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Deep Roots: A profile featuring Tara Kenchen

The Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) has recently released “E(race)ing Inequities” — an analysis of the state of racial equity in North Carolina public schools — along with a companion report, “Deep Rooted: A Brief History of Race and Education in North Carolina.” This work is led by James Ford, executive director of CREED, in partnership with the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research. As part of this series, we are profiling figures across North Carolina who have experienced the crossroads of race and education first-hand — like Tara Kenchen.

After graduating from Elizabeth City State University, Kenchen taught in Bertie County for five years. Learning about the lives of her students, who often lacked affordable and safe housing, inspired her to go to law school and jumpstarted her passion for community economic development. In the video above, Kenchen shares some of her experiences as a teacher and her current work as president/CEO of the North Carolina Community Development Initiative

“Many poverty issues are rooted in inequity,” Kenchen said. “You’re building on this platform of inequity — you’re still not starting from an even playing field.”

When Kenchen taught eighth graders in Bertie County from 1992-1997, she said the county was the second poorest county in the state.

“I had never encountered poverty like that, and I think that what you see in school is a reflection of what’s happening in a community,” Kenchen said. “I had students who were hungry — what we would call today as food insecure — but that they were hungry. That the only meal they really got was the meal that they received at school.”

Kenchen also shared that some days were emotionally hard, particularly eighth grade graduation.

“Students are excited about the last day of school. Teachers are excited about the last day of school, and many times I would sit and cry on the last day of school,” she said. “Because I knew that some of those kids wouldn’t make it through high school.”

The lived experiences of her students caused Kenchen to think about questions like, “What does a community need in order to be successful?” It directly translates into the issues she leads in tackling at the NC Community Development Initiative through strategic investments. These investments include disaster relief, affordable housing, enterprise funding, revitalization, and conservation in the state’s most distressed communities.

“I just knew that I wanted to help,” Kenchen said. “Teaching in Bertie solidified that for me.”

Editor’s note: James Ford is on contract with the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research from 2017-2020 while he leads this statewide study of equity in our schools. Center staff is supporting Ford’s leadership of the study, has conducted an independent verification of the data, and has edited the reports.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.