As nation splinters, NC efforts are bringing us together

Participants connect at the Emerging Issues Forum event in Asheville in November.
Participants connect at the Emerging Issues Forum event in Asheville in November.

As we lurch into 2019 with a gyrating stock market, a shut down federal government, polarized politics and rising deaths from suicide and overdose, it’s easy to lose hope.

“The challenges feel insurmountable,” one woman from Buncombe County said during a meeting this fall.

There is plenty of evidence that some people are checking out of engagement in civic life. At NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, our updated Civic Health Index documented a decline in the percentage of us who reported working with our neighbors — from 8.1 percent in 2013 to 6.3 percent in 2016. The percentage of us reporting volunteering anywhere during the past year went from 26 percent to 24.4 percent. Charitable giving dropped from 53.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

“America is experiencing a crisis of meaning,” Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro wrote last month. “While we have a bevy of centrifugal forces operating on us, we have very few centripetal forces bringing us together.”

Over the past few months, our organization has been discovering some of the new forces bringing us together, and featuring them as part of a three-year effort called ReCONNECT NC. The initiative looks for places where pastors are joining with community activists, business owners are getting into the same room as addiction counselors, and teachers are sitting down with police and social workers. The encounters, it turns out, don’t come about as the result of purely “top-down” orders or “bottom up” organizing, but “middle out,” as concerned community members reach up and down and across to find the people who can help them solve the problems their community faces.

At our first big meeting in Asheville in November, politicians and policy researchers shared the stage with church leaders, environmental campaigners and entrepreneurs. We heard the story of a police chief who forged a partnership with a community activist to build deeper trust; of a city councilor and an energy executive who chose a productive compromise over a zero-sum political battle; and of state lawmakers from opposing parties who detailed the long list of bipartisan work that gets almost no attention in the media.

And we got a glimpse of some of the places where these relationships are getting momentum and scale, with stories from five communities bringing disparate people together to work on big problems. Jeff Eidson, the leader of a remarkable effort to re-energize Elkin, a town of 5,000 that straddles the border of NC’s Surry and Wilkes counties, describes what happens this way: “Relationships may not be ‘scaleable,’ but they can be contagious.”

One of the striking features of modern America is that people generally feel optimistic about their own communities, even as they express deep pessimism at the state and national levels. And there is good reason: neighborhoods and towns can’t afford the luxury of gridlock. Zeb Smathers, mayor of Canton, in Haywood County, notes, “If I don’t get a pothole fixed, then they know what pew I sit in on Sunday morning.”

Fixing potholes and hosting potlucks sounds small against the backdrop of rising mortality and talk show screams. But we have to strengthen the civic fabric at the community level so that it can bear the weight of broader issues. Fixing small things builds trust, and connecting earnest work at the town, county, and regional level builds momentum for tougher issues like racism, addiction and poverty.

You can’t strengthen institutions by executive order, and you can’t impose social structure from Washington or from state capitals. But we can do much more to galvanize, connect and sustain the energy and creativity that Americans are already bringing to bear on our most urgent challenges. Under the radar, one relationship and initiative at a time, North Carolina is poised to do that in 2019.

Boney is director of NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues. Email: