Driven By Connection

Ben Brown, NCLM Communications and Multimedia Strategist


The Legislative Office Building that houses the workspaces of so many North Carolina legislators in downtown Raleigh sometimes gives that blank-canvas feeling—the governmental beige or off-white walls that are ready to pop with a bit of personal decoration: framed memories, pieces of art, shelves for influential books, gifts and honors, flags, various mementos. If any group or agency handed out awards for excellence in this way, Sen. Mike Woodard could add it to his vibrant, loaded shelves of literature, art and sculptures near the colorful, framed showbill for rock musician Alejandro Escovedo, amid gallery walls of other artworks and personal interests. These items became operative parts of a recent interview Southern City did with Sen. Woodard in his office. Gesturing to or picking up pieces from his shelves and walls, he would explain their connection to his work—connection the emphasized word as the senator has long expressed his appreciation for the power of meeting with and listening to peers and constituents for informed ideas and good outcomes. A photo of him with a beloved neighborhood leader, or a framed quote from history, or an item he was honored to receive in reflection of his work, were all in the mix of conversation.

While shelf space was truly limited, Sen. Woodard did have one more item to add as of late April, when the League invited him to its 2024 CityVision conference, held in Winston-Salem, to present him with this year’s NCLM Community Champion Award. “This award recognizes those that work tirelessly to understand, represent and advocate for the needs of cities and towns,” said NCLM immediate past president William Harris, town commissioner from Fuquay-Varina, from the conference podium. “Senator Woodard more than meets those criteria.”

Southern City caught up with him in his busy Raleigh office just after the April conference, right as the 2024 short session of the General Assembly was getting underway. Elected in 2013, Sen. Woodard will depart the office at the end of this term for what he knows will entail community involvement and the making of local-level connections, a topic we wanted to hear more about from the senator.


So, as we speak now, the 2024 legislative session is cranking up. Tell us how things are going.

MW: Well, it’s the beginning of session so lots of bills are coming, and of course with the short session it’s always a lot of local bills, trying to manage those. In fact [Sen. Woodard picks up a document on his desk] right here are my notes from my meeting with Durham City Council yesterday, so we’re working through bills and obviously look at the revenue picture to see where funding priorities can go, right? And there are lots of folks who are showing up to get into our legislation or appropriations, one way or the other.

How have you handled that? When it comes to the local governments in your district, what they want and what you’re able to do up here?

MW: I’ve always put a high priority on meeting with my local governments before session… So, it’s always meeting to see what policy changes they need, if there are any special appropriations that they’re needing and anything that’s budgetary, likely to be the governor or legislature’s budget. And then working with our delegation to see that we’re in concert with or in agreement with the local priorities. There have been times when we’ve had some local requests that we weren’t always in agreement with. And then just prioritizing, looking to see what has the most impact for the residents of the county or the city or town.

What do you think is helpful from local governments in that regard? What are some good practices for local governments that might help with legislative requests?

MW: Obviously now just representing Durham—I live in Durham; I’ve never lived in Oxford or Roxboro or Yanceyville, those towns and other towns that I’ve represented. So, I’d always rely on those folks to tell me what it was they needed and make sure I understand what the needs are. There’s (former) Mayor (Terry) Turner from Butner; a few years back, they had need of acquiring some of the property that the state had. So just making sure I understood what Butner wanted to do with it and all that and securing that for them. So, the key I think is for the towns, cities, these elected officials, to stay in touch with their legislative delegation, meeting with them before session, but meeting with them other times too. If your legislator doesn’t live in your town or county, you know, if you’re a county or two away, as sometimes we often are, or in some of these less populated districts, you could be five or six counties away from a town that has a need. So just making sure you stay in touch with them throughout and understanding what the priorities are for that town or city and just keeping the dialogue going is just so important.

Given the dedication you have to have for a role like this, in public service, what was the draw to where you would want to run for office and be a part of it?

