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Durham Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden: Lifting Up Anyone In Need

Cora Cole-McFadden

Who can say whether today’s resolutely diverse, inclusive spirit inside Durham’s local government would be so without the transformative work of Cora Cole-McFadden? There’s no question she’s been a force for it.

The city’s mayor pro tem and a council member since 2001, Cole-McFadden has a history with the City of Durham that reaches back decades prior from her elected role, with staff positions that measurably improved opportunities for women and minorities.

With all she’s done, any length of magazine article attempting to cover it all will come off like a fast-paced blurb – primarily because she’s been on her feet for public service and human relations since her youth.

Cora in her office
Council Member Cole-McFadden has a special bond with this painting mounted just outside her city office, noting it communicates the same theme she’s built her public service around: togetherness. Photo credit: Ben Brown

“I have lived here all my life,” she emphasized in her Durham City Hall office on a recent afternoon, as she described the town’s older self to Southern City. “We had to walk from Brookstown (the African American neighborhood where she lived as a kid) all the way to Lyon Park (Elementary School) – I guess it was a couple miles or more – because we could not go to the elementary school in the western part of the city.”

Her childhood education – through to her senior year of high school in the early 1960s – came amid racial segregation, though in an environment she recalls as the first significant influence on her passion for mutual respect and encouragement. The school was knit tightly with the greater black community, in which teachers were regarded pretty much like family. From them, “I learned respect for elders,” Cole-McFadden said. “I learned how to really study if I wanted to be an achiever. I had to work. Honesty. Respect. Just respect for everybody – doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

To some, words and expressions of that sort are so omnipresent that they’ve lost their impact. Not in Cole-McFadden’s context. A board-of directors member for both the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the National League of Cities, she sees the world, particularly as accessed through local government, as malleable with hope, encouragement and appreciation for what hard work can accomplish.

For instance, she says it’s not enough to simply declare that the community needs more affordable housing. There’s a trail of related considerations: What about the jobs that enable people to afford that housing? What about the skillsets and basic education that people need to get those jobs? What about the guidance and self-discipline that people need to propel themselves toward that education and skill development? Where does that come from without a sense of hope, respect and possibility?

“All of these things are so intertwined,” said Cole-McFadden. She sees her life’s work as extending those core opportunities wherever needed.

Cora & Council
Council Member Cole-McFadden (center) with local dignitaries including longtime Mayor Bill Bell (left of her). Photo credit: City of Durham

Through the 1970s, after she completed college, Cole-McFadden worked in social services, helping to determine eligibility for benefits and later providing counseling and protective services – roles that must have led to sleepless nights.

“One morning, I was walking from the parking area right across the street from the social services building, and I noticed that I had on one brown shoe, and one black shoe,” she said, laughter building in her voice. “And from that point on, I decided that I’d had enough protective services in my life.”

Besides, a vacancy with the City of Durham had caught her eye. At the time, city government wasn’t terribly proficient in hiring minorities, she said. But the job was right up her alley – a community services supervisor, reaching out for awareness of beneficial programs for housing, health, and other areas.

Eager, Cole-McFadden took a pay cut to make it happen.

“I liked that, because we had a team that really worked with people in the community,” she said. Cole-McFadden later pursued and filled a vacancy with the city overseeing Affirmative Action, beginning with a question from the city manager as to how the city could hire more females in traditionally male-dominated roles, like police officer. To investigate that one in particular, Cole-McFadden attempted the agility test required for new officers, and found it nearly impossible to get through.

After she formed an employee-based Affirmative Action committee focused on female and minority recruitment solutions, she and the team developed pre-agility-test training that readied and improved outcomes for people – from many walks of life – who took the test, resulting in a more diverse police department.

Cora at Ribbon Cutting
Ribbon-cuttings, committee meetings – civic involvement is virtually Council Member
Cole-McFadden’s hobby, and she’s always at it.
Photo credit: City of Durham

Cole-McFadden also led a business-focused program for women and minorities in addition to a committee to help persons with disabilities.

Essentially, any underserved or underutilized class in the 1980s and since has found an avenue through Cole-McFadden, the supporters in her orbit, and the programs they were rolling out. And she said the subsequent cultural changes at city hall were noticeable.

“Almost immediately,” she said. “I mean … we had a council that understood and a management that understood zero tolerance for any form of discrimination in this organization.”

Later, the city began diversity audits to measure its success with inclusiveness. And in a sense, that kind of culture wasbecoming normalized and immovable from the city’s style of business. All the same, Cole-McFadden didn’t see it as an excuse to rest.

“You know, we were just pressing forward,” Cole-McFadden said. “No fear. Just pressing forward, trying to make change.”

Local youths were next. Cole-McFadden, a little more than a decade ago, helped establish the city’s first youth council.

“We said, ‘We really want you at the table,’” she explained. “’We’re always planning for you and you’re not there to tell us what you really want.’” Taking her up on it, kids from the community ended up submitting a list of wants, which led to the opening of the Durham Teen Center, which had topped the list. The kids even designed it.

Later, during a series of community meetings geared to solicit input on how the city should budget for the next fiscal year, Cole-McFadden said she took note of how many youths were in attendance – many of them unfamiliar to her.

“At a recent one, there were about 15 kids there, and I was just so elated to see them,” she said. “It was just so good to see them come out and be a part of what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Cora at City HallThe bottom line for Cole-McFadden: Anyone motivated enough can grab the reins and snap up a positive, new direction. It all goes back to the values she learned as a youth of respect and hard work.

But the Southern City writer interviewing her had to ask, after all this, how she steps away to decompress and have fun, or enjoy the fruits of her labors. Not surprisingly, most of her answer seemed to have some connection to community service or humanity.

For anyone doubting, she might offer a look at the numerous city, state and national awards she’s won for her initiatives. When she retired from her staff career in city government in 2001 (the same year she ran for and won her seat on the Durham City Council), a city panel presented Cole-McFadden the very first Diversity Change Agent Award, which is now given annually to exemplary employees.

And surprise, surprise – that award is now named after her.

By : Ben Brown, N.C. League of Municipalities. Reprint permission granted by Southern City Magazine, a publication of the N.C. League of Municipalities.

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