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On Nation, his birthday, this week, and why he is essential

A week ago on Saturday night at 9:11 p.m., I got a text from the boy. That would be Nation to me. “My birthday won’t be the same next weekend,” he said.

COVID-19 and its gift of social distance is not what the boy wanted for his birthday.

I tell people being in relationship to Nation — and we are going on five years of working together day in and day out — is the hardest and best thing I have ever done.

And this week, every year, is the hardest week. It is the week he celebrates the anniversary of his wedding to his beloved wife. A day later, he celebrates his birthday. But then, days later, the anniversary of an attack on the two of them follows, and then the anniversary of the date he lost Jamie.

There is no recovering from this kind of act of violence and loss.

The horse and boy sketches of the artist Charlie Mackesy have been important to Nation since he lost Jamie. He sent me this one shortly after we situated ourselves for COVID-19.

Sketch © Charlie Mackesy

Now you know why I think of him and call him the boy.

Once Nation’s therapist asked him how he was doing. Nation said, “I’m doing OK. I’m living. I do not have any other choice.” The therapist said, “Oh, but you do. You just do not have any other good choices.”

Over and over, day after day, Nation gets up and makes good choices, carrying on in brave and magnificent ways.

And in the living of his life, there is leadership of the self, of our organization, and of society that brings me joy and hope, and I know would make Jamie proud.

Leadership of the self

Nation and I share a lot of things in common. One of them is that we are both adopted. In addition to the abandonment anxiety that many of us who are adopted feel, people who are adopted also often imagine parallel existences for themselves. What would life have been like if I had grown up with my birth parents? What would it have been like if other people had adopted me? And on and on.

Nation not only lives with those scenarios in his imagination, but now he also imagines what life would be like if he still had Jamie. Would they have kids? Would, together, they have conquered the world already?

Earlier this week, Nation and I were scheduled to have a Zoom call at 4 p.m. on the phone he is now very attached to.

If you know Nation, you are laughing. That phone of his is always close at hand.

“4:05 work?” he texts. And then, minutes after 4:05, “Getting on now.”

If you know Nation, you are laughing harder. You know the drill.

One of my other boys, Hutch, was sitting across the room from me studying, but he could hear our call.

Nation: “I was just talking to a legislator, and we got carried away talking about being from Wilkes County.”

Me: “But you are not from Wilkes County.”

Nation: “But my great-grandfather was.”

Hutch laughs out loud. Only Nation would think that counts.

But to Nation, connecting eases the sense of abandonment and loss, and the people he meets, the places he visits become home to him in a very real way.

As Nation reminded me in his annual review, “We all want to feel essential.”

Leadership of the organization

That premise is baked into much of EdNC. It’s why we built our “architecture of participation.” It’s why we invest in the code that powers our capacity to reach all of you in all of North Carolina’s nooks and crannies.

Back in 2017, at the same time EdNC was planning to pilot our expansion into coverage of community colleges, I was planning to have heart surgery.

I told the boy he would have to lead the way.

Nation has always loved our community colleges. He actually grew up in Lenoir in Caldwell County, and he remembers his biological mom getting her GED from Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. He went to high school with Stephen and Chelsea Boham, and his early relationship to their dad, Ken Boham, then president of CCC&TI, was a lesson in leadership in and of itself.

As young professionals, in the fall of 2012, Nation and Jamie visited 14 community colleges in two weeks — a precursor of EdNC’s blitz of all 58 — to explore “Pathways to Prosperity” across North Carolina.

Almost exactly five years later to the day in the fall of 2017, Nation visited Nash Community College again, this time for EdNC. When he walked into the advanced manufacturing lab, an instructor identified him and called him by name. Apparently they don’t get a lot of visits from folks in Raleigh. Or maybe it’s just hard to forget the boy named Nation.

Each week on Friday afternoon, you can now find Nation at his favorite haunts around Raleigh writing Awake58, EdNC’s newsletter about community colleges. It doesn’t read like most EdNC newsletters. It has his touch — and a lot of love from a team that helps him dot his i’s and cross his t’s.

“Really a fantastic job reaching so many and showing the creativity and can-do spirit of community colleges.”

“When we read Awake 58, it is like diving into a newsletter about our best friends that happen to be doing the most amazing things across the state.” 

