More than 4,400 of North Carolina’s young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are now on their way to accessing living wage jobs or enrolling in school as a result of a year and a half of programming and partnership through Carolina Across 100’s “Our State, Our Work” program. Along with nonprofits, educational institutions, service organizations, faith-based groups, and others, this work would not have been possible without the partnership of dozens of employers across the state.
Approximately 300 people – community leaders, education officials, and affected young people from 13 communities across the state – celebrated the accomplishment at a daylong Statewide Summit on Re-engaging Opportunity Youth, held at UNC’s Friday Center on Nov. 29. The attendees came together to share lessons learned and stories of lives changed as a result of 18 months of collaboration. They also made plans to continue and build on current efforts, with the goal of helping 6,400 North Carolinians by the end of 2024.
Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz kicked off “Our State, Our Work” in March 2022 as the first program in Carolina Across 100, the University’s initiative to collaborate with local leaders and address longstanding challenges exacerbated by COVID-19. Led by Anita Brown-Graham, Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, and administered through the ncIMPACT Initiative, the five-year effort partners with communities in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Brown-Graham said she was proud of what the 13 teams had accomplished: employer engagement that resulted in changed trajectories for 4,403 North Carolinians as well as their families and communities.
“There were times when teams didn’t think they could make it happen, when people seemed tired,” she said. “This is hard work, and the results happen one individual at a time.”
Clay County’s Sienna Hartnett was one of several youth who shared her success story at the Summit. At age 17, Sienna had been living in shelters without reliable transportation to school, frustrated and uncertain about her future. After dropping out of high school, Sienna was connected with Tri-County Community College (TCCC) and registered with “Our State, Our Work” partners at Bridge Academy, whose multiple pathways helped Sienna obtain her Adult High School Diploma in May 2023. Sienna was also connected with a job at a local grocery store, with transportation support to help her retain that job.
Listen to Sienna tell her story in this program recap video featuring two young adults impacted by the “Our State, Our Work” program.
Through community support, a tiny home was built for Sienna and her sisters to offer their first permanent home. Sienna is now studying art at TCCC with a 4.0 average and hopes to transfer to a four-year university. Eager to give back to her community, Sienna is now working at a local non-profit, Four Square, primarily preparing food boxes for delivery to families in need. (More Opportunity Youth success stories can be found on the event website.)
As Sienna’s story makes clear, it is essential to include local employers in the work. Each of the 13 teams included multiple employers. In addition, some of the state’s largest employers invested in the work. Blue Cross of North Carolina was a lead sponsor, and Duke Energy also invested. Bank of America took a different approach. Their Leader on Loan to the ncIMPACT Initiative, Rick Brown, worked on the effort for a year and offered insight and resources to the teams, including employer engagement check-ins to help teams assess and improve their work with employers. In his role, Brown supported community collaboratives to assess, strengthen, and maintain sustainable employer connections. He facilitated a session on employer engagement during the Summit.
ncIMPACT Initiative's Anita Brown-Graham (far left) with Bank of America's Rick Brown (far right) and Opportunity Youth panelists (left to right): Sienna Hartnett (Clay County), DonIsha Armstrong (Wayne County), and Nathanael Hudson (Wayne County)
Brown praised the teams working across the state for how they’ve helped bridge the connections between young adults and employers. “Meeting our NC community participants where they are and helping support them has been key to helping them overcome a variety of challenges,” said Brown. “Five teams shared how they have engaged employers in this important effort to support Opportunity Youth. These young people need inspiring efforts like Our State, Our Work to help make their dreams reality.”
“The work continues,” Brown-Graham said. “This effort has catalyzed energy around the unbelievable potential in these young people to meet the workforce needs across not just our state, but our country. I’m proud that next steps will take place without our fingerprints, but they’ll build on the legacy.”
Resources shared at the Summit, including program reports, success stories, and a newly released Opportunity Youth profile featuring North Carolina data can be found at https://carolinaacross100.unc.edu/summit/materials/#success.
About Carolina Across 100
Carolina Across 100 is a five-year initiative charged by Chancellor Guskiewicz and housed at the School of Government’s ncIMPACT Initiative. This pan-University effort, guided by the Carolina Engagement Council, will form meaningful partnerships with communities in all 100 North Carolina counties to respond to challenges stemming from or exacerbated by COVID-19. “Our State, Our Work” is the first program of Carolina Across 100, connecting young adults to living wage employment opportunities. “Our State, Our Wellbeing” is the second program, focused on improving mental health and reducing suicide in North Carolina.