Redefining Collaboration: Communities in Eastern N.C. Come Together to Work Together

If you’ve been keeping up with us here on the State of the South blog, you probably know that we’ve been traveling across North Carolina since August facilitating community work sessions with the John M. Belk Endowment and local institutional partners. These work sessions were sparked by a report that MDC and the Belk Endowment released earlier this year titled North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity, examining how North Carolina reflects recent research showing that the South has the lowest rates of economic mobility for young people in the nation.

To find out how these data play out in real places in North Carolina, we talked with leaders from eight communities in the state about how residents and institutions are confronting slim odds for upward mobility. Now we’re reconvening those same leaders and more to reflect on the data as a cross-sector group and to lay the groundwork for planning next steps.

#NCMobilityMatters to Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers of Pitt Community College because equity is not the same as equality

Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers (Pitt Community College) share why mobility matters to them.

In mid-November, two MDC staff members had the privilege of traveling to the eastern part of the state to hold two of these work sessions: one in Brunswick County, including leaders from New Hanover County; and one in Beaufort County, including leaders from Pitt and Martin counties, as well. Though distinct in geography and history, these regions in the southern and northern parts of the state have a lot in common—people in leadership who care about their community and are striving for deeper cross-sector coordination; a mixture of urban and rural areas, each with unique needs; and strong higher education institutions that are determined to expand access to all residents in their service areas.

Those of us at MDC who had the opportunity to speak with a variety of leaders in both communities couldn’t help but notice a similar challenge, followed by a similar proclamation, in both regions: Fragmented work makes for fragmented funding, which stalls strategic investment that could move a community forward as a collective group. Both sets of leaders bemoaned that all too often, groups of leaders get together, each say their bit about the work they’re doing, and then go back to their corners without having really changed much about their way of working. Even in communities where there is some cross-over, it can be difficult to create deep collaboration that reaches every system or institution at every level. In fact, a participant at the Brunswick County session raised an issue with the word “collaboration” itself: one definition of the word refers to how an enemy might gather information from their opposing side. Though malicious intent doesn’t apply, this sense of working on separate “teams” is all too common as communities strive in silos to achieve change and growth.

But both of these work sessions were different. Inspired by sobering data showing that nearly 70 percent of children born into poverty in both the southeast and northeast regions in North Carolina will stay at the very bottom or rise only one income quintile as adults, leaders from these eastern counties were ready to put their heads together to find a new way of pooling their resources. By aligning their efforts and working to fill gaps in resources as a community team, in which all players are working towards the same goal, these regions can start to build an infrastructure of opportunity in which the systems and factors that influence a person’s path to success are strengthened and aligned to make sure no one sees inequitable barriers to opportunity.

Big thanks to the caring and insightful leaders from New Hanover, Brunswick, Pitt, Martin, and Beaufort counties for two great conversations this November on why #NCMobilityMatters! It’s hard to believe we only have on more community work session to go—we’ll see you Dec. 13, Fayetteville!

“Either we own the issue or the outcome:” Economic Mobility in Western NC

“Because it mattered to me and my family.”

“Because people matter.”

“Because the alternative is stagnation.”

“Because kids deserve to have their dreams within reach.”

These are just some of the responses we got when we asked a room of leaders in Swain, Jackson, Macon counties and the Qualla Boundary to complete the phrase, “Mobility matters in Western North Carolina because … .” Representatives from higher education, the K-12 system, economic development, and philanthropy came together two weeks ago for a work session on increasing the odds for upward mobility in the region.

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions.

We wanted to look at the nuanced ways that our home state of North Carolina, a state grounded in Southern geography, history, and identity, reflects the patterns of “stickiness” illuminated by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Researchers looked at economic mobility in “commuting zones” (regional economies that share a labor force and sometimes cross county or state lines). In the commuting zones that encompass Swain, Jackson, and Macon Counties, one third of children born into the lowest income quintile will remain in the bottom as adults. An additional half will rise only to the second-lowest or middle income quintiles, leaving only one-fifth of low-income children rising to the upper or upper-middle quintiles as adults. And these counties fare better in terms of economic mobility compared to their in-state neighbors: 19 of 24 commuting zones in North Carolina have worse mobility odds than these Western counties.

