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Planting seeds for racial equity in Forsyth County

More than 100 people, from community members to Forsyth County School Superintendent Beverly Emory, gathered in downtown Winston-Salem last October, and all eyes were glued to the screen.

They were gathered to watch  Beyond the Bricks: A New Era of Education (Washington Koen Media, 2010), a documentary that follows Shaquiel Ingram and Erick Graham, two African-American public high school students in Newark, NJ, at risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. Through the personal stories of Ingram and Graham, interviews with experts, and data, Beyond the Bricks exposes and offers solutions to a key problem in public education today: racial inequity, expressed most intensely in the low performance and slipping graduation rates for African-American boys.

Photo courtesy of Winston-Salem State University’s Flickr.

The screening was presented by My Brother’s Keeper, Winston-Salem, and The Forsyth Promise, a community-wide initiative to create a “cradle-to-career infrastructure” in the county. Following the film, facilitators formed dialogue-to-action groups that discussed locally developed solutions, including student peer-to-peer mentoring, improving the educational experience, and strengthening community support for public schools. According to Chuck Spong, executive director of Love Out Loud and a co-chair of The Forsyth Promise’s executive leadership council, people in the room were ready to talk and were asking, “What can we do to help?”

Because Beyond the Bricks profiles a school system far from Winston-Salem, rather than feeling like they were to blame, Forsyth County school administrators were encouraged. The energy in the room was so motivating that this February, Forsyth County Schools invited The Forsyth Promise to screen Beyond the Bricks and facilitate similar break-out sessions for every public school principal in the county.

Photo courtesy of Winston-Salem State University’s Flickr.

This work is being led by The Forsyth Promise’s Racial Equity Team, co-chaired by T. Sharee Fowler, assistant professor of not-for-profit management and the director of the arts management and not-for-management programs, Salem College, and Alivin Atkinson, director of administration and the Initiative on Just and Sustainable Communities, Winston-Salem State University (WSSU). 

Courageous conversations on race are more possible now than ever before among the Forsyth County education community. Atkinson knows it was a long journey to this point, and much more work must be done, but, as he said, “you plant seeds along the way.”

After leaving a career in corporate banking behind, Atkinson was appointed director of the Center for Community Safety at Winston-Salem State University. The Center was formed in 2001 when partners, including North Carolina Juvenile Justice, came together in response to community interest in reducing juvenile violence. The Center quickly began to focus on improving education. “We saw in our community if kids remained in school, we would reduce the disproportionate population of minorities in the juvenile justice system,” he said.

Alvin Atkinson. Photo by Katy Clune.

In order to further the conversations developing around this issue in Forsyth County, the Center devoted its early years to capturing data surrounding “disproportionate minority contact,” the then-lingo for racial inequity. Prioritizing research seemed the best fit considering its base at WSSU, one of the country’s top historically black colleges and universities.

Read “Why are so many students of color being suspended?” by James E. Ford, program director for the Public School Forum of NC. Source: University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education.

In 2006, the Center issued a report that shared national best practices for addressing inequities and offered several next-step conclusions, including: “Effectively reducing disproportionate minority contact will take committed policy makers, community members, and agencies working together in a focused, data-drive process to ensure that appropriate interventions can be implemented and sustained.”

While the Center was ready to move forward as the local research leader, momentum fizzled. Forsyth County was not ready for a sustained, focused initiative. “There was leadership change in local organizations,” said Alvin. “We found you have to have leadership committed to this issue. Without that, there was no one left to carry it forward.”

Between 2006 and 2014, the Center struggled to find the best way to keep moving ahead on racial equity. In 2008-2009, spurred by improvements following new disciplinary policies, Forsyth County Schools came back to the Center. “The superintendent at that time got excited,” says Alvin. “We used their enthusiasm and their results as the rallying cry to our community, to come back and say, ‘Let’s move on this!’” The center formed the Forsyth County Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee. In 2012, it founded STARS (Students Taking Action and Reaching Success), a positive youth development program that expanded to serve five local middle schools and some 450 students in 2014.

