Erik Valera recently announced his run for Town Council in Chapel Hill. Valera serves on the Planning Board in Chapel Hill and is part of the leadership team for El Centro Hispano.

In his Twitter announcement, Valera wrote that he was running to “better engage our community in local government and assure that Chapel Hill remains an inclusive, sustainable, and innovative community.”

We interviewed Valera via email about his campaign and the future of Chapel Hill.

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What are your focus areas for the council race?

My focus areas revolve around inclusion, engagement, our environment, wealth and prosperity, and fostering a strong government.

I am passionate about inclusivity and amplifying the diverse voices of the people that make up our town. Meaningful community engagement is first and foremost. I strongly believe the town needs to be more intentional about building authentic partnerships with under-represented communities.

I’d like to include those that have not traditionally had a seat at a table, and ensure that they can be part of the decision making process. As an advocate for cultural diversity, I am particularly committed to promoting and elevating our arts and cultural program. Our community’s rich tapestry of cultures is a major strength; it defines our unique identity. Supporting local artists from communities that have traditionally been disengaged helps people feel seen and heard– it leads to a sense of belonging and contributes to our quality of life.

Our Environment. As we grow, we need to make sure that our government services scale to respond to our larger, more diverse population. I believe in fostering environments where people from different parts of town can come together, socialize, and engage with the government as a unified community.

I’m dedicated to making our parks, greenways, roads, and public areas accessible and welcoming to all residents and visitors. I also know that we must be intentional and efficient with our efforts; while the imminent threat of climate change will affect us all, it does not impact us all equally. Increasing storm intensities and extreme temperatures take a bigger toll on people with fewer resources.

We need to ensure that we preserve the nature that surrounds us, as we continue planning and growing. It is important that we continue developing infrastructure that keeps our most vulnerable communities safe.

Wealth and Prosperity. Strengthening our partnerships with UNC to develop entrepreneurs and start up businesses is key to a prosperous future.

However, having a successful workforce and businesses from underrepresented communities should be prioritized. I support strengthening grant programs for small businesses. We also need to ensure that local talent have affordable and acceptable housing.

I envision promoting Chapel Hill to the world for being a multicultural, multilingual, business friendly environment with a rich quality of life.

I am committed to a strong government that can effectively impact the lives of our residents and visitors. With a dedicated workforce of over 700 individuals, our town government has the power to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

I believe in equipping our interim and forthcoming Town Manager with the necessary tools and resources to achieve our town’s goals, ensuring that our government is efficient, responsive, and capable of serving our community in all aspects of their lives. Our government should lead with energy efficient facilities and resources across departments. Additionally, we need to continue investing in the personal and professional development of the people that operate our town.

What are three things that you believe the town could be doing better?

  1. I applaud the Building Integrated Communities Action Plan that was updated in June of this year. However, I think we should go further. We should have multilingual signage across all town facilities including public transportation, parks, and greenways. Language should not be a barrier to accessing services or participating on boards, commissions, and Town Council meetings.
  2. I’d like to see the town invest in the recommendations from the May 2023 Gaps Analysis and Engagement Study. The town’s Affordable Housing and Connected Communities staff have worked with community members to conduct a thoughtful study of communities that are not engaging in the decision-making process. The study provides a set of 15 recommendations that are practical and attainable. I support these recommendations.
  3. We need collective impact solutions to address the conditions of unhoused people in Chapel Hill and across our region. Humanitarian solutions require leadership and collaboration from various sectors including government, business, nonprofits, and University partners. More importantly, we need to lift up the voices of those that have experienced temporary and chronic homelessness, and find long term answers that respect them as individuals and members of our community.

What are the things you think the town currently is doing right?

I am optimistic about the direction our town is going. The 2023-2025 Council Strategic Focus Areas and Goals envisions an inclusive, accessible, affordable, prosperous community that values our diversity as a strength. The town staff, our Interim Town Manager, the Council, and Mayor have worked hard over this past year to develop some lofty goals that set us up to become the model by which all other college towns measure themselves by.

Change is disruptive, and we will be going through some growing pains that include inconvenient traffic patterns, tax increases, and taller buildings. This makes those that prefer the status quo uncomfortable. Those that have a broader vision for our future understand that anything worthwhile is worth the sacrifice.

How has your experience on the leadership team of El Centro Hispano informed your decision to run?

My decision to run was not informed or motivated from my experience on the leadership team of El Centro Hispano. I show up as an individual, a Chapel Hill resident, who loves his community and wants to see it live up to its potential. That said, I bring a point of view that is informed by a lifetime of experience being part of the Hispanic/Latino community. This as much intersects with my personal and professional experiences of having worked at UNC and CommunityWorx.

My cultural roots are a large part of who I am, and why I decided to run. My Abuelito Rafael was a Bracero, an agricultural guest worker. He died as a young man, forcing Abuelita Esperanza to find seasonal work as a seamstress in the garment factories of Chicago. She traveled back and forth for years, leaving her daughter (my mother) in Mexico for long stretches at a time. When my mother was an adolescent, my Abuelita was finally able to bring her to Chicago, enroll her in school, and plant roots together. Abuelita Esperanza’s story reflects the experience of many immigrants that first engage with our social structures by enrolling their children in school.

My father was born in Guantanamo, Cuba. My family left Cuba during a violent communist revolution that resulted in breaking families apart and the government taking over my grandfather’s small business. They arrived in the US as Cuban exiles.

I was raised within the very diverse Hispanic communities of Miami, and then Los Ángeles, before moving to Chapel HIll in 2007. Nearly 4,500 Chapel Hillians also identify as Hispanic. We are not a monolith or a voting block. Collectively, we share an experience that includes not seeing ourselves proportionately represented in the media, in history books, or among our elected officials.

In combination with my background, my decision to run was heavily influenced by my experience serving on the Chapel Hill Planning Commission. Chapel Hill is planning for a future that includes more people, fewer cars, and climate change. I’m running for Chapel Hill Town Council to make sure that our vision for the future is representative, inclusive, and equitable.

We know that feedback the Council receives does not reflect Chapel Hill’s population. How will you ensure your decision making process takes into account the perspectives of people who may not have the time or resources to attend council meetings?

I support the Affordable Housing and Connected Communities staff recommendation to offer paid engagement opportunities for those from under-represented communities; It can be a hugely impactful step in addressing the barriers that may prevent involvement with our local government. Additionally, we should amplify personal and professional development opportunities for emerging leaders from a wide range of backgrounds to participate in the civic process.

UNC produces thousands of talented graduates each year, most of whom move away for a variety of reasons. Should Chapel Hill and Carrboro make more of an effort to keep homegrown talent here? If so, how?

Chapel Hill and Carrboro are wonderful places to live, grow up, raise children, build careers, and retire. Keeping homegrown talent here is not just good for local business, but in developing a community made up of neighbors who love, and have deep connections with Chapel Hill. It’s not just UNC producing thousands of talented graduates, but also Durham Tech, North Carolina Central University, and Carrboro-Chapel Hill High Schools. My son even attends NC State; I think every parent can relate when I say that I would love for him to have the opportunity to remain here, too. More broadly, though, the future of our community is dependent on our ability to provide equitable opportunities for lucrative and fulfilling careers, affordable and acceptable housing choices, and fostering a sense of pride and belonging in where we live.

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John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...