Get to Know 8 Influencers Who Are Shaping Our Community

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These folks all have a hand in affecting the way we live, work and play in Durham – learn how from the people who know them well

2022 Durham Influencers - Elaine O'Neal

Photography by John Michael Simpson

Elaine O’Neal
Mayor, City of Durham

“I first met Mayor Elaine M. O’Neal in the ’90s when I was a Durham County Commissioner and she had been elected as a district court judge. I became mayor in 2001; as a result, I collaborated with her on various community and civic activities. One of the programs that Elaine and I – along with Phyllis Joyner, among others – established in 2006 was the Restoration Institute for Leaders. It was an exciting and innovative educational and leadership enrichment opportunity for 80 Durham youth who were in crisis. It emerged to provide academic credit, vocational options and incentives for 13- to 18-year-olds who were entangled in pathways that could lead to failure and destruction. It was a summer school program housed at the Durham School of the Arts. It was through that program that I saw how dedicated Elaine was to the young people of our city and county. She graduated from Durham Public Schools and felt grateful for the opportunities and mentorship her community offered her, and she wants that for today’s youth. 

After 24 years on the judicial bench and her role as the interim dean of the N.C. Central University School of Law, Elaine will tell you that she has seen the worst and the best of humanity. We are at a crossroads in our city on multiple fronts. Gun violence is stealing our young people of color. Elaine knows firsthand the profound anxiety a Black mother feels as she sends her children, especially young Black men, out into a world that seems intent on harming them.

Her leadership on the city’s first Racial Equity Task Force helped to provide a road map with concrete actions the city and county can both take to create change and nurture our beloved city. But it will take a tremendous amount of dedication, persistence, courage and all heart, to move that work forward.

Whether Elaine is on the bench, in a boardroom, a classroom or in the mayor’s seat, her leadership is rooted in empathy, understanding and openness. Most admirable is Elaine’s humility. Rather than revel in recognition of her trailblazing life, she’s focused on the work in front of her, the lives that are dependent upon her and her role in creating a just future for us all.

Elaine is the right person, at the right time, to assume the leadership of the “Office of the Mayor.” She is a team leader and player, but she also understands the need to compromise when it is for the better good of the community. Elaine’s gaze is wide and deep in our city. Her own history is part of the fabric of Durham’s history, and she believes that no matter where you come from, if you live in Durham, you are family. We are indeed fortunate that she has offered her services to be our mayor, and as voters, we are proud to have accepted and elected her to the job.” – William V. “Bill” Bell, Former Mayor of Durham


2022 Durham Influencers – Sylvan Esso

Amelia Meath & Nick Sanborn 
Musicians, Sylvan Esso

“I had been a Triangle expatriate for three months when I finally felt a twinge of homesickness. 

For the first 34 years of my life, I lived and worked in and around Durham and Raleigh, bouncing between the two like a pingpong ball. But as the summer of 2017 began, I sold my house and belongings, moved into a van and hit the highway. I’d never felt so free, so absent of life’s “what ifs.” But then I saw Sylvan Esso – hometown heroes and good friends I’d met right before they moved to Durham in 2012, just as Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn were becoming both a couple and a band. In an amphitheater called Mishawaka, nestled inside a Colorado canyon, they were electric and electrifying, in complete command of a sold-out crowd that had internalized every word and now repeated it as Friday night rites. From the side of the stage, I beamed with pride at these newly minted North Carolina emissaries, the hometown pop stars of a place I acutely missed. 

For all the internet’s destabilizing effects on the music industry, from the marginal payouts of streaming to our physical interaction with art, our shared online superstructure has allowed for an act like Sylvan Esso not only to come from Durham, but also to stay as their star has risen. From their home in Durham and from Betty’s, their studio in the woods near Chapel Hill, Amelia and Nick run the sort of many-tendrilled music business – that residential recording hub, an emerging label, a touring band capable of expanding to 10 or contracting to two – you may expect in New York, Los Angeles or Austin. 

That is, Amelia admits, one of their favorite assumptions about Sylvan Esso to dispel. “When people say, ‘Where are you based,’ they mean: ‘Los Angeles or New York?’” she says, laughing in her joyously wry way. “I love to tell them Durham.” And oftentimes, Nick adds, those folks want to know more, so they proselytize. It’s no surprise that both friends (like Flock of Dimes’ Jenn Wasner) and family members have followed them south. 

Despite the slim touring schedule of our pandemic times, Sylvan Esso have released their third album, “Free Love,” earned their second Grammy nomination in the category for best dance/ electronic music album, and launched a label with their local managers and pals, Psychic Hotline. In May, they’ll turn the historic Durham Athletic Park back into an amphitheater for their two-day festival, “Greatest Show on Dirt.” It all feels like a flag in the ground, a banner of belonging. 

