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UNC launches initiative to help North Carolina counties post-pandemic — all 100 of them

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz applauds during Hubert Davis's introductory press conference on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

There are 100 counties in the state of North Carolina — and UNC wants to help every single one. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz launched the initiative Carolina Across 100 at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on March 25. Carolina Across 100 aims to extend the University’s resources to help communities deal with the anticipated challenges post-COVID-19.

Anita Brown-Graham, Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government and the director of ncIMPACT Initiative, will direct this five-year initiative.

“This is an effort to extend the University's resources — intellectual resources — our ‘know-how’ to each one of North Carolina’s 100 counties,” Brown-Graham said.

How it works

Communities volunteer to participate in cohorts addressing specific challenges and opportunities, Brown-Graham said. The communities themselves will come up with a plan to address their priority issues, and the University will provide assistance and resources to help implement the plans.

“The communities are the ones who are inviting us in to help them with something they’ve decided is their priority,” Brown-Graham said.  

This summer, the University will survey communities to understand their needs.

“We have already started to talk to some regional and county level leaders about what their priorities are..." Brown-Graham said. “We are going to do a slew of interviews with people across the state to be sure not just that we understand what the issues are, but we understand the nuances of those issues.”

From these results, the University will pick a priority issue to develop a cohort around. By the end of the year, Brown-Graham said she expects to have a cohort of 20-25 communities representing counties throughout the state. The plan is to work with 25-30 additional counties each year thereafter. The timespan of each cohort depends on the issue being addressed. 

“We are not going to make any plans to do anything until we’re sure that we have heard and appropriately analyzed what people across the state are telling us,” Brown-Graham said. 

Brown-Graham said some of the priority issues she expects to see from these surveys include small business closures, job loss and learning loss because of remote learning. However, she said one of the most pressing issues centers around mental health and well-being.

“I think it is very easy to see and measure the economic and the educational losses,” Brown-Graham said. “If you ask me about the most pressing issues, I worry a bit that some of those are social, some are about our sense of stress and overall mental well-being that is far less easy to see and to speculate about.” 

The ncIMPACT Initiative at the School of Government will coordinate Carolina Across 100, Dean Mike Smith said. Through ncIMPACT, the school provides information and data to policymakers in local and state governments to help them be better informed about their choices and options when making decisions. 

“We want to make sure that they have really good data, that they have support and that they have facilitation to help them accomplish the goals that they determine they want to accomplish," Smith said.

Similarly, through the Carolina Across 100 initiative, Smith said the University hopes to specifically address their priority issues.

“They will be our partners genuinely,” Smith said. “They know their communities. They have knowledge that we will never have on our own. And we need to be with them — together — learning what they think their opportunities and challenges are.”

Role of the University

The University will put together teams of interdisciplinary faculty and staff to approach these communities’ challenges in a comprehensive way, Brown-Graham said. 

The staff will give the communities insight into problem-solving processes and sustainable, evidence-based solutions for key issues. Brown-Graham hopes successful communities can be models for areas facing similar challenges.

Smith said Carolina Across 100 will also help the communities build the capacity to take on new projects and initiatives in the future.

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To help keep track of the initiative in a tangible way, the University will contract with an external evaluator, Brown-Graham said.

“We are measuring our impact in ways that hold us accountable,” Smith said.

Smith said he is excited by Guskiewicz’s personal commitment to this initiative.

“He’s doing this because he believes that Carolina really does have an obligation to the people of this state,” Smith said. “That kind of commitment from the top — that genuine belief that this is an integral part of what this University needs to be doing — that’s the other reason it will be successful.” 

Guskiewicz said he is confident this initiative will benefit the state.

“Carolina Across 100 is yet another example of our commitment to serving the people of North Carolina,” Guskiewicz said in a statement. “I have no doubt this initiative will have a lasting impact on communities across the state.” 

Smith said Brown-Graham’s selflessness and drive make her the best person to lead this initiative.

“She has already demonstrated that she has the skill set, the commitment, the passion to do this kind of work,” Smith said. “I’m so excited she’s doing this.”

UNC has always helped the state in times of need, Brown-Graham said. And this initiative adds to that legacy.

“Every time this state has been in crisis, this University has stepped up in a meaningful way to respond,” Brown-Graham said. “If we don’t do something big and meaningful in response to this, we would not have lived up to our legacy nor will we have leaned into our future.”