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Lessons learned from going and seeing

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EdNC’s focus from the beginning has been to go and see the places and people of North Carolina so we might better understand the impact of events and policies on the ground. 

Research shows that surprisingly few Americans have met a journalist. Far too often, traditional media outlets have looked at policy impacts solely through the prism of those in positions of power — who is up, who is down, who won, who lost. This distance between journalism as an industry and the people we cover isn’t healthy.  

We want to know how policy is impacting those in community, and we believe it is important to close the distance between policy and practice. We believe that meeting people in their communities matters; it is vital to our mission and to our reporting. Moreover, we consider it an essential ingredient for building trust and authentic relationships.

For those reasons and more, we believe it is travel that gives us the necessary perspective and context to do our best work. EdNC’s offices are the classrooms, college campuses, churches, coffee shops, BBQ joints, and front porches that define the fabric of civic life in our communities.

Our journalism unfolds in three distinct phases as we outlined in our annual report:

  • What happens because we are committed to showing up in person in your communities;
  • The creation and publication of the content coming from those visits; and
  • The work we undertake to make sure our news, stories, and perspectives find their way out into the world.

It is our “architecture of participation” and our commitment to travel that has helped us build audience, impact, and trust in order to do our journalism well.

EdNC’s architecture of participation

The goal of this article is to share our work democratizing relationships through strategic visits, well-crafted events, and other learning experiences. When we talk about democratizing relationships, we mean fostering connections and opening doors, and it should ultimately enable those in positions of power to engage directly with the communities they serve.

Our work in this space was designed to introduce key decision makers to the individuals and organizations doing the work on the ground, while also empowering local stakeholders to connect with leaders and decision makers.

These lessons are based on my own travel and hundreds of site visits and hosted events designed to build relationships, explore promising practices, and craft a better understanding of critical issues across North Carolina.

By sharing our methods, insights, and lessons learned, we aim to provide a practical guide that other organizations can adapt to their unique contexts and goals.

Why we “go and see”

“Go and see” visits are important to our work. These visits allow leaders, decision makers, and stakeholders to step foot in schools, colleges, and various community settings, gaining firsthand experience and insights into the challenges and successes on the ground.

As we wrote in our annual report: “Along the way, we realized it was important not just for us to show up, but for us to bring philanthropists, policymakers, and others in positions of influence to your communities to shrink the distance between those on the ground and those in power. Journalism has long sought to democratize access to information. We believe these visits democratize relationships. It is a way of sharing privilege.”

In practice, democratizing relationships represents an opportunity for us to:

  • Foster connections: Enable leaders and stakeholders to connect with local changemakers, fostering relationships that can lead to sustained collaboration and support.
  • Open doors: Provide access to those who may not typically have direct contact with statewide decision makers, democratizing access to power and influence.
  • Build trust: Establish trust between leaders and local communities, ensuring that voices from the ground are heard and valued.
  • Support collaboration: Encourage ongoing dialogue and cooperation between different sectors and stakeholders.

This approach aligns with our commitment to democratizing access to information, which is core to our work as a journalism outlet. By facilitating these connections and fostering relationships, we believe that we contribute to a more informed, engaged, and equitable society.

Types of events and their purposes

EdNC conducts various types of visits and events, each with distinct purposes and formats. These include:

  • Exploring user experience (UX) to inform our work: Using design thinking processes to understand how information flows to and through communities, how our website and other products can best serve users, and how we can best adapt all of our work to meet the information needs of our communities.
  • “24 Hours In:” Intensive, immersive visits designed to build awareness and give stakeholders a deep dive into community issues and innovations within a roughly 24-hour period.
  • Conducting qualitative and quantitative research: Structured research blitzes designed to gather extensive data and insights from community colleges, public schools, and other anchor institutions.
  • Surfacing innovations, promising practices, models, and best practices: Visits aimed at highlighting and learning about emerging innovations that others should know about.
  • Building relationships and trust in communities: We have used travel, such as our first community college blitz, to build relationships and trust in communities across the state.
  • Informing investments: Co-learning journeys with partners to identify opportunities for investment and support in various communities.
  • Reach NC Voices: Engagement journalism-centered events and activities to extend our reach, build relationships, and showcase our work.

Explore UX to inform our work

We use a design thinking process to understand how information flows and how people use our website, which informs the architecture of participation for EdNC. Our commitment to design thinking — encompassing prototyping, practicing empathy, and rapid ideation — has remained central to EdNC. By going on the road early in our journey, we gathered insights directly from the communities we serve, ensuring our platform would meet their needs and expectations then and into the future.

