By Karen Stegman
Note: The Local Reporter has invited all candidates for local office in the upcoming Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district elections to submit up to two guest columns.
I am a Tar Heel. I was born at NC Memorial Hospital (now UNC Hospital), grew up in and have spent most of my adult life in Chapel Hill. After attending our public schools, I earned my undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Some of my favorite childhood memories include riding the G bus downtown to hang out with friends at Mr. Gatti’s Pizza; waking before dawn to serve early morning breakfast at the IFC Community Kitchen with my friend, Cait, before heading to high school; and, best of all, being on Franklin Street when UNC won the National Championship in 1982.
My first home was on Hickory Drive to which my parents moved in the 1960s for my dad to join the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning where he taught in between serving in each Democratic presidential administration from Carter to Obama to advise on affordable housing policy. My mom was a working mother before that was commonplace. She also returned to school and became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the UNC Department of Computer Science. From a young age, I learned about hard work, commitment and service to others.
My family also taught me the importance of an equitable and just community and the role that government plays in creating it. My parents were active in the community, with me in tow (as I now do with my kids), which is how, at age 7, I stuffed campaign envelopes for Howard Lee in his bid for lieutenant governor. I later gained an even deeper appreciation for the Chapel Hill civil rights pioneers who changed the face of public life, education and civic engagement, including those whose names are captured at Peace & Justice Plaza and on the Chapel Hill Nine Memorial.
Ensuring a bright future for our community is even more important to me now that I am raising two children here with my wife Alyson Grine, a NC Superior Court Judge for Orange and Chatham Counties. Like me, our kids were born here, and they attend Chapel Hill schools. You will often find us around town hiking and biking on local trails, cheering on the Tar Heels, on the soccer fields or happily at home, fostering rescue dogs.
My years of experience have given me deep insights into local issues and the skills to develop innovative solutions. Early on, I learned the difference between charity and social justice. I often reflect on my “light bulb moment,” when I decided that, rather than filling the gaps caused by injustices, I would work to eliminate those injustices. I have done this in a variety of ways throughout my career, including promoting adult literacy, working in Chapel Hill’s public housing communities, and in my current role improving health care around the globe. Throughout this work, I have learned how to listen to individuals’ lived experiences, particularly the experiences of those who often struggle to make their voices heard, and to forge partnerships with local government and private-sector entities to work cooperatively to move us forward together.
During my four years on the Town Council, I have made real contributions toward that goal. For example, I led the creation of an innovative criminal justice debt fund to alleviate the burden of court fees for justice-involved community members. I also worked closely with EqualityNC to pass one of the State’s first non-discrimination ordinances benefiting the LGBTQ+ community. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and growth of the BLM movement, I was a leader in the Town’s efforts to “re-imagine” community safety and immediately ban chokeholds and regulatory traffic stops that too often serve to criminalize poverty. I’m proud that we passed the Town’s first affordable housing bond and have done more to produce and secure affordable units than any previous Council. We have also worked to shepherd our community through the COVID-19 pandemic with far better outcomes than many of our peers around the state and nation.
I know and love Chapel Hill. I care deeply about making sure that it is a wonderful place for my children – and yours. I hope that the voters will allow me to work for and with our community to continue to do so.