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Honoring Leslie Winner: A career that mattered for students, education, North Carolina

Leslie Winner always has been bigger than life to me.

My love affair with politics and policy began sitting under the table at the Charlotte Convention Center waiting for Betty Chafin Rash’s election returns in the mid-to-late 1970s. Betty is my step-mom, and she was part of a crew of young female warriors that led the way in Charlotte and our state as they learned to work, and work together, for a better North Carolina. Part of the second wave of feminism, they were smart, brave, hard working, and feisty, which proved to be a formidable mix. Often, from underneath the table, I was looking up to them. Literally.

Leslie was one of those warriors. She still is.

As she retires, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation celebrates Leslie’s nearly 40 years of public service to our state. So do I and so does EdNC.

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Leslie with Rep. Chuck McGrady and Joel Olsen

Jock Tate, president of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation now and when Leslie was hired, wrote, “Leslie grew up in Asheville when it still was a relatively small town, and she learned the value of community and diligence. After a distinguished career as a legislator, a leader in the nonprofit community, and an attorney – most recently as chief counsel for The University of North Carolina – she still moves easily among and works well with people at the grass roots. She understands the challenges the people of North Carolina face today and the myriad of challenges created by unprecedented growth” in numbers and diversity.

Leslie served as general counsel to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. She served three terms in the state Senate from 1993-98, representing the 40th district (D-Mecklenburg). She co-chaired the Education/Higher Education committee.

Leading a Foundation with the mission of improving the quality of life for all North Carolinians was a good fit for Leslie. She has been doing that her whole life.

Leslie paved the way for many, including me, to do the work we do. Long before I was hired at EdNC, she grilled the founders over the course of many meetings about the concept of EdNC and whether an online platform could create the architecture for citizen participation on an issue as important as education. The first time I met with her about EdNC, she made it clear that our audience should be anyone and everyone in North Carolina with any interest in education issues.

Her career has mattered to our students, to our schools, and to our state. Along the way, Leslie has taught us some lessons we should not lose sight of as she rides her bike off into the sunset with her husband Jerry and enjoys long walks with her beautiful daughter Lily.

In her tenure at the Foundation, she thought a lot about public will building, asking…

How do we build public will for important things in this era of polarization?

She established the Foundation’s first Community Leadership Council with leaders from across our state. All kinds of leaders — urban and rural, a rich array of races and ethnicities, poorer and richer, and leaning all-which-a-ways politically often depending on the issue.

She taught us to ask the hard questions.

She taught us to travel the state and talk to people, and more importantly, to listen to them.

She taught us about the importance of mentors — both having them and being one. The kind of mentors that stick with you over the course of life.

She taught us the importance of authentic leadership.

To honor her, dig deep, and in this era of polarization, recommit to doing the hard work of shaping this state we all love and we all call home in ways that are authentic to your own deeply held beliefs.

Leslie, we expect you to do the same.

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Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.