Ray Trapp: Bringing about change one step at a time
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
As far back as he could remember Raymond Trapp wanted to be a politician. During those early years where little boys want to be police officers and firemen, he had already made up his mind that his purpose was to provide service through the political arena.
The Guilford County Commissioner got his first crack at it back in 1991 when he was elected vice-president of the student council at Guilford Middle School. Even then he didn’t know how far he could go within political circles.
The 38-year-old has learned to navigate those circles seamlessly, running unopposed for the second time in a row, while focusing on his family, constituents and the future growth, not only of District 8, but Guilford County as a whole.
Young and Hungry
Trapp, who was first elected in 2012, didn’t really get started in elective politics until he returned to Greensboro from the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area in 2006.
“I started going out to community events and getting involved in the community issues,” he said.
He said he saw a need for the younger generation to get involved and stay involved for the long term.
“It was a long-term commitment to follow what all of these trailblazing folks that we’ve had in Greensboro and Guilford County have done. Some major leaders have come from the city of Greensboro and Guilford County as a whole,” he said, referencing the likes of Jesses Jackson and The Greensboro Four. “That’s a huge responsibility and also something to be proud of and I wanted to pick up and carry on that mantle.”
Trapp said that most people his age and younger are of the integration age, a generation that believes that we live in a post-racial society.
“I think that for my generation it was critical that I had that voice to speak up and say ‘hold on, everything isn’t great.’ We don’t live in a post-racial society. Racism may not be as front and center as it was in the 60s with dogs and water but on the economic side of things, it absolutely is, and in some cases, it’s even worse.”
From there he ended up being appointed to the Minimum Housing Standards Commission by then Greensboro City Councilmember T. Dianne Bellamy-Small in 2009. The commission looked at substandard and dilapidated housing throughout the city.
“I loved being on the Minimum Housing Standards Board. One, because I’m from Northeast Greensboro and a lot of the cases that we saw were from Northeast Greensboro and were houses that were abandoned, crack houses or just a blight on the community,” Trapp said about his time on the board.
He stayed there for a year before being appointed, again by Bellamy-Small, to the Zoning Commission. There he was elected chairman, becoming both the first African-American and youngest chair to serve on the committee.
Many young people encounter some doubt when stepping onto the political scene. Trapp said that wasn’t an issue for him because several seasoned politicians served as mentors, including Bellamy-Small, Skip Alston and Yvonne Johnson just to name a few. He said once they realized that he was there to stay, and his ambition didn’t outweigh commitment, they began showing him the ropes.
“I was able to bounce things off of her (Bellamy-Small) so she was absolutely influential in mentoring me and showing me the ropes,” he said. “I think they’ve seen young people fired up before who come in and in about six months to a year that person disappears. So for them, I think there’s a vetting process of how interested … and how committed you actually are to making a change.”
While on the Zoning Commission Trapp was approached about taking his service to the next level. He had rebuffed previous opportunities to advance in government until he had a conversation with then Commissioner Skip Alston, who informed Trapp he was retiring.
“He said ‘the community needs you to do your thing.’ At that point I was like I can’t continue to say no,” Trapp said.
After getting the go-ahead from his wife, he filed for the seat and ran unopposed for his first election in 2012. Three other Republican commissioners were unopposed for election that year as well. He describes his experience as coming in “with eyes wide open, nose wide open and thinking that that we’re going to make things work and sing kumbaya.”
“I was thinking that everybody runs for office because they want the best for everybody,” Trapp said. “It took about a year and half to really see maybe that’s not the case.”
The first eye-opener for him was the vote surrounding the Renaissance Community Co-op. Greensboro officials had come to the board to seek funds for a grant to get a grocery store in Northeast Greensboro, which is long considered a food dessert.
“To me it was a no brainer. This is a public health issue and the county oversees public health. People that live in food deserts have chronic diseases because they don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Trapp said. “It’s $250,000 out of an almost $700 million budget. A drop in the pan.
