Gov. Roy Cooper announced the appointment of several members to the Andrea Harris Equity Task Force, according to an Oct. 28 press release.
The late Andrea Harris was the co-founder of the NC Institute of Minority Economic Development and helped in the fight against poverty in several North Carolina communities.
The task force was reestablished by Executive Order No. 268 in August, with the mission of advising state government offices on ways to promote economic development, equitable practices, health and wellness in disadvantaged communities impacted by COVID-19.
North Carolina has received over $110 billion from the federal government for COVID-19 relief funding as of July 1, according to the NC Pandemic Recovery Office.
Stephanie McGarrah, director of the NC Pandemic Recovery Office and member of the task force, said the office was created to address issues that people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic.
“In general, the effects of the pandemic have been very uneven across the state and have highlighted some inequities across all parts of North Carolina,” McGarrah said.
One of the goals of the new task force is to build off of the recommendations of the original task force, according to the order. The executive order also stated that the task force is intended to be “inclusive of the lived experience of all North Carolinians.”
The original task force had five areas of focus: access to healthcare, economic opportunity and business development, educational opportunity, environmental justice and inclusion and patient engagement.
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 Health Equity Report, those who live in low-income communities face greater difficulties in accessing healthcare because they have less access to providers.
Annette Taylor, the director of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology Office of Digital Equity and Literacy and recent appointee to the task force, said COVID-19 highlighted a need for access to healthcare. She added that internet access is important for individuals who need to use telemedicine.
The Access to Healthcare subcommittee of the task force targets problems like these. The task force invested $90 million in grants to connect underserved households in order to increase access to telehealth services.
The Office of Digital Equity and Literacy is seeking partnerships statewide in order to create digital equity solutions. According to the office’s website, the organization focuses on low-income populations, elderly citizens, formerly incarcerated people and people of color.
These partnerships are a part of a $10 million investment to support government entities.
Taylor said programs like the task force are important because they are able to bring in experts in their fields as a way to address historically disadvantaged communities.
“I think having a Task Force creates a dedicated group of individuals who move those recommendations forward," Taylor said.
A 2020 study published by the Alliance for Excellent Education found that 22.7 percent of North Carolina households lack access to reliable high-speed internet connection, which is close to the national average of about 23 percent. Furthermore, 10.4 percent of households in North Carolina do not have computers.
The study stated that the lack of internet access disproportionately affects students of color.
According to data from the 2018 American Community Survey, about 30 percent of Black households and more than 36 percent of Latinx households in the state are without high-speed internet access, and 16 percent of Black households and about 22 percent of Latinx households do not have a computer.
Taylor said a digital literacy curriculum has been created for families to access through the NC Department of Public Instruction, as a result of recommendations by the task force.
Shun Robertson, another member of the task force and vice president for access and success strategy for the UNC System, said part of her position is creating initiatives to get more North Carolina students into and through North Carolina public universities.
She said she is focused on adult students, military learners and students from underserved and rural communities.
Robertson said a student’s success in higher education can depend on what happens outside of the classroom, emphasizing the importance of transportation, housing and other community resources.
Creating conversations among people from different industries allows the task force to align its goals and messages, she said.
“It’s a great opportunity for people who are working on this issue from different areas to all come together and have that conversation,” Robertson said.
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