The second event of the Vibrant Virginia virtual forum series, Vibrant Virginia & Beyond, brought together initiatives from across the U.S. who spoke about working to achieve shared prosperity in their communities.

During the webinar, panelists discussed the role of higher education in addressing disparities, issues of equity, and the rural-urban divide. The first panel, moderated by Mallory Noe-Payne, reporter for WVTF, featured panelists Sheila Martin, vice president for Economic Development and Community Engagement at The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; Leslie Boney, director of The Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University; and Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder, CEO, and president of The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness. The following panel was moderated by Guru Ghosh, vice president of Outreach and International Affairs, and consisted of reflections from Peter Blake, executive director of The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and Carrie Chenery, a member of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors and founder of Valley Pike Partners, LLC.

Leaders in higher education have a responsibility to make sure the benefits of higher education are shared more widely with people who have been left out of universities due to reasons such as systemic racism, unaffordable tuition, or distance, said Martin.

“One of higher education’s grand challenges is to eliminate the downsides of distance and build a stronger connection between urban and rural America,” she said.

Martin worked on the Toward One Oregon project, a collaboration between the University of Oregon, Oregon State University, and Portland State University to pull the state together, rural and urban, and talk about how to focus on interdependence and less on divisions. Toward One Oregon began with a series of presentations and conversations and was later developed into a book.

Boney said universities in his mind are some of the greatest underutilized organizations in North Carolina. Universities can collect data and take a long-term approach. Universities are also asked to be non-partisan, which can help ensure solutions that everyone is happy with.

“This is about people and their lives. Universities have the potential to make a real difference,” he said.

The Institute for Emerging Issues is currently working on a program called Reconnect NC. The goal of the program is to be more active in the NC community, bring people together, and address health and economic disparities.

When coming up with answers, panelists agreed it is important for universities to listen rather than impose solutions in a way that is not community informed.

“Community has the power and intel to create its own solutions, particularly when it is supported by our systems as partners and allies,” said Peyton-Caire.

Her organization is a non-profit in Dane County, Wisconsin that seeks to empower a generation of well black women. The organization worked with its local United Way, the Dane County Health Council, their school district, and county Human Services Department to tackle the issue of poor Black birth outcomes using a community-centered approach. They conducted focus groups over a nine-month period where they asked Black men, Black women, and childbearing age youth what they saw as major impediments to their health quality. The information was developed into the Saving Our Babies report. The Foundation has since developed a five-year strategic plan across systems and is making more progress than they have in 20 years of effort.

“One of our focuses is to move Wisconsin from the worst to the best for Black women’s health and position Wisconsin as the leader in health equity,” said Peyton-Caire.

Her organization has worked to build a movement, reaching 5,000 women annually directly with one-on-one assistance, education, outreach, and health promotion.

“Universities in their neutrality have the power to be forerunners of creating solutions that no other sector can create. As we enter the next decade, we have an imperative and opportunity to try something new, and come out of this period stronger than before,” she said.

Part of that involves having a conversation about college access. Chenery said higher education always pays for itself, but it is important for universities and colleges to have conversations about the economic impacts on students and families.

“Our colleges and universities are relevant to our students and communities, due to the prosperity they can bring and due to the outreach and engagement our colleges and universities undertake across the Commonwealth. In light of COVID and social justice issues, we need to step up in bolder and more creative ways in order to maintain that relevance,” said Blake.

Vibrant Virginia is a statewide initiative committed to fostering collaboration between universities and communities, with the goals of building connections between urban and rural, and creating a Virginia full of economic vitality.

Click here to watch the full Vibrant Virginia & Beyond forum.