We are all North Carolina

I love our state, and I want students across North Carolina to grow up wanting to call this state home as they become our leaders of tomorrow.

In EdNC’s work with students, we often ask them, “What would it take for you to want to call North Carolina home when you graduate?”

Kwani, an 11th-grader at Enloe High School, wants access to the hardest, best courses our public schools have to offer. She connects her course offerings now to her opportunities to hold the hardest, best 21st century jobs.

Most students don’t connect that desire to our future economy, but I do.

On a recent road trip across North Carolina, I crossed paths with people of all races, all ages, all socio-economic levels, lots of faiths, and many sexual orientations. Some were native Tar Heels. Some moved here from other parts of the country and the world. All of them choose to call our state home.

I have been thinking about the political transformation of our state for as long as I can remember. I grew up in downtown Charlotte on a block with Democrats Harvey Gantt and Mel Watt and two doors down from them Republicans Sue Myrick and her son Dan Forest.

I believe the elections of 2016 and 2020 will become an important part of our state’s story as the choices of voters continue to define the evolution of party politics in our state.

As the short session of the N.C. General Assembly convenes, there will be no shortage of divisive education issues that may be addressed, including freedom of speech on campuses, possible revisions to House Bill 2, funding for vouchers, teacher pay, pensions versus 401Ks, an achievement school district, and changing how charter schools are funded given the upcoming 20th anniversary of charter school legislation on June 21.

But our state is culturally too rich and diverse and complex for politics alone to be what defines us. Our state is defined by our geography, our beautiful places and spaces, our music and our film, our poetry and our books, our religious traditions, and most importantly our people.

Olee Joel Olsen, the CEO of O2energies, doesn’t just build solar farms. He intertwines sustainable agriculture. And he teaches students about how to do both and why both are important for our future.

On a Friday earlier this month, Donnell Cannon became the principal of North Edgecombe High School. He asked me to pray for him. There is just no doubt in my mind that his leadership will change the trajectory of his students and his school.

Second-grade teacher, Karen Struebing, at District 7 Elementary in Wade is taking classes to teach her students how to code.

Students from Hatteras and Conetoe are working together to create a food exchange.

Rachel Roberts, a plant biologist with a degree from Cornell, and her husband, Chris Roberts, a fourth-generation apple grower, choose to teach in the Clay County Schools.

Have you been to a ramp festival? Have you listened in on a hootenanny? Have you hiked to a waterfall? Have you watched a train flatten a penny along one of our railways? Have you enjoyed the ribs at 12 Bones in Asheville, the Laotian Pad Thai at Asian Fusion in Morganton, the dipped chicken at Keaton’s BBQ in Cleveland, or a shrimp burger at The Big Oak on our Crystal Coast?

Instead of relying on polling, I have long thought a better predictor of the mood of voters and the outcome of elections in our state is to walk around the Dolphin Motel in Nags Head, to eat BBQ at Lexington No. 1, to sit on the back porch of the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis and just talk to people. And then I check in with a couple of folks who are homeless as well as a couple of CEOs.

State leaders are working together to create a forum for civil dialogue, but those conversations also need to happen informally as we are all out and about in our state.

Next time you are pumping gas, ask the person next to you why they call this state home. Ask them what keeps them up at night. Ask them to imagine the state of our future. And then over dinner have that same conversation with your children, our students.

Let’s remind our students and the world why we choose to call this state home. We are all North Carolina. Use the #WeAreAllNC to share your favorite things about our state during this important election year.

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

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