Michelle Johnson | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Michelle Johnson 

Carrboro - Mayor and Board of Aldermen

Name as it appears on the ballot: Michelle Johnson

Full legal name, if different: Michelle Cassandra Johnson

Date of birth: 08/21/1975

Home address: 109 Center Street, Carrboro, NC 27510

Campaign website: www.michelleforcarrboro.com

Occupation & employer: Self-Employed, Clinical Social Worker, Artist, Consultant

Email: michelleforcarrboro@gmail.com

1) What do you believe are the most important issues facing Carrboro? If elected, what are your top priorities in addressing those issues?

The most important issues facing Carrboro are growth and development and their connection to economic development. 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 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 revolving loan program, the WISE energy efficiency loan program for residences and local businesses, and job training workshops. I will explore the feasibility of the town allocating a portion of the revolving loan fund to local businesses that are in immediate crisis so that more businesses don't have to close their doors. In addition, I will work with the Carrboro Arts Committee, the Orange County Arts Commission, and the Orange County Artists Guild to enhance our focus on arts in the community as a way to bring people into Carrboro and to support a local living economy.

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. I will encourage the creation of a green building checklist for the town to use when considering development projects, with the understanding that the permitting of projects that meet a threshold level of green building standards will be expedited.

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. Our affordable housing ordinance needs a review and possible revision. The affordable housing ordinance should be revised to allow developers to offer affordable housing at 60% of the median income rather than 80% to address issues of affordability in the current economic downturn. In addition developers should have the option to pay a fee to the town Affordable Housing Trust in lieu of providing affordable housing units. This allows the town flexibility in providing affordable housing in existing and new developments and provides the opportunity for the Town to continue their support of the Home Trust in a collaborative way. 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.

I will work to meet the diverse needs of residents in our community by serving on the local task force to assess the need for a work center for day laborers. I will work with the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the Human Relations Commission, Justice United, local businesses, residents, law enforcement, El Centro Latino, and other stakeholders in the community to move forward with a solution that meets the needs of day laborers and the communities in which they reside.

2) What is there in your record as a public official or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be effective on the board? For incumbents, what accomplishments are you most proud of? For challengers, what do you bring that the board now lacks? This might include career or community service; but please be specific about its relevance to this office.

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 there is a natural progression from justice work to local government involvement. 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. I am a candidate who is of the people and for the people and I welcome the opportunity to listen and learn from the citizens of Carrboro.

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, day laborer issues, valuing the diversity within our community, and serving as a model for other municipalities around the state.

I have much to offer to the Board and look forward to contributing my ability to listen to all constituents, 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.

3) How do you define yourself politically (i.e.) conservative, moderate, liberal, third party, hybrid) and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

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 hope is to transfer my knowledge and experience to Carrboro's 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.

As stated above, I am a clinical social worker and work with people on a sliding scale and accept Medicaid. 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. I currently sit on the Day Laborer Task Force to develop an understanding of the needs and experiences of day laborers and to come up with a solution to protect all the residents in our community including the day laborers. All of these experiences are reflected in my platform. (See question #1)

4) Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

Carrboro prides itself on being a diverse, open, and accepting community. Day laborers are part of our community. In the past year, there has been a resurgence of discussion about the anti-lingering ordinance that was adopted by the Board of Aldermen in 2007. The ordinance mandates that people can only stand on the corner of Davie and Jones Ferry from 5:00am to 11:00 am. This ordinance was born out of valid safety concerns expressed by neighbors, including concerns about harassment, public intoxication, and other criminal and nuisance behaviors. Although the current discussion is focused on rescinding the ordinance because of concerns about its constitutionality, there is a parallel discussion being guided by many stakeholders in the community, including day laborers, about the possibility of a worker center that would allow workers to be out of the elements (heat, cold, rain etc.) and to have access to a public bathroom. If elected, I would explore a mechanism other than the anti-lingering ordinance to address the needs and concerns expressed both by the day laborers and their neighbors. Dialogue and relationship building needs to be enhanced among everyone in this community, particularly when there is a high conflict situation across lines of difference. I would reflect Carrboro's value of diversity, my belief in community building, use my organizing skills to work with stakeholders in the community, including the Human Rights Center, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the UNC Civil Rights Center, El Centro Latino, and Justice United, to guide my decision making about how to best address everyone's needs and to come up with a long-term sustainable, equitable, and legally defensible solution.

