Stephenson: My Grandmother Taught Me a Lot About Standing Up for the Underdog

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This is the latest in our ongoing interview series, On The Record. Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Raleigh City Councilor Russ Stephenson to talk sustainability, responsible growth and making Raleigh a more equitable place for all. 

Raleigh, 1981.

“My opinion of Raleigh politics is the worst: it’s all power brokers doing backroom deals; it’s all about eradicating the little guy,” Stephenson says.

RussStephensonRuss Stephenson was in his mid-20s, recently married and living in Raleigh, and he’d just watched his grandmother suffer through two long, arduous court battles with the City over the condemnation of her home. She won both cases, but the experience shaped Stephenson’s sardonic view of local government for years to come.

It wasn’t until much later — 1999 — when he got involved with the Hillsborough Street Re-visioning Process that he began to recognize the good that local government could do.

“It was a real transformation for me in seeing, oh, this is what local government can be, this is what democracy is about, it’s finding out what people have in common and working together,” Stephenson said.

The Hillsborough Street revitalization and the subsequent surrounding development, Stephenson said, is something that might not have happened or been as successful had his grandmother not won those two court cases more than 30 years ago.

“That was the real heyday of suburbia,” Stephenson said of the 1970s.

“Raleigh was right there with everybody else: they wanted to be the next Atlanta, and one of the things everybody was pushing for was to get big thoroughfares and expressways in and out of town so suburban commuters could get into downtown to work and then drive home to the suburbs.”

Around 1972, the same time the City was planning a North-South expressway through the Oakwood neighborhood — a plan that was ultimately defeated, and helped give birth to Raleigh’s Historic Preservation movement — it was also working on a west side expressway that would have turned Oberlin Road into a 5-lane road from Glenwood Avenue to Western Boulevard.

After an heir of the Pullen family sued to prevent the expressway from cutting through the park, the plans were amended and the route was shortened so it would end at Hillsborough, instead of Western.

The very first parcel that stood in the way of these new plans belonged to Phyllis Riley, Stephenson’s grandmother. Her house was condemned, but she successfully sued the City — using the same attorney as the Pullen heir — to overturn the decision.

After the City made extensive revisions to its plans, it once again attempted to condemn her house, although Riley was able to win on what Stephenson referred to as a technicality.

“She was just a little old lady living alone on Social Security, she was retired from the admitting office at Rex and they went and condemned her property.”

Stephenson said his grandmother’s persistence and experiences helped shape his opinions of how cities should grow.

“My grandmother taught me a lot about standing up for the underdog, fighting for what you believe in; property rights, historic preservation — those are all important,” he explained.


Smart, Sustainable Growth

Since joining City Council in 2005, one of Stephenson’s biggest goals has been working to ensure the city grows in such a way that it maximizes the benefits this can bring while minimizing the impact it has on existing neighborhoods.

“All of us early apostles of smart growth: everything we said is finally coming to pass. It’s all slow-motion, but for me, it started with my grandmother saying ‘You know, they shouldn’t be designing the cities for cars, they should be designing the city for people.'”

Stephenson said he’s been focused on the idea of smart growth as something that’s beneficial for both the economy and the environment.

“We couldn’t continue to grow by adding roads and cars and pollution and clear-cutting lots,” Stephenson said.

“So that was kind of the mantra, we did the new sustainable development Comprehensive Plan between 2007-2009 and that sort of enshrined a lot of these ideas about sustainability, and it was an attempt to look at the economy and the environment and equity as these three interlocking pillars of sustainability.”

Although Stephenson said there are still a few tweaks he’d like to make to the Comp Plan, mostly related to doing more to protect at-risk and low-wealth neighborhoods, he feels he’s largely accomplished what he set out to do with regards to sustainable development.

Now, he intends to shift his focus to that third and final pillar of sustainability: equity.

“When the Mayor came to me after the election last year and asked if I still wanted to chair the Comp Planning Committee, I said no, I’ve done what I need to do, I’ll let Kay [Crowder] take over all of that growth and development stuff, I’m gonna go somewhere where there’s more flexibility.”

Editor’s note: The duties of the Comprehensive Planning Committee now fall under the purview of the Growth & Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Councilor Crowder. 

Stephenson is now chair of the Safe, Vibrant and Healthy Neighborhoods Committee, which he joked has been “incredibly flexible, since it hasn’t even met yet.”

Stephenson said he thinks many of the initial conversations about equity are not ones that should be held in committees, but in front of the entire Council.

“On the national level, there’s many things beyond our control that have created a growing income inequality, but there are, just from my watching the way things work in Raleigh and coming out of my own myopic view of the world and realizing the way I see it is not the way a person of a different skin color sees it, there’s a lot of work to do here,” Stephenson said.

“We do a lot of good things, the transit referendum we hope is going to be very beneficial for low-wealth people who don’t have cars to get to their jobs and to do their shopping, the initiatives we’ve taken on affordable housing, which is a thing I’ve personally been struggling for since the beginning of the UDO process.”

In Stephenson’s mind though, they haven’t done enough.

“Equity is not just about redressing long-standing inequities and disenfranchisement and barriers to opportunity; let’s think about equity in the same way we thought about the environment, there can be synergy between equity and the economy.”

“You can turn equity into a driver of our economy.”

“We’ve got a Council now that is more interested in moving forward with a systematic analysis of all of our policies and regulations as they relate to improving equity and removing barriers and improving opportunities,” Stephenson said.

