Meet 9 Influencers Shaping Our City’s Future

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Learn all about these local influencers and their impact on the community from those who know them well

Durham influencer Gabriel Eng-Goetz
“[My biggest hope for change this year is to see] more affordable housing in the Triangle featuring artwork from local artists.”

Photography by John Michael Simpson

Gabriel Eng-Goetz
Artist, designer and creative director
Founder, Runaway

When I first met Gabe in 2015, he was definitely a presence, but he had this quieter persona. He was focused on his creative process and on building a company – Runaway – that he could be proud of; one that allowed him to work with the people he wanted to and have the kind of impact socially, culturally and economically that he desired.

That persona evolved as I got to know him. When Runaway was closing its brick-and-mortar shop, Gabe was shifting some of his vocational interests and imaginations in terms of how he would use his time. I came to appreciate and see the heart that he has, not just for the arts and the creativity he brings, but also as we partnered together on some really cool youth programs.

At that point, I was working with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University coordinating a program for local teens, predominantly teens of color, in Durham Public Schools – the Nasher Teen Council. I was trying to think of creative ways to help these young people see the arts and what’s possible – Gabe was a great example of a young person who grew up in Durham, who clearly had a creative practice and was able to make the most of it. I was grateful for the way that he showed up to connect authentically with my students.

When Gabe reached out and invited me to be on this advisory committee for the mural he created at Willard Street Apartments, we coordinated an apprenticeship so that some of those young people [and others from Student U] could work with him on it, physically putting paint to wall. At the same time, I saw him sincerely do his research and center his focus on the subjects of the mural – the people who are indigenous to the land that we live on here in Durham – and work directly with those in the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.

Since then, I’ve witnessed him continue to figure out how to bring attention to aspects of Durham culture that are sometimes threatened by big systems and institutions. I see him as someone who does what he can to preserve and perpetuate culture that is more equitable, more creative, and more affirming of the arts and of artists, of young people and of people who are often pushed to the margins. Gabe knows who he is, and my hope for him is that he’ll continue to do work that matters to him and that has a positive impact. – Jesse N. Huddleston, Durham resident, community organizer and arts advocate

“[This past year, I had] the opportunity to highlight Asian communities across the state of North Carolina through public art, [like the] North Hills’ Art Box project and Burke Arts Council mural.”

– Gabriel Eng-Goetz
Durham influencer Stelfanie Williams
“As someone who has made education my life’s work, I remain inspired by students and the hope they offer for the future. I am confident that innovative ideas will emerge from this remarkable generation of students who have experienced life-changing events. We need young, powerful and diverse minds working together with experienced leaders to develop solutions related to housing, health, education, employment and other community opportunities.”

Stelfanie Williams
Vice President, Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs

I learned early on when I first worked with Stelfanie Williams – back in 2015 when I was superintendent of Franklin County Schools – that she was an innovator and a connector with an equity lens.

Stelfanie was president of Vance-Granville Community College, and I had high school students who were hungry for college credit. We were struggling to transport students to her campus. She found another way; she proposed, and I agreed, that whenever we had at least 15 students who wanted to take a college course, she wouldn’t make them come to her – she would send the instructor to them. Overnight, student enrollment in those advanced classes skyrocketed. Stelfanie reached out her hand to us and enabled some of our students to graduate with associate degrees.

That spoke to her innovation and sense of equity, as did her commitment to working with her professors to make textbooks more affordable for our students. She also knew how to connect with the community so well. Vance-Granville served Franklin County in addition to the school’s “home” counties, which meant that Stelfanie had to build relationships with three superintendents and their three elected school boards in order to effectively partner with their high schools. She made it seem effortless, even graceful.

Fast forward to her arrival at Duke, and as Durham’s superintendent, I once again see the full force of her innovation, connection and equity. When she became the new leader of the Duke Office of Durham and Community Affairs, there was already a strong legacy of partnership with our eight schools neighboring the university. But she immediately saw how many other children could also benefit from the wisdom and resources of the Duke community. Through its Strategic Community Impact Plan, the Office of Durham and Community Affairs ensures support for Durham Public Schools across the county.