“When our board couldn’t see fit to finance that it completely opened my eyes and it changed a lot of things. In my comments I said ‘I’ve learned we’re not up here to be friends. I’m up here to represent the people of District 8.’ That was a hard and fast education. I have two kids and a wife, I don’t need to have friends but I want to make sure I represent my district in the way it needs to be represented.”
The Renaissance Community Co-op eventually raised enough funds through other sources and celebrated its grand opening this fall.
Trapp said that he’s even had some moments where he thought he was done and was ready to walk away. It was at that time he had to try and understand exactly where and what that person was seeing.
“I had a colleague say that food deserts aren’t real and that it’s propaganda promoted by the Obama administration to funnel money into urban communities. For one that’s an ignorant statement and it lets me know that they didn’t really know what a food desert really was,” he said. “It’s not just about mileage away from a grocery store. It’s also about income and access to transportation. So what I’ve come to see is that what’s my reality is not necessarily everyone else’s reality. If you choose not to take yourself out of the world, and to go see how other people live and other things people go through then of course that’s your world. However, I don’t have the luxury of doing that. I represent people that are underserved and economically depressed so it’s not a luxury to not see how everyone lives and not deal with reality.”
He says the first four years were summed up for him by fellow Democrat and Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen.
“He said ‘in the first year, you’re going to get in and it’s going to be like ‘wow, this awesome’ and you’re going to think you know everything. The second year you’re going to think you know even more than you did in the first year and in the third year you’re going to realize you don’t know anything. By the fourth year you’ll know just enough to know what you don’t know.’ That’s absolutely the way that it’s been,” Trapp said.
Trapp said understanding the community you represent is a big part of being an elected official.
“We have a representative democracy which means when I’m speaking I’m not speaking for myself. I’m speaking for the 50,000 people that I represent. Which means you better make sure you know where the community stands on any issue before you go anywhere speaking about it,” he said. “That comes from being grounded in the community.”
Laughing he said “I ain’t fresh out the hood, I’m still in the hood,” quoting 50 Cent. “If it was for me to sit up there and go along with everything the majority said you don’t need me sitting up there. I’m there to be the voice of the minority community.”
Call for Change
Like many who hold a public office, there are certain subjects that Trapp is passionate about. While he may encounter difficulties in pursing specific change, he’s learned that there is more than one way to get things done.
“I’ve found that you can work with staff without necessarily bringing things to the board to get things done,” he explained. “You find outside community partners and nonprofits that you can work with to get what you need without approval.”
Trapp said that he’s learned more from Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who also sits on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, along with serving on the national board and as first vice-president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Coleman is a true civil rights fighter. I’ve learned so much from her in four years. It’s been amazing,” he said.
Coleman also speaks highly of Trapp, calling him a ray of sunlight on the board.
“He’s young, bright and energetic. His focus is always on the community,” Coleman said. “He is a pleasant person to deal with and I’ve enjoyed working with him.”
Trapp is passionate about eliminating food deserts and he feels the county should lead the charge. He said he gets a lot of push back from conservatives.
“I don’t have a problem with people being conservative. Being conservative is a philosophy. But don’t be selectively conservative,” Trapp said. “You want to be conservative when it comes to issues in my community but you’ll back up a Brinks truck if it’s something that has to do with your community.
“The mantra from conservatives has been we want to make sure we are doing mandated programs and what the county is mandated to do. The county is mandated to oversee public health. So if you have statistics, data, numbers in your face that show you that people that live in food deserts suffer from chronic diseases directly related to bad diets because they don’t have access to those things, then as a county official it is your duty, oath and your job to step up and do something about that.”
He has done just that with an initiative called “Food Desert Storm.” Trapp, who works out every morning at Gold’s Gym on Randleman Road, spoke to his trainer Vernon Williams about his idea and asked if he’d be willing to donate his time.
“He said yes and it would give him an opportunity to promote his non-profit the Healthy American Initiative. I then reached out to the city and asked if we could use the facilities in Warnersville to start,” he said. “The city went above and beyond, not only letting us use the facilities but offering to sit down with me and help plan it out. I gave them my ideas and city staff, the county cooperative extension, officials from United Health Care and public health ran with it.”