Mobility Data, Franklin County, NC

What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Franklin area?

 Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Mobility Data, Sylva County, NC

What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Sylva area?

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Yet on August 31st, in a room at Western Carolina University, people well aware of the challenges facing the region were not filled with a sense of defeat. Rather, there was a sense of urgency and a charge set forth by the university’s chancellor, David Belcher: “Those of us in the room are the privileged, but we’re also the leaders. It’s time we broke from our old ways of working, because either we own the issue or we own the outcome.”

Participants affirmed the chancellor’s charge by contributing their own perspectives on the local forces both supporting and impeding equitable mobility in the region. The group named some familiar challenges in the Western part of the state: a geography that draws tourists, but also makes it difficult to draw large employers and to provide affordable housing, transportation, and broadband solutions to improve access to resources. But the region has its strengths as well: solid entrepreneurial programs at the university and community college; a strong sense of regional care and collaboration; and a cultural tradition that values education and helps residents form social connections.

By thinking through the forces working both for and against increasing the mobility odds in the three-county region, leaders found themselves thinking through creative ways to strengthen their community’s infrastructure of opportunity, or the systemic factors that can be aligned to work more effectively in favor of expanding education and living-wage prospects for residents. The group of 50 participants discussed the need for increased private investment in the area; the promise of starting college and workforce preparation even earlier than high school, so even middle school students can set aspirational goals that will, in turn, contribute to local economic growth; and the urgency of including more partners—even across state lines—in a conversation about expanding broadband access, so that those living within the counties can enjoy the benefits of technology, and those working inside the counties’ lines can afford to call it home.

Creating an infrastructure of opportunity is made possible when communities collectively digest data, understand the challenge, engage in dialogue about the set of conditions working for and against their shared goals for mobility, and respond accordingly and collaboratively. Thank you, Swain, Macon, and Jackson counties and the Qualla Boundary, for joining us in a conversation about economic mobility in the western part of the state. Up next: Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin, and Nash counties! Stay tuned.

Examining the Opportunity Landscape: LGBT Individuals and Upward Mobility

Since the N.C. General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 on March 23, there have been multiple interpretations about how exactly the bill would change lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (as well as non-LGBT) rights, in the state at large and in local municipalities. One effect of HB2’s passing, however, has been clear and immediate: the state’s non-discrimination policies have come under sharper review. Indeed, the question of protecting LGBT-identifying individuals from discrimination in obtaining employment and receiving services is one that many Southern states, such as Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia have been grappling with, particularly in the past few weeks. North Carolina explicitly protects its residents against discrimination of any kind based on “race, religion, color, national origin, age, handicap or biological sex as designated on a person’s birth certificate.” The wording of HB2 suggests that local governments in the state must adhere to this same nondiscrimination policy—protecting no more and no fewer identities in the public sphere, and no fewer identities in the private sphere. This would mean, for example, that while we at MDC can (and do) protect against discrimination based on gender expression, the city of Durham now cannot. (Last week, Governor McCrory issued an executive order for the North Carolina state government to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy for state employees, in addition to race, religion, color, national origin, age, and handicap.)

In the Jim Crow South, for the state to require that municipalities protect all residents—in public and private spaces—from race discrimination was regarded by many as an infringement upon the white population’s freedom, but the work of the Civil Rights movement achieved on-the-books protections for race identity. This de-jure protection acknowledges that groups of people experience unique realities given race identity, and that these experiences, while based on constructed categories, result in real non-white disadvantage. Protections based on identity categories are intended to ensure that all people are treated with justice and dignity within our society. Although systemic racism still exists—in our educational , judicial and healthcare systems—we know that explicitly stated policies of nondiscrimination on the basis of race are integral to creating systems and institutions in which people are treated equitably. So if your employer is on record listing your race, national origin, or other protected identity as reason for firing you, that’s unlawful by North Carolina and federal standards. We are not, however, at the point of conferring this same de-jure recognition and protection to the LGBT community. Much of this stems from differing arguments about whether LGBT identities are morally acceptable. Because many legislators and voters do not see these identities as valid, explicit protections for the LGBT community are not prioritized.

