Durham County Manager Kimberly J. Sowell shares major issues facing our county and her vision for its future
As told to Amanda MacLaren|Photography by John Michael Simpson
Kimberly J. Sowell fell in love with the energy of Durham County a few years ago when she visited Duke University’s campus during an executive leadership program. Kimberly, who most recently served as an assistant city manager with the City of Greensboro, was sworn in as Durham County manager on March 14, and she’s worked nonstop ever since.
On the weekends, she is an active member of her church, Love and Faith Christian Fellowship in Greensboro, with her husband, Broadus Sowell, who is a captain in the Kernersville Fire Rescue Department. Kimberly and Broadus have been happily married for 28 years – they even host a 30-minute radio show, “Marriage So Well,” on their church’s radio station where they give advice and coach couples. “Strong marriages make strong families, and strong families build strong communities,” Kimberly says.
The rest of the Sowell family includes their two adult children, Bianca Sowell and Myles Sowell, who both live in Greensboro as well, and Lab-pit bull pup, Remy. Kimberly says she was thrilled when Myles was recruited to play baseball at N.C. A&T State University, her alma mater. “We traveled [extensively to watch him play], and – this is not an exaggeration – I can count on one hand the number of games that we missed in Greensboro or out of state,” she says. “One of us was at every game, and I probably did not miss more than five myself.”
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Since you started in this role, what’s primarily been your focus?
The budget has been first and foremost in my day-to-day operations. My days have been filled with meetings with departments and discussing their budget needs. And not only departments, but also some of the external partners that the county funds, such as Durham Technical Community College, Durham Public Schools, Alliance Health and a number of external agencies. Durham County staff – who have been amazing – planned for the presentations to have a similar look and feel and a similar flow. That helped me in learning and being able to absorb the operations of each department or agency, and then be able to formulate questions that were adequate and appropriate. We were able to make some really good decisions on building the budget, which leads up to May 9, the date that I present a recommended budget to the Board of Commissioners. That’s primarily the bulk of what I’ve been doing.
[Ed. Note: This interview took place prior to the budget presentation. Kimberly’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $794,655,897, a 7.97% increase from the last fiscal year. Highlights include maintaining the existing property tax rate, increasing annual funding for Durham Public Schools by $10 million (for a total of $176 million) and investing in Durham County’s employees through a cost-of-living adjustment and increase in the “pay for performance” range. Residents can learn more here.]
Circling around to have meetings with each of our commissioners – it’s important for me to have consistent communication with them to learn their expectations and what they’re hearing from our community. [Another thing] that was important for me to do was to hear from our [county] employees. In the first week that I was here, I had an organization-wide meeting. I shared my desire to have more small-group meetings with employees and a more intimate conversation to learn about the culture. There are some changes that we’ve made early on, just from hearing some of the concerns of our employees.
Are there any examples of changes you’ve implemented?
We started talking about leave policies, and one of our leave policies is an adoption leave. Part of that policy allows for an employee to take leave if they adopt a child 4 years old or younger. Leave was not afforded for the adoption of a teenager. The reason [for] the age limit was because of data study – research shows that you really need to spend time bonding with a young child, and we wanted to give employees time off to do that bonding. Research didn’t say that about teenagers. It was just a matter of us having the conversation, of it being brought to our attention that we have employees who are looking to adopt older children and then finding out it really wouldn’t harm anything for us to make that change.
One of the other trends that I noticed was our need to improve the manner in which we communicate. I’ve been speaking with staff about coming up with something that we call ambassadors, people who can be champions for us when there are major initiatives that we need to make sure people know about and ensure that the communication channels are not broken for those who are out in the field and who are not sitting at a desk every day. Communication is always a challenge, especially for an organization this large, so we have to continually assess how we communicate, how often we communicate and how effective we are in communicating. I feel like that’s how you can improve your culture [and] make significant and impactful change in an organization.
What are the most pressing issues the county needs to address?
A huge priority for our board is pre-K funding. Our board has a partnership with Durham Public Schools to provide funding for privatized efforts with pre-K. Reducing violent crimes is also something that our board has been very vocal about. I’m pleased to see the strong partnership between our Board Chair Brenda Howerton and Mayor Elaine O’Neal. Because they have a good relationship, it helps to facilitate the relationships among our staff. Another high priority is [addressing] affordable housing, which is becoming a crisis because our residents are having to pay rental rates that are escalating higher than income is. An emerging priority is addressing maternal health and, more specifically, Black maternal health and reducing the number of infant deaths, as well as deaths of women who have just given birth.
Have you had any discussions about how your office will tackle these concerns?
We are working with some external entities and the City of Durham that can help fill a gap. The county has a department called Community Interventions, and under that department is what we call Bull City United and Project BUILD. The role of these divisions is to intervene and prevent violent crime before it happens. We just expanded, in partnership with the city, the number of outreach workers who actually go out and have mediations with gang-involved persons. That’s what we’re doing internally. But in addition to that, if we’re asking gang-involved persons to reduce crime and to put down guns, we have to be able to give them tools and equip them with skills to be able to become gainfully employed and to earn a living wage. We are working with some external partners to put a framework together to provide a streamlined process that helps a person enter into job training, get job readiness skills, become gainfully employed, find safe, affordable housing, and address any mental health needs – it’s a comprehensive set of needs that we know are there. Can you think about how transformative that would be – to take a person who, the only way they know to earn money is to engage in illegal activity, [and help them become] someone who is a productive community member working and earning a living wage and being able to give back to our community? That is exciting, and it energizes me.
