More than 300 people attended the Orange County Justice United (JU) “Accountability Assembly” on Tuesday, May 16. To say that it was well attended is to understate the size and importance of the crowd.

I helped put out the signs that identified the many organizations represented: there were Anglicans, Methodists, Episcopalians, AME, UCC, Baptists and non-denominational churches, the Kehillah synagogue, NAACP chapters, organizations from Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough and from all over our county. Black, Latino, Anglo, and immigrant advocacy groups were there. It was a beautifully diverse and organized crowd.

JUSTICE UNITED (JU) brings together many Orange Country churches and civic organizations to bring about change through grass-roots organizing. As part of the North Carolina Industrial Areas Foundation, JU has been working in our county for over a decade.

From the beginning I’ve been an occasional participant and more often a skeptical observer. Lately, I’ve become a more committed supporter.

What changed?

The indefatigable persistence of the organizers has achieved what few thought possible in our polarized town: diverse groups working together to achieve social justice. Granted, we have not seen the deep structural changes that are needed to uproot injustice, but we’ve ripped a few band-aids off and worked on some important issues.

The purpose of the “Accountability Assembly” was to hear reports on two initiatives JU has been working and lobbying for: criminal justice reform, and a way to bolster mental health services for Latinos in Orange County.

There to report on the first initiative was Orange County District Attorney Jeff Nieman. Prior to the 2022 elections, Nieman met with a large JU crowd, and promised that, if elected, he would work on the “agenda” the community had presented to the candidates.

We brought a score card to score Nieman’s campaign promises. The JU Assembly gave him a fairly positive review. Per JU’s report card, DA Nieman made good on his campaign commitments by:

  • Making diversion options (including for mental health and substance use treatment) the rule, over incarceration.
  • Not prosecuting for drug possession that’s only for personal use or for paraphernalia – instead, directing to treatment.
  • Recommending no bail/bond unless the person is a risk to self/others.
  • Preparing to implement data tracking for racial bias.
  • Continuing the program for safe drivers without a license.

The second report, from Alliance Health (who control all our county’s mental health dollars), was preceded by testimony from several Latinx community members and leaders, who shared painful personal stories to seeking help for themselves, family members or parishioners during crisis and running into roadblocks that prevented them from receiving critical assistance.

Alliance reported that many promised improvements are “in the works.” The impatience of the audience was palpable, but they received applause and a passing grade because of the specific steps they outlined and their commitment to spend $500,000 to address Latino mental health crisis in Orange Co.

According to the JU report card, Alliance will use this money to:

  • Fund four Spanish-speaking Community Health Workers to provide mental health intervention in Orange County
  • Fund a multi-phase return of bilingual clinic El Futuro to Orange County
  • Fund two bilingual case managers with El Futuro
  • Increase the reimbursement rate for bilingual therapists by 50% for improved hiring and retention capacity
  • Fund Spanish-language Mental Health First Aid trainings and funding community members to be trainers, themselves
  • Create a Spanish-language resource guide
  • Use the investments in Orange County as a model for the other counties

I’m not terribly impressed with promises and multi-phased processes and resource guides when lives are at stake and the funding promised is less than the cost of the average home in the county.

But I have to admit that all the organizing and lobbying and gathering has brought hope to a county where our mental health dollars have not been invested into the Latino community. (The county’s previous provider, Cardinal Innovation, was investigated by the state of North Carolina in 2017 for using public money for large executive bonuses and luxury trips.) In contrast, Alliance has knowledgeable professionals working on providing the services we need. And showing up in person to give an accounting of their work.

The work that Justice United is doing is meaningful and action-oriented. I am happy to see these results, and look forward to continuing this meaningful work alongside community members, practitioners, and our elected officials.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Before being elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council in 2013, María served as Orange County (NC) Human Rights Commissioner and as a member of the NC State Board of Education (appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt,...