When City Council officially released a statement against HB2, which requires people in government facilities to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, Stephenson said he paused at the thought of referring to Raleigh a diverse, inclusive City.

“Do we have a right to bill ourselves as a diverse community if we’re not also an equitable community?” Stephenson said he asked his fellow Councilors.

“We’ve got to address things at the highest levels and think about what we want to be as a City.”

“You can say, oh look, we’ve got an incentive policy to attract new businesses! But where’s the equity element in that? Does it protect historic African-American neighborhoods? Does it promote minority owned businesses? Well, no.”

A Cool City

One recent issue to come before the City that managed to incorporate neighborhood protection, the economy and ensuring equity was the plan to regulate short-term rental properties such as Airbnb.

“It’s very easy to get excited about all the innovation out there, I’m a tremendous fan of Airbnb and Uber, I’ve used them in other communities,” Stephenson said.

“But we’ve got to be careful, if we don’t look out for equity issues, we’re gonna pay the price: Los Angeles is having an enormous number of affordable apartment buildings bought up and converted en masse and converted to Airbnb.”

Stephenson said he’s concerned that without some regulations in place, Airbnb could have similar impacts on Raleigh.

“There’s already obviously enormous market pressure in affordable neighborhoods near downtown, there’s so much more money to be made in short-term rentals: with a renter you only get maybe $600 a month, but you can make that in a couple of weekends [with Airbnb].”

“I guess my comment is, you know, word will get out on, it used to be Facebook but I guess that’s not cool anymore, but word will get out on social media that Raleigh is not on the cutting edge of this internet economy and we’ll be terminally uncool,” Stephenson said.

“My attitude is, OK: if we’re an inequitable city, to me, that’s a much more uncool thing to be, if we’re ignoring people’s civil rights and being discriminatory and letting that stuff happen in our city.”

“I love Airbnb, but I love our at-risk neighborhoods more.”

As part of his effort to make Raleigh a cooler, more equitable place, Stephenson plans to propose to Councilors next week that they hire on the services of Julie Nelson, who runs the organization Government Alliance on Race and Equity, to help the City make sure its policies are addressing equity issues when and wherever possible.

Stephenson said that he and his fellow Councilors need to take a big picture, intentional approach to making the City more equitable.

“We need to recognize our white privilege, and understand other people,” Stephenson said, citing the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates.

“A black person walking down the street doesn’t see and feel the world as being friendly and benign the same way a white person does.”

“There’s so many assumptions that the majority in the community makes about the way other people live their lives.

“We can do better by being more data driven, more intentional, more introspective about how we can do what we did with the environment, where we can prove to people that if we focus on equity it won’t take away from the economy, it’ll help make us a stronger community in every way.”


Update: Councilor Stephenson sent the following e-mail after this article was published. Reprinted below with permission.
Here are a few key points that may do a better job of making the case for a data-driven review of equity in our city’s adopted policies.
Point #1: Our Comprehensive Plan commits us to an integrated approach to economy, environment and equity
from page 1” The Comprehensive Plan is the key policy document that helps make the city workable, livable, and prosperous. … The Plan provides an integrated approach to all aspects of Raleigh’s physical development and related economic and social issues, with an emphasis onenvironmental, economic, and social sustainability
Point #2: The data say there is room for improvement
Raleigh’s Star Communities Ranking
Raleigh’s Sustainability Office participated in a national sustainability assessment and ranking program called STAR Communities. This rating system is described as “a roadmap to help evaluate, assess, and improve communities’ economic, environmental, and social performance measures and become healthier, stronger, and more resilient.” Raleigh got 4 of 5 stars, but the detailed scoring reveals that we have work to do in equity and empowerment:
Equality of Opportunity & Income Mobility
Harvard: Raleigh ranks 95th of 100 in income mobility —
Point #3: Evolving opinions about what adds to or detracts from prosperity
In the boom years of American suburbanization, environmental concerns were seen as a drain on prosperity.  Now healthy environmental policies and investments are seen as keys to our city’s health and competitiveness. Likewise, opinions about public investments in arts and culture have reversed since 1995, when Raleigh’s mayoral election hinged on stopping a taxpayer-funded art project. Today, data show that public investments in arts and culture are major economic drivers for Raleigh.
Raleigh’s peer cites are investing in the environment and culture too, and increasingly, they are turning their attention to systematic data analyses of polices and investments in equity as the next driver of sustainable prosperity. While Raleigh has a long history of funding non-profits that grapple with structural and institutional inequities in our society, the city has never undertaken a systematic review of equity in its own policies or studied the data to understand how equity investments can be a driver of Raleigh’s growing prosperity. What are the economic benefits of a city population with equitable access to health care, education, jobs, transportation, development, healthy food, housing and public safety?
Banking on voter support for quality of life and economic benefits, Raleigh has invested heavily in sustainable development (the new UDO zoning rules, reopening Fayetteville Street), environmental protection (Green Infrastructure / Low Impact Development regulations), arts and culture (comprehensive arts and parks planning and funding). Now is the time for Raleigh to join peer cities in turning our attention to a systematic review of polices and investments in equity – the third pillar of Raleigh’s Comprehensive Plan vision and next driver of our city’s sustainable prosperity.

One thought on “Stephenson: My Grandmother Taught Me a Lot About Standing Up for the Underdog

  1. I wonder what this counselor thinks about the RDU airport’s plan to develop hundreds of acres of greenspace.

    We need more long term planners in government as well as people that value and preserve green space which plays a role in making this area great.

    You know, they shouldn’t be designing the cities for developers, they should be designing the city for people.