The county provides funding to various agencies to help improve maternal health, one being Family Connects Durham. We’re also looking to utilize organizations that have already established trust in the Black and brown communities where that trust either has been broken, fractured or where it was never established [with other outside entities]. We are being intentional about seeking out those organizations – we’ve already identified some of them [and] met with representatives of MAAME and H.E.A.R.T.S. – and are engaging contractually to provide maternal health resources to our new mothers.
How will you utilize your past career experience to help inform your decisions as county manager?
I was always highly successful in roles where I had to be a problem solver. I don’t think that is what I saw myself as early in my career. But many of my roles required me to solve problems, to be transformative in my thinking, and it taught me to approach my work without fear. In order to find ideal solutions, I had to learn to become comfortable in uncomfortable spaces. I learned not to be easily offended. I learned that to come to an ideal solution, I had to be open to hearing critics. So when I make decisions, I ask the hard questions. I want to hear from the people who are in opposition. I’m not afraid to address the elephant in the room because, otherwise, you make decisions based on false assumptions and incomplete information. I’m not afraid to have difficult conversations to confront controversial issues. In having conversations with people who have diverse perspectives and diverse voices, it helps us develop an ideal solution. It may not be the perfect solution, but it’s one that has been informed by those various perspectives and voices. That took some learning and growth; I know I didn’t start off that way.
Are there community leaders who you’re looking forward to working with in order to accomplish your goals for the county?
One of the people who I will be joined at the hip with is Wanda Page, the city manager. A lot of the priorities that [the county has] and the issues that we need to address take partnership with the city. One of the first people who reached out to me after I got the position was J.B. Buxton, [president] at Durham Tech. There is already a strong partnership that the county has [with Durham Tech], but [we need to make] sure that we understand what [the college’s] needs are, and that we are helping to support initiatives that provide the training and the skills for all of the wonderful companies and new industries that are coming into Durham County. Which leads me to Geoff Durham with the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce – another person who I feel like I’ll be working closely with because of all of the economic development activity. It’s a great problem to have, but you have to be strategic about the projects that our board provides incentives to. We have to make sure that those projects help us address some of our gaps – wealth gaps and gaps in equity – and that we can identify segments of our community who can receive positive impacts from the jobs that come along with these projects, and that they can be hired into these jobs. We have to make sure that our community as a whole benefits from the vast economic growth that we’re encountering. Also our DPS superintendent, Pascal Mubenga. The county funds a significant portion of Durham Public Schools. [We need to] make sure that we are aware of their needs, that we are working as partners to make the best use of the funding that we provide to them so that we are addressing and minimizing the achievement gaps and increasing educational outcomes. There are a lot of people [to get to know and work alongside]. Even Mayor O’Neal has reached out and made herself available to me. There is a direct line of partnership [among] me, the mayor, our board chair and the city manager.
What do you hope to see for Durham in the next five years?
A portion of Durham County’s vision is to be a thriving community, and so it’s my hope that in the future, we have a true community that thrives equitably. That we have reduced those wealth gaps, and everyone is enjoying a high quality of life, not just segments of our community. I hope to see that we have a safe community. One of our goals is that we improve, not just safety related to crime, but also safety in the quality of homes that our residents live in. I feel like educational success and attainment is impacted if a child is living in a substandard home or apartment. Making sure that our water quality is safe. That’s a city-owned function, but in partnering with them where we can, to make sure that we have high-quality water in our community. I would hope that Durham County is looked at as a leader across the nation of how to come together and create a community where everyone feels like their needs have been met. It may not be that everyone is a millionaire, but everyone feels like they have food security, housing security, a great quality of life, can meet the needs of their families and all have an equitable opportunity to thrive. Even if we haven’t achieved those goals in five years, I would hope that we would have made significant progress toward that.
Is there a way residents can let you know how the initiatives are helping them and their thoughts?
Every month, there is an opportunity for residents to come to the Board of Commissioners meetings where they can provide comments. We also do a citizen survey on an annual basis and reach out to the community to ask for feedback. On one of the questions, I was really glad to see that there was a high level of satisfaction that residents indicated that they have with the services that are being provided for their tax dollars. One of the things I would like to see us do is to have what I call D.Co. On the Go, where we’re taking services to residents in the community. This will be a mobile unit that will be equipped with Wi-Fi access, laptops, big screen TVs, so that if we need to present something to residents, they can sit outside in a socially distanced manner. If there are already planned events, we can take the unit there, and it’s another avenue of us being able to [reach] residents and to hear from them in real time about what we’re doing here at Durham County. And, like I already told you, I’m open to feedback, positive or negative. [laughs] We need true, open, honest dialogue and feedback with our residents.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I will just sum it up with this: I want to create a culture in our organization where people enjoy coming to work and enjoy what they’re doing. And that’s what I want for our community, a community that people enjoy being a part of and that people are proud to be a part of. In the morning, when people wake up, I want them to say, “I feel good about where I am.” On my calendar, I have a reminder. It says, “You get to impact lives for the better today” with a smiley face. That feeds me every day. It gives me a sense of purpose. It helps provide a reason for me to be happy about today, because I get to impact the lives of others. No matter what it is we’re doing, we’re making an impact in some type of way. I want us to be proud of that and then to give all that we have to do that, so that we can make things better for those in our community. And at Durham County, we all get to do that in some way, shape or form.