I don’t long for the place I forever called home often, but when I do, it’s typically because of what a band like Sylvan Esso says about it. The culture is rich enough to start and sustain them (and countless others, mind you), while the place and people remain comfortable enough to keep them around, too.” Grayson Haver Currin, Music Journalist (The New York Times, Pitchfork, NPR)


2022 Durham Influencers - Nicole J. Thompson

Nicole J. Thompson
President & CEO, Downtown Durham Inc.

Nicole Thompson is likely the most effective and dedicated advocate for small businesses in downtown Durham. Without her tireless efforts to advocate on our behalf throughout the past two years, I can say that we would not still be here today – and neither would a number of our city’s other beloved businesses.

Thanks in large part to Nicole’s work, outdoor dining has become a permanent fixture of our city’s landscape. And she’s not done yet – she is continuing to work with city officials to make sure the program is sustainable and enjoyable for all.

When several local restaurants asked for ways to bring more people downtown safely, Nicole created The Streetery, an expanded outdoor dining and entertainment event that let people spread out in the streets and enjoy some of the best our city has to offer.

That program carried us – and a number of other downtown businesses – through the long, dark winter of 2020-2021. It was, quite literally, our saving grace.

Nicole’s effectiveness is impressive, for sure. But what really makes her stand out is her heart for our city’s independently owned businesses. She truly loves Durham and the people working here.

Few people know how much Nicole is doing because she is so humble, moving quietly behind the scenes, shining a light on our local businesses and never on herself.

Working with Nicole over the past two years to address the needs of our independent restaurants in downtown Durham has been a great honor, but the greatest pleasure has been getting to know her and now calling her a friend.” Elizabeth Turnbull, Co-owner & Bar Director, COPA; Senior Editor & Partner, Light Messages Publishing


2022 Durham Influencers - Scott Levitan

Scott Levitan
President & CEO, Research Triangle Foundation

“It’s hard to overstate what an important role Research Triangle Park plays in the economic vitality of our region and our state. Once a moonshot of an idea, RTP is now home to more than 300 innovative companies that collectively employ nearly 60,000 people. The modern-day success of RTP can be traced back to decades worth of visionary leadership and cooperation from a slew of partners in business, academia and government.

Scott Levitan is the latest of those leaders shaping RTP’s promising future. The economic development successes in just the past couple of years under Scott’s direction have been numerous and impactful. The phrase “economic development is a team sport” is an old adage frequently thrown around in economic development circles, and this saying perfectly encapsulates what Scott and the Research Triangle Foundation team are all about.

A true consensus builder, Scott is adept at fostering the public-private partnerships necessary to pull off big things. Take the transformational Boxyard RTP and Hub RTP developments for example. It takes a dizzying amount of coordination among public officials, developers, vendors and other private sector partners for projects like these to come to fruition … much less in the midst of a global pandemic. Scott’s vision and follow-through were essential to keeping these projects on track.

Scott understands that innovation – in all forms – is what RTP does best. Back in 1959, the idea of a large suburban research park was itself groundbreaking. Fast forward more than 60 years later, and the modern worker values more of a live-work-play dynamic that eschews time spent in a car. Recognizing this, Scott is evolving RTP into something that it has never been before – a regional attraction and lifestyle center. In that sense, Scott and his team are not just building a community in the Park, they are also building a sense of community that all Triangle residents can connect with. We will likely be talking about this current chapter of RTP’s story for generations to come. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that RTF is an unwavering champion for sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion, and regional mobility. This reality is no accident, as their fearless leader himself is personally passionate about these issues. We are fortunate to have such a prominent regional advocate who amplifies these values within the business community. Scott also rightfully recognizes RTP as not only a regional asset, but also as a truly statewide asset – a small but important distinction that helps all North Carolinians feel invested in the Park’s future. 

Ultimately, the best thing about Scott is that he is a dog person, and dog people are the best kind of people. The Boxyard RTP-adjacent “Barkyard” dog park is surely no coincidence. We are tremendously fortunate to have Scott (and his trusty sidekick, Gizmo) shaping RTP’s future at such an exciting time for our region.” – Ryan Regan, Vice President of Economic Development, Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce


2022 Durham Influencers - Shana Tucker

Shana Tucker
Executive Director, Kidznotes

“She calls her genre ChamberSoul, and I have a confession to make. Years ago, Shana Tucker and her band were so in the pocket, so setting up a groove at a very early morning conference showcase I was attending, that I did something I very rarely do. I cussed. Out loud. It was that good. 

She’s a talented, authentic, generous, innovative, irrepressible bandleader, cellist, vocalist, composer, songwriter, teaching artist, touring performer, session player, role model, mother … the list goes on and on. She rocks a beautiful smile and big earrings. These are a few of the reasons it comes as no surprise that Shana has collaborated with Grammy-nominated artists like The Foreign Exchange and Rissi Palmer, spearheaded countless projects for social change, or that Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas-based show, KÀ, poached her from the Triangle for five years.