But why stop there? In her relatively short time in this role, Stelfanie has become a Durham champion, opening doors for marginalized families and communities. She has connected with sectors beyond education, tackling food insecurity, housing and health. She and her colleagues are expert listeners, gracious helpers and tenacious workers.

Stelfanie is a great addition to Duke, a great addition to Durham and a great friend – to our entire community. – Pascal Mubenga, superintendent, Durham Public Schools

“Early in the pandemic, Duke University and Duke Health pledged to support residents and community organizations in the region. Over the past three years now, such collaborative efforts have spanned critical drivers of health and well-being – from food, housing and educational assistance with community-based organizations and schools to business assistance with local government, as well as corporate partnership with other entities and businesses to support nonprofits that provide important resources for individuals and families. The level of partnership across Durham, and the unwavering commitment of so many to see our communities thrive, continues to make me proud.”

– Stelfanie Williams
Durham influencers Leonardo Williams and Zweli Williams
“Our biggest hope for this year is to be of inspiration to future entrepreneurs, continue to serve our community in various ways and also provide more opportunities to aspiring individuals.”

Leonardo Williams
Owner, Zweli’s Kitchen & Restaurant and Zweli’s Ekhaya
Durham City Council Member

Zweli Williams
Chef and owner, Zweli’s Kitchen & Restaurant and Zweli’s Ekhaya

Knowing Zweli and Leo is knowing that there are still people who work their purpose and mission for the greater good of others. Chivalry, faith, family and community are not dead – not with people like them breathing life into Durham.

We first met when I needed a caterer for a work gathering. I phoned Hillside High School Principal William Logan and asked if he had any new vendors we could try out. He sent me Zweli’s number, and we set up a tasting. The food was just the start; loving Zweli’s food is too easy.

What stuck with me most was this intentional, spirited and passionate energy that she radiates. She dosen’t just know her craft – she has an overwhelming passion for it. I could feel it then, and I thought, “Wow… she’s got power in her. She has purpose, vision and drive.” I met Leo when he dropped off our order, and he matched Zweli’s energy and passion. We chatted and laughed, talked about their mission and future plans. Zweli told me she wanted to open a restaurant. That was 2016.

Zweli’s Kitchen & Restaurant opened in 2018. It’s not often people do what they say they’ll do, but they did. When recognition and media attention grew, they delivered again on their promise to support Durham. Even prior to COVID-19, Zweli and Leo were helping feed families in our community, many times out of their own pockets. When McDougald Terrace residents were displaced in 2020, they got to work partnering with other local restaurants and businesses to provide those families with around 50,000 meals, clothing and supplies. They aren’t afraid to ask for help and know that working together is the best way to get it done.

I see Leo supporting Zweli’s restaurant journey, and now I also get to witness Zweli champion Leo’s work to create a better Durham. His passion to end gun violence goes beyond words. He co-created One Thousand Black Men to actively combat the gun violence crisis against Black men in the city. He speaks to empower all who are ready for real change without asking permission. He knows you have to actually make moves in order to get things done.

Their two separate passions being used together to create this network of community and giving blows me away. They are a team, and the reciprocity they share with each other extends into the community. How do you not support and pray anything but positive things for people like Leo and Zweli? – Amber A. Rogers, senior program coordinator, North Carolina Leadership Forum – Duke University

“Not only did we survive COVID-19, we pivoted in a way that allowed room for growth. When COVID first started, we were very young in the business. We couldn’t see how we were going to survive, let alone sustain and grow our business. Through hard work, perseverance and a strong team, we managed to turn our trajectory.”