Inherent in the absence of LGBT individuals as a protected class in both N.C. and many other states’ laws is an underlying argument that LGBT individuals do not experience a disadvantageous distance from opportunity based on these identities—that these individuals’ experiences of being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual do not create real disadvantage.

Here are a few snapshots of data that shine light on the current challenges that LGBT individuals face in attaining the types of mobility we talk about here on the State of the South blog. According to a recent Williams Institute at the University of California study, 35 percent of LGBT adults live in the South—more than any other region in the U.S.

We’re always trying to refine our perspective to take in the full picture of what’s going on in the Southern landscape of equitable opportunity for upward social and economic mobility. We describe equitable mobility using three measures of well-being: thriving, belonging, and contributing. Upward mobility will be more likely when residents can, for example, find belonging in safe, affordable housing, thrive in equitable educational settings, and contribute to society in good health. If we only measure the well-being of people that our laws consider members of protected classes, we resign ourselves to the current state and operation of our systems and policies, making it easy to miss those on the margins—those for whom opportunity is particularly far off. Housing, education, and health, along with equal opportunity for employment and economic security, are necessary for an infrastructure of opportunity in which all young people and adults have an equitable opportunity to achieve upward social and economic mobility. But when a specific demographic of people in the U.S., many of whom reside in the South, are regularly and systemically barred from these building blocks to opportunity, the overall integrity and wellbeing of our society and economy suffers, and we betray our proud American belief in equal opportunity for all. These systemic barriers are not inevitable, but rather are created; therefore our systems’ outcomes are also not inevitable, but rather can be improved by building an infrastructure of opportunity complete with affirming and supportive pathways and policies.

Staying Classy: Intergenerational Reproduction of Class and Mobility

I’ve been guilty of it: celebrating something or someone as “classy,” or enjoying being described as “classy” myself. It seems fun and harmless, as if for a glamorous moment, I get to dabble in a sense of sophisticated belonging. But what does it mean to have “class?” Here on the State of the South blog, we talk a lot about wealth stratification and how a young person’s chances for economic mobility change based on family income and place, but these economic descriptors, while telling, don’t completely capture the cultural and social nuances of how we measure success and belonging in America. For example, I’m not just referring to economic success when I fix a shrimp and grits dish and brag to my friends, “this is some classy stuff.” So what do we mean when we describe people, places, and things as “classy,” and what does this imply about equitable access to opportunity if we also discuss economic success in terms of “class?”

Being “classy” isn’t exclusively about economic success—of course wealth and material comfort are associated with anything most people would describe as “classy,” but to be “classy” is also  the ability  to adequately prove that one belongs to a certain culture  that confers status and power. To be “classy” isn’t necessarily to be hard-working, educated, or ambitious—the ingredients we hope, in an equal-opportunity capitalism, would be valuable tools to attaining upward economic mobility. Rather, having “class” has more to do with the family you grow up in and requires a type of informal training on how to belong to the higher-status culture. And because this culture is associated with whiteness and wealth, it isn’t equally accessible to all.

Twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated this in his theory of three forms of capital: economic, social, and cultural. In short, economic capital is what you have, social capital is who you know, and cultural capital is what you know. Bourdieu describes these forms of capital as tools that help individuals navigate society and access economic and social success. But there’s not an abundance of these tools—on the contrary, they find their value in scarcity, and they’re not exactly tools you can attain with hard work. So the inaccessibility of cultural capital in America becomes particularly problematic considering that, as Bourdieu found, having this form of capital equips you to take advantage of opportunity needed to succeed.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that we think it’s important to identify and limit barriers that keep people in underserved populations from taking advantage of opportunity. This includes increasing access to education, affordable housing, transportation, and healthcare. But there are other cultural and social dynamics at play that not only keep some people stuck at the bottom from one generation to the next, but keep some anchored at the top, as well:

Economic Mobility in Raleigh: What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult?


Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Because intergenerational “stickiness” is especially dire in the South, it’s important to take in the whole regional picture and the elements of Southern culture that could potentially contribute to inequitable outcomes. Sometimes this means turning the mirror on ourselves and seeking to change conditions by moving the lever not just on our economic systems, but on our cultural strongholds as well.

I came to understand one of these cultural strongholds better when I wrote my senior honors thesis on a dearly beloved Southern tradition that delineates the distinction between “class” and economic success: the debutante ball.

In my research, I looked specifically at the North Carolina statewide debutante ball that occurs in Raleigh once a year. About two hundred nineteen-year-old women from around the state are invited to partake in a summer of parties and dances, all culminating in a September weekend filled with luncheons, cocktails, dances, and—above all—a presentation ceremony, followed by a ball. Here, the symbolic purpose of the debutante ball comes to fruition, as young women are “presented to society” by an older man (most commonly their fathers) and presented on stage in long, white dresses while clutching a bouquet of red roses. One by one, the women are announced, until the whole group is asked to stand and is officially declared that year’s class of North Carolina debutantes.

To be invited to make your debut is an honor among the deb community, and indeed one must be invited in order to attend. The criteria for invitation remain largely mysterious, even after hour-long interviews with twenty-two debutante insiders. The most common answer is tradition—if your mother did it, or your father’s mother did it, and so on, you’re a shoe-in. Sometimes the answer to what merits an invitation is community contribution, yet the deb cohorts are consistently populated with white, affluent families, who are clearly not the only ones who contribute to the state’s well-being. It costs nearly $3,000 to merely accept an invitation to debut, and that’s doesn’t include the cost of the deb dress (often compared to a wedding dress), tuxedos, hotel rooms, limousines, and any other expenses that come along with the culture of participation.

The debutante tradition is largely about families, not the individual debutantes themselves, as the group of young women is lumped together without any substantial way to highlight their individual interests or accomplishments. Indeed, debutantes are introduced by their parents’ names, and many of the debutantes I spoke with told me that, although the parties were fun, they knew their participation was the result of their parents’ social connections and a desire to make their parents proud. Several debutantes I spoke with felt that family pressure meant that their not making their debut wasn’t even an option. For example, one young woman told me: “It was kind of a thing where I wasn’t physically forced to go, but [pause] I didn’t really have a choice not to go.” Parents have a vested interest in ensuring their daughters’ participation, because the debutante ball works, particularly in the South, to display families’ economic, social, and cultural assets and to reproduce elite status and social circles for the next generation. The result is that upper-class group boundaries are protected—children of elite families stay elite, and the deb ball does not welcome children of non-elite families to join “upper-class” ranks.

Again, there seems to be some ambiguity around what “upper-class” means. The term is bound up with all three types of Bourdieu’s capital, yet we like to talk about class in America as if it’s purely a matter of economic success and can therefore be attained with the right amount of persistence and hard work. But studying cultural phenomena like the debutante ball tells us otherwise. For example, during an interview with a man who had been attending the debutante ball since the 1940s, I asked him if it was possible for someone fairly new to North Carolina to be invited to debut. He told me: “Not unless they had money. If they had money, that other group would reach out to them, I guess. They figure, oh, they got money, so therefore they got class. But everybody who got money don’t have class, let’s face it [laughter.]” When I asked him to say more, he couldn’t quite articulate what he meant, and told me there was just a certain way of behaving that was understood among people who belonged to deb culture. Therefore, people with “new money” stuck out at these events and were not seen as valid group members. So could these families be described as “upper class?”

In a highly mobile society, young people would be able to navigate pathways to opportunity regardless of family wealth and connections. Instead, limited economic, social, and cultural capital—all closely guarded and reproduced within families—create extra hoops for young people to jump through in order to succeed. As Claire Cain Miller explained in an article for The UpShot yesterday, “Children grow up learning the skills to succeed in their socioeconomic stratum, but not necessarily others.” To build an Infrastructure of Opportunity in the South, we will need to take an honest look not only at our economic system, but also at our community culture and how that culture reinforces unequal access to opportunity.

