An Idea to ReCONNECT NC: The beginnings of a NC Regional Exchange

In 2014, while researching best practices and innovative programs seeking to bridge the rural and urban divide for our upcoming Emerging Issues Forum, I came across a program out of Kentucky that was connecting leaders from rural and urban communities. I read up about the program, talked with the director, and started to think about what a program like this could like connecting leaders on a regional level in NC. I was all in! Or so I thought. A few months later my family welcomed our second child, putting one dream on hold to focus on another.

Fast forward to 2020: a global pandemic and increasing divides across income, race, politics, and geography. John Dempsey Parker, a senior fellow at IEI who works on our rural faith team, and I were planning the 2021 Emerging Issues Forum, ReCONNECT for the Future, and were trying to identify one idea from each past forum in the ReCONNECT NC series that we thought North Carolinians could get excited about. Most ideas were easy to define…specific strategies lifted up by experts in the field and discussed among forum participants. But the idea for the forum on our geographic interconnectedness was less clear. In fact, the key takeaway from that convening was both very simple and extremely complicated: we just need more opportunities to talk to each other, build relationships, and work together to solve our regional and statewide challenges. That’s when the idea of a regional exchange resurfaced.

I shared the idea with John and not only was he in, he too had been thinking of a similar kind of initiative that could benefit our regions. It didn’t take much to convince IEI’s director that this was the idea to lift up. We reached out to some of NC’s leadership programs to learn what they thought about the idea and who might be interested in working on a project like this. We started small, reaching out to Bronwyn Lucas with the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), Brian Etheridge with Leadership North Carolina (LNC), and Hunter Corn with the Wildacres Leadership Initiative’s William C. Friday Fellowship for Human Relations. John and I met with each person individually to pitch the idea, and when they all showed interest in collectively exploring the idea, we met virtually as a group. And this is what we agreed on:

“We need more intentional opportunities, outside of existing programmatic structures, to develop deeper relationships between leaders in rural, urban, and suburban communities within an interconnected region. The more connected community leaders are with one another on a personal level, the more likely they are to support one another by sharing connections to ideas, resources, and other people. That same rapport can also create a sense of trust, allowing us to share deep knowledge and ask questions that challenge us to do better. The design for this idea could initially be co-created among rural and urban serving leadership organizations and piloted with engaged alumni, with support from partners.” 

To be clear, there is no directive from any of our organizations that we must create this program…we’re just all really interested in exploring it. That’s why we’ve committed to come together over the course of 2021 to bring our collective expertise and learnings to the table to discuss and document what a model for a NC Regional Exchange Program could look like and explore potential strategies for implementation. We had our first meeting on March 2nd and plan to meet again on March 22nd. Our team values transparency, so one way we hope to honor that is by updating folks on our progress through periodic blog posts.

There is a lot that excites me about this project, especially the potential impact it could have at the regional level. But I also appreciate that we will be modeling what building a collaborative effort looks like. For example, we all know of each other. We’ve crossed paths at meetings and in our work. I am an alumni of LNC and John is an alumni of REDI. However, this is our chance to build deeper relationships and learn from one another in the process. We’ll constructively discuss how to build this ship–even when we may disagree on our approaches. We’ll need to figure out the right partners to engage and when. And at some point we’ll need to come to consensus on the best strategies to move it forward. 

I also suspect we’ll have a lot of fun while doing it. I hope you’ll follow us along on our journey. Stay tuned!