She’s currently rising to tremendous challenges as the executive director of Kidznotes, and it’s a Cinderella-and-glass-slipper fit. Kidznotes is a Durham-based nonprofit that delivers eight hours per week of no cost, comprehensive music education (in strings, woodwinds, brass, choir, theory and music leadership) to pre-K-12th graders with minimal financial resources. We’re talking transformational, year-round instruction, field trips, master classes and instruments. Free, for every single student, and Kidznotes’ students and faculty reflect the beautiful diversity of Durham and Wake counties. Simply put, the whole thing (based on the El Sistema model, which focuses on the whole individual and social change, rather than just musical skills) is life-changing and revolutionary, especially when funding for music education in public schools keeps dwindling.

2022 Durham Influencers - Shana Tucker

Shana herself went to a public school with an orchestra. That’s where she learned to play cello. Her high school conductor saw her talent, but her mother couldn’t afford the instrument and private lessons he recommended. “We can’t afford it” were four words she heard a lot growing up, and she didn’t want to worry her mother by asking for things she knew the family didn’t have the money for, even though playing the cello made her heart feel like it was flying.

“Representation matters at all levels,” Shana says. “Kidznotes kids are majority Black and brown children who attend Title I schools in the Triangle area. They need to know that they belong. Period. In every creative space, in every section of the orchestra … conducting the orchestra, too! And they also belong at every discussion and decision-making table. As the first executive director of color at this organization, I am committed to empowering and encouraging our students to confidently ‘show up’ in every space that brings them joy and where they can share the joy they carry with them as musicians.” – Tess Mangum, Founder & CEO, Sonic Pie Productions


2022 Durham Influencers - Cocoa Cinnamon

Areli Barrera Grodski & Leon Grodski Barrera 
Owners, Little Waves Coffee Roasters & Cocoa Cinnamon

“If you’ve flipped to this page to learn more about this power couple, first heed my full disclosure: You’re about to read a love letter to some of my best friends. 

As a longtime journalist and former food editor in Durham, I’ve only written extensively about Areli Barrera Grodski and Leon Grodski Barrera once, in 2011 for INDY Week, when they functioned as bikeCOFFEE – a tricycle cart they pedaled around downtown. Leon and Areli focused on pour-over coffee, teas, spices and handmade chocolate truffles at the time. You’d find them at the Durham Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, parked inside Motorco Music Hall during a show or late night on the sidewalk outside of The Pinhook

Durham felt like a different place then, where the “DIY District” at Rigsbee and Geer percolated with ideas from small business owners, artists and activists alike. The city is rapidly changing, but Areli and Leon kept that vibe, never losing their sense of place and the desire for equitable growth in and for a creative community. 

What began as a literal dream in Leon’s sleep, Cocoa Cinnamon started as a true labor of love with $75 in the bank account. It first operated out of the Barrera family kitchen in 2010, selling truffles at markets and shopping mall kiosks; then as bikeCOFFEE in 2011; and later evolved into three community-supported coffee shops and Little Waves Coffee Roasters, founded in 2017. 

Today, Little Waves Coffee leads with impressive stats. It was just named the country’s 2022 Micro Roaster of the Year by Roast magazine. The company is Latina-led (Areli was born in Tijuana, Mexico) and is composed of 71% women and nonbinary people, and 53% people of color. Much of the staff are immigrants or come from first-generation households, and the leadership positions reflect that diversity, too. The roasting team includes women who started working as Cocoa Cinnamon baristas as teenagers. The company pays livable wages and gives back to the community constantly. 

The company doesn’t make these choices for the sake of ticking boxes. Areli and Leon are gathering from both their lived experiences as well as the community they are rooted in and helping to build. In the coffee industry, this type of visibility and representation is significant and essential. Areli is a founding member of the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity, which combats gender and racial inequity in the coffee industry along its entire supply chain. One of the main ways she does this is through Little Waves Coffee’s purchasing practices: buying from women of color producers around the world, direct from the source, ensuring fair opportunities from seed to cup. 

The way Leon and Areli care for their close friends rivals the love of a doting mother. They uplift the people around them in selfless ways and embody the shine theory, best explained by Lizzo: “If I shine, everybody gonna shine.” 

Areli and I met arguing over the music at a house party more than a decade ago. Fast forward a few years, and we started an all-women, immigrant-kid DJ collective together, Mamis and the Papis, after years of building a solid friendship. She pushes me to step outside my comfort zone and convinces me I’ll succeed in whatever new thing we try: like rock climbing (a mental life saver), tennis (I’ve got a mean serve, OK?) and, allegedly, lucha libre (Google “Durham luchadoras” – you won’t be sorry). 

Leon is a cheerleader, motivating people to follow their dreams even when it seems hard. I recently asked him for financial advice, and he set up a two-hour Zoom call that made me feel hopeful and practical about my savings for the first time ever. 

In their 50-plus-page application for the Roaster of the Year award, Leon and Areli wrote that “sustainability is also about the well-being and longevity of our bodies and minds, now and into the future.” They expand on their ethos, which is evident in all that they do: “It’s a holistic and rooted approach that takes time and daily little waves. […] We exist because of our community.” – Victoria Bouloubasis, Journalist & Documentary Filmmaker

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