They came up with a 12-week program where 43 participants checked in every other Saturday to see how their weight, body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol improved through eating right and working out. Out of those 43 participants 19 had improved their body mass index, blood pressure or cholesterol by the end of the program.
“It’s not 100 percent and not where we wanted to be but it was a start. We actually won a National Association of Counties Achievement award for the initiative,” he said.
Another issue that Trapp has dedicated his time to is focusing on the housing of juvenile offenders. Most recently he’s been working with Senator Gladys Robinson on a bill, co-sponsored by Republican Majority Whip Sen. Jerry Tillman, that would change the way the state houses juvenile offenders.
“Currently North Carolina is one of the few, if not the last, state in the nation to house 16-year-olds with adults. So if you have 16-year-olds charged with smoking weed and sentenced as an adult, they’re locked up with adult murderers. Now that’s criminal,” he said. “These are 16-year-old children that are locked up with adult, hardened criminals.”
Trapp said he’s not trying to change the fact that minors that commit horrific and offensive crimes are charged as adults. He just wants to be able to make sure teenagers that make poor choices get a chance to be productive members of society.
Unfortunately, the bill didn’t gain traction, dying on the finance committee floor. Trapp said he doesn’t think that the issue is a partisan one, yet one surrounding the cost of the separate housing. He does plan to continue to try until changes are made.
“The push back has been from smaller counties who say they can’t afford to do this. I don’t buy that. We can find money for anything and everything that we want to find money for so why can’t we find money for this?” he said. “At 16, if you put me in jail, the only thing it’s going to do is teach me to be a better criminal and I’m going to make connections so when I get out I can use those connections to increase my life on the criminal side. It’ll never be over.”
Welfare Reform is another issue that Trapp is passionate about. As chair of the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee, and as a board member of the Welfare Reform Liaison Project, he sees the need for change first hand.
“We have a welfare system that is absolutely designed for people to fail. It is absolutely designed for people to stay on the system because there’s no gradual approach to getting off. There are hard and fast rules in place,” Trapp explained.
He said that those getting assistance are smart enough to do a cost benefit analysis and see that it is more beneficial to not work than to go to work and struggle to survive on $8 an hour.
“They think about the fact that if they get above that limit they immediately have to pay rent in public housing or lose their Section 8 voucher. Immediately after that my food stamps get decreased because now I’m making more income. People are smart enough to realize that,” Trapp said.
Instead, he feels there needs to be some truthful conversations concerning welfare overhaul and about what needs to be done to make people self-sufficient without having programs for the sake of having programs. He also believes that it needs to be made clear that no one is getting rich off of welfare.
“In Guilford County, Work First is the only program that puts money in the hands of recipients. In the entire county, out of 500,000 people, we have 200 families who receive money from Work First,” he said. “You can’t make policy for poor people or underserved people unless you’ve been in that position. Rich people can’t make policy for poor people and say that it’s going to work because it definitely won’t work.”
Trapp fights for his community but that’s second to his family. The Allen Tate Real Estate Broker is also the husband of Josette and father of Alexandria Raye, 4, and a 3-year-old son, Roman Louis.
He said his wife, a navy veteran who is enrolled as a senior full time at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University and works full-time with the Internal Revenue Service, has always been his biggest cheerleader.
Their daughter, Alexandria, has a rare disease called Myasthenia gravis, which is a neuro-muscular disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy nerve fibers. Trapp takes his time with his family seriously and considers it sacred.
“In the mornings, that’s our time. Just me and the kids. Everything else can wait until I drop them off at school,” he said.
Following the theme of service to the community that his fraternity Phi Beta Sigma (Gamma Beta Sigma chapter) was founded on, Trapp said he doesn’t see district lines.
“I represent anyone underserved or someone that feels like they need a voice in the county; that’s who I represent,” he said. “I’m not surprised that I ran unopposed again. I think that from what I’m seeing, if your community sees that you’re trying to do what’s right and trying to represent them the best way you can then they want you to keep representing them. I love District 8 and I’m appreciative of the community support.”
