Q&A: Workforce with Mebane Rash, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of EdNC

Golden LEAF staff recently joined EducationNC (EdNC) and the John M Belk Endowment on Awake58, a listening tour about the role of NC’s 58 community colleges. One of Golden LEAF’s focuses is to support workforce development programs. We asked Mebane Rash of EdNC to provide more information about the Awake58 tour and EdNC.

What was the goal of Awake58?

In May 2018, EdNC secured a two-year, $1 million investment from the John M Belk Endowment, allowing us to expand our coverage to the whole education continuum from birth to career. For the first time in North Carolina, we will be able to provide daily coverage of the 58 community colleges across the state.

As Brookings has noted, “From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist.” Often in North Carolina, people only know about their local community college, and coverage is limited to changes in leadership, new buildings, or philanthropic investments. Reporters don’t even show up for the state board meetings. We intend to change that.

This presented some opportunities and challenges as our team thought about how to increase awareness about our community colleges and workforce development in a state that is 560 miles long.

Analisa Sorrells, EdNC’s assistant director of research and engagement, says, “Community colleges have never really been covered before. They didn’t know us. Our state didn’t know them. We needed to show up.” She continues, “I never would have broken through with the people in Murphy if I hadn’t driven 7½ hours to shake their hands.”

Our Awake58 blitz was designed to expedite audience awareness quickly, allowing our team to build relationships, surface issues, identify sources, and grow our new audience.

We believe North Carolina will be the most information rich state in the nation on the issue of education with our expansion.

EdNC reporter Liz Bell says, “I think the blitz was a really unique example of relationship building and trust building with our audience. I don’t know if people often feel like reporters care when we are asking questions and writing stories about them. Us taking our whole staff and a whole week showed them we care, we value the work they are doing, and we are committed to getting the story right.” Bell says it also helped them better understand their value beyond the local and the importance of being included in a broader conversation.

What data or information was gathered through the Awake58 tour?

Nation Hahn, EdNC’s Chief Growth Officer, says, “We didn’t go to these schools, colleges, or communities with the story in mind. We went to listen and then tell story we heard.”

When you have a community that has not been traditionally covered, reporters are scary. People asked us, ‘what’s your angle, what’s your story?” We said, ‘Our story is your story. It is predicated on listening to you.’

On every visit, our team produced social first content, including photos and video. These were tweeted by team members, then retweeted by the community college system, the community college, and other stakeholders, including the Golden LEAF team. EdNC had a combined 421,419 Twitter impressions from staff accounts as well as the @Awake58NC and the @EducationNC Twitter accounts during the week.

Our team documented where we should dive deeper with each college and the challenges and opportunities they face, which allowed us to build a content map that includes possible stories and sources for all 58 colleges for the next year.

Hahn says, “Many people go their whole lives without knowing whether their work, their lives matter. The blitz proved to many that our people, their work, these colleges matter to their communities and have a place in our state and our nation.”

The articles on our community colleges are being produced and rolled out to the public now – you can find them at EdNC. org.

What are the common themes in workforce training in NC right now?

The jobs of tomorrow are expensive, often because the equipment is expensive. That’s where the investments of Golden LEAF Foundation and other foundations are really important. On the Awake58 blitz we documented many of these grants so the public and policymakers could better understand the need.

Here are our five early takeaways on the role of community colleges in workforce training:

  • Across our nation, there is a “talent war,” a continuous competition for the best workers and the best industry-led job opportunities. Community colleges are on the frontlines of this “talent war,” working with industries and training workers to drive regional economic development.
  • Community colleges connect education to the workforce, collaborating with employers to increase the availability and access of programs, align courses of study, and expose students to real-world careers.
  • Community colleges strengthen collaboration, building unity among industries regionally.
  • Community colleges increase access to technology for all students, which helps level the playing field.
  • Community college leaders across the state are focused on economic mobility for their students and future workers. One administrator told us, “I get up every single day focused on increasing economic mobility for families across North Carolina.”
What do people need to know about the important role our community colleges play?

Community colleges offer access to higher education for students across North Carolina. They are the builders of our workforce now and in the future. They play an important role in strengthening our regional economies. They will shape the future of North Carolina, increasing our competitiveness nationally and in the world.

Stories help us understand just how important our community colleges are in the fabric of our society. This hit me when a superintendent in western North Carolina told me what it was like, the impact of NOT having a community college in your county. In another county, community members told me how important just the buildings of the community college are, serving as public spaces for civic engagement, spaces they said would not exist otherwise.

What is the overall role of EdNC?

Our job to tell the stories of our students, our schools and community colleges, their role in workforce development, and the future of our state. Our job is to engage everyone from the public to philanthropists to policymakers in a conversation about education, in what we call our architecture of participation. The bottom line for us is that we believe a more informed and connected North Carolina is a better North Carolina.

Our Awake 58 blitz and the idea of visiting all 58 community colleges in one week was inspired by Golden LEAF’s Dan Gerlach. We all follow your @ncLEAFchief on Twitter as he travels our state, and he taught us the importance of eating local and getting to know the communities we visit.

About Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of EducationNC, a collection of nonprofits and initiatives including EdNC, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, Reach NC Voices, and First Vote NC. She is the president of the national Governmental Research Association. She is a public school kid and a Tar Heel.

Visit ednc.org to learn more.

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