months of June, July and August.

We agreed to a pilot so we could begin to understand the impact on local businesses and the economic development impact on our town as a whole. I attended two of the Summer Streets events and feel that they were successful. I also think it takes time for people to understand how to use the street in an alternate way. We’ve been conditioned to believe that streets are for cars, and that cars are the most important way to move from one place to another. I believe it will take time for the community to understand the value of a program such as Summer Streets and I think it’s important for the town to continue to collect data about economic impacts in our community from this kind of programming.

Beyond the efforts, when we review development projects we look for opportunities to encourage bikeability and walkability. We also look at opportunities for upgrades to the landscape including sidewalks, paths and development tools that can make the flow of traffic easier, whether by bike, car of foot. Lastly, we can encourage density in the downtown and development close to public transportation.
10) Affordable housing is likely among the top priorities for any candidate in Carrboro. We’ve seen a lot of proposals, task forces and campaign speeches, but middling results. Please give your fresh ideas for tackling this decades-old problem.

As mentioned above, affordable housing is a priority of mine as a member of the board of aldermen. It was part of my platform when I ran in 2011 and continues to be during this election cycle and beyond. And, I don’t think our board just talked the talk around affordable housing, we have a task force that was started in 2013, we have come up with a plan that the board has adopted for both affordable housing and affordable rentals, we have approved a project, Shelton Station, that will have some affordable rentals, and we have engaged other community partners who focus on creating more affordable housing. The board approved the 2015 budget, which includes the equivalent to a penny for housing, $200,000, to be allocated to the Town’s trust fund for affordable housing. In addition, there may be some other funding available in the first quarter of this year. Currently the county is discussing what issues will be included in the bond referendum and as we understand now affordable housing won’t be one although the county has heard from many that it is a priority for the people. Constituents have been encouraged to let the county commissioners know about the importance of a county wide plan to address more subsidy to be directed towards affordable housing.

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