Editor’s note, Sept. 13: According to the event website, the ReCONNECT to Community event detailed in this article will be postponed to a later date due to Hurricane Florence.
For over 30 years, N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues has brought thought leaders such as Carl Sagan, Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton to North Carolina to discuss the state’s most pressing problems at its Emerging Issues Forums. Over that entire period, however, “North Carolina” has meant “within the Raleigh city limits.”
On Monday, Sept. 17, Asheville becomes the first city to break those geographical boundaries. ReCONNECT to Community, an IEI forum focusing on the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in the modern world, comes to the Crowne Plaza Resort from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
IEI Chairman Jack Cecil explains that the theme of this year’s forum drove the decision for the event to venture outside Raleigh for the first time. What better way to foster connection between different parts of the state, he suggests, than by actually crossing the distance and speaking with others face to face?
“When the forum is in Raleigh, I can bring someone from Brevard or Asheville, but I think it’s more meaningful when you’re actually in the community,” Cecil says. “It allows us to drill in locally.”
Forged by necessity
But it wasn’t just a change of scenery that drew the forum to the mountains. “[Asheville is] a community of smaller businesses and people who really take an interest in what’s going on in the city,” says Cecil. “I think that’s different than most places around the state.”
Cecil, the great-grandson of George Vanderbilt II, is the president and CEO of Biltmore Farms and has been a major player in Asheville for the past 35 years. He notes that the city’s people-based, community-oriented reputation — “Asheville’s DNA,” in his words — was formed at least partially by circumstance.
Back in the early to mid-20th century, Cecil says, there were “basically five or six companies in this region that employed anywhere from 1,000 to 7,000 people.” He lists the American Enka Co. and Champion International Paper Co. as just two examples of those looming corporate behemoths of yesteryear.
Those keystone companies began to scale back or close up shop in the late 20th century under economic pressure from foreign imports. But along with the regional decline of the furniture, textile and manufacturing industries came an opportunity for smaller businesses to rise and fill the void. Thus began Asheville’s evolution into a city that empowered the little man and woman, in both the business realm and beyond.
“The power base has diffused,” said Cecil. “There aren’t one or two [large] organizations or families saying, ‘This is what I want Asheville to be, here’s my philanthropy.’ You don’t see that close-knit, boys-club-type atmosphere. And that’s really good.”
The Asheville forum kicks off the IEI’s broader ReCONNECT NC initiative. Over the next three years, a series of six forums in four different cities will focus on the overarching theme of reconnection. Charlotte is slated to host the next forum in September 2019, while a yet-to-be-announced city in eastern North Carolina will be 2020’s destination.
Maggie Woods, policy and program manager at IEI, says the organization whittled down a pool of about 150 possibilities to settle on the theme. Those discussions, she explains, increasingly clarified that people across the state were feeling out of touch and that this sense of detachment needed to be addressed at length.
“North Carolinians are feeling disconnected,” Woods says. “That’s within their communities, geographically, economically, racially. … We decided we wanted to spend the next three years exploring why we’re feeling disconnected and the ways in which people and communities across the state are helping to support reconnection.”
The forum series will focus on five main types of reconnection: well-being and productivity, community, rural and urban, job opportunities and technological opportunity. The Asheville forum in particular will explore the subtheme of reconnection to community.
Cecil believes that theme was a natural fit for the city, given Asheville’s history of civic engagement. “I think Asheville has a unique ability to raise issues, debating them, discussing them and reaching a better conclusion,” he says. “Sometimes it’s constructive debate, other times it’s not, but at the end of the day, Asheville is a better community because we work through this internal discussion.”
Talk and learn
The forum in Asheville will showcase ideas about how locales across the state can improve involvement within their own communities. Five community initiatives from across the state will be highlighted for their “innovative and promising” work on civic engagement and dialogue, says Woods.
Those initiatives include the Rural Opportunity Institute from Edgecombe County; Elizabeth City’s One Team. One Goal. One Community; Explore Elkin; and the Community Innovation Lab at the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts in Winston-Salem. The Asheville City Schools Foundation also received a nod for its Choosing Equity Series, a collection of community conversations addressing childhood opportunity gaps tied to race and income.
Sharing these in-depth community examples, says Cecil, provides a way for disparate locations that may lack surface-level similarities to dig deeper and “cross-fertilize” their expertise.
“How is something that a community’s doing in Asheville applicable to a neighborhood in Charlotte?” he asks. “And how is something that a neighborhood’s doing in Charlotte applicable to us?”
While the forum’s Asheville location is expected to draw fewer attendees — past forums in Raleigh have hosted anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people — Cecil hopes that leaving the capital will attract an audience of more diverse regional backgrounds. “When we hold the forums in Raleigh, you don’t have a large percentage of people coming from farther regions,” he points out.
Past forums were often broadcast on UNC-TV and other outlets, but it just wasn’t the same as holding one-on-one interactions with a wide swath of North Carolinians. “The whole idea of taking these forums on the road is to facilitate conversations between people throughout the state,” says Cecil.
Crossing the aisle
Although some of the event’s details and speakers have yet to be officially released, New York Times columnist David Brooks will give the opening keynote address. Darin Waters, an associate professor of history at UNC Asheville, will follow Brooks to put the current challenges surrounding civic engagement into historical context.
From a political perspective, Gov. Roy Cooper will address the importance of unity in creating more productive communities. Two yet-to-be-announced members of the General Assembly — one Democrat, one Republican — will discuss what the state’s governing body can do to promote civic engagement. Other pending speakers will share insights from the fields of higher education and the media.
Above all else, the Asheville forum and other IEI efforts are meant to harbor level-headed and pragmatic discussions between people on different sides of the issues facing the state’s communities. At a time when civil discussion between opposing factions seems, at times, almost nonexistent, ReCONNECT NC seeks to rekindle the conversation.
“It’s easy to put somebody in a box, but that’s not right,” says Cecil. “Their experiences are different than yours, and they might have a lot to bring to the conversation. But if we remain in our silos and say, ‘Oh, you don’t look like me, so I’m not going to talk to you,’ we’ll never reach anything.”