In 2018, as we approached our centennial year, we recognized how much our community had changed. To keep pace with these changes and to meet the current and most pressing needs facing Forsyth County, we knew we must adapt and grow as an organization. We knew we couldn’t fully realize our vision of a community where everyone is thriving if we didn’t understand and address the systems and policies preventing marginalized individuals and communities from doing so.
We took many steps to develop our priority areas, including:
Community members shared that we must begin to have difficult conversations, especially about race and racism. Although our community is often described as “nice” or “polite,” this can discourage important conversations needed to drive community change. Overall, we struggle to come together as a community and work toward common goals.
There is frustration with the barriers that prevent many from fully participating in Forsyth County’s economy, both socially and financially. Social and business networks are important ways to find economic opportunity, however these networks do not feel accessible to everyone. Many residents reported that there are a handful of older, white, powerful men making decisions with little transparency or community input.
There are also personal barriers preventing economic advancement such as lack of reliable transportation to access jobs. Individuals experiencing poverty endure acute psychological and mental health needs that remain unmet. Those responsible for caring for their families have additional barriers as low-wage jobs with incomes that fail to meet basic needs.
Individuals reported that good job opportunities are difficult to find and obtain. While job training programs exist in Forsyth County, many residents, particularly those with the greatest need, are unaware of their existence and how to access them. Nonprofits indicated that the community has enough programs to assist individuals but there is an awareness challenge and the emergence of new organizations makes it difficult to get the word out about existing resources.
The local economy is impacted by misalignment between employers and workers. Many employers struggle to find employees with the necessary qualifications and experience and yet there are a significant number of individuals without jobs that pay a living wage. Despite local economic growth, qualified and educated workers lack incentives to stay in the area and young people report a lack of opportunities.
Entrepreneurship is experiencing a rebirth in Forsyth County and many different programs were highlighted in our conversations. However, there are also concerns that the plethora of entrepreneurship opportunities are not well-coordinated nor inclusive. Other individuals also cited a lack of local capital for a variety of different projects and entrepreneurial efforts.
We also heard from community members that there is a lack of safe and affordable housing. Individuals living in subsidized housing indicated that their housing options often did not meet acceptable safety standards. Additionally, more affordable units are needed throughout the community, with easy access to transportation and commercial corridors.
Many shared that feelings of hopelessness are common among Forsyth County residents who are struggling financially. Many residents are unable to fully participate in the economy and experience a lack of self-esteem and optimistic spirit to propel them forward.
Many community members we spoke with feel our educational system exacerbates social disparities, specifically through student assignment. The student assignment system has encouraged school segregation and inequitable education outcomes for students. School choice is not accessible to all families due to barriers such as transportation. At the same time, individuals recognize that student assignment keeps many families with greater wealth and access to resources in the public school system. There is a fear that altering student assignment will drive many of those families to charter or private schools. Most feel there is a lack of public will to make any changes to the current assignment system.
Those who work in the school system brought up the impact of school culture, citing that leadership can either positively or negatively impact school climate. While many schools recognize the need for parent engagement and are seeking new methods to do so, some young people feel that their voices are not valued at their schools, and some parents do not feel welcome in their children’s schools.
We also heard that the work environment for administrators and teachers is overly bureaucratic, which negatively impacts teacher morale. Increased focus on testing at the state level leaves little room for creativity, which makes it challenging to recruit and retain teachers.
Low pay is another one of the most critical barriers to attracting and retaining excellent teachers. When talented teachers are hired, they are disproportionately burdened with additional tasks. Low-income schools have gained the reputation of being “training grounds” for new teachers who then move on to other schools. Additionally, students articulated that teachers do not usually look like them—some students noted they’ve never had a person of color or a male as a classroom teacher in all their years as K–12 students.
Disciplinary policies were described as inconsistent across schools and at times across classrooms. Lack of consistency can lead to disparities in discipline referrals, and referrals to law enforcement. There is a need for effective classroom management to prevent discipline referrals, and to create a positive educational experience for all students.
Students shared that some of their teachers and school leaders don’t make them feel valued or capable of succeeding. They note the underrepresentation of students of color in accelerated tracking and Advanced Placement classes. And while graduation rates have increased over the years, the growth has not had a discernable impact on the career or college readiness of many graduating students.
As we continue to learn, evolve, and shape our emergent strategy, we turn to our community to understand how we can work together to solve local problems. Our work will be more effective when it’s continuously informed by those who are closest to the work rather than having a rigid, pre-determined plan in place.
We look forward to sharing more about our journey, and we hope that you see a way to partner with us as we work to ensure that everyone thrives.