It was 30 degrees and dark when a woman leaving the gym spotted a couple dozen parents camped outside the Orange County Department of Social Services on Mayo Street.
Most were standing or sitting in chairs on the sidewalk, some wrapped in blankets, she posted to the Facebook group, Hillsborough NC Community Info. Others sheltered in tents and cars. By 10 a.m., a few hundred would be there to shop for Christmas gifts at the Toy Chest event, and more would follow.
It happens every year, a DSS official and others posted to the Facebook conversation. Parents don’t have to show up early, they said, but some do to meet work schedules or to make sure their children have a good Christmas.
Hillsborough NC members moved to action, coordinating hot coffee and food deliveries, or running out to buy gloves, blankets and heaters. As night turned to day, they made plans to donate more toys and gift cards this year and in the future.
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It’s not the first time the group’s members have stepped in to help, co-founder Jeni Dwyer said. The group has become a centralized place for people to find out what’s going on around them and how to get involved, from stocking local food pantries to helping a homeless man furnish his first home, she said.
“It allows people to become more involved in the community, more people to show up and support the things that they’re interested in,” Dwyer said. “And it allows people to more easily communicate and share with others, with their own friends.”
Thousands of Hillsborough and rural Orange County residents are finding their voice on social media, after decades of being overshadowed by a majority rule that reflected the interests and political aspirations of Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s larger, urban population.
Groups formed in recent years range from Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action, where several hundred members share a desire for social justice, equality and change, to Hillsborough NC Community Info and Orange County Local, larger groups that offer community, promote small businesses and engender debate.
Politics, news unfiltered
Orange County Local is the largest – at 4,500 members – but if you’re looking for “safe,” you “better learn to swim,” co-founder Chris Weaver said in a recent post. Weaver started the group with Mary and Dave Carter in 2012, when all three were running for local office.
OCL met a need for unfiltered local news and debate that traditional media wasn’t providing, Weaver said. Membership really started picking up in the last few years, and contrary to appearances, is “liberal by a landslide,” Weaver said.
There’s only one rule: Your post has to be about or related to Orange County.
“I think that people do see it as a space where they can encounter others with different ideas than their own, specifically political ideas, and they can talk about those on the local level,” Weaver said. “Of course, as with any kind of social media structure, people want to find a group that they feel like they can belong to and where they can find like-minded individuals.”
Ashley Campbell, an administrator who joined in 2014, said she was surprised to find a place for people who are right of center in Orange County. While Republicans might show up on the county’s ballot, they haven’t been elected to local office in well over a hundred years.
OCL often takes freedom of speech to an extreme, pushing some conversations into the news, including last year’s firearms debate that targeted a member of the county’s new task force. This fall, the group again made headlines with its debate about whether Hongbin Gu, a Chapel Hill Town Council candidate with an immigrant background, should run for office.
Besides casting the group in a negative light, the most recent debate also taught members an important lesson, Campbell said: That their posts to the group are public.
“You don’t have to get permission to reprint these things, your employer can see them, all sorts of stuff,” she said. “People who want to express their political opinions on Orange County Local or any group, I would still encourage them to be careful before they say something that they might regret.”
‘A place to punch back’
Although they urge civility from time to time, some conversations do cross the line, Campbell said. OCL members get “a generous amount of warning” before they are suspended, she said. A few members probably need a timeout, Weaver added.
“We’ve got some hardcore liberals that lurk in the corners, and I can tell that they can get nasty in a heartbeat, but they do moderate themselves because I think they like being able to have access to the page,” he said. “The same things goes for conservatives, the ones that suddenly go, oh, my gosh, I get a place to punch back.”
However, elected officials are “fair game,” Weaver said in a post directed at Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos last summer.
Marcoplos is one of a few officials on OCL – others are Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens and Town Board member Brian Lowen; Chapel Hill council member Jessica Anderson; and Orange County Commissioners Earl McKee, Renee Price and Mia Burroughs – but he’s the only one who regularly jumps into the fray.
OCL creates multiple opportunities to debate important issues, Marcoplos said, but a dominant core group also takes “great sport in belittling and criticizing anyone who wants to come on there and debate with them.”
His posts are directed mostly at those watching on the sidelines, he said, because those members may be wary of joining the conversation.
“My conclusion was it’s just a real shame that a group that could potentially host so many interesting debates that originate out of the conservative rural Orange tradition and could lead the way toward reaching out to people all around the county and having people learn about each others’ positions, is really just an uncomfortable place to be for most people,” he said.
A different group
It was her experience with Orange County Local in 2015 that inspired her to start Hillsborough NC Community Info, Hillsborough native Dwyer said.
“There had been national police brutality and there were some Black Lives Matter marches going on in downtown Durham,” she said. A particular post “was flat out racism, and it was blatant, and it was encouraged, and I flipped out.”
When she and others contacted the administrators, they were told “if you don’t like it, go start your own group, so that’s what I did,” she said.
Hillsborough NC now has nearly 3,900 members in the surrounding region, who also post about information, events and local issues. The page is similar to OCL, particularly in its focus on local businesses and events, but quick to shut down conversations that become personal or disrespectful.
“I feel like people see it as a breath of fresh air,” Dwyer said. “I can come here, I can ask about the holidays, I can find information for where all the pumpkin patches are, I’m looking for something I can do with my family this weekend, or I have out of town guests and I want to know what’s going on. I can come here and I can get the information that I need, and I can do it without sifting through a bunch of drama.”
Like OCL, Hillsborough NC’s members include a few local leaders. However, only Hillsborough Mayor Stevens and Town Board member Jennifer Weaver regularly post information and answer questions. Jennifer Weaver is not an OCL member and was reluctant to talk about it, but said she found the group “rife with racism and homophobia, and a tone of conversation that I didn’t find productive.”
“This is not to label all the members of that group, by any stretch, as being racist or homophobic, or that all the conversations are like that,” Jennifer Weaver said. “It’s just I saw a lot of that, and it’s not how I want to engage with people.”
Much of that perception, Chris Weaver said, stems from OCL debates about the Confederate flag, a community letter that local leaders wrote after President Donald Trump’s election, and the removal of the words “Confederate Memorial” from the Orange County Historical Museum.
Those issues “brought a lot of heat out in people, because if you had a positive attitude toward any of that stuff, you were assumed to be a racist,” he said.
“That’s unfortunate, because the better we all learn how to talk civilly to each other, the more legitimacy our points have,” he said.
Both Hillsborough NC and OCL administrators said it’s hard to pinpoint how those debates might affect local government. Jennifer Weaver said it’s a good way to learn about and respond to a constituent’s concerns, but posting on a Facebook group doesn’t make someone an active citizen.
“I think it’s an unconscious thing, but it’s not the same as coming to a town board meeting or going to a commissioners meeting, or writing a letter to elected representatives or sending a direct email to elected representatives,” she said.