When Mebane became the founding CEO, she brought a wealth of knowledge about North Carolina and our 100 counties to her role on day one. She quickly hit the road, and in every meeting, she would ask people to pull out their phones and show her how they consumed information. In time, she began to show them prototypes of our website to see how they interacted with

During COVID-19, we also knew that we needed to make sure that we understood how information moved to and through our communities in order to best serve all of you. We are the only newsroom in the country who has conducted an information assessment in every county in North Carolina.

We recommend every organization remain committed to active listening and audience research.

“24 Hours In” to build awareness

Our “24 Hours In” trips are intensive 24-hour visits designed for business leaders, philanthropists, and key stakeholders to gain a deep understanding of a community. These trips include:

  • Collective meals: Breaking bread with community members an average of three times over the course of each trip. Unstructured conversation over food with light prompts and moderation helps build connectivity and understanding.
  • Community discussions: We bring together leaders from various sectors to discuss key topics such as educational innovation, disaster recovery, and educational attainment. The goal is for the conversation to be cross-sector and revelatory for those in the audience.
  • Raising awareness: Democratizing access to relationships with funders and building awareness of local leaders, innovative programs, pressing issues, and unique places.
  • We also work to provide delight. We provide local food and beverage, local snacks, and local crafts. The goal is to connect participants to the local community.

Build relationships and trust in communities

Our first blitz to all 58 community colleges was designed to establish connections, uncover key issues, and build trust with new audiences. By visiting all colleges simultaneously, we avoided playing favorites and demonstrated our commitment to covering postsecondary education on a level playing field.

This effort included launching our award-winning postsecondary newsletter Awake58 and publishing first-person perspectives from several key leaders to underscore our commitment to amplifying their voices.

Conduct qualitative and quantitative research 

Our second blitz involved visiting all 58 community colleges over four months to conduct research and deepen relationships. As Mebane Rash previously outlined, this approach allows us to:

  • Test assumptions: Challenge our preconceived notions and validate our understanding of community needs.
  • Deepen relationships: Build stronger connections with leadership, faculty, and students.
  • Conduct research: Gather qualitative and quantitative data to inform our news and storytelling.
  • Invest in communities: Spend time and money in local areas, contributing to their economies.

Our second community college blitz resulted in individual stories on the economic impact of each community college and research on financial indicators of support, such as local government and legislative support.

Identify promising practices

As we travel, we identify promising practices that others can learn from and potentially invest in. One example is the registered nursing apprenticeship program at Davidson-Davie Community College. We first learned about their nursing apprenticeships during our reporting, and our interest grew when we brought stakeholders to their campus.

EdNC’s Emily Thomas conducted and published a case study on Davidson-Davie’s work, which we shared through articles, press releases, and a webinar. We continue to bring stakeholders to observe and learn from this model, organizing convenings to extend its reach.

Inform investments

We facilitate co-learning journeys with partners to inform their investments.

We have now taken MC Belk Pilon and her team at the John M. Belk Endowment to 47 of the 58 community colleges and eight of our 10 HBCUs.

Here is what MC has to say about the impact of travel for their work:

“We would not be who we are today without our travels alongside the EdNC team. When we began our journey together, no one knew who we were or what we hoped to do. EdNC picked up the phone, started traveling, and opened doors across the state. Our collective travel built trust in ways we could have never accomplished on our own. Most importantly, our travel has shaped every aspect of our work.”

MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment

As part of their Extra Miles Tour, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina traveled over 11,000 miles, held more than 250 listening sessions, and engaged thousands of North Carolinians, meeting with farmers, educators, preachers, nurses, doctors, and rural hospital CEOs over two years. You will find the Extra Miles Tour report here.

Reach NC Voices

When we launched Reach NC Voices, we applied design thinking techniques to gather information diaries via texting, conducting user interviews, and performing usability tests on prototypes. We also developed personas of decision makers to understand what might influence policy changes by interviewing stakeholders and policymakers.

Beyond surveys and texting, our engagement journalism-centered events extend our reach and build relationships. We have:

  • Participated in community events like holiday parades, festivals, and more;
  • Conducted user interviews in breweries, churches, and other local venues; and
  • Gathered community members’ insights on their information needs before facilitating community-wide conversations.

These initiatives help us connect with communities, understand their needs, and showcase our journalism in engaging and impactful ways.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina CEO and President Dr. Tunde Sotunde (middle), Blue Cross NC Foundation President Dr. John Lumpkin (left), and Health and Hunger Coalition Executive Director Jenn Bass during our visit to Watauga County. Bridgette Cyr/EducationNC

Do you want to build your own “go and see” experience?