The Greensboro native was born at the new L. Richardson Memorial Hospital and grew up in a single-family home on Phillips Avenue in what’s now New Garden Place, right down the street from Claremont Homes Public Housing, where he spent most of his childhood playing. He was bussed to Irving Park Elementary, which was a different make-up than his neighborhood.
“We stayed where my mom could afford. I didn’t know I lived in the hood. Irving Park at the time was one of the most affluent schools in Greensboro and they were taking the kids whose parents were living on Section 8 and in the hood,” Trapp said. “It gave me a totally different prospective. You had maybe three black kids in every class but these were my friends. Their parents would pick me up on Phillips Avenue to go to birthday parties and things like that. It was an awesome experience because it required me to step up my game and become more because my mom always told me that I had to perform two times better.”
During the summers, he stayed with his father in Atlanta, where he would later attend high school. He described himself as an average student who could be a “knucklehead” from time to time. There his dad was considered middle class and worked in insurance so he saw more affluent black people who owned their own businesses.
“It was like going from one extreme to the other. It was totally different. That was my first introduction to the fact that everything isn’t as good as we think it is. In Greensboro I intermingled with everyone,” Trapp said. “That was an adjustment but all of that is why I think I love representing the people that I represent. I know their story. I’ve been through that. We have to have elected officials that have had that experience in order to represent our community.”
After graduating, Trapp enrolled in the Navy. It was there he would meet his wife and they would be transferred to Baltimore and then to Washington, D.C. He would then retire from the Navy while his wife would end up being transferred to the Pentagon. He would take a few jobs, like working at a call center and a 7/11, before he eventually decided to enroll into classes at Anne Arundel Community College, where he would graduate Magna Cum Laude.
When he returned to Greensboro in 2006, he began working at the Triad Apartment Association, now called the Greater Piedmont Triad Apartments, a nonprofit related to real estate. After that he worked in property management at Emerson Company. There he would be named one of the Triad Business Journal’s 40 Business Leaders under 40 in 2011, largely due to his ability to turn around the numbers for the company.
“That was great and goes back to knowing the community and knowing the people that live and worked there,” Trapp said. “One of the things I loved about that was that we made investments back into the community. A lot of our homes were low-income homes in underserved communities in the district that I now represent. The owner absolutely believed in putting in high quality fixtures and doing things that they needed to do in order to make the place great and I loved that.”
Now he works as a licensed real estate agent with Allen Tate. He said that working in real estate allows him to help people achieve homeownership. He is a board member of the Affordable Housing Management board, the Greensboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro and Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice, just to name a few.
“If you own your home, no one can put you out and it’s your property,” Trapp said. “It’s the first step to building wealth and ultimately being self-sufficient.”
His experience in real estate also allowed him to get more involved into politics through lobbying.
“I guess everything was meant to push me back into something that I said I wasn’t going to do.”
A Campaign for the Future
When you ask about his future in politics, Trapp says that he isn’t committed to anything after serving on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. He adds that he was also taught to never say never.
“It’s always good to have someone new come in to put fresh eyes on a situation but I also understand that you need some sort of leadership value there. I love being a county commissioner. I’m perfectly comfortable right where I am and I don’t see myself pushing beyond that.”
He seems to have made quite an impression in that position as well. Commissioner Carlvena Foster said that she finds Trapp to be a compassionate and uncompromising leader. She said that they share the same values, thoughts and ideas.
“He champions causes that affect the general population of citizens in Guilford County, often spearheading initiatives and programs to empower and enhance lives. He is not afraid to step outside of the box,” Forster said. “He is tactful in speaking his mind and is not easily influenced by other’s opinions of issues or him. He is definitely a protector of his family, always putting them first.”
One thing that Trapp can commit to, at least for the next four years, is efforts to increase economic development opportunities for Greensboro, High Point and the surrounding areas. He’ll also continue to shed light on the issues facing so many impoverished residents.
“I represent the poor people and I do so unapologetically,” Trapp said.