By Quinton A. Harper
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
Donald Hughes was a student at Eastway Elementary School when he got his first taste of politics.
He says he remembers being in Ms. Gregory’s 4th grade class listening to then-Councilwoman Cynthia Brown speak to students about civic engagement. Councilwoman Brown stressed the importance of young people standing up for what they believe in. She also challenged students to be leaders in their community and she told students to come down to City Hall to let the council know their concerns.
“And that’s exactly what we did,” Hughes says. “We went to City Hall and asked for better public housing, a stop light at the intersection where our school was, and a no loitering sign at the store across the street.”
As an 8 year old, Hughes’ first taste of politics and community organizing was a success, and it resulted in positive changes for the community around him.
A stop light was put up at the intersection of North Alston Avenue and Taylor Street. A no loitering sign was put up at the store across the street from the school, now the EZ Mini Mart on N. Alston. And over the years, with the help of HOPE VI federal government funding, revitalized communities have replaced the dilapidated, run-down housing in the neighborhood surrounding Eastway.
The success of Hughes and other 4th graders in his class, who cared for their community, is like the African proverb that says when spiders unite they can tie up lions.
From that moment on, Hughes knew he wanted to make a career helping people and serving his community. He’s been doing that ever since.
Now at age 23, Hughes, a 2005 graduate of Hillside High School and 2009 graduate of UNC-Greensboro, is running for an at-large seat to serve on the Durham City Council. Win or lose, Hughes says he’s running for city council to bring attention to issues affecting his community, to serve and lead his community, and to really prove that young people can and should have a voice in local politics.
“No matter how young you are, there is something you can do to help your community, something you can do to give back. And it starts with doing something close to you like picking up trash,” Hughes says.
At age 9, Hughes was recognized by the City of Durham for his “litter-getter” campaign to pick up trash and clean his neighborhood. In high school, Hughes was the lone youth representative on Durham’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and participated in the Rites of Passage Program. He also led a group of students before the Durham school board in protest of having to use only photocopies of a textbook for their advanced Spanish class.
In college at UNCG, Hughes majored in economics, served as president of the Student Government Association, where he represented more than 15,000 students, managed a $200,000 budget and worked as an intern in U.S. Congressman Mel Watt’s office.
Now, in addition to getting his master’s degree in public administration from NCCU, Hughes works full-time as a political blog strategist for Blogads, a social media and blog advertising company. He’s president of the Young Democrats organization in Durham and serves on the Workforce Development Board, a position that he was appointed to by Durham County Commissioners.
All of these experiences, Hughes says, give him valuable leadership in decision-making, getting things done and representing a large group of people. Even though he’s got a plate full already, Hughes says he’s prepared to add Durham City Councilman to his plate-full of leadership activities.
“There comes a time when there must be a changing of the guard. Our time is now,” Hughes says. “The people that we elect to the city council this year will determine the direction that the city takes for the next 10-20 years. We have to have someone on the council that not only understands what the issues are, but listens to the people. That’s been the disconnect.”
“At the end of the day when citizens come to city council they have to know that that council member is not only listening to them, but will move on the concerns that they have. That’s something I’ve done all my life – is really be responsive to people when they want me to advocate for something that I truly believe in,” Hughes says.
Still, despite Councilwoman Brown’s encouragement for young people to get involved in their community, Hughes admits he’s met opposition from those who say he’s too young, has too little experience, hasn’t paid his dues or should wait until it’s his time.
“Who determines when it’s someone’s time to step up and serve their community? Young people are our future, yet most of the time we’re at the fringes of decision-making. We’re asked to serve as teachers and in the armed services, yet when a young person steps up to serve in an elected capacity, he’s told, ‘It’s not your time,’ and ‘You’re not ready’. It’s frustrating having to fight for a place at the table,” Hughes says.
Regina Stanley-King, director of the Durham Empowerment Alliance, a voter education and advocacy network, supports Hughes’ campaign for city council. “It’s important for young people like Donald to have a place at the table so that they can be groomed as leaders for the future, for the changing of the guards, when we put the leadership of our communities into their hands,” Stanley-King said.
Hughes says citizens of Durham lose diversity of thought and lose out on so many great ideas when they don’t have young people at the table. “I have a perspective as a young person who grew up in this city, who has seen where this city was, where the city is now, and has a vision for where this city can go in the future.”
Despite the naysayers, Hughes says he hopes to inspire other young people to be engaged and active in their community. “At the end of the day it’s not about votes, but about the issues affecting Durham and its residents,” Hughes says. “These issues aren’t going anywhere.”
“This is our future,” says Hughes. “I want to make sure that I take the time to inspire them as Councilwoman Brown inspired me.”
Councilwoman Cynthia Brown says that she remembers that day at Eastway Elementary when she spoke to Hughes’ 4th grade class. “From that day I’ve observed that [Donald] has always taken on leadership positions. Each time that I’ve seen him go from one level of leadership to the other, I hear him talk about his concern and interest for people in the community. That’s something that’s always been close to my heart and something that I’ve appreciated.”