Durham / North Carolina

Blessed with a high-octane economy capable of producing abundant employment opportunities but hampered by the traditional curses of poverty and youth disconnection, does Durham have the will and wherewithal to improve its systems and scale up its innovations so that the infrastructure of opportunity is pervasive in the lives of all its people?

Durham / North Carolina

by David Dodson

The Place: a tobacco and textile city that has transitioned to a knowledge economy

The Challenge: connecting employers and educators so that Durham’s young people are prepared to take advantage of the city’s dynamic employment opportunities

Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: promising and established programs along the education pipeline—from pre-K to college—and a history of organizing for action

Editor’s note: Now, we turn our analysis to the place where we live. This final profile shares our perspective on the infrastructure of opportunity in our hometown, including our involvment in a local effort to strengthen connections between education and employment systems.


History and Context

To stand in the lobby of DPAC, Durham’s glittering performing arts center, is to straddle two contradictory worlds. One block to the west sprawls the more than one million-square-foot American Tobacco Historic District, once the heart of James B. Duke’s tobacco manufacturing empire and the epicenter of industrial employment in Durham for the better part of a century. Today American Tobacco is a post-modern economic dynamo and the poster child for contemporary Durham, N.C.: home to dozens of entrepreneurial startups and a host of entertainment options that draw tourists and in-migrants alike. But one block in the opposite direction is a monument to stunted dreams; Durham’s massive jail, a predictable way-station for too many Durham residents, too often young, brown and black, for whom prosperity is a frequently hollow, taunting dream. One community, two worlds, one block apart.

The mobility landscape facing youth and young adults in Durham reflects the unique history, challenges, and opportunities of a former center of tobacco and textile manufacturing that has reinvented itself as the “City of Medicine.” It also stands as an archetype of cities and towns across the United States facing a catastrophic loss of industrial jobs that provided living wages for low-skilled workers. Like those cities and towns, Durham’s leaders must address the challenge of aligning the work of the city’s major educational and social-service institutions, making best use of innovative, small nonprofits, and then scaling-up the efforts to meet the needs of both young people and local employers.

The story of Durham’s economy begins in the late 19th century, when the sleepy railroad stop vaulted to prosperity as a capital of cigarette production in America. The fledging city’s tobacco factories drew waves of unskilled black and white laborers, who formed a strong, bi-racial working- and middle-class that largely defined the city’s culture into the 1970s (though most factory jobs were deeply segregated by function, scarcely paying enough to ensure solid economic security for all workers). For decades, the local path to a steady income required nothing more than a high-school degree. But Durham’s brand of prosperity ultimately carried hidden costs, as the educational prospects of workers in the mills and cigarette factories were limited.

By the 1980s, the demise of the tobacco economy had exposed profound weaknesses in Durham’s historic formula for success. With the erosion of cigarette and textile manufacturing, to be without educational credentials meant to be without strong prospects for an economically sustainable future. Durham was spared the full effects of losing its base industries thanks to prescient higher education, business, and political leaders who, in the 1950s, began building Research Triangle Park, now home to large branches of IBM, Cisco, GlaxoSmithKline, and the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences, among others. Durham has today reinvented itself as a hub of the Research Triangle, the economic engine of central North Carolina. With an economy centered on health care, life sciences, and information technology, grounded by the powerful presence of Duke University and its world-renowned medical center, contemporary Durham represents the promise and the paradoxes of the modern South and much of urban America. Thanks to an economic base anchored in what economist Enrico Moretti terms the “innovation sector,” the Durham economy also supports a rich pool of service-sector employment. The Durham region now is the nation’s third most educated city, according to a 2014 ranking reported by Forbes, and has per capita annual income of more than $30,000 a year, higher than both North Carolina and the nation. Yet opportunity is unevenly distributed.

