Vernetta Alston is a new House Representative serving District 29 in Durham, having been appointed just last month. She was, until that time, serving her first term as a Durham City Council member. As a Council member, Vernetta focused on a number of issues important to her constituents, including access to safe and affordable housing and criminal justice. In the House, she is continuing to prioritize access to affordable housing and transportation, non-discrimination, and environmental reform.
As Vernetta wrapped up her first week serving in the House of Representatives, our Executive Director, Sarah Preston was able to catch up with her. They talked about Vernetta’s experience in the House and how she will bring the knowledge she gained serving locally to bear in Raleigh to benefit not only Durham, but local communities all across the state.
Why did you decide to run for Durham City Council and what motivated you to run for the House in 2020?
I ran for city council in 2017 after a few folks reached out and encouraged me to run. I hadn’t really envisioned running or serving in office for myself, and certainly not at that time in my life. But the encouragement came soon after President Trump’s election and I felt like I needed to do more to support a progressive agenda in Durham. I wanted to be part of demonstrating what Durham’s values are at a time of significant growth in our city. I was energized by the idea of framing that growth with values that would lead us in a progressive direction.
Similarly, in 2019, I was recruited to run for legislative office. Again, I wasn’t really expecting it because I was early in my term on City Council and very excited about serving my community there. When Representative MaryAnn Black, the incumbent, announced she wouldn’t run again, I heard from people who thought I should run. I felt like it was an opportunity to support the people in Durham and join the Durham delegation in Raleigh, which has really been working so hard for their community. We have the opportunity to take back the House and make real progress for Durham and our state. I want to make it easier for local governments to function and pursue progressive policies. I thought about what that might translate into for the state and for local communities and I had to take the opportunity.
What do you think is the most important thing that the government can do to help people now and into the future?
I’m not sure where to start! There is a lot to do. I think it boils down to, we need to protect people’s lives and livelihoods. We should be looking at policies that will ensure people can thrive without living in fear of the government. I think a lot about workers and understandable concerns about safe working conditions. We also need to ensure that people have affordable, safe housing. The government can do a lot to make sure that people have the resources they need to live, provide for themselves, and thrive no matter who they are. Ultimately, that’s what the government should support.
What do you hope to accomplish for women and families in North Carolina if elected?
I hope that through my service, families and women will feel validated and safe. We can provide women and families important legal protections that are overdue. Women should not only feel that they are safe, but that their elected officials are fighting for them. I hope that women and families feel that I am in Raleigh fighting for them and that the government as a whole is championing them and their rights.
Have you seen any advantages of being a woman while campaigning?
One advantage is the network of progressive women that will support other women running for office. A lot of well-deserved attention was paid to the women who ran successfully for office in 2018 and being a part of that feels great. It is a special time to be a woman campaigning because women are energized to run and I am grateful to be part of a group or women running across the state and helping to elect other women.
Why are you a champion of reproductive freedom and gender equity?
It is so infuriating that reproductive freedom and gender equity is up for debate. Anytime that it comes up for debate in the legislature, it feels relevant to me, as a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a mother. When my wife and I were trying to get pregnant, we learned so much and became part of a group of people that needed to use alternative forms of reproductive support. You learn how vulnerable reproductive health care access makes so many people. It is a complicated and vulnerable area already without politics being brought into it. Going through that as a parent really motivated me to make sure that women and all people are protected and have safe space to make decisions and receive care.
What would you recommend people listen to, read, watch, or do to bring them some joy while social distancing?
I’ve been getting outside and enjoying some of the really lovely trails around my community. I have gone to some new trails so that’s been like a little adventure in the middle of all this. The weather has been cooperating so my family also enjoys building fire pits in the backyard.