Editor’s note: Dr. Sarah Glova is the Director of Growth & Communications for RIoT, the IoT-focused economic development nonprofit headquartered in Raleigh, NC.

RALEIGH – Leaders from across North Carolina joined the ReCONNECT NC forum on Monday in Raleigh. The forum was presented by NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues, with the theme “ReCONNECT Rural & Urban.”

The event’s afternoon sessions highlighted community initiatives across North Carolina that are bridging the gap between rural and urban spaces.

Anupama Joshi, Executive Director of Blue Sky Finders Forum, discussed the farm-to-school movement. She outlined models in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia that have not only brought food from farms into schools but also led to economic development through increased jobs and rural investment.

“These examples, I hope, have spurred some thinking about what we can do in North Carolina,” said Joshi.

The rest of the day offered opportunities for North Carolina community initiatives, like Service Year NC, the Beloved Community Center, the Local Government Federal Credit Union, and more, to share their mission and vision with engaged leaders.


The “Moving to Solutions: Innovation in Rural and Urban Cooperation” session amplified use cases and mission statements of five diverse programs from across NC.

“The stories that you hear today—these are things that transform communities,” said Travis Mitchell, Senior Director and Chief Content Officer for UNC-TV.

Mitchell started the panel with his own story about growing up in the shadow of the Raleigh Marriott, where the event was held, in Southeast Raleigh. He offered his career trajectory as an example of the power of supportive community programs: once a kid who learned to read by watching Sesame Street on PBS, Mitchell is now a director at a public broadcast channel.

Survey: Rural and urban Americans are more similar than they think

Mitchell then introduced the five NC Community Initiatives in the panel, Carolina Core, Growing Outdoors WNC, Project Empathy, Project 40, and STEM SENC, with a brief video.

Carolina Core offers regional marketing for 17 urban and rural centers of North Carolina, helping communities to leverage their neighbors as partners, rather than as competitors.

“We were trying to accomplish the same goals and we weren’t helping each other,” said Alyssa Byrd of Carolina Core. “Carolina Core has given us a new way to think about how we compete. Together we can have a bigger impact and be globally competitive.

Growing Outdoors WNC is a partnership focused on expanding Western North Carolina’s outdoor recreation industry. Noah Wilson, Project Manager with Growing Outdoors WNC, described how the organization is sensitive to the problematic history of tourism, which has brought money into the western part of the state for over a century, but also caused environmental damage.

“Look for historic areas of difference,” said Wilson, speaking to the challenge of community building. “Find the radical middle.”

Project Empathy was originally an initiative within the Transylvania County Department of Planning and Community Development, and is now a volunteer-led event organizer, hosting discussions on issues like fear of the “other,” gun control, health and empathy, justice and racial equity, and diversity.

“By embracing something as simple as empathy,” said Mark Rossburrows, community activist and volunteer with Project Empathy, “and convening different groups and people, we create a more stable community, rural and urban, that ultimately supports greater trust, compassion, health—and perhaps longer lasting economic prosperity.”

Project 40 is focused on sourcing regional food for the Triangle. Erin White, Founder of the Community Food Lab, discussed Project 40 in the context of his family’s story. He told the audience about the day he came home from school, sat down with his parents, and heard his Dad say life-changing words: “We have to sell the farm.”

The audience was then challenged to think about the effect of family farms on North Carolina’s economy. And finally, White shared Project 40’s clear target: 40% of the Triangle’s food will come from urban and rural sources by the year 2040

STEM SENC is focused on sharing STEM opportunities with all students, across locations, socioeconomics, and cultures.

“We believe that urban youth and rural youth should be provided with an opportunity to explore the full range of opportunities that 21st-century careers and a quality education can afford them,” said Carmen Sidbury, Director of CESTEM and UNC Wilmington.


The event also included a panel with philanthropic leaders, including Dan Gerlach, President of the Golden LEAF Foundation, Karl Stauber, President & CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation, and Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, President & CEO of the  NC Community Foundation.

The panel discussed current philanthropic initiatives in NC, and the importance of relationship building and community involvement. Stauber stressed that organizations needed to get to know communities.

“If North Carolina is to prosper, then all of North Carolina needs to prosper,” said Stauber. “When I grew up here, this was a connected state… we were in it together. If the state is to prosper again, the sense of the commonwealth has to be nurtured, brought to fruition.”

Gerlach agreed and pointed out that North Carolina as a state can only succeed if all of its regions are successful.

“So the poorest areas of NC go, so go we all,” said Gerlach.

But all three philanthropic leaders agreed that the most important aspect of philanthropy is involvement from the communities themselves. Whiteside discussed how communities need to be very involved in how funds are spent within their communities.

“The community needs to make those decisions for themselves,” Whiteside said.


Senator Harry Brown, representative for NC’s sixth Senate district, spoke about connectivity in North Carolina with Jean Davis, President & CEO of MCNC.

MCNC is a technology company and non-profit based out of Research Triangle Park. MCNC built and operates high-speed broadband infrastructure, bringing connectivity to many areas that were previously unserved or underserved.

“A big challenge in our state, is rural residential connectivity,” said Davis. “The idea that elderly patients in their homes don’t have the connectivity to be able to access telehealth services to manage their diabetes or their heart diseases… the idea that our kids go home at night in these rural counties and don’t have a connection, so they’re not able to access all the digital resources that other kids are able to access.”

“Broadband is one of those areas that, there’s a big difference,” said Senator Brown. “It affects our schools, it affects our industry, it affects existing businesses—so there’s some real concerns there.”

Both discussed programs in North Carolina that are focused on bridging the connectivity gap.

“If it was easy, or if anybody could make any money on building out broadband to rural communities, it would have already been done,” said Davis. “What we’re willing to discuss is – how can the people in this room and the partnerships that we have bring to bare some solution on fixing that residential rural broadband connectivity issue.”

Senator Brown also shared plans for the $10 million budget earmark, announced in 2018, for expanding rural broadband. The senator is known for supporting connectivity projects in the state, like when he voiced support for the well-known Greenlight Community Broadband project in Wilson, NC.

“…a lot of these poor, low-wealth counties have people leaving them—so I just really have some concerns about their future,” said Senator Brown. “And I think broadband is one of those areas, Jean, that can really make a difference.”

If the goal is to reCONNECT rural and urban spaces across North Carolina, a first step could be ensuring all North Carolinians can connect at the same speed.