Activist Profile: Jillian Johnson, Durham


Jillian Johnson, a member of Durham’s City Council, had never held public office or even aspired to be a politician prior to her 2015 campaign. She had served no time on city advisory committees or taken other traditional “grooming” steps to public office. Her qualifications to lead Durham came instead from almost 20 years of grassroots organizing and social justice work with young people, as well as her academic background in public policy at Duke.

“It took a lot of convincing,” Jillian recalled, adding that she has heard many women share the same experience of being asked repeatedly before deciding to run for office. What turned the tide was a conversation with a local organizer friend who listened to Jillian’s concerns about not being able to get enough done from inside the system. Her friend reassured her that serving as a conduit for information to organizers and the community, as well as sharing how to navigate city politics, would be a tremendous benefit, and shaping policies was only one aspect of this important role.

Things moved quickly from there. In May 2015, “I immediately hit up every one of the people who asked me to run and asked them to be on my campaign team. Not one person said no.” Papers were filed in July, a primary held in October, the general election in November and Jillian was sworn into office in December.

Jillian’s campaign team was full of grassroots organizers, activists, and people who were brand new to local politics. “We had over 100 volunteers knock on 10,000 doors,” and the campaign raised just under $40,000. The end result? Jillian received the second-highest number of votes, trailing only the incumbent, among 10 candidates.

Active in the labor movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ movement, Jillian was elected on a platform that included racial and immigrant justice, LGBTQ rights, equitable development and preserving affordable housing, law enforcement accountability, and striving to achieve living wages for all workers. She is involved with Durham Solidarity Center, Durham for All and iNSIDEoUT, among others.

Asked about the current political climate, Jillian said “the sands have shifted under our feet, and we all need to change our methods and think critically about how local communities can effectively resist” policies that target immigrants, refugees and Muslims, for example. She also wants to maximize the impact of local work on a national scale.

"There's a national conversation happening about the role of "rebel cities" in the Trump era," she said, "and I think Durham can play a strong and important role in building this movement. We need to do whatever we can to protect our inclusive community, and also provide a model for other cities to do the same."

When asked what advice she would share with someone who is exploring ways to engage in public service, Jillian answered confidently, “Just try, just run – especially young people of color and young queer people. I believe local politics is a way to build power for our communities.” Jillian believes that some people don’t run for elected office because they feel it’s a club they don’t belong to, “but do it anyway,” she said. “It’s critical to democracy that we have diverse representation. These local decisions have a profound impact on our lives."

Aiden Graham is a long-time friend and fellow organizer who served on Jillian's campaign team. “Jillian Johnson is a powerful woman who's fearlessly taken up the call for bold leadership in this period. She's helping build a stronger Durham by raising a beautiful family and pushing policies that make our political and economic systems more accessible and democratic.”