Former Mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, joined a group of students last Friday in a discussion of the challenges and successes he dealt with over an impressive 40-year term leading the South Carolina city. From describing the innovative affordable housing he helped push forward at a time when monolith housing projects were the norm, to navigating the aftermath of the 2015 church shooting, he responded to an array of questions covering dynamic topics.

Mayor Riley talking with Duke students at the Sanford School of Public Policy

Whether the discussion focused on times of crisis or long term strategic planning, one current permeated the conversation: community as the cornerstone of any successful policy. Mayor Riley described his persistent focus on bringing together a variety of citizens and providing outlets for different voices to be heard. When it came to the atrocious hate crime perpetrated against a group of African American churchgoers in 2015, he described the prompt mobilization of his staff as vital to setting the tone for the community. Riley and his team organized an immediate gathering of the victims’ family and loved ones, and was present to deliver the news directly when details were first revealed. He participated in multiple vigils and community gatherings in the following days, crediting the city’s reaction of solidarity to a strong community, long in the making.

The evening before the student breakfast, Mayor Riley joined outgoing Durham Mayor Bill Bell in a public event with nearly 100 attendees focused on the challenges of urban revitalization. Riley spoke about the importance of revitalizing Charleston Place, a central business district that had experienced the same decline as many an urban center in the wake of suburban sprawl. In Durham, Mayor Bell cited the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and Bright Leaf Square as critical centers created during his term that brought life back to downtown Durham, drawing people for the restaurants, shopping and businesses.

(Left to Right) Professor Fritz Mayer, Former Mayor Joe Riley, and Durham Mayor Bill Bell

Former Mayor Riley remains busier than ever, working with a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations to continue working on the types of progressive policies he implemented to revitalize Charleston. Among his most important projects is fundraising to commence construction on an African American history museum in Charleston.