MW: Oh gosh. Well, I grew up in a family that was always active in our community, church work or in our neighborhood civic groups, whatever it was. So, I saw my parents do it and I would often go with them to volunteer or go to church. So, it just was always second nature for me. I guess it was just kind of, you know, in my DNA, I guess. And they were role models for me and work they did in the community. And I always enjoyed volunteering and helping out in the community. I put my roots down in Durham, settled there, and got involved in my neighborhood and some of the civic things that I did there. Just, you know, one step. Mine was a gradual kind of wade into it. So, I’d be reacting to a lot of different community groups and neighborhood groups, things like that. Durham, which is a unique community, we have something called the InterNeighborhood Council. It’s the association of neighborhood associations. And I was my neighborhood’s representative to the InterNeighborhood Council. And at the time there were three or so neighborhood associations around Durham. And there’s where you get to know what’s going on all over town, neighborhood by neighborhood. So, the issues in the Watts Hospital neighborhood, where I live, are very different than what Walltown’s going through. And that’s totally different than what the Herndon Road community’s going through or what Campus Hills is going through, just to think of different geographic neighborhoods, or Old North Durham or Willowhaven. But you get to see what’s going on. I just found it fascinating to help. So, I became president, I was president of the InterNeighborhood Council, and in my term I was vice president, which is essentially president-elect. So for the couple of years I had an office in the Inter-Neighborhood Council, some great and interesting work and took on some real interesting issues and really became a voice for our neighborhoods.It was time for a city council election, a lot of people said, “You’d be great at that.” And so, I said yeah, I might enjoy it. So that’s sort of how I got there. I had worked with neighborhoods all over town. I showed up on day one with a pretty good knowledge of what I thought some of the needs, concerns and opportunities for the city were. I joke with people. I was sworn in on a Monday night. And I have a picture here. My parents swearing me in…

What year was that?

MW: 2005. And then the next morning at 8:00, literally 12 hours later, I was at my first (Metropolitan Planning Organization) meeting working on transportation. I mean, I just jumped right in. In a way that must have just kind of felt OK, I guess.

Right, and I think we all know abstractly that lives are different for different kinds of people in different places, but knowing more specifically what these contexts are can be a challenge. So, you saw neighborhoods and their people sharing context together, which showed the nuance.

MW: Yeah, you’d think, “Our side of town has the same challenges.” No, they don’t. You know, just a couple neighborhoods away is a very different situation. Where I live is Watts Hospital. Walltown is next to me. And Broad Street. A predominantly, overwhelmingly white neighborhood, a historic black neighborhood. And you could look at the differences in how things were invested. My relatively small neighborhood had two city parks in it within about five blocks of each other. Walltown, a much larger neighborhood, and mostly black residents, had no city parks area. They had built a building, the neighbors had built a building and had their own little space, but it wasn’t a city-run park. And until you know some of the history and recognize those things, you know, you might say, “They could just come over and play in our parks.” Well, that’s not quite the same. And so I was real proud—four, five, six blocks away from me, where I lived, is getting a sizable recreation center in their community… You don’t know those things until you work in those communities, learn their history, learn what made them into the community they are. In fact, I got a picture of the groundbreaking. [Sen. Woodard picks up a framed photo from a crowded shelf next to his desk] That’s the groundbreaking right there … for the Walltown Park Recreation Center. And, wow. Wilma Holmes was one of the leaders of the Walltown community and we were so proud that day of working on that. So, working with the matriarchs and patriarchs—mostly matriarchs—of that community, and I’ve just run out of room obviously for these pictures, but I keep them close by for that reason…

With everything we just talked about, what do you think are a few good takeaways in terms of communication, civility, working in a sometimes-tense kind of world but identifying the kinds of issues that you can talk about together to get things done?

MW: I hope people will approach living in community together with an open mind, with open ears, maybe an open heart. And, like I said, just understanding what’s going on in that other community, what their needs are, not coming into that community with preconceived ideas based on race or class or income or any other human thing that divides us. And just being open to hearing how we can live and work together in community. Sounds a bit idealistic, I guess. But just being open to that. And I think as leaders it’s our job to go into those communities. [Sen. Woodard picks up another framed image with the words, “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. With the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say, ‘We have done this ourselves.’”] It’s kind of a mantra for me. Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, an artist, a fantastic quote and I always loved it… I always tried to do it in my work representing different communities here at the General Assembly because, you know, I came up through Durham and, you know, over the last few decades, we’ve been very successful in some ways. We have our challenges, obviously, but we’ve been successful in some ways. But I never wanted to go into Roxboro or Yanceyville or Oxford or Butner and say, “Hey, this is what you all need to do.” You know, take the lessons I’ve learned and go listen… We don’t know everything, we shouldn’t know everything. These are part-time jobs for goodness sake. Whether you work here or in your home community, these are part-time jobs. The best thing we can do is to be that connector. So, you know, connecting the Butner officials with the Durham folks and just let them come in and see, pick and choose which things might work for them and helping them find those connections of what works in their community. So anyway, that’s what we do the best, I think, is to be that connector. I just, I mean, I love introducing people to other folks and all that, letting them work it out. And then get out of the way. Support them as we need to, but let them do it.

What’s ahead for you?

MW: (Durham) Mayor Pro Tem (and 2024 NCLM President) Mark Middleton (at the CityVision conference) said, “I’m a nerd.” I just love digging into the policy of it all. And I look at other elected officials, I saw so many friends (at the conference). At our table, we were talking about all the issues and how much you learn—in both of my elected positions: city council and now state Senate. I learn something every day. And I learn something new all the time… And so, I think I would love to get back and help, at least share what I’ve got and connect people to information