In December, a group of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation staff members traveled to Greenville and Pitt County as part of our yearlong strategic assessment process and Mo Wants to Know statewide listening and learning tour. We had the opportunity to meet with a number of community members and local leaders in the nonprofit, health, education, environment and economic development sectors, who provided us with incredible thoughts and insights. Our time together helped staff walk away with a strong sense of place and a better understanding of not only the trends and challenges, but also the opportunities and successes that lie ahead for this community.
Through conversations with the groups we met with and examples of projects and programs in and around the area, two words captured this community: innovation and collaboration. Woven together, alongside strong community leaders, both of these traits have significantly contributed to the expanding progress of this burgeoning city.
Greenville has emerged as a key gateway city to Eastern North Carolina. Much of the promise for this community’s future is inextricably tied to East Carolina University, which has developed into an intellectual and economic hub for the county and for the region. The University is working to partner with various entities to boost economic development and workforce development strategies across the area. For example, the University’s School of Art and Design has partnered with the town of Farmville to open a hand-blown glass art studio in downtown that is intended to serve as a classroom for students, but also turn Farmville into a destination for anyone interested in learning about glass blowing. The University is also placing medical and dental students in rural areas across Eastern North Carolina in an effort to expose them to those communities in hopes that they will plant roots and stay in the area long-term.
Retention of young people and the cultivation of homegrown talent is a major focus. For example, NCEast Alliance – a private, not-for-profit economic development agency serving more than one million residents throughout 28 counties in eastern NC – is working with schools in Eastern NC to develop practical workforce strategies that will translate all the way up from classroom to career. Through a program called STEM East, students in Carteret, Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Onslow, Wilson, Beaufort, Duplin, Jones, Pitt and Wayne counties are being introduced to STEM education and career pathways via state-of-the-art instructional labs. Made possible through collaborative, public-private partnerships, STEM students are engaging in real-world learning modules that directly align with career opportunities across the region. They learn subject curriculum in a collaborative environment that is outcome-based and student-centered and industry partners work with teachers and students to ensure that the curriculum represents actual workplace functions.
Community leaders in Pitt County also seem to recognize challenges and are willing to work collaboratively in order to turn those challenges into opportunities through the implementation of innovative solutions. For example, Books From Birth is an early literacy coalition in Eastern North Carolina that has committed to the community-established vision of providing “early enjoyable experiences with books and words for every baby, every day.” This coalition is supported by leaders of East Carolina University, Vidant Health, Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, Sheppard Memorial Library, Pitt County Development Commission, Pitt County Schools, Greenville Utilities, United Way of Pitt County, Farmville Public Library and the Greater Greenville Kiwanis Club.
And when there is a need to be filled, community leaders seemingly step up to the plate. In order to address the need for a pipeline of leaders within Greenville’s growing Latinx community, AMEXCAN, led by an enthusiastic and dynamic leader, Juvencio Rocho Peralta, has worked to institute a local leadership development program where members of Greenville’s Latinx community are learning skills that will assist them in greater civic participation. Participants attend seven workshops to learn essential leadership skills that will equip them to become cornerstones in their communities and powerful agents of change within the community. Our visit with 30-40 members of the Latinx community was inspiring. Members of the community seemed optimistic and hopeful about their future in Pitt County.
In a place like Greenville-Pitt, it is clear that visionary leadership is paying off. Paired with collaboration and innovation, it is truly a unique place and one from which other communities across the state could learn. And while those with whom we spoke were open and honest about the challenges that still lie ahead, they represent the many talented and passionate people who are committed to addressing those challenges, working to enhance opportunities and choosing to call this community home. It is evident that not only are these leaders trying to make Greenville-Pitt a thriving place to live and work for themselves and their families, but also for future generations to come.