“Whatever I do, I take it to heart and put all the knowledge I have into it,” says Deborah Dicks Maxwell regarding the various passions and causes she’s fought for throughout her life. And anyone familiar with all that she’s done and still plans to do knows that she has all the heart and all the knowledge to back up the large plate she’s set for herself. Deborah is currently sitting as the President of the New Hanover County NAACP and as the District Director for the Walter B. White District of NC NAACP, and has scarcely taken a break from her work to improve life for all in Southeastern North Carolina since she returned to her hometown of Wilmington where she’s now lived for over 30 years.
Deborah was appointed president a little over 10 years ago, and notes that she’s seen a lot of growth during her time with this chapter. “Leading this branch has been a lot of work. But it’s been good because of the increase in collaboration between different organizations.” She has also noted an increase in visibility for the organization, and attributes this in part to the great effort that NAACP members have put into one of her great passions: increasing voter education and registration. “Voter registration is an ongoing process for the us. We’re already preparing for this year’s municipal elections. We want people period–not just people of color–to vote. In the past we’ve had booths, we’ve provided PPE packs to people, we’ve provided lunches, information, literature, we’ve done Souls to the Polls… and hopefully we’ll do all that again. There’s no one specific party focus. I just want people to understand and utilize their right to vote.”
However, voter education has been far from the extent of Deborah’s work. She’s worked for 25 years as a public health social worker, and though she’s recently retired, she’s not ready to slow down. As a social worker, Deborah’s goal was to link families with all available services including therapy, housing, childcare, and assistance for the elderly. Today, her work to support families in the community continues in a number of ways. At St. Stephen AME, she actively serves as a member of the Health Ministry; she also serves as a Board member for NC Child. And for the past five years, she’s used her position as NAACP president to host an annual health fair each April for Minority Health Month. “Our challenge right now is making sure that minority elders have access to the COVID vaccine, even if we have to move one county at a time.
“I’m glad to hear about the creation of the new clinics that are coming, but I hope that the county has strategically looked at locations and demographics and has picked a site that will be amenable to people most in need at this time. And of course we have to make sure that children’s immunization rates stay high.” While Deborah feels that there is a lot more we could be doing locally and nationally about COVID’s impact, especially on marginalized communities, she also added that there have been a number of proper steps taken. “The fact that they’ve identified racism as a public health hazard brought tears to my eyes. But we have to focus and make sure that [the city’s] resolution isn’t just talk; someone has to really walk it.”
In addition to her many other involvements and passions, Deborah is a member of the Board of Cape Fear River Watch, board member of the NC League of Conservation Voters Foundation, and a founding member of the Southeastern North Carolina Environmental Justice Coalition. A key component of her vision for climate justice involves focusing on the disproportionately disastrous effects that climate change has had and continues to have on communities of color. “Sea level rising training is something we should see more of in coming years. And we have to pay attention to climate gentrification, which occurs when minorities are displaced because they live in areas that would be safer from environmental hazards,” Deborah adds, alluding to how easily the affluent beach residents of the Cape Fear region could further displace and gentrify.
Ultimately, Deborah connects coming up with resolutions for these important societal needs back to city leadership doing more to work with grassroots actors to uplift often overlooked communities. “For starters, our children have been done a disservice through the education system. We have to improve our schools. If Wrightsville Beach is doing good, put more effort into places that need it.” Referencing economic and employment opportunities, Deborah then references ways the city could do more to support organizations and collaboratives like StepUp Wilmington and Genesis Block. “There are also unutilized building contracts that the city is working on where they haven’t reached their goal to hire minority contractors. We know that white women are minority contractors too, and make no mistake, we know that they’ve been working on it, but we need more Black and brown people employed as well.”
“The state, not just the city, needs to pay a living wage. We need better housing. People are concerned about gentrification; we aren’t keeping up equitable housing. There are many houses in Wilmington where six-figure white people move in next door, but a Black woman who could afford that same house in the 60s and 70s with a factory job? Her social security doesn’t even come close to matching up. I’ve been dismayed by the callousness of the comments people have made in city meetings regarding home ownership.”
Finally, Deborah boils our community’s needs down to this: “The city and county needs to listen,” she says. “They’ve already made their blueprints, so follow the steps and commit, and we will be already. But if they fail to follow those, there will continue to be issues. We have to be willing to look at the social determinants that cause these problems. Because this is a longitudinal thing. There is no quick fix. We have to be invested in the long run. No mandated quick fixes that will just fall off the next year. We have to be willing to invest in long term support for the Black community.”