Rebecca Trammel’s advocacy and activism is driven by a deeply spiritual movement born from within, not merely activated from one singular injustice. It’s apparent in the number of causes she has her hands in: Community Conversations, Ruthie Trammel’s Champions for Compassion and Bridge Builders Community Action Team are but a few.
“There is a verse in the Bible that says, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue,'” Trammel says. “It is like those words are etched in my soul. Every day is an invitation to advocate and fight for someone who is marginalized, isolated, ignored, and needs help. My response is the same if it is a veteran who wants to end his or her life or a Black child who isn’t getting a fair start in life. I care about people and I care about justice.”
Though she attended Liberty University to focus on Biblical and theological studies, Trammel didn’t connect with the school soulfully. In fact, she was dissuaded by its political influence on students, which didn’t align with the scripture to love and help all brothers and sisters—specifically, when Jerry Falwell Jr. publicly endorsed Donald Trump in 2016.
“It was after the video surfaced of Trump talking about grabbing women and objectifying them terribly,” Trammel remembers. “If Falwell wanted to support him, that is one thing, but to conflate Christianity with Trump’s indefensible behavior to promote a political agenda was the final deal breaker for me.”
So she discontinued financing the hypocrisy.
“I believe there is a difference between Christendom and the Kingdom of God,” Trammel continues, “and [Liberty] does not know the difference. I am grateful for many positive things I have learned in the process of studying the Bible and theology there. . . . I am inspired by the words in Isaiah 61 that are repeated in Luke 4 that say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.’ To Him everyone is significant.”
Trammel’s strong foundation and beliefs have magnified her voice for the underserved. More so, they have given her strength to act, if not especially during times of crises. Hurricane Florence in 2018 put her community organizational skills into high gear as Trammel began volunteering with Operation Airdrop. A group of pilots were running supplies from RDU to ILM to reach those who waited out the storm.
“They wanted to fly into Wilmington but had no one on the ground to receive the goods,” Trammel recalls. “Within 45 minutes, I was planning points of distribution to fly food, water, cleaning supplies, baby formula, diapers and insulin into the Port City. My goal was to serve those who had limited resources and limited access to transportation.”
The Bridge Builders Community Action Team was born, as Trammel and other local leaders came together to establish four distribution points within 24 hours to receive supplies. Four days later they were operating seven. They also cultivated alliances with other organizations that made it easy to share resources. “Our aim was to be ‘the menders of the breach and restorers of the streets,'” Trammel says, referencing Isiah 58.
For three weeks thereafter, the action team continued to operate and broke into various areas of outreach, including Northside Bridge Builders and Eastside Bridge Builders, thanks to the help of Evelyn Bryant, LaShonda Sidberry and Cedric Harrison. They continued to help marginalized communities recover from Florence.
“I realize I have a trend of high-impact, episodic initiatives,” Trammel says. “That fits my personality as an EMT [she volunteered for Leland Fire Rescue from 2012-2017]. I assess, triage and take action quickly. I fill in gaps. That is what the Bridge Builders Community Action Team did well.”
In hindsight, one may say it was preparing her for 2020.
When Trammel read “Value Tales” as a child—a collection of age-appropriate biographies of American stalwarts—she recalls the story of Harriet Tubman illuminating her world and tapping into a fundamental desire to do good work. “I was enraged knowing she was horribly abused but inspired by her indomitable courage,” Trammel says.
Another influence was Trammel’s mother, a social worker for Coastal Horizons for more than two decades. In 2014 Ruthie Trammel passed away from ovarian cancer. Two days later the Trammel family was planning her celebration of life when the conversation ventured into how to carry forth her legacy. Ruthie Trammel’s Champions for Compassion started then and there to help people through recovery and mental illness by removing obstacles, stigmas, offering professional help and, most importantly, restoring hope.
“It was just a spontaneous gift of hope and joy I believe God gave us in that moment,” Trammel reflects. “It was like we were given ‘beauty for ashes and joy for mourning.’ . . . I realize every day how much being her daughter has shaped me to be the woman I am today.”
The nonprofit works with Coastal Horizons and Community Recovery Court to assist in transportation needs to those on their recovery journey by giving away bicycles, u-locks, lights and helmets. This year they’re on track to gift 120 bikes.
Champions for Compassion also have partnered with UNCW and Concerned Veterans for America on suicide prevention. An event was scheduled with the secretary of the VA, two Medal of Honor recipients and the president of the Student Veteran Association at Trask Coliseum in March but since has been postponed because of COVID. The pandemic actually has shifted its outreach into relapse prevention. Champions for Compassion provide meals twice a week to Coastal Horizons’ peer support program.