The Challenge

The rapid evolution of Durham from a center of traditional, often low-wage, manufacturing to a knowledge-driven economy marooned many local residents who lacked the skills and education needed to adapt to the newly demanding labor market. Despite the thriving economy, 16.6 percent of county residents lived below the poverty line in 2013. Youth poverty persists, as does disillusion with conventional paths to success—an estimated 4,500 to 6,000 youth and young adults are disconnected from school and work. The result today is “two Durhams”—one prosperous and positioned to capitalize on abundant, emerging economic opportunities, and another increasingly disconnected and lacking the education, experience, and social connections needed to connect to prosperity that is close at hand geographically but painfully out of reach.

Add to this bifurcated economic landscape a demographic transformation forged by a 112 percent surge in Latino residents between 2000 and 2010, and Durham faces an exciting and daunting frontier: how to leverage its assets and repair its vulnerabilities to become a multicultural exemplar of 21st century opportunity for the South and the nation.

The mobility landscape facing youth and young adults in Durham reflects the unique history, challenges, and opportunities of a former center of tobacco and textile manufacturing that has reinvented itself as the “City of Medicine.”

The Analysis and Strategy

The foundations of Durham’s infrastructure of opportunity have been laid in pieces over time, sometimes with foresight, sometimes in defiance and reaction to prevailing patterns of exclusion. In 1910, local African-American leaders established the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua, which would become the first public, liberal arts institution for African Americans in the nation. Designed to accelerate upward mobility and propel self-help uplift in a Jim Crow culture, the college became North Carolina Central University, the local branch of the University of North Carolina system and Durham’s public education capstone. Half a century later, Durham gained a technically oriented community college as the state built a system to serve industry and train workers. In the 1960s, Gov. Terry Sanford’s model anti-poverty program, the North Carolina Fund, sponsored sophisticated community organizing in Durham’s African-American community to bring the voices of working people into the center of civic and political life, strengthening a tradition of yeasty neighborhood and grassroots organizing that defines Durham politics to this day. In 1991, in an act of profound courage, Durham’s county commissioners led the unification of Durham’s two school systems—one predominantly African-American, serving the city, and one predominantly white, serving suburban and rural county populations. While signaling Durham’s clear intention to function as one community with respect to race and education, the merger fell short of unifying residents. Since then, the portion of white young people attending Durham Public Schools has slowly but continuously decreased.

Local leaders have continued to establish innovations to get disadvantaged young children a strong start in life and school, nurture occupational exposure and readiness, accelerate postsecondary entry and completion, and build Durham’s talent development pipeline in ways that connect communities on the margins of success to the region’s high-wage employment opportunities in health and life sciences, information technology, and specialty services. Many of these programs are small relative to the scale of need and opportunity that characterizes modern Durham. Durham continues to need wider, stronger bridges to close the gap between the contradictory worlds facing thousands of its youth and young adults.

In the 1960s, Gov. Terry Sanford’s model anti-poverty program, the North Carolina Fund, sponsored sophisticated community organizing in Durham’s African-American community to bring the voices of working people into the center of civic and political life, strengthening a tradition of yeasty neighborhood and grassroots organizing that defines Durham politics to this day.

Starting Early

Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone’s cradle-to-career vision, the East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI) integrates education and social supports to give young children in a 120 block section of one of Durham’s lowest wealth neighborhoods a strong foundation for subsequent success. Founded in 2008, EDCI has forged partnerships with more than 20 neighborhood and city-wide organizations to create a deeply embedded community presence characterized by strong parent engagement and data-driven program execution. EDCI’s strategy of linking high-quality existing resources to the needs of low-income children and their families is a welcome attempt to avoid duplication and ensure neighborhood implementation. EDCI is complemented by Durham’s Partnership for Children, through which Durham’s leaders are working to make sure that all young people are prepared for kindergarten. The Partnership, which is part of North Carolina’s Smart Start program, serves as a backbone organization for countywide efforts focused on ages zero to five.

