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For Durham’s Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson PPS ’03 the path to affordable housing investment runs through her backyard.

Johnson made local headlines last year after she planned to build a duplex on her property to rent out to lower-income families.

In an interview with WRAL, Johnson expressed her desire to add to the housing capacity of her neighborhood, one she acknowledges is “becoming increasingly more difficult to live in.” The duplex should be completed by the fall.

smiling woman, standing outside near brick wall
Jillian Johnson PPS ’03

The project is representative of the hands-on personal care and investment Johnson has dedicated to improving her community for more than a decade. Yet, while Johnson “put down roots in Durham pretty quickly after leaving Duke” this was not always her plan.

“I initially joined Teach for America and went to teach elementary school in the Navajo nation in New Mexico,” Jillian said.

When a family situation caused her to leave the position after a few months, she found herself back in Durham.

“When I first graduated I thought I wanted to explore a little bit and see some other parts of the country that I hadn’t been to before, but Durham always felt like home.”

After working in the nonprofit sector for 10 years, her career path took an unexpected turn into municipal government.

“It took about a year’s worth of people talking me into running for office before I actually decided to do it. It was definitely not what I imagined doing,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s decision to run for office was motivated largely by her nonprofit work experience.

“As an activist, there have been projects I have worked on that I think I would have benefited from having someone in local government who was part of the work that I was trying to do. Being in local government allows me to play that role.”

 In her time on the city council Johnson has been able to help advance numerous projects. From doubling the size of the dedicated affordable housing fund and supporting a five-year $160 million housing plan, to assisting the development of small businesses owned by women and people of color through grant funding, loans and technical support, to removing employment barriers for people previously involved in the criminal justice system, and many others, Johnson has remained committed to her overall goal of advancing justice in her community.

Johnson’s introduction into city politics had its surprises.

“I think the thing that has been most surprising for me is the intensity of our zoning and land use hearings. When there are rezoning issues that come up, it is not unusual for us to get community members on both sides of the issue essentially having a public debate in the council chamber on the merits of the rezoning.”

 Johnson appreciates that these meetings create an “open space for the kind of democratic engagement at the local level that is unlikely to happen at any other level of government.”  However, she admits it can also be complicated for policymakers, who are often left to make a decision that will leave a large population of residents unhappy.

“I worry sometimes how those conflicts might trickle out into the ways people interact with each other in their neighborhoods more generally,” Johnson said.

For citizens who want to interact with local government, Johnson emphasized that the city council is not the only point of contact. The city manager oversees day-to-day operations and implements council initiatives. Johnson suggests keeping an open mind about contacting the city manager or other appointed department officials.

She has also reconnected with the Sanford School in recent years, coming back as a guest speaker at the invitation of the Hart Leadership program.

“One thing I learned in public policy classes at Duke that I use in my career is the importance of using data to make policy decisions,” Johnson said.

“We rely on research to evaluate community needs, and regularly test the effectiveness of our solutions, which is critical to making sure our programs actually have the intended positive impact on our community and the lives of our residents.”

Johnson believes her current role is far from the end of the road.

“I don’t think these sorts of roles should be lifetime appointments. I don’t plan on being in local government forever, so I’ll continue looking for other ways to put my values into practice and advance justice in my community.”