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Having the difficult conversations

On April 28-30, 2019, philanthropists, policymakers, educators, and community leaders joined together in Greensboro at the Proximity Hotel to learn about and discuss the work being done and the work to be done to orient North Carolina’s students, educators, and leaders towards readiness and attainment. For the next two weeks, EducationNC will be sharing content from Bridge.

It’s easy to claim that the left and right sides of our political spectrum are hopelessly divided. Taking action to create understanding between the two is harder.

Leslie Winner and John Hood hope to do just that. They’re co-chairs of the NC Leadership Forum. During a presentation on the forum at Bridge, Hood said the idea was born from a desire to create more constructive, civil, and trusting conversations between those who are politically at odds.

“I had written an article about how, in North Carolina, in the political world, the left and the right lived in different worlds,” Hood said, “…and there really wasn’t a lot of cross-talk and understanding about why the other person believed what he or she believed. Leslie read the column, and she took the initiative to start a conversation.”

The program includes a series of meetings where specific topics are discussed. Those topics are selected by a steering committee and ideally are relevant, difficult, and clearly controversial. Choices so far have included income inequality, energy and the environment, and school choice.

The committee selects influential people — leaders, hence the name — to aid in the conversation. Afterwards, a report is drafted that highlights where folks agreed, and perhaps more importantly, disagreed.

Winner reiterated the importance of trust in creating meaningful dialogue.

“At the very beginning, we spend a lot of time helping people to get to know each other in a deeper way than you normally do at a cocktail party,” Winner said.

She said the forum takes a “what happens in the room, stays in the room” approach, allowing general commentary on what was discussed to be shared but prohibiting attributing quotes to specific individuals. The idea is to encourage people to speak their minds without worrying it may be used against them later.

“…we operate under a rule that we have no observers, we have no press, we have no people that are just curiosity watchers,” she said.

Procedurally, the program sticks to a deliberate approach for discussing issues: get to know each other, agree on certain facts, discuss options to fix the issue and the pros and cons of each, gauge the level of support for each option, and lastly, take a deeper dive into the areas that cause disagreement.

The current cohort is dissecting school choice, a hot topic in the NC education world, marked by debates over charter schools, school vouchers, and more.

Robert Kinlaw

Robert was director of multimedia for EducationNC. He is a journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker in the Triangle. Robert attended both public and private grade schools in North Carolina and graduated from the Media and Journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has produced video content for The News & Observer, ABC11-WTVD, UNC-Chapel Hill, The News Reporter and more. His short documentary Princess Warrior received an Excellence in Filmmaking award at the 2017 Carrboro Film Festival. Visit his website at