Should you decide to create your own opportunities to go and see, here are a few lessons to consider. These lessons and recommendations are based on the template we used during the Extra Miles Tour with Blue Cross NC and our travel with the John M. Belk Endowment.

  • We do our research in advance as a pulse check on the community. We use our 100 county information assessment as a starting point — but even if you lack access to such a resource, we recommend conducting your own pulse check using local media outlets, local Facebook groups, and outreach to regional organizations to understand what is happening on the ground before you begin to plan your trip.
  • We conduct exploratory calls with key contacts and leaders in each county and ask them what we should see. The communities know what they wish to showcase and the issues they are currently facing.
  • We establish at least a framework of what we hope to see in advance so that we have a theme for the visit.
  • We lean on anchor institutions — nonprofits, churches, community colleges, our public schools — as hosts because they know their community, they have a broad base of community support, and they often serve as conveners and connectors already.
  • It is important to state the purpose of the “go and see” at the outset. Our visits tend to be framed around a learning journey and dialogue.
  • We aim to not be extractive — and we cover all “sunk” costs related to food, room rentals, and more. One of our partners committed to giving at least one $5,000 contribution to a nonprofit or other community organization in each county.
  • We review our conscious inclusion checklist.

Here is an excerpt from our conscious inclusion checklist:

[ ] When setting up the visit to the community, say out loud what we care about, for instance:
  • “We’d love to hear from a diversity of voices while we’re there.”
  • “We practice conscious inclusion in our work, so we’d love to meet with folks from a variety of backgrounds and lived experiences.”
[ ] Stay longer than required for the story to get to the know the community. Be aware of parachuting in and of being extractive. Social first reporting is a way to immediately give back to the community for their time. [ ] Stay long enough to attend to best practices in tightening and strengthening relationships, including creating space for authenticity, building trust, navigating difference and power, and identifying shared purpose. [ ] Identify yourself, explain who you work with and that we are a news organization. Remember that most people don’t know what to expect or the rules of engagement with the media when they agree to be interviewed. Explain why you are there and what they can expect so that when the visit is over, people don’t feel misled or disappointed. [ ] When in community, analyze the room. Assess across the fault lines. Do the identity markers of the folks in the room match up with those who should be in the room? If not, how can we address that? If there’s a lack of diversity, is there a way to provide context?

100 county assessment

When building a trip, we start with a comprehensive assessment of each county. This assessment includes:

  • Key data points: We collect demographics, primary employers, key leaders, and local media outlets as part of a comprehensive spreadsheet that we then use for planning our visits. Data sources include the Census Quick Facts, which has information on population, race, gender, education, residents without health insurance, and more. We also use the myFutureNC county attainment data.
  • Inventory relationships: Understanding existing relationships and identifying community leaders in the area also helps us identify those we need to call first to deepen our understanding of the community before we set firm plans.

This information and data ensures a cohesive and meaningful experience for all participants.

Pulse checks

We conduct weekly pulse checks by scanning local media sources and social media accounts of key local institutions. This ongoing monitoring allows us to:

  • Understand what is happening locally and stay informed on current events and issues.
  • Customize content and tailor our visits and interactions based on the latest developments and community needs.
  • Be sensitive to the timing of partners and local events to ensure our visits are both well-received and not disruptive.

Planning timeline

The preferred planning timeline for a visit is to make contact with key local partners at least 60 days out, though this may be adjusted based on partners’ availability and timing. Key considerations include:

  • Partner availability and the community schedule: Scheduling around holidays, graduations, and other significant local events.
  • Runway for proper preparation: Allowing ample time for logistical arrangements, agenda setting, and stakeholder engagement. Our agendas tend to evolve over multiple conversations as we identify potential themes and invitees.

Visit duration and pacing

To ensure a meaningful visit, we recommend:

  • Minimum duration: When we visit schools and community colleges, EdNC team members are encouraged to stay at least for a whole academic day and to spend the night in the community.
  • Balancing content and conversation: Ensuring that the visit includes both structured content and time for open dialogue.

Effective pacing of visits is crucial to maximize impact. We encourage an authentic experience where we move through the community. This approach for community hosts involves:

  • Seeing programming and the space: Allocating time for participants to experience local programs and facilities firsthand and not just on Powerpoint.
  • Balancing discussions and site visits: Ensuring there is enough time for both in-depth discussions and on-site observations requires dedicating enough time for both.

A positive outcome of this approach is that we also find movement can help maintain the energy of attendees throughout our time together.

