THE WINSTON–SALEM FOUNDATION

What We Heard

Community Conversations

As of July 2018, we had spoken with more than 250 people from all walks of life in Forsyth County to gather perspectives to inform our new priorities. This number continues to grow as we deepen our learning with those who so graciously share their expertise with us.
Though not exhaustive, here is a summary of the major themes we heard in our listening conversations:
Community-Wide Themes
Our listening sessions included widespread feedback that the community struggles to come together at times and those active in community improvement are not working toward common goals. Some individuals cited other communities that have an entity that brings people together to identify common goals and collectively drive community change.
In order to get on the same page about these issues, community members share that we must begin to have difficult conversations, especially about race and racism. While people describe the community as “nice” or “polite,” this disposition can make it particularly difficult to have challenging conversations needed to make true community improvement.

Community members share that we must begin to have difficult conversations, especially about race and racism.

On building an inclusive economy…
Community members expressed frustration with the barriers to fully participate in the Forsyth County economy, both socially and financially. Residents described the existence of traditional power structures making decisions without full community input or transparency; many reported that there continues to be a handful of white, older, powerful men making decisions that impact the broader community. Social and business networks are viewed as a vital aspect of economic opportunity, and currently not everyone feels that they can access these networks.
People we spoke to throughout the community shared numerous personal barriers to economic advancement. They struggle finding reliable transportation options to get to their jobs. Many individuals experiencing poverty also endure more acute psychological and mental health needs that remain unmet. Caring for families presents additional complications for those trying to excel in the workforce. Low-wage jobs fail to provide incomes that sufficiently cover the costs of raising and caring for family members. Particularly on the issue of children, parents and caregivers express frustration in how expensive childcare is, while many of those same individuals work in childcare settings that pay well below a living wage; the economic model of childcare is not sustainable.

Residents described the existence of traditional power structures making decisions without full community input or transparency.

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. Individuals working within the nonprofit sector indicated that the community has sufficient programs to assist individuals, but there is an awareness challenge. Additionally, the emergence of new organizations add to the challenge of effectively getting the word out about existing resources.
Even with education and job training, appropriate job placement presents a challenge. While many employers described difficulty in finding employees with the necessary qualifications and/or experience for open positions, there remains a significant number of individuals without jobs that pay a living wage; this misalignment between workers and employers impacts the broader economy. Despite local economic growth, qualified and educated workers often lack incentives to stay in the area to continue contributing to Forsyth County’s economy. Many young people reported that they sense a lack of good job opportunities and are, or will be, looking to other cities for work.
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 face an inability to fully participate in the economy and also experience a lack of self-esteem and optimistic spirit to propel them forward.
On advancing equity in education…
Many community members we spoke with feel our educational system exacerbates social disparities, specifically through student assignment. The current parameters of student assignment have allowed for increasing levels of school segregation, and many individuals cite our current system as a main driver of inequitable education outcomes for students. At the same time, individuals recognize that the current student assignment plan 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. Many individuals, both supporters of the current system and those opposed, feel that school choice is not truly available for all families, and that barriers such as transportation limit choice for many families. While many recognize the role student assignment plays in student outcomes, most of the individuals we spoke with feel there is a lack of public will to make any changes to the current assignment system.
Individuals we spoke with, particularly those who work in the school system, raised the importance of school culture. Many cite the role of leadership within a school and its ability to quickly positively or negatively impact school climate. While many schools recognize the need for parent engagement and involvement and are seeking new methods to do this work better, 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. With changes at the state level and an increased focus on testing, teachers have less room for creativity in their work with students, which presents challenges for both retention and recruitment of teachers.
Educators and school leaders identified a number of other issues that are adding to the challenge of recruiting and retaining highly-qualified teachers. Low pay was regularly cited as one of the most critical barriers to attracting and retaining excellent teachers. Many observed that when talented teachers do surface, they tend to get disproportionately burdened with additional tasks. Rather than being places where great teachers thrive, low-income schools have also gained the reputation of being “training grounds” for new teachers who gain experience then move on to other schools. Additionally, students articulated their frustration that teachers do not usually look like them. In particular, 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.
Individuals shared that disciplinary policy seems inconsistent across schools and at times across classrooms, which leads to different experiences for students in different settings. There is concern that the lack of consistency can lead to further disparities in discipline referrals, and referrals to law enforcement. Numerous individuals within and outside of the school system cited the need for effective classroom management to prevent discipline referrals, and to create a positive educational experience for students. Many also noted a critical need to build on the existing work our school system has begun in social and emotional learning.

With changes at the state level and an increased focus on testing, teachers have less room for creativity in their work with students, which presents challenges for both retention and recruitment of teachers.

Furthering the conversation on barriers to equitable access to quality education, students shared that some of their teachers and school leaders don’t always make them feel valued or capable of succeeding, particularly when biases surface. They remarked on the underrepresentation of students of color in accelerated tracking and Advanced Placement classes. And while graduation rates have increased over the years, individuals indicated that the shift has not had a discernable impact on the career or college readiness of many graduating students.