A 2013-2014 report detailed successes of the STARS program, which ultimately grew too large for the Center to manage.

In the meantime, larger forces were in play. In 2015, as the NC legislature turned its attention towards academic centers in the UNC system, WSSU transformed the Center for Community Safety into the Initiative for Just and Sustainable Communities. That same year, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines accepted President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper challenge and appointed WSSU as the local partner.

The Initiative for Just and Sustainable Communities, headed by Atkinson, is now poised to be a key player as WSSU heads into its 2016-2021 strategic plan, which includes the goal “to demonstrate principles of social justice by working collaboratively with community partners.”  

Founded in 2014, The Forsyth Promise is a county-wide collective community effort to support and promote the success of every child, cradle-to-career. Together with the work happening under Atkinson at WSSU, these two organizations were already developing local solutions for the six goals of My Brother’s Keeper. A multi-level collaboration by key players in the community was forming, spurred by the framework of My Brother’s Keeper. Sensing real progress on the threshold, The Forsyth Promise formed a collaborative task force in 2015: the Equity Action Team.

More than ever before, the pieces are now in the right place for this work to succeed in Forsyth County. The Equity Action Team is made up of roughly 15 representatives from in and outside of The Forsyth Promise network. One of its newest members is Marni Langbert Eisner, the program director for Great Expectations, a community-wide initiative of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, and a leader in local philanthropy.

Winston-Salem State University. Photo by Katy Clune.

The committee is focusing its current efforts in two key areas: 1) increasing cultural awareness on racial inequity and systemic racism and 2) promoting institutional analysis to drive changes in policies and procedures.

Last year’s public screening of Beyond the Bricks was intended to prompt thinking. “In terms of racial equity, we cannot go down the same path that we historically have and think we’re going to have different outcomes,” said Atkinson. “What I am hopeful in doing through [these screenings] is really getting our community to begin looking at what’s happening underneath, and the impact that has.” Future screenings are slated for select Forsyth County Schools, and members of the Equity Action Team will be present to engage students, parents, teachers, and staff in conversation.

A EdNC perspective on last year’s Racial Equity Report Card, produced by the Youth Justice Project.

The other thrust of this work is directed at local organizations. The Equity Action Team is encouraging its members to engage in equity conversations at the leadership level.

Larry Vellani (far right) at the October 2016 screening. Photo courtesy WSSU Flickr.

According to Atkinson, Smart Start of Forsyth County is setting an example following third-party training sessions funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top Program” via the North Carolina Partnership for Children, Inc. “Interrupting and dismantling the scaffolding of structural racism is as important a piece of our social and economic health as public health immunization and guaranteed quality education and health care for all,” Larry Vellani, Smart Start FC executive director, said.

As Spong, a fellow Equity Action Team member, acknowledged, “Equity cannot be a side topic, or just a sub-committee, it needs to be threaded throughout the conversation.” One way to ensure an organization’s long-term commitment to equity is to adopt a “racial equity statement.” Atkinson recommends seeking a third-party facilitator to help lead this process, which requires upfront conversations, reviewing workplace procedures, and monitoring progress.

“Until you address the structural racism that under girds our social system you will not achieve equity,” says Atkinson. “A lot of what [the Equity Action team does], you can’t see. We are getting people to think.”

The long growth of systems to confront racial inequities in Forsyth County may serve as an example for other communities pushing this issue forward. For them, Atkinson has a piece of advice: “Look for the organizations in your local community who are leaders in this work, because you’ll need support on this journey.”

  • Would you like to learn more from people in Forsyth County working on racial equity? Contact Alvin Atkinson, director for the Initiative on Just and Sustainable Communities, Winston-Salem State University at (336) 750-8206 or atkinsona [at]

  • Tips from the Youth Justice Program to organize against racial inequities in your community. 

Katy Clune

Katy Clune is engaged in cultural communications — writing, design, and multimedia storytelling — for a variety of freelance clients. She has interviewed people from Boone to Ocean Isle and assisted with curating the Carolina Food Summit (2016) and “North Carolina: The New North American Heartland” (2017) for EducationNC.