“We destigmatize mental illness by giving people a creative opportunity to talk about it in a meaningful, non-threatening way,” Trammel explains.
The nonprofit also has grown beyond substance abuse and mental illness recovery into other areas of need as they arise. For instance, when COVID shut down the schools, Trammel became keenly focused on hungry kids who could no longer depend on school breakfast and lunch as primary sources of nutrition.
“I knew my mom would have never gone for that,” she says. Thus Operation Ring and Run served 1,200 kids 2,200 meals a day, thanks to the help of Sweet and Savory. “We became like the Grubhub for New Hanover County Schools,” Trammel says. “Wrightsville Beach Brewery came through like champs, too, serving up grilled cheese sandwiches on the Northside [of downtown].”
Once the schools found their footing to serve a wider net of people by utilizing buses and staff, Trammel shifted her focus yet again. This time she wanted to make sure masks were accessible to people most in need, so she started Cover Our PEEPs in April. “PEEPS are ‘people with preexisting conditions, elders, essential workers and public transportation patrons,'” Trammel explains. “We have given away over 4,000 masks and 300 face shields to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
As Champions for Compassion continues to grow, Trammel’s passion for activism is deepening as well. The nonprofit is gaining new roots. “I know my mom would have wanted me to follow my dreams, not just maintain her legacy,” Trammel says. “I think that the vision is growing with me.”
IT STARTS WITH THE KIDS
“Although Black people are a minority in New Hanover County, there are six schools that have a majority Black student body,” Trammel states, pointing to the neighborhood school model the local school board continues to implement in Wilmington. Trammel’s initiative Community Conversations focuses on ensuring Black students receive the same opportunities to excel educationally.
“These six schools are a D- or F-rating on the School Report Card,” she continues. “By middle school, most Black students are so far behind, they will not be able to compete with their white counterparts for academic opportunities when they get to high school. By high school, the average performance grade for a white student is a B in three out of four schools and a C in the fourth. For the Black child, it is a D across the board.”
Community Conversations addresses discrimination and implicit bias—how our actions, attitudes and understanding of the world informs our decisions unconsciously. The idea for the initiative spawned after an incident last December when Trammel read a social media post from her friend, Tori Bronner: “When your daughter is the only child who does not get a Christmas gift from their teacher at the class party. #onlyblackkidintheclass”
It went viral.
Trammel feared the child would be traumatized and acted quickly to create a better outcome for her story. So she reached out to friends and asked they buy a small gift to leave at the school’s office, addressed to “Princess T, first grade.” The next day, Princess T left with a van full of gifts.
“This gives an illustration to deeper problems in how children are treated differently in our school system, like disparities in suspension rates and school performance,” Trammel explains. “My friends and I decided it was time to advance the need for equity and excellence in education.”
Community Conversations implements constructive dialogue about race with the community at large and local leaders. Its goal is to inspire changes within the culture of the school system to be inclusive for all diverse groups it serves. Community Conversations asked for the Bronner family incident to be addressed.
“Wilmington has a way of trying to silence people from talking about things that others just don’t want to address,” says Trammel, who went through the New Hanover County School system herself. “Silence or pretending it does not exist is not an option. The destinies of children and their opportunities to reach potential are in the balance. Thankfully, NHCS published sweeping resolutions days before our first meeting to commit to taking action to address discrimination, implicit bias and cultural competency in the classroom.”
The board recognized racism as a “problem of practice” in the system and instituted a Diversity and Equity Committee. New Hanover County also prioritized trainings from the Racial Equity Institute in schools and for leaders in the county.
Community Conversations went one step further and asked for a meeting with education advocates and community leaders about redistricting plans the board was to vote on in December 2019. Trammel outlined eight corrective actions, signed by 26 community leaders, to address neighborhood schooling, which perpetuates separation of students by race and class. “Our voice fell largely on deaf ears,” she explains. The neighborhood model passed. Regardless, Community Conversations remains dedicated to seeing the community school model put into place in at least some, if not all, Title 1 schools.
“Only Stefanie Adams and Judy Justice were willing to reconsider and pass [on the vote] until a plan was put in place to improve the odds of success in the schools that were serving predominantly Black children,” Trammel says. “There is no mystery to why our community is the way it is. Discrimination plays a significant role in our education system.”
To help alleviate hardships faced in the six predominantly Black-populated area schools, Community Conversations, in collaboration with Voyage (formerly the Blue Ribbon Commission), are launching Tek Gap. It will ensure students receive access to tools like tablets or the internet all the time in order to thrive in modern-day classrooms.