Dr. Zach Barricklow, associate vice president for strategy and rural innovation at the N.C. Community College System, said at the conclusion of a two-day tour of the Wilkes Community College service area:

“The significance is not lost on us that you dedicated two days to physically, relationally, and intellectually engage with our local leaders – actively listening, inquiring, and exploring the most pressing issues facing our region. Beyond that, I believe you inspired further motivation on the part of these local leaders to ‘keep going’ in pursuit of novel, practical, sustainable solutions. As you know, change can be difficult, whether on the organizational, community, or systems level. The pursuit of equitable change, while critically important, can be exhausting for practitioners and leaders who may feel as though they are pushing the proverbial rock up the hill with no relief and minimal support. Every once in a while, we are reminded we’re not alone. Your presence, engagement, and enthusiasm reminded us this week that we are not alone. For that we are immensely grateful!”

Investing locally

We believe in supporting local economies during our visits by:

  • Investing in local businesses: Prioritizing small and mid-sized businesses for food and lodging arrangements. We also use our conscious inclusion checklist as we consider business selection.
  • Using local catering: When possible, we use catering services from local community colleges or nonprofits, further embedding our investment in the community.

By incorporating these elements into our trip planning, we ensure that our visits are well-organized, impactful, and beneficial to the local communities.

Initial outreach and relationship building

When initiating outreach for a visit, we follow a strategic approach to identify the contacts who would welcome us and our partners.

  • Partners’ warm relationships: Start with any existing relationships our partners may have with local nonprofits or institutions.
  • Community colleges: If no initial contacts exist, we typically begin with outreach to the local community college president. Community colleges often sit at the intersection of K-12 education, business and industry, local government, and other institutions.
  • Local leaders’ suggestions: We then ask these initial contacts for recommendations on other key stakeholders to include and what significant issues or sites we should be aware of.

We try to ensure a broad and inclusive representation of the community by following our conscious inclusion checklist.

Making initial contact

Our process for making initial contact involves a combination of written and verbal communication to establish clarity and context:

  • Initial outreach via email: Begin with an email to provide context and establish a written record. We do not assume that anyone knows who we are or is familiar with, so we take care to introduce ourselves and the organization.
  • Follow-up phone call: Shortly after the email, we follow up with a phone call to discuss further details and establish a more personal connection.
  • Exploratory calls: Set up 30-minute exploratory calls with key contacts to discuss the potential visit. During these calls, we inquire about who should be involved, what we should see, and any specific questions or issues to explore.

This thorough initial outreach ensures that all parties are well-informed and engaged from the beginning. It also allows us to identify potential landmines or identify content we may not have explored.

Support and logistical considerations

Effectively communicating the purpose of the visit is crucial for setting expectations and ensuring a focused agenda. We achieve this by clearly outlining the key issues that our partners care about and those that EdNC wishes to explore during the visit during our initial contact.

It is important to ensure all participants understand the learning journey and dialogue focus of the visit.

Co-creation of the visit with local leaders

We emphasize co-creation to ensure that the visit agenda is comprehensive and meaningful. This involves:

  • Workshopping agendas: Collaborating with partners and local stakeholders to cover relevant issues and ensure a logical narrative flow.
  • Finalizing agendas: Circulating and finalizing the agenda 7-10 days before the visit to allow for any last-minute adjustments and ensuring all logistical details are in place.

Selecting who is in the room

Selecting participants who bring diverse perspectives is essential for a balanced and inclusive visit. We focus on:

  • Diverse voices: Including individuals from various backgrounds and sectors — such as elected officials, business leaders, and representatives from educational and community institutions — and across all lines of difference, including race/ethnicity, gender, age, political affiliation, and more using our conscious inclusion checklist.
  • Broad representation: Ensuring a mix of local and external participants to foster rich dialogue and diverse viewpoints.

Budget considerations

Managing costs effectively while supporting local economies is a priority. Our approach includes:

  • Using public venues: Opting for free or low-cost public venues to host events.
  • Supporting local vendors: Invest in local vendors and local economies, with a preference for community colleges or nonprofit catering services.

Support and staff requirements

Successful visits require robust support and coordination, including:

  • Relationship tracking: Keeping detailed records of all contacts and interactions to ensure continuity and effective communication.
  • Pulse checks: Regularly scanning local media and social media for updates on community happenings and issues.
  • Aligning resources: Coordinating with internal and external partners to align resources and ensure all logistical needs are met.
  • Multiple support personnel: Assigning multiple people to support each event, ensuring that all aspects of the visit are covered and any issues can be promptly addressed.

Logistics during the event

Attention to detail on the day of the visit ensures a smooth and productive experience. Key considerations are:

  • Be on time: We understand being late is disrespectful. We plan to arrive early. We make sure to have a cell phone contact for day-of emergencies.
  • Detailed logistical information: Providing clear information on when, where, and who, including social handles and parking details, to all participants is important.
  • Introductions and facilitation: Crafting efficient introductions and facilitating discussions to ease power dynamics and encourage open dialogue requires intention.
  • Devices down: We ask our team and participants to be devices down to model being in active engagement.

