My name is Jaisabrish Sankarkumar, a name that can be intimidating both by how many letters are in it and by how foreign it may look. Most people know me as Jai Kumar and call me Jai.
I was born in a small village in India, to two loving parents who were both physicians and had their own highly successful medical practice. In 1990, they decided to sell their practice and their house and relocate their family so that their children would have better access to education and opportunity.
My parents had choices. These were the same two people who took a contract from the British government to work in underserved areas in Zambia in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When the time came to decide where to move their family, there was potential to move to the West Indies, Europe and the United States. Ultimately, they settled on North Carolina because we had family nearby, the schools were reportedly great, access to higher education was plentiful and excellent, and it was known as a welcoming and warm place.
Sadly, if they were left to make those choices today, I can’t say they would make the same choice.
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You see, the message being broadcast by the reforms and policies is that, “North Carolina is closed.” By enacting voter ID laws, cutting funding to public schools, not expanding Medicaid and passing bills like House Bill 2, lawmakers are saying, “If you’re different, pick another state.”
I am a product of North Carolina public education, and I owe a great deal to people like Rick Dunn at Fuller Elementary who taught me drama but also that, even though I was little, my voice was just as big as the other kids. Or Nolan Bryant at Davis Drive Middle School who showed me that science was cool and that I was really good at it. Or Matt Perry at Cary High who taught me that when you mess up or make a mistake own it and move forward. Or Andy Zappia at Cary High who showed me that relationships matter more than any subject ever could. Or innumerable other educators I’ve had the privilege of learning from and working beside who help students and families achieve their potential and are the soil upon which this state grows its most prized possession – its people.
By cutting funding to public education and potentially risking billions of dollars in federal education funding, we are risking the future of so many families in North Carolina. And the door is beginning to close.
My dad started out in this state doing a paper route while he studied to become a licensed physician and show his kids why he made the right choice in coming to North Carolina. My mother ended up obtaining a clinical research position and became a researcher at Duke. They provided more than we could ever want and had access to great insurance, and it mattered.
Last year my mom was met with a horrific burn injury that left her hospitalized for the better part of nine months with ongoing surgeries and therapy that continue to this day. My parents had good insurance, and I saw the medical bills, and we were fortunate to escape with minimal damage to our financial security. However, there are countless others in this state who, if put in the same situation, would have to sacrifice everything to ensure their loved ones survived. By not expanding Medicaid, lawmakers have once again risked the future of an untold number of North Carolina families. And the door closes a little more.
When they passed voter ID laws and House Bill 2, they finally came around to shutting the door on everyone who looks, thinks and acts a little differently from them. By removing civil protections to sue in state court for discrimination, they violated equal protection of their citizens. By positioning the bathroom issue as the crux of HB2, they chose to hide behind fear of difference rather than engage in conversation and learn about what they don’t know.
My teachers in North Carolina taught me to always seek to understand and to never let fear of the unknown dictate behavior. They did the opposite. The beacon of the South that we once were, we are no longer. The narrative of a progressive welcoming place, a place where the entire nation should visit, a place where the most divisive issues were which style of barbecue you preferred has been cast aside.
If lawmakers took some time to get to know the people of their state, they’d find that this place is full of beautifully different people and that those they never would have thought to befriend can become their closest of kin.
North Carolina is my home, and all of us, whether born here or transplanted here, owe it to her not to give up on her future and to reopen the door to invite everyone back in. If there’s one thing growing up in North Carolina and going to the beach every summer taught me, it’s that the best way to beat the heat is to get an ice cream cone from the Fudge Factory in Beaufort and that no matter how deep your line in the sand maybe the tide can always wash it away.
Jai Kumar is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.