Maurice “Mo” Green spent the last year looking into the eyes and listening to the heart of North Carolina.
As the new executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, he set out in May 2016 on a tour across the state dubbed: “Mo wants to know.” Seeking to learn where the state is hurting, where it’s doing well and what it needs to ease its pains and enhance its strengths, he spoke with hundreds of people from one-on-one sessions with community leaders to community forums to private talks with people who poured out their stories of loss and hope. In all, he visited 19 counties from the coast to the mountains
“We were trying to figure out what was going on in the state and how we could be responsive to that,” he said.
Green can do more than listen. As the leader of a foundation with an endowment of over $400 million, he and the foundation’s board can distribute $15 to $20 million a year to groups and projects that want to improve North Carolina. But first, he wanted a clear, ground-level sense of the state’s needs.
Never miss a local story.
What he found isn’t the North Carolina described by the tax-cutting zealots in the General Assembly. There wasn’t any local celebration of how lower taxes on corporations were bringing a surge in jobs and prosperity. “I don’t know that I heard that link being made,” he said.
Instead, he discovered two North Carolinas. Urban areas, especially around Raleigh and Charlotte, are booming and rural areas are losing people, especially young people. “A lot of them in rural communities said they would be willing to stayif they could see opportunities,“ he said.
But the problem isn’t simply rural poverty and urban wealth. He found parts of Charlotte, for instance, in which the poor were being left behind despite a strong local economy and low unemployment.
Asked what surprised him, he pointed to the opioid epidemic. People told him at group meetings that opioid addiction was afflicting not just young people, but older people, too.
“We were in a few communities where people lifted that up as a significant problem that needs a lot of attention because it’s impacting generations of folks,” Green said. He didn’t know the scope of the problem, he said, “until people came up with their personal stories.”
Also under surprises, he included the stunning depth of poverty he encountered in urban and rural areas. He wondered, “How can this exist in a state like North Carolina, or in America? It’s hard to say it was surprising, but it was disappointing.”
Green came to his current post after completing more than seven years as superintendent of Guilford County Schools – the third-largest school district in North Carolina. In that job, he saw the toll that inadequate state funding is having on public schools. On his tour, he saw more of it.
“We certainly heard how resources are impacting schools,” he said. “Ultimately everyone is trying their best to keep as many teachers in classrooms as they can. So they’re doing things like eliminating support services. There is a significant reduction of things like textbook funding and they are losing teachers assistants. Some are increasing class sizes to address shortfalls.”
And there were the other well-known issues. The failure to expand Medicaid has made it hard for the working poor to obtain health care. High-speed access to the internet is still limited in rural areas. A rising population of older people, many of them newcomers, is straining local services. There needs to be coordination rather than competition between urban and rural economic development and there is a mismatch between the skills employers need and what job seekers can do.
Green also got a strong sense of the persistence of an old problem: racism. In many places, disparities that follow racial lines are built into the criminal justice system, the economy and institutions. There is a lack of affordable housing and medical care for African-Americans. In the schools, he said, it shows up in “primarily people of color being at the bottom of academic outcomes and at the top of things like discipline.”
“That means there is something we need to address,” he said. “There is something we need to think about differently if we want to have different outcomes.”
Now that Mo knows, he, his staff and the foundation’s board are examining how they can think differently about what North Carolina needs. The foundation has “only” $15 million to $20 million a year to support answers, but with the right focus that money, like Green, can go a long way.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com