Additional county-level programs, such as Durham Connects, a neonatal home visitation program, are cementing the community’s commitment to giving young people in poor families a solid early start.

Bridging High School and College

Local innovation coupled with state-level policy and technical support also is refashioning high school education in Durham in the wake of the enduring challenges and elusive promises of school merger. For a decade, with catalytic philanthropic support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and strong public policy reinforcement, a state-level nonprofit, North Carolina New Schools (NCNS), has been creating a pervasive network of public high schools characterized by academic rigor and a mission focused on student success. With their guidance and support, Durham Public Schools has collaborated with local higher education to create two “accelerated” high school models—one at Durham Technical Community College, one at N.C. Central—and several thematically focused high schools. Durham Tech’s Middle College and N.C. Central’s Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College enable students to take a blended high school and college-level course of study to prepare for a seamless transition to postsecondary education. The City of Medicine Academy, founded in 2003, brings together Durham’s largest employer, Duke University Health System, and the Durham Public Schools.

“City of Medicine Academy is giving students direct experience in the real world of medicine through extending learning outside the classroom through internships and job shadowing experiences,” says Dr. Victor Dzau, former CEO of Duke University Health System and current President of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Graduation and postsecondary entrance rates for most of Durham’s specialty high schools far outpace those of their conventional counterparts, though they often enroll a lower proportion of free- and reduced-lunch students. The new schools stand as beacons for a district still challenged to make high performance a norm for large numbers of high-poverty students.

Focusing on Postsecondary Completion, Employment Readiness, and Youth Reconnection

In 2012, an unprecedented partnership among major employers, the public K–20 institutions, and community leaders began building Made in Durham, an effort to facilitate education-to-career pathways to equip all Durham youth and young adults, ages 14–24, with the postsecondary credentials and workplace experience required to gain entry and succeed in Durham’s opportunity-rich economy. Researched and incubated by MDC, Made in Durham will build an anchor organization that will work with educators and employers to deepen and expand opportunities for work-based learning, striving for an aspirational goal that all Durham young adults earn a postsecondary credential and be connected to economically rewarding work by age 25. Made in Durham will embrace a “dual-customer approach” to satisfy both the needs of young people and the requirements of Durham’s employers. This will include establishing cross-institutional data systems to track student progress, improving the currency of regional labor market information to guide programming, and building vehicles for feedback from youth, employers, and the community to foster public accountability. MDC research estimates 40 percent of Durham’s young people are either lagging behind or completely disconnected from conventional education-to-career pathways. Made in Durham also has set for itself a tough goal of creating transitional on-ramps that will move youth from the margins to the mainstream of Durham’s economy, drawing on the community’s rich culture of social entrepreneurship and innovation. Expectations are high, and the need to demonstrate performance is urgent given the uneven results of prior efforts to connect disconnected youth to opportunity. “With Made in Durham, we are working to demonstrate the kinds of innovative approaches that can bring about systemic change necessary to make these experiences the norm and focus on employment sectors—like health care and life sciences—that drive the vibrant Durham economy,” wrote Dr. Dzau, chair of Made in Durham, in a recent op-ed.

Complementing Made in Durham are two new initiatives designed to foster postsecondary entry, affordability, and completion. Created by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales-and-use tax in 2011 that funds early childhood and postsecondary education, Durham “ConnectFunds” provide work-study stipends of up to $2,500 for Durham Tech students who need to supplement other forms of financial aid. “Eagle Connect,” one of North Carolina’s first residential dual-enrollment programs, enables students to live on the N.C. Central campus while completing an associate’s degree at Durham Tech, after which they transfer to Central for their final two years of university. “This will give students the opportunity to really earn an associate’s degree in those first two years and really make a nice transition,” said NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, as students moved in last month, according to The Durham News. “These are kids that really want a bachelor’s degree, but this is a pathway in order to help them achieve that.”