Continued engagement

Maintaining engagement before, during, and after the visit helps to reinforce connections and impact. Our strategies include:

  • Immediate posting on social media: Sharing real-time updates to foster transparency about where we are and who we are meeting with. These also serve as an immediate thank you to our hosts.
  • Thank you emails: Sending personalized thank you emails to participants. We also circulate content and make sure participants know how to be in touch with each other.
  • Recaps: In the past, we have posted detailed recaps and LinkedIn thought leadership posts from our partners. We also often follow up with content on
  • Follow-up video: Creating and sharing follow-up videos that highlight key moments and insights from the visit can be a tremendous asset for the hosts.

Multimedia documentation

Capturing and sharing multimedia content enhances the impact and reach of the visit. Our approach includes:

  • Audio, photography, and video: Ensuring comprehensive coverage by capturing high-quality audio, photos, and video content.
  • Photos: Building in time for posed group photos with community leaders and others and also documenting the organic interactions throughout the go and see.
  • Reflections: Hold time same-day or the next to gather reflections in real time.

Ethical considerations

We work hard to be transparent and build equity into our work. We ensure this by:

  • Covering “hard” costs: We cover all “sunk” costs related to food, room rentals, and more to ensure that our visits are not extractive.
  • Being clear about outcomes: Clearly stating the deliverables and purpose of our visits —whether it’s a learning journey, a funding exploration, or another goal.
  • Establishing norms: Setting clear expectations and norms with all participants regarding the conduct and goals of the visit.
  • Transparency about roles and dynamics: Being open about who we are, our roles, and the dynamics between sources and journalists to foster trust and understanding.
  • Following up on promises: Ensuring that any commitments made during the visit are followed up on promptly and effectively, avoiding over-promising and under-delivering.
  • Navigating dynamics: Being mindful of the inherent power dynamics between different stakeholders and working to mitigate any imbalances.
  • Wearing the EdNC brand: Wearing our brand visibly and explaining the dynamics between our role as journalists and the sources we interact with. This helps in maintaining transparency.
  • Honoring personal preferences: We respect people’s preferences for how they are referred to in person and when quoted in our articles.
  • Maintaining ethical standards: Ensuring that our presence and activities do not disrupt or negatively impact the communities we engage with. 

By adhering to these ethical and equitable considerations, we aim to build trust, foster respectful interactions, and ensure that our visits contribute positively to the communities and individuals with whom we engage. We know they spend a lot of time preparing for our time together. We do not want them to also spend hard-earned resources on our time together without us offering to cover them ourselves.

Recommendations for those who wish to go and see for themselves

We believe every statewide leader would benefit from spending more time in the nooks and crannies of our 100 counties. You will find yourself inspired and challenged in equal measure.

Our communities are unique. As Dr. Tunde Sotunde, CEO and President of Blue Cross NC, often said on the Extra Miles Tour,”When you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen one county.” And yet, they face similar challenges across a wide array of issues.

Based on our experiences and the lessons learned, we would sum up our recommended approach as follows:

  • Preparation and research: Conduct thorough research and establish clear objectives before each visit to ensure meaningful engagement and outcomes that feel authentic to both those we are taking to visit the communities and those we are visiting.
  • Community involvement: Involve local leaders and stakeholders in the planning process to ensure the visit is both relevant and beneficial to the community. The hope is for positive outcomes to ripple out from the visit due to the relationships we have built between our partners, our hosts, and ourselves.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Strive for diverse representation in all interactions to capture a wide range of perspectives and experiences.
  • Transparent communication: Clearly communicate the purpose, goals, and expectations of the visit to all participants to build trust and ensure alignment.
  • Follow-up: Commit to follow-up actions and maintain accountability to build lasting relationships and demonstrate the impact of the visits.

We believe going and seeing should be an interactive approach. Over the course of many visits, we have refined our methods and strategies by incorporating feedback and adapting to community-specific needs. The hope, over time, is to engage more communities and stakeholders, ensuring our efforts to democratize relationships and expand access to more communities and community leaders. 

Our hope for partners who “go and see” is that they treat each visit as either the beginning of a relationship or the deepening of one. Being in relationship with one another allows us to traverse challenges together. It also creates the opportunity for ideas to be surfaced and increasingly diverse voices to be heard.

In today’s rapidly evolving landscape, the importance of genuine connections and relationships is more important than ever.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.