Q&A: Chelsea Cook reflects on housing, law background, Durham City Council

Chelsea Cook poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Cook.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

By Lucy Marques

The Durham VOICE’s Lucy Marques spoke with Durham City Council member Chelsea Cook about priorities for the council, career experience, and favorite things about Durham. Cook was appointed to the council in January to fill the seat that opened up after Leonardo Williams was elected mayor, and currently works as an attorney. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Durham VOICE: Can you tell me a bit about how you decided to go into law?

Chelsea Cook: Originally, I was really interested in food waves and food insecurity, and that led me into work in lots of local restaurants, and I also worked on a farm just north of Durham. All through that time, I was kind of deciding if I wanted to go back to school and what I would like to study. I had taken one undergraduate class that was actually taught by a law school professor at UNC, and I just thought that it was a great style of learning for me. 

Tell me about your thought process about running for council. What spurred your decision? 

So folks that I’m working with every day who are facing eviction for non-payment, generally your rent is the last thing that you don’t pay, so by the time they get to me, folks are in deep crisis. And I’m hearing these folks, who are so intelligent, they’re so community minded, but in order for them to be able to interact, they have to find childcare, they have to find transportation, they have to be able to spend time away from work, to participate in government, and folks just don’t have that ability a lot of times. It’s sort of my hope that at the very least, I can alleviate that experience, and that was sort of what drove me to run for office. 

You were appointed to the council, not elected. How did you prepare for that differently? How was the process different?

I really was planning on running for the seat when it came up for election in a couple of years, so when I saw that it was going to be available for appointment, I went ahead and put in for it. And I do plan on running for reelection, and I’m excited for that because I think that accountability of being voted in is more representative of how our government is set up to run. 

When you run a campaign, you have a lot of control about the messaging. This process is so different because the whole thing took like three weeks, and you don’t get to have a lot of time to develop a political narrative; which is fine because I feel like I’m just a person who shows up very authentically anyway.

How does your career background inform the perspective you bring to the council?

The council technically is a part-time job and most of our council members don’t work on the side, or they have contract jobs, and they’re able to sort of set their schedules. I can’t do that exactly, but I don’t want to lose that job because I think that it informs so much of my council work. I think that many of us ended up being in community with people who are like-minded but also end up being in our same economic and social groups. And we often don’t have access to folks who are in different socio-economic categories from ourselves. I think the more folks that you can interact with that have different backgrounds as yourself, the more informed you’re going to be.

What priorities do you bring to the council?

When you’re facing housing insecurity, you’re facing more than just not having a place to live. You’re potentially facing not having a way to access resources or store your belongings. A lot of people work remotely as well, and so you take yourself out of the job market for a large number of jobs if you don’t have access to a physical place. And we know statistically that housing-insecure folks tend to end up in the criminal justice system. So my main priority is ensuring that folks can access housing. 

I do think that housing needs to continue to grow with our population, but it’s not good enough to just have more housing, we have to be able to have housing that is accessible for everyone that is here. I want to make sure that our folks that are living in Durham aren’t getting priced out of our neighborhoods, and out of our city. And I want to make sure that they have access to good-quality housing.

What is your favorite thing about Durham?

This is going to sound cliché, but it’s definitely the people that live here. People really care how you’re doing. I’ve been blown away by this, as a council person too; people I don’t know in the community have checked in on me. Folks are there, involved, in a way that is really intentional. Everybody wants the best for the city, and they love it, and I think it really shows. 

Edited by Margaux Hunter