Building a Healthy Infrastructure of Opportunity

Pinpointing one all-encompassing reason why healthcare disparities between racial groups in quality and access persist is as unrealistic as waving a magic wand to find a solution. Examining this phenomenon requires us to consider social determinants of health, the historical structures of racism, and the intersection of several public systems.

Last month, the American Public Health Association led this sort of examination in a webinar about systemic racism and assessing inequitable health outcomes. In the discussion, panelists from the University of Illinois School of Public Health, the National Collaborative for Health Equity, and the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine noted that although the Affordable Care Act has increased insurance coverage within racial groups, disparities between groups remain. The tide of healthcare coverage is rising, but individual social determinants of health (age, race, socioeconomic status, place, gender, disability status, etc.) often overlap to keep folks from being able to “float” to the same level of access and quality.

The intersections of disadvantage in health care outcomes across income, race, and place, for example, are not only social and systemic, but also plagued by the psychology of implicit biases. Healthcare professionals, like the rest of us, are human beings with their own set of internalized beliefs about the world. Acting according to implicit bias built from our own identity and experiences is efficient and effortless; our tasks are easier when we rely on this readily-available knowledge-set. But this tendency is dangerous if something as crucial as healthcare provision is largely concentrated in the hands—and therefore the implicit biases—of one segment of the overall population: that is, the white segment of the population.

For example, a study released by the American Association of Medical Colleges shows that from 1980-2004 white physicians have largely dominated the medical field, while black and Hispanic populations are underrepresented. More recently, the Texas Department of State Health Services published data showing that white healthcare professionals in Texas are more likely to hold higher-paying positions such as primary care physicians and less likely to act as community health workers, while the inverse is true for African Americans and Hispanics. The study shows us that even in states where people of color make up a large portion of the population, white people are in more powerful positions in disproportionately large numbers. The faces, experiences, and knowledge-sets of Texas’ healthcare providers, then, cannot truly be reflective of the wide array of needs of the patients requesting care—an argument of provider-patient disconnect that could be extended to other Southern states with similar demographics.

Providing quality healthcare for individuals with an array of identities and experiences should involve an unbiased approach to health assessment and treatment, thoughtfully addressing the realities that lead patients to require the care they’re seeking. Knowing and understanding patients and approaching them as partners in addressing health issues is a valuable framework for equitable treatment. For example, an anonymous article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last month graphically describes how doctors with privileged identities (e.g. male, white) have acted inappropriately towards patients with less privileged identities (e.g. female, Latina), partially due to a lack of understanding and empathy towards those whose identities and experiences are different from their own. Such a testimonial reveals the necessity for increased representation of the wide range of people—across race, socioeconomic background, gender, etc.—that seek quality healthcare. The author described the need for his piece in the journal as a “silence to break.”

But something else must also be broken: a cycle that perpetuates a relationship between high wealth and better health outcomes. Increasing diversity at all levels of healthcare professions in order to improve health outcomes for people of color becomes rather daunting if you consider that getting the necessary education to hold such positions is influenced by an individual’s health outcomes, and various other interrelating social factors. If we want to address racialized health disparities, we have to look at the whole picture—what our regular readers know we like to call the infrastructure of opportunity. Addressing health disparities within such a framework means asking what public policies, community supports, and social structures are in place to address the ties between health outcomes and other social determinants of health. What is the relationship between upward mobility into quality jobs and the accessibility of quality healthcare?

To address the socially harmful association between wealth and health, we have to understand that access to quality healthcare, as well as housing and transportation, isn’t inevitably set along lines of race and wealth advantage/disadvantage, but is rather intentionally embedded into our society via an economic system that turns rights into privileges. Indeed, focused and justice-oriented action within to change the systemic cycle of low opportunity equating with poor health outcomes can generate hope: we have the power to do better, because we are the architects of the faulty system. A problem-solving lens that focuses on an infrastructure of opportunity allows us to not only address cycles of inequity, but also to build better pathways to equity for future generations. Such a view surely must take healthcare access and quality into account in order to build a (literally) healthy platform for future mobility.

Anna Ormond is MDC’s 2015-2016 Autry Fellow