All those relationships and places Nation feels at home came in handy when we were partnering on listening sessions all across North Carolina about attainment and the work of myFutureNC.

At EdNC, we use a tool called I-OPT to build our team. The premise of the tool is that there is no one right way to lead, but that it is important for organizations to know how their leaders lead — and follow — and intentionally develop personal and professional strategies for each leader.

Without me telling you anymore, this image from Nation’s I-OPT shows you really all you need to know about his leadership — and why it is hard and wonderful and essential.

Leadership of society

Nation and Jamie aspired to change the world as we know it. He writes, “Jamie and I believed that our generation has the promise, the possibility, and the obligation to strive to end poverty and hunger in our lifetime.”

After Jamie’s death, Nation and those closest to the young couple worked to found the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, which built an “Army of Jamies” to carry on her vision and continue her work. With some help, I was able to track most of them down.

The first cohort included Austin Gragson, Jodeci Farrington, Nate Barilich, and Tim Longest. Austin, who is now tattooed with the Foundation’s ripple of change logo, is attending graduate school at Harvard’s School of Education. Jodeci has a baby girl she adores and works at the Hill Learning Center. Nate teaches at Enloe High School, works as an executive fellow for EdNC and the Governmental Research Association, and also is the director of the Enloe Charity Ball.

Tim graduated from law school, is married, and now works in the office of the N.C. Attorney General.

The second cohort of fellows included Adrienne Lauchert, Oderah Chidom, Seth Saeugling, and Tiffany Turner. Adrienne is working at We Are DREAM in New York City, and Oderah is playing pro basketball internationally. If you follow the work of EdNC, then you hopefully already know about Seth’s work in Edgecombe County on adverse childhood and community experiences, but read more in this incredible article by TFA. Tiffany is working as a food resilience project manager with the City of Winston-Salem. 

The third cohort of fellows included Alexandra Laffey, Alison Lee, Analisa Sorrells, Cecilia Polanco, Daijah Street Davis, Gizem Templeton, Kristin Caddick, Misha Sims, and Tiffany Dixon. Alexandra teaches at Ligon Middle School, Cecilia started So Good Papusas, Daijah is a doula, Gizem is an early childhood research associate at the Duke World Food Policy Center, Kristin is a fellow at Med-Serve, and Tiffany recently donated blood marrow to her big sister and is living in Brooklyn.

Analisa is now EdNC’s chief of staff, winning awards for her research and journalism and teaching us all about yoga and wellness.

The work of the Foundation continues on in the work and lives of the fellows and also in the work and investments of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Fund. Nation and the Fund pioneered a grief fest last fall, and recently stepped up to quickly help meet the critical nutrition challenges created by COVID-19. The Fund launched grant efforts with the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, and the Restaurant Relief Fund.

As a couple, Nation and Jamie were focused on poverty and hunger. Now, in Nation’s work at EdNC, he thinks and learns and leads on the very real challenges and opportunities of audience engagement.

He envisioned a suite of tools we call Reach, in partnership with Public Input, that now our team uses but so do media outlets across the country. Nation consults with the American Press Institute as an expert advising other journalists and news organizations through a Community Listening Fellowship, and during COVID-19, grant funding through API is allowing all of the fellows to use the Reach tools.

“We hope the access to these tools helps newsrooms continue to listen and better serve their communities while socially distant, and continues to lay groundwork for better relationships whenever COVID-19 subsides.” — Amy Kovac-Ashley, API

To the boy

Happy birthday, Nation.

For his birthday, watch the video below, ask yourself if your soul is on fire, take Jamie’s pledge, and then tweet @NationHahn and tell him who and what you love.

And sign up for his newsletter.

Nation, you are essential to me, to EdNC, to our community colleges, to our state, to our industry. All day, every day. Even when we are fussing. From Big Witch Road to Amsterdam.

Every day of your life is a cairn. With love.

Team EdNC celebrating Jamie’s birthday in October 2018
Nation riding a bike for the first time in a very long time on his 28th birthday
The Media Transformation Challenge
In Arizona with colleagues convened by API
On his birthday in 2017
In Amsterdam, the first hard week in 2014
Mebane Rash

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