DISMANTLING STRUCTURAL RACISM
Over the last month or so, Trammel has spoken out against systemic racism and magnified her voice at City Hall steps during lowercase leaders’ protests, at official Black Lives Matter Wilmington marches, as well as at the ILM Sit-In a few weeks ago. She has participated in a race forum, hosted by the mayor and councilman Kevin Spears, and helped draft with other local leaders the “seven demands”—”or as I would say ‘recommended corrective actions,'” she notes—presented to city officials at the town hall meeting in mid-June.
“While protesting and demonstrating are important, it is not the goal,” Trammel says. “The goal is political action and societal progress. I want to see Wilmington become a more beautiful, prosperous and equitable place to live for everyone. . . . It is not an accident that Black people make up 18% of the population but over 40% of us live under the poverty line. We need some real structural change here.”
Trammel points to five immediate areas of concern that government and civic leaders need to prioritize to dismantle structural racism: education, accessibility, food deserts, mental health and law enforcement. Whether addressing the problems of neighborhood schooling head first or food insecurities evident on the Northside or Southside areas of downtown, Trammel’s ideas are aplenty. She would like to see the city and/or county incentivize a food co-op or an affordable store like Aldi to get a much-needed grocery store downtown. She would like nonprofits to band together with private practices and the city/county to make mental-health services more accessible to lower-income individuals.
“Immediately, I believe we need a citizens’ review board for law enforcement, with oversight of the budget, personnel, discipline and standard operating procedures,” she adds. “We need to work toward subpoena power.”
Trammel also hopes for resiliency training and mental-health screenings as requirements of law enforcement’s agility tests and annual physicals. Adding more social workers and mental-health practitioners to school campuses with fewer law enforcement officers wouldn’t hurt either. “I do not know for certain if that will work but it is worth trying,” Trammel admits. Mostly, Trammel wants to help foster a path for local leadership to go beyond offering platitudes and requiring patience from marginalized communities that have received the brunt of the divide.
“I am most concerned about leaders and government bodies giving lip service to change or only offering symbolic gestures, which are important but fall short of dismantling structural racism,” she says. “It is not OK to ignore the many voices of Black and brown people who this community has historically, and to this day continue to disenfranchise through divestment and opportunistic moves (i.e. redlining, educational inequities, gentrification, accessibility to capital, etc.). We need to do the hard work now. I am not interested in being patronized; civility is no longer on the table. Civility is the counterfeit of peace. We want peace, which is the sweet fruit of justice in equity.”
Recently, Trammel launched a Patreon account for folks to follow and support her advocacy and activism. Moreover, she applied for New Hanover County’s Chief Officer of Diversity and Equity (CODE), a new position in a new department upstarted by the county in response to the protests. If hired she would have a direct hand in sussing out the county’s plan of action, with her first step being a survey of county employees to determine their outlooks on diversity and inclusion. She also would research and identify dubious county policies and strategize solutions to expound teachings and data. This would mean culling a crew of people who work in tandem with her, from policy advisors to data analysts, social workers to sociologists.
“Who are we hiring? Do we have adequate representation? Where are we lacking? How are our pay scales weighing in? Are there disparities?” Trammel asks. “I would create occasions for conversations and awareness-building activities in healthy ways, within the agency and in the community. I think it would look like internal trainings, more frequent reminders about how to include diversity and inclusion in the culture.”
She also would introduce how to present better narratives about Black and brown people, and minorities overall, into the equation, especially to local media. “We are portrayed as perpetrators, victims or athletes, [but] there is so much more to our stories,” Trammel says. “We need to increase awareness to help people in the private sector who work with us to create a more equitable community.”
The community at large has inspired Trammel in recent weeks. Allies and advocates of all backgrounds have stepped up since George Floyd’s death to put pressure on breaking the status quo. Wilmington has responded, too, by changing the name of Hugh MacRae Park, bringing down the Confederate statues and hiring Donny Williams as the police chief.
“I am seeing white people rise up with a determination to end this state of American apartheid even at their own expense,” Trammel adds. “I am blown away by the courage and commitment of protesters, both Black and white. Black leadership has been constant over the years, but I see it emerging with greater strength, boldness and vitality today. I think this collaboration of white allies supporting the voices and interests of Black neighbors is what it is going to take to make progress. We have to do this together. . . . I want to look eye to eye with my white brothers and sisters, work shoulder to shoulder and sit together at the table of brotherhood. This is the future I believe awaits us. In fact, this dream is becoming reality now.”