– Zweli Williams & Leonardo Williams
Durham influencers Jeri Lynn Schulke, Derrick Ivey & David Berberian

Jeri Lynn Schulke, Derrick Ivey & David Berberian
Co-founders, RedBird Theater Company

Coming out of the pandemic, actor David Berberian yearned to be on stage again – specifically, he wanted to perform in a two-person show that he wasn’t certain anyone would want to produce. So, he produced it himself. He asked longtime friend Jeri Lynn Schulke to play opposite him. Then the two roped in another old pal, Derrick Ivey, to direct it. After the show closed, the three said, “Well, that was fun. We should do that again.” Thus, RedBird Theater Company was born.

These three have deep ties to the theater community: working, directing, designing and acting for theaters across the Triangle for 30 years. They bring a commitment to supporting local artists, sharing North Carolina stories and producing work in a healthy, positive way. Their opening party in September garnered attendance by a who’s who of Durham theater practitioners. Their inaugural show, “A Doll’s House: Part 2,” was lauded by local critics and audiences alike. Over and over again, they hear, “It’s so nice to have independent theater back in Durham again.”

The three know intimately how critical the arts – and theater, especially – are to creating the cultural vibes Durham is known for. Their plans for RedBird are more than just “putting on another show:” They want a space in Durham where they can invite other artists to produce new work and then send it out across the state. Like RedBird’s namesake, the cardinal, they want their art to be ever present in North Carolina.

They currently partner with Durham Bottling Co. as their venue, but keep an eye out for pop-up shows and other exciting events they are planning around the city. Like another red bird – the phoenix – as live performing arts reemerges from the pandemic ashes, this bright new trio is sure to also fly high. – Devra Thomas, digital editor, North Carolina Literary Review; and former managing director at Carteret Community Theater, Common Ground Theatre and Deep Dish Theater

“We’ve received almost 50 submissions of full-length plays from North Carolina-based playwrights for our summer production.” – Jeri Lynn Schulke

“We established partnerships with local businesses like The Regulator Bookshop, Lonerider Brewing and Mezcalito.” – David Berberian

“We produced RedBird Theater’s critically acclaimed, inaugural production of ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ by Lucas Hnath.” – Derrick Ivey

Durham influencer Lilyn Hester
“My hope for 2023 is that Durham and the Triangle continue to be innovation hubs welcoming to all.”

Lilyn Hester
Head of Southeast External Affairs and Government Relations, Google

Lilyn Hester is a Durham ally through and through.

She has long championed Durham and the Triangle as a destination for innovation. The talent is here – and reportedly, that was a significant factor in Google opening a Cloud hub in Durham. She knows, because this is her home.

Lilyn, who attended Durham Public Schools and graduated from Jordan High School and then UNC-Charlotte, is dedicated to creating opportunities for the next generation of leaders. She’s passionate about seeing people of color access the jobs of the future, with Google and everywhere else. She and her Google colleagues were the leading partners with American Underground in creating the Black Founders Exchange program, which has worked with more than 70 Black-led startups from around the country. When we look back in 20 years and see Durham’s growth as a destination for successful Black-led businesses, it’ll be because of Lilyn Hester’s leadership.

Lilyn is fun and creative. You don’t leave a meeting with Lilyn without laughing a bit and considering a bold idea. Two of my favorite examples of her work are the soapbox derby she helped create in western North Carolina to teach kids STEM skills and the Rolling Study Halls program that ensured rural students had access to reliable internet on their long commutes to their unconnected homes. School districts parked the busses in centralized locations during the pandemic for students and their families to connect from their cars so they could participate in virtual learning.

Seemingly everywhere, Lilyn is chair of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, chair of the NC Chamber’s Communications Committee, and a member of both the Durham Chamber of Commerce’s and Triangle Community Foundation’s board of directors. When it comes to corporate leadership, Lilyn Hester is the model to follow. – Adam M. Klein, director of Durham Real Estate, Capitol Broadcasting Company Real Estate

“I recently wrapped up the year as chairwoman of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, a nonprofit based in the governor’s office that led efforts to use innovative programs like ‘Rolling Study Halls’ – powering school buses with Wi-Fi, devices and onboard educator support. As a part of my role at Google, I also helped provide Wi-Fi access to areas in need, showcased Durham to my colleagues, supported work-based learning and apprenticeships, and volunteered during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in November.”

