Students Give Their Take on NC’s Rural-Urban Divide

Eager to hear the youth perspective on bridging North Carolina’s rural-urban divide, the Institute for Emerging Issues bridged a “Wolfpack-Tar Heel” divide this semester as we worked with a group of UNC-Chapel Hill public policy students on the topic.

As part of UNC’s undergraduate Capstone course, the students gave us their take on North Carolina’s rural-urban issues, currently a key point of conversation around the state.

In the course, public policy seniors work in small teams to produce public policy research for a non-profit organization or government agency. IEI Senior Policy and Program Manager Sarah Langer Hall worked with the students throughout the spring semester as they examined “Reconnecting Rural and Urban Communities” through a series of case studies and community leader interviews. The students presented their findings to Hall and other IEI staffers April 20 at UNC.

It’s eye opening to hear young people talk about rural assets and explore case studies connecting the state’s rural and urban areas. They understand that it will take increased success in all our counties, not just the urban centers, for North Carolina to be the vibrant, competitive state they want to work and live in,” Hall said.

During the presentation, the seven-person team gave recommendations on topics like regionalism, entrepreneurship, infrastructure and local assets. They based their findings on case studies from North Carolina, Kansas, Great Britain and Virginia.

Much of the findings centered around the importance of inclusion and empowerment of rural communities, rather than relying soley on outside investment.

Team member Tiffany Turner said one of her biggest takeaways was that rural communities wanted the conversation brought to them. “We need to make these conversations accessible” to rural areas, Turner said. A forum on rural issues three hours away from the community it’s discussing is not accessible, she said.

Turner, whose family emigrated to the U.S. from the country of Columbia when she was three, has lived in North Carolina most of her life. Her deep love for the state made her choose the IEI project for her Capstone course.

“If it hadn’t been for North Carolina, I probably wouldn’t be at UNC,” said Turner, who benefited from many non-profit programs during her childhood, such as the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. Turner is off to New York City in the Fall for a year to work for FoodCorps, a non-profit that focuses on healthy school food, but sees herself returning to North Carolina afterwards. Turner, who grew up in Greensboro, would love to settle in a rural North Carolina community, where the Capstone IEI project showed her that there are jobs to be had, especially in local government leadership positions.

But team member Bennett Artman echoed the feeling of most of the group when he said that he couldn’t imagine going back to a rural area like where he grew up in Edenton, N.C. as a young person. Artman, who’ll be working in a Washington D.C. political communications firm after graduation, said he learned the importance of empowering rural entrepreneurism during the project. For example, facing a declining economy, the Virginia mountain community the group studied created an organization that helped locals set up tourism-related businesses. “I really saw the importance of rural sustainability,” Artman said.

Figuring out how to generate more jobs– particularly better paying jobs —is the most important imperative for the economic future of our rural communities. Done successfully, they will retain more of their youth and attract back those who leave for more advanced schooling,” said Patrick Cronin, IEI’s assistant director. “Including the youth voice is important to solving the challenge of brain drain in rural areas. Youth see both the opportunities and challenges in their communities. If we fail to understand their perspective, we will miss important information about what keeps some at home, what drives others to our state’s more urban areas, and what might bring them home.”

–Beth Hatcher