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Brenda Howerton

Alumna Brenda Howerton Climbs Political Ladder to Serve the People of Durham

Alumna Brenda Howerton is currently serving her third term as a member of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. She has served as a commissioner since 2008 and this past summer, she assumed a statewide leadership position as the President of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC).  NCACC is an organization that advocates for the common interest of all 100 North Carolina counties with the state government. Commissioner Howerton was also recently selected to participate in the Governing Institute’s Women in Government Leadership Program, a national leadership development program for female elected officials from across the country.

Brenda Howerton sits in her bright, well-organized office on East Main Street overlooking downtown Durham. Sunlight reflects off the Old Bull sign and the Lucky Strike tower in the near distance and Howerton proudly points it out. These iconic symbols of Durham’s history contrast sharply with symbols of modernity – the gleaming new high rises and renovated office buildings. Durham is an old tobacco town turned startup hub. Somehow it all seems to work together. “I never get tired of looking at that,” she says with a slight smile. 

Howerton is proud of her adopted home and thrilled to represent Durham County on the Board of Commissioners. Seeing her here so comfortably in her office, one could envision a political insider – a legacy from a family dynasty. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The journey to this office was not an easy one. A couple of decades ago, it would have been easy to imagine Brenda Howerton’s life as one defined by tragedy. The single mother had lost two sons to gun violence in separate incidences, including one involving a police officer – an all too common story for African-American mothers these days.

Howerton grew up on  a farm near the Virginia border in rural Caswell County, North Carolina and is no stranger to hard work. She can regale with stories of working in the fields just as easily as she can of budget meetings and heated public forum discussions. Her life would bring her just north of the border to Danville, Virginia where she and her then husband would start a family, eventually having four children. A divorce brought Howerton and her kids back to North Carolina to start anew. They moved to Durham in 1986 in search of economic opportunities as the Research Triangle was booming. 

This new start brought its own set of challenges, however. Being a single mother in a new city and raising four kids was not going to be easy. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, Howerton decided it was time to go back to school and earn her bachelor’s degree.

“I’d gone to the community college in Danville and that was as far as I could go,” said Howerton. “As an adult, there was no place for me to go and continue my education, so I moved to the Triangle and weighed my education options and chose Shaw.” 

Howerton enrolled in the CAPE program, Shaw’s program for adult learners with campuses all across the state. The program allowed her to take advantage of evening classes  at the main campus in Raleigh – a huge advantage for single mom with a full-time job.

“As a mother of four children – and at that time I had two kids in college – I had to work and go to school,” said Howerton. I was able to go to work for Crime Control and Public Safety and I could take night classes at Shaw.” 

With her hours from community college to count toward her degree, Howerton calculated she could take 18 credit hours per semester and have her bachelor’s degree in 18 months. In other words she would study for a year and a half as a full-time student while also working 40 hours a week and raising four kids – two of whom were in college themselves. 

“I’d go to the University, take a class, and then go back and work overtime if I needed, and then go to school at night. When I think back, 18 credit hours and working 40 hours a week, I wouldn’t do it again,” Howerton says with a smile. 

“Books stayed on my bed the entire time I was in school. I would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and do my homework before I went to work, so I’m still waking up at five o’clock in the morning,” she says with a laugh. “But that was the only way I could get it done because by the time I finished in the evenings I was burnt out, so I had to get up at 5 and do my reading or whatever I needed to do and then get ready to go to work.” 

Howerton says Shaw faculty and staff encouraged her to take her time to avoid burning out, but were willing to work with her once they realized she would not be dissuaded from completing her degree as quickly as possible.

“They were wonderful,” Howerton says of the Shaw faculty. “They encouraged me not to take 18 credit hours, but I’m pretty determined when I decide to do something. I had a vision; I had a dream.” 

Howerton graduated magna cum laude – a fact that she is still proud of today. 

“All the way through high school I didn’t make very good grades, and then to graduate from a university with a 3.5 GPA was pretty significant to me. What it said to me was I had everything that I needed to be successful and I didn’t have to question that anymore.”

Upon graduating, Howerton landed a job doing corporate training and development before eventually venturing out on her own as an executive coach. She landed a major contract in Indianapolis that had her out of town for three out of four weeks a month. The money was good, but eventually she decided that her heart was in Durham, even if her job was in Indianapolis. She gave up the contract and started thinking of ways she could improve the lives of people in Durham. 

“At some point I realized how much I was gone out of the community and that I wasn’t really making an impact here, so I ran for soil and water and that was my first venture into politics.” 

While not the most glamorous position, Howerton’s first foray into politics with the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District Board gave her some valuable experience and on the job training in what life in politics was all about. She took a political leadership course at Peace University – then Peace College - and was still undecided about running for higher office. 

“When you put your life out there in this arena, you open yourself up to being scrutinized from every area, so you have to consider that. You have to consider your family. Is your family with you? It’s a huge commitment.”

During this time, Howerton continued to struggle with what happened to her sons – two young men  who died while in the prime of their lives due to senseless violence. Unlike her classes at Shaw, there were no answers available in a textbook, no matter how late at night or early in the morning she studied. 

“I’m a fighter, so I decided, ‘maybe there’s something for me to do with all the pain and all the suffering that’s happening in my life to use it for other people.’ I can’t bring my children back, but there’s a whole lot of kids out here I can fight for.”

A moment with her granddaughter in particular spurred Howerton to action. She was sitting on the floor with the toddler one afternoon, flipping through old photographs with memories of her accomplishments when the child exclaimed, “Grandma Brenda, you’ve been kicking some booty. Now what are you going to do?” 

The simple and direct inquiry struck a chord.

 Now what are you going to do? 

The child’s words stuck in Howerton’s mind and she couldn’t get them out. She could no longer be complacent. In 2008, Brenda Howerton ran for a seat on the Durham County Board of Commissioners and won. She sought reelection and won again in 2012, and then again in 2016. 

“As I think back I was just  really overjoyed that people said, ‘I trust her,’ and I think it was all about trust,” says Howerton. “They trusted what I said. They trusted that this was not about me; it was about fighting for other people. They elected me and I’ve been a fighter for them ever since.”