Changing the Conversation about Poverty amid Plenty

Poverty stubbornly endures in Durham, despite a remarkable transition from its tobacco-town roots. In February 2014, in his State of the City Address, Mayor Bill Bell announced that he would challenge the city and dedicate his administration to “reducing poverty one neighborhood at a time” by focusing public services and civic energy on the city’s lowest-income Census tracts. “We as a city and county are rich in many resources,” he said. “We must find a way to harness those many resources to focus or target the reduction in poverty in our community.”

Like EDCI, the Mayor’s initiative hopes to capitalize on Durham’s long tradition of neighborhood-level activism and marry it to the intensive deployment of existing government and community resources. Rebuilding trust with neighborhoods that have long felt marginalized in Durham’s race to reinvent itself is proving to be an essential and challenging first step. For the mayor’s vision to succeed, Durham will need to unite to deploy an infrastructure of opportunity to build the capabilities of low-income residents into assets that match the needs of a 21st century economy. “There’s a sense of ‘we-ness’ to Durham, that these are our problems to solve together,” says Dave Currey, who is working to create that unity in his role as project director of BECOMING.

BECOMING is a cross-sector collaboration focused on creating a continuum of care for young adults facing mental health challenges. BECOMING has formalized partnerships with the Department of Social Services and the Durham Police Department. Their approach is to have a “no wrong door policy” to obtaining integrated mental health support so vital to youth and young adult success.










15 Note that only 75 percent of Latinos in Durham, at the time of this study, were not born in the United States. So, 90 percent of those 75 percent were undocumented.

Questions and Next Steps

Recent local efforts are changing the conversation about the need to give Durham youth an early foundation and ensure that they reach the finish line of postsecondary attainment and rewarding employment. Political, business, and education leaders are joining forces to build-out and scale-up an infrastructure of opportunity. But deep challenges remain. A sharp racial and economic divide persists despite recent reforms. Superior Court Judge Elaine Bushfan, who serves Durham and surrounding counties, notes, “Durham’s courtrooms and jails are filled disproportionately with black and brown boys and men. The contrast with other counties is shocking.” Recent research conducted for Made in Durham shows that 65 percent of spending on disconnected youth and young adults supports incarceration and its after-effects rather than developmental supports and on-ramp efforts to get back on track. The chasm that separates “off-track” youth from success endures largely unbridged.

Latino residents continue to face deep structural barriers to access and benefit from Durham’s emerging reforms. Latinos make up 14 percent of Durham County residents, up from 1 percent in 1990. Approximately 90 percent of Latino immigrants in Durham are undocumented,15 according to a study from University of Pennsylvania sociologist Chenoa Flippen. Immigration status complicates access to the infrastructure of opportunity. Undocumented students do not qualify for North Carolina’s deeply subsidized in-state tuition rates for public higher education or for federal financial aid. While the rate at which Latinos are graduating from high school in Durham is rising, postsecondary entry and persistence is an enduring struggle. Triangle for Latino Student Success, a coalition of education leaders and community advocates, recently formed to elevate the access of Latinos to postsecondary education.

Further complicating upward mobility, political shifts at the state level are challenging the “education-first” orthodoxy that characterized North Carolina for 50 years—a pervasive philosophy that spurred upward mobility for tens of thousands of once-poor residents. Today, Tar Heels’ appetite for ever-expanding public investment in schools and colleges is slacking off just as historically underserved segments of the population—African Americans and Latinos—are projected to become an even larger proportion of the state’s workforce.

Blessed with a high-octane economy capable of producing abundant employment opportunities, but hampered by the traditional curses of poverty and youth disconnection, does Durham have the will and wherewithal to improve its systems and scale up its innovations so that the “infrastructure of opportunity” is pervasive in the lives of all its people? Much turns on the answer.

“We as a city and county are rich in many resources. We must find a way to harness those many resources to focus or target the reduction in poverty in our community.” — Mayor Bill Bell

“Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation” takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds. Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

Read more of the report.