5) What makes Carrboro unique to you? How would you preserve that while advancing it? Also, what's the biggest misconception about Carrboro and what would do, if necessary, to correct it?

Carrboro is unique in many ways. Carrboro is unique because of our emphasis on local business in our urban core, which is packed with a variety of restaurants, coffee shops, retail establishments, a co-op, food trucks, the Cybrary, and a thriving arts scene. Carrboro is unique in North Carolina because of our progressive thinking. In a recent example, we were the first municipality in the state to oppose the ban on same-sex marriage, and our mayor wrote a letter to the governor of New York when marriage equality was finally achieved in that state. We are unique in the way we value protecting our environment through innovative green building development, and in our creative thinking about the need for walkable and bikeable neighborhoods as well as public transit access for all citizens. We value green open spaces for collective gathering, and have many community gardens to connect the diverse citizens in Carrboro. I live in the heart of downtown and own a business in downtown and it is possible to create a life in the urban core and not be car-dependent.

I would work to preserve all of these assets and to ensure that all residents, including those who live in the Rogers Road neighborhood, have access to public transportation and sidewalks. We need to continue our focus on smart, green growth and to think about areas outside of the urban core, like Homestead Road, where walkability and bikeablility can be enhanced for folks in the northern part of Carrboro.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Carrboro is that we aren't diverse. We have a large Latino population, a growing Burmese and Karen population, 10% of our population is African American, and at community events such as the Carrboro Music Festival, the July 4th parade, or the Carrboro Day celebration, you see people with various racial and ethnic backgrounds. We have people of various class backgrounds as well, and the town is working to sustain this diversity. We can do many things to continue to share diversity across cultures and across neighborhoods.

6) What did you learn from recent construction on Weaver Street? Did town government do enough to support affected business owners? What would you do in hindsight?

As a business owner on Weaver Street, I am well aware of the impact of the construction. I hear the trucks moving up and down the street and see the folks working as I walk past them each day to get to my office. I also see Annette Stone, the economic development director, out each day walking up and down Weaver Street and the surrounding streets to talk to business owners. The town has put up banners in the affected areas to let consumers know that businesses are still open and to encourage consumers to go inside and see what our local business district has to offer. No one expected the decision about starting this construction and the decline of our economy to coincide. Intentional planning, budgeting, town staff and various advisory boards and BOA discussions went into this project. Furthermore, the implementation is happening as fast as it can. The town needed to replace the water and sewer lines, which are very old, and given recent events on Main Street with old sewer lines it is good the town acted when they did.

7) How will you deal with growth in Carrboro given its limited physical boundaries? By extension, what are your viewpoints regarding high-density housing and its placement?

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. 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) What's your position on the cent sales tax and future ballot initiatives such as the transit tax?

I support the cent sales tax for schools and economic development. The tax will support infrastructure near transit corridors to attract new businesses to Orange County, which will encourage businesses to hire from within Orange County and will improve our economy.

9) Carrboro emphasizes locally owned businesses, economic development. What is your opinion of the town's revolving loan fund? Has it, in your view, succeeded? How can it be improved?

The revolving loan fund has worked successfully in supporting new entrepreneurs and existing businesses who want to expand. We need measurable goals for the program, and should analyze long-term data on the success and sustainability of businesses who have benefited from the revolving loan program so that its success can accurately be measured.

10) Do you believe there is enough citizen participation in Carrboro? What would you do to improve it? How can leaders make government more accessible and responsive to citizen needs and concerns? How do students fit in?

When I attended a board orientation with town staff this summer, I asked them to name a current challenge and a strength. Community participation fit into both of these categories. Carrboro residents are very involved in their community and want to shape growth, development, and land use. Local business owners are an integral part of this participation, and our new economic development director is building and enhancing relationships with these business owners and cultivating new relationships with potential entrepreneurs in our community. The town government has clear processes which allow for public comment and participation in decision making. I would like to see a diverse representation of residents civically involved in our community and would encourage all voices to be heard. Many students live in Carrboro, and although much of the students' focus is in Chapel Hill, the town should encourage the participation of students in decision making, advisory boards, and task forces that inform the town and the Board of Aldermen.

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