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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Building relationships across community lines is the surest foundation for social change that lasts and serves the common good. This past Sunday, the results of several years of relationship building began to bear fruit publicly in Durham, NC. Durham CAN (communities, associations, and neighborhoods), a community organizing group, gathered for a Delegates Assembly on the campus of Duke University. Holding the meeting at Duke was a major symbol of the relationship building that has been going on.

One of the priorities of Durham CAN for four or five years has been improving the economic conditions of all Durham citizens. One strategy for doing that has been promoting a "livable wage" policy with major Durham employers. Sometimes it is called a "living wage." It is an effort to make a more realistic assessment of the basic costs of a household, revised from the widely used "poverty line" figures which do not accord with current costs of housing, fuel, transportation, communications, education, etc. Over several years of work, Durham City Government (original ordinance preceded CAN involvement and amendment with CAN involvement), Durham County Government (policy in minutes of June 14, 2004 meeting, pages 12-14), and the Durham Public Schools all adopted the livable wage proposals put forth by Durham CAN and negotiated through the relationships built with leaders in those organizations and the community.

Students, professors, employees, and administrators at Duke University have been discussing issues relating to wages, job security, and health care for some time now. Some of the students and professors have for even longer been part of member organizations that make up Durham CAN. Duke University was also aware of these changes, and on their own set a "Duke wage" as a floor for Duke employees, much higher than the minimum wage and very close to the "livable wage" adopted by the city, county, and schools. At the same time, Duke students, professors, and employees began to organize more formally into a group called Duke Organizing. For about a year, Duke Organizing has been a member organization of Durham CAN, and together we have been engaged in conversations with Duke University administrators about employee wages and benefits. As anyone might imagine, the conversations and relationship building have not always been smooth, and the local paper highlighted some of the conflictual history. People on all sides have at times taken positions that did not immediately lead to agreement. But the persistence in building the relationships has been the key to getting results.

On Sunday, Duke University Vice President for Campus Services Kemel Dawkins, announced that the Duke wage and health benefits would immediately be a stipulation for all food service contractors who do business with Duke. It is a major step to help another 140 employees in low-wage jobs. It is also a major precedent which should continue to affect other employees at Duke. Finally, it is a major challenge to other employers in the Durham area to consider the way they compensate employees if they want to be able to retain them. In the long overview of the process, Durham CAN has led at many stages of the process, but we have also been blessed to be working with institutions and leaders who have shared our convictions of making Durham a better place for all its people. Together, we can see even greater things happen for Durham's workers, communities, businesses, and public institutions.

Another relationship building process also led to a public announcement at the assembly. The number of uninsured workers in Durham is rising, as it is all over the country. The County, the hospitals, the doctors, the clinics, the social services--everyone is working to do what they can to see that people have access to medical care. Yet there are many gaps. For instance, access to primary care is much more available than access to specialty care. To address this crisis, Durham CAN and a critical mass of major players: The Durham-Orange Medical Society (doctors), the Department of Social Services (records and referrals), the Lincoln Health Center (free and low-cost clinics), Durham County (health care funder), Duke (major charity care provider), and major insurance providers, have agreed to participate in Project Access. It should make available specialty care for thousands of patients a year who might otherwise let themselves get so sick that they end up in the emergency room getting crisis care, or even worse. It is an effort to fill gaps that could only happen if people start making relationships for the purpose of serving the public good.

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