Voices of Durham: Bonita Green & Merrick-Moore Community

Bonita Green saw the warning signs. In 2012, just weeks after moving back to her hometown of Durham, she learned developers had been buying up land in and around her Merrick-Moore community.

“All of sudden developers were applying to rezone large parcels adjacent to our community for dense development, while the city was pushing to build a tournament-sized soccer stadium in the southwest corner of our community.”

Aggressive gentrification like this threatened to push lifelong residents out of the community where Bonita had been born and raised. And to her shock, she realized that her once-vibrant community advocacy club had disbanded.

“There was no active community group to sound the alarms about these developments,” Bonita explains. “Things were going unnoticed. That really inspired me to become a voice for my community.”

Bonita’s roots in the Merrick-Moore Community run deep. The Greens were among the community’s original founding families, settling there after the second world war. From her earliest years, Bonita’s parents instilled a deep sense of community pride and service in their children.

“That’s kind of how I was raised. It’s how my parents were,” she recalls. “When somebody was having a hard time, you looked after your neighbors.”

With the help of the community, Bonita revitalized the Merrick-Moore Community Development Corporation and became its Executive Director in 2018.

Since then, Bonita and the MMCDC have striven to place the power of change in the hands of the people, empowering community members to make their voices heard.

bonita green

One thing I can say about this community: it’s a community of resilient people.

Preserving Community Green Spaces

Their first major campaign was to improve access to healthy, nutritious food. Thanks to a grant facilitated by the Conservation Fund and in partnership with the Ellerbe Creek Watershed, MMCDC developed a two-acre community garden and food forest for the community’s use.

 According to Bonita, the designs for these green spaces were largely driven by the community’s input and needs: “We made it a point to work with our community members [on these projects]. We wanted to figure out what the people in the community wanted, to learn what they envisioned for the garden.”

 It will take another couple of years for the garden and forest to reach their full growing capacity, but they have already begun producing food for the community. And MMCDC didn’t stop there, turning their attention to a large 101-acre property surrounding the garden that developers were targeting.

 “We really had a fight on our hands, persuading the City to deny the rezoning of that property,” Bonita laughs. “It took a lot of engagement across a lot of organizations to gain the support that we needed.”

 MMCDC was ultimately able to secure 51 acres of the property to be managed for conservation. They’re now working with groups like Trees Durham, Keep Durham Beautiful, and New Hope Audubon Society to create a conservation plan for the land that will increase green spaces and reduce air pollution for the surrounding community.

Providing Community Resources

Communities fighting against gentrification and overdevelopment often find the odds are stacked in favor of developers. That’s why much of MMCDC’s work centers around providing community members with resources and education to help them navigate the legal and policy arenas.

 “We have a lot of people in our organization who are very knowledgeable about zoning policies, or who have legal expertise,” explains Bonita. “So we’re able to provide them with that assistance and support.”

 MMCDC has also set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the Healthy Homes and Green Jobs project, covering much-needed home repairs for low-income homeowners. Repairs run the gamut from weatherization and HVAC system updates to storm water mitigation through rain gardens and cisterns.

 Bonita believes that home repairs like this act as an important bulwark against gentrification. “A lot of people are getting dings from speculators about every least little thing. Through this program we can help people live out their lives in safe and healthy homes.”

 “Where we live we don’t have many of those resources,” Bonita says. “A lot of our work is advocating for the resources that have been pulled out of the community to be put back in.”

The Importance of Data

The Merrick-Moore Community, like many other formerly redlined areas, lives with a legacy of heavy air pollution. Growing up with asthma, this issue took on personal significance for Bonita.

“Where I grew up, people had wood stoves. We didn’t have electric,” she recalls. “People burned wood, or coal, or kerosene, things like that. And we were surrounded by industrial, so our environment had real problems.”

Flash forward to today, and Merrick-Moore is still surrounded by industry. The highways that have always been there are bigger and noisier than they were before.

“I’m watching my elders now who are on oxygen, or who are having problems being outside because of the heat,” laments Bonita. “So the air quality really is of huge concern.”

That’s why Bonita and MMCDC are partnering with CleanAIRE NC to equip residents with air quality monitors. These air sensors will help community members understand what’s in the air they’re breathing and take precautions to protect their health.

The air quality sensors play another crucial role: the community can leverage the data they collect to push back against harmful development.

durham air sensor install
durham air sensor install

“If you don’t have strong data to support your concerns, nobody pays any attention,” says Bonita. “To be able to get the policy change that is needed, we need strong data to support that ask.”