The Director’s Log: May 2017

Rediscovering North Carolinianism:

Each Memorial Day, we honor the people who gave their lives serving in our armed forces.

It’s an important time for all of us to reflect on that sacrifice by those citizens, and to ask ourselves what it means to be a citizen – of the United States and of North Carolina.

David Brooks and George Packer have both been writing recently about what it means to be an American. I encourage you to read their American “narratives” and see which one resonates most for you. I vote for “the talented community.”

I’ve been spending part of my time lately thinking about what it means to be a North Carolinian and why it matters.

I had a conversation earlier this month with David Christian, a brilliant thinker and the inventor of “Big History,” who was in the state to receive an award. He tried to convince me that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world, and that any other concept was just “tribalism.”

I get the point, but just can’t buy it, and in recent podcast conversations with Asheville “citizen” (and IEI board chair Jack Cecil) and Vance County native (and Friday Fellowship CEO) Abdul Rasheed, I heard persuasive arguments for why we need to belong to something closer to home – our towns, our counties and our state.

I grew up here with a very clear notion of what it means to be a North Carolinian. What distinguished us from other states, I thought, was our hunker-down, get ‘er done personality. We were a “yeoman” state, a place where the people dig in and do the work, a band of citizens that would fight like there is “tar” on our heels (or claws on our paws). We were, in the words of Mary Van Landingham (though there are multiple claims to the phrase), “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit” (that’s you, SC and VA!).

There’s still some truth in some of that, but a lot has changed. In the past few decades, we’ve lost some of our swagger as big industries have shrunk and job insecurity has expanded. We’ve lost some of our shared values as political parties have diverged and our population has grown. And, as the late George Autry noted, we’ve lost some of our sense of community thanks to “the automobile that carried us away, TV and air conditioning that drove us inside, the two-earner family that wears us out and now the computer that connects us to the next country and isolates us from next door.”

But you can’t build or rebuild an identity by looking at what you aren’t. You have to begin defining what you are and what you want to be, and to begin building toward that.

We at the Institute for Emerging Issues are committed to doing our part.

  • Thanks to the generous support of RTI International, the NC Department of Commerce’s Board of Science, Technology & Innovation, and all of the InnovateNC partners, we will be launching the InnovateNC Community Innovation Asset Map on June 8. The Asset Map is a first-of-its-kind, turnkey tool for communities of all sizes, seeking to enhance their innovation ecosystems.
  • We’ve now concluded our contest to depict the North Carolina “superhero” of the future, a citizen committed to a lifetime of learning, ready to adapt to overcome challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. That superhero will be a parent, will contribute to our economy and will help shape strong communities. Congratulations to our winning designer, UNC Asheville student Katelyn Schubel!
  • Through our “kidonomics” work, led by Donnie Charleston, we are examining policies and strategies the state could use to ensure that greater numbers of our citizens get the kind of early learning opportunities they need to become super citizens later in life.
  • Finally, we are talking with some of the most insightful people in North Carolina about what it means to be a citizen of our state. In a couple of weeks, our “First in Future” podcast will also become a TV show on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel and we will be having regular conversations with people across the state on what it means to be a North Carolinian. Check out a preview of the show here.

The reality is that finding a new notion of what it is to be a North Carolinian will not be birthed fully grown like Venus or appear as a slab of truth. It will be assembled in our towns and counties, on front porches and back alleys, in churches and chat rooms, one idea and one success at a time. And pretty soon we will be able to take a step back from this mosaic and see once again what it means to be a citizen of North Carolina.

I hope everyone enjoyed the holiday. Remember the sacrifice. And let’s keep working to build this state!