– Lilyn Hester
Durham influencer Michael J. Goodmon
“Our ability to solve the significant problems we face as a community relies on breaking barriers. This starts with the long-lost art of the benefit of doubt; a simple belief that another’s intentions are not unlike your own in terms of the foundational basis of community advancement. The world’s not perfect, and I’m not usually unduly optimistic. But I believe that if I give you that basic trust, and you do the same for me, we can get somewhere for the good of all. Durham desperately needs to drive toward a cohesive vision for what it can be for everyone over the next 20 years. I truly hope we can find our way into this discussion.”

Michael J. Goodmon
Executive Vice President, Capitol Broadcasting Company Inc.

I’m known as LeeLee in the Goodmon household. I babysat for Michael and Liz’s kids from the time I was a freshman in high school through my early post-college years, and Leigh-Kathryn is hard for tiny humans to say.

But it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized exactly what the Goodmon family – and Michael, specifically – has done for Durham. Michael is one of the ultimate creatives. He’s intentional about building in a way that makes everybody who lives here proud to be part of the Bull City. He’s made it a mission to bring more diversity and more restaurants into American Tobacco Campus, to make the Durham Bulls Athletic Park one of the best stadiums in the country, to bring the Miracle League’s baseball experiences for those with special needs to Durham, and to have a space where entrepreneurs can affordably work in offices to create the next innovative businesses in order for the city to thrive.

I was one of those entrepreneurs – when I told Michael that I wanted to pursue Bee Downtown full time rather than accept a job at American Tobacco after my internship there ended, he smiled, said he was hoping I’d make that decision, and asked what he could do to help me get up and running. If it wasn’t for Michael showing me, teaching me, challenging me and telling me that my voice matters, that my ideas are good and should be heard, and that I don’t need to apologize for those ideas, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And my story with Michael isn’t unique. He’s helped develop and grow so many young leaders within the city in a way that, if he wasn’t a mentor to them, if he wasn’t a challenger – that’s the word I use for Michael; he’s a challenger, above all things – to them to be the best they can be, then a lot of people’s leadership journeys would look very different. He’s been a gift to many of us, to help us step into our own space within the city of Durham and beyond.

Michael is in it for the long run. This is his city, and he deeply loves it. You see that in every decision he makes, in the excitement for what Durham can be built into in the years to come, and it’s authentic and honest.

Durham is a special city, and there are special people who lead it, and I deeply believe that Michael is very much one of those special people. – Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder and CEO, Bee Downtown

“If you are anything like me, 2020–2022 felt like one long, almost never-ending, year. It was filled with trials and tribulations for us all in one way or another. Over this period, I got the most pride from how our team responded, pivoted and reshaped what we do in response to COVID-19. For businesses like real estate and professional sports and events, the safety and well-being of our customers was and is our top priority. What we’ve been able to change in how we approach and think about each business in the face of the global pandemic is something I will always, in a way, marvel. It is not something we wanted to do, but a test that I believe we passed with flying colors. It truly speaks to the quality of the teams we have at the American Tobacco Campus, the American Underground and the Durham Bulls. I am beyond grateful for their commitment and sacrifice over these past three years. If not for that, it is the hard work and commitment that many in our community showed in the introduction and creation of both the Cristo Rey High School in ATC and the (near) completion of the Miracle League Field across Hwy. 147 from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. These initiatives, at their core, bring continued diversity and utility of the district for more and more people. If we believe that downtown should be for everyone, as we all do, then it is projects like these that will continue to broaden our community for the better.”

– Michael J. Goodmon

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