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My heartfelt Thanksgiving

Hey y’all. Happy Thanksgiving.

As we break bread together around tables across North Carolina, civility is on my mind. Thanksgiving is a time not just for the sharing of food but of thoughts too, especially when they differ. 

In our polarized, politicized times, I have met too many people across all lines of difference living in our state who don’t feel welcome here. I am haunted by an off-the-record interview I had with a young, black man who was raised here, schooled here, emerged as a creative professional here, but is moving to Connecticut. When I asked him why, what we as a state could do to keep him here, he looked at me and said, “Honestly, I think you are the only person in the whole state who has ever wanted me to stay.” 

I worry my colleagues — from Eric Hall leading the Innovative School District to David Osborne in his efforts to reinvent America’s schools to James Ford and his work on equity — feel unwelcome and at times unsafe in our state.

A recent article in Education Week  — “Good Communication Doesn’t Come Naturally. We Have to Teach It. Amid polarizing political discourse, students need training to communicate their ideas.” — says,

“Language is a formidable tool for helping us make sense of the world around us, allowing us to explain to others what we think and feel, and — when we know how to listen — giving us a window into how others understand abstract issues. Language also gives us a medium through which to make sense of the current political turbulence and cultural disquiet. There is power in recognizing and labeling instances of racism, sexism, and discrimination. There is even greater power in giving our students the language to reflect, to question, and to resist negative voices.”

An important reminder for all of us, not just students. Craving more positive voices these days, I went looking for them.

Last quarter, I drove 3,700 miles from one end of our state to the other talking to folks. A conversation with Tracey Greene-Washington, the founder of CoThinkk in Asheville, helped me think better about the need for us all to be in healthier relationships with one another.

Greene-Washington (left) with Libby Kyles, teacher, community leader, and executive director of Youth Transformed for Life.

Here is a statement towards that end that originated with Greene-Washington, has been iterated as we have shared it with others, and with your input it will continue to evolve:

Being in healthy, positive, and equitable relationships with citizens, leaders, organizations, and communities is critical for impactful partnerships and to support systems level change. It requires hard conversations about difficult issues, creation of intentional space, interrupting false narratives, choosing to not be complicit in issues or practices that perpetuate inequities, good intent without a hidden agenda, and the resistance to render individuals invisible or villains when issues get uncomfortable and hard. 

We are facing unprecedented global challenges and experiencing unprecedented global change, according to Dr. Gregory Washington who spoke in North Carolina recently at the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation’s Biennial STEM Awardees Conference. From North Carolina, Washington encourages us to “partner or perish” and to “embrace what’s next.”

The fabric of our society as we know it is changing. Education is changing. Work is changing. Faith is changing. 

Dr. Mike Walden talks here about our shared social and economic future.

Dr. Jim Johnson talk here about the demographic changes framing our future.

Dr. Mike Walden recently addressed the My Future NC Commission on the challenges facing North Carolina.

Our Ferrel Guillory reminds me, “We’ve had sharp divisions, polarization even, for a long time in this country, indeed from the very start. Each generation has to face the challenges of how to move forward as a society amid the persistence of divisions.” Our challenge is greater, I think, given the polarization against the ever-increasing pace of change.

Some pathways for our state to take some big steps forward may be emerging. Two commissions — My Future NC and the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound, Basic Education — will work throughout 2018, attempting to tackle many of our most pressing issues both now and in the future.

Listening is “one small step” we all can take “to recognize the humanity in others” and build social capital, according to David Isay, founder of the oral storytelling project StoryCorps. This video by the Aspen Ideas Festival features Isay and an episode of StoryCorps between a father and daughter talking about how we can listen across divides, and it will bring tears to your eyes. If they can do it, we can do it.

As I talk to people across North Carolina, they often prefer the status quo to the unknown. But they are willing to embrace change if they can be part of the process and if they believe it holds hope for a better future.

A high school teacher, Kirsten Russ, just yesterday commented on an article about our need for civil and curious leaders, writing: “I support civil discussion. I believe that curiosity about the educational process is healthy. A successful, public education system is critical for a strong democracy. Let’s talk and act.”

We have so much to build on, North Carolina. I have believed in our great state for as long as I can remember. It started with my grandfather’s stories driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. The photography of Hugh Morton helped me understand the uncommon natural beauty we enjoy. It is reaffirmed with every opportunity I have to better understand the people who live in our nooks and crannies.

We have all the right ingredients:

great food,

great teachers,

great leaders,

and great places.

Earlier this year, we started asking people what they love about North Carolina, and we are using #loveNC to document our findings. On our bike ride across North Carolina, as we passed an older guy on his bike, he yelled, “I love everything about North Carolina.” I do too, Bruce. What do you love about North Carolina?

Those relationships — the ones that require civility and the breaking of bread together even across difference — they will be increasingly important as we move forward. One leader, one organization, one party will never be enough. We need each other.

The Education Week article about teaching communication continues:

“The ongoing national conversation about political and social issues is an important instructional moment for teachers. A central piece of this instruction is helping students to become more skilled at talking, writing, and thinking about issues from multiple perspectives. Teachers would do well to remember the power of language as they help children find their voices in a complex world.”

It is an important moment for all of us. There is nothing easy about choosing our voice in this complex world. But, as we do so, let’s assume good intent about each other in keeping with those equitable, healthy, positive relationships Greene-Washington reminds us are so important for the future.

A state where all feel welcome. A state where we lead the way for our nation and the world in collaboration. That’s my dream this Thanksgiving. I hope we will be unwilling to settle for less.


The Editor’s Note

I am thankful every day for your willingness to join me on this ever-evolving journey to figure out what it means to be a new media organization trying to shape the future of our students, our schools, and our state.

I have lots of reasons to be especially thankful this year. I am beyond proud of team EducationNC.

I am ever thankful for my colleagues and the strong ecosystem of organizations working together to address the most important issues facing our state.

Our many supporters have partnered with us to become financially sustainable. Thank you.

And yet this Thanksgiving, I find myself with a little bit of a hiccup in my giddy-up and will be on medical leave between December 4 and early January 2018. I am having minimally-invasive surgery at ECU with some fancy robotics to repair a congenital heart defect. As you can probably imagine, I love the fact that the very best hospital in the world for this surgery is our world-renowned East Carolina Heart Institute. I’m in great hands, and I feel right at home in Greenville since I know where to get the very best local moonshine and BBQ.

“Hands of Hope” sculpture at the East Carolina Heart Institute by Jodi Hollnagel-Jubran and Hanna Juban

This is why we build strong teams, and EducationNC is positioned to thrive. Our leadership team — Laura Lee, Nancy Rose, and Nation Hahn — have been managing day-to-day operations all year. We are nine strong and function as a team of peer experts. Our capacity is deep with consultants statewide. I am especially fortunate to work with teacher leader Nate Barilich, EdNC’s executive fellow, and he will continue to help me (and you) while I am on leave.

Thank you for your love and support. On this Thanksgiving, here is to hope, strength, happiness, and a little bit of luck.

As always, you should expect great things from EducationNC. I do. 




Mebane Rash

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