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State Leaders Convene in Duke Program to Find Common Ground on COVID-Response

When some 30 leaders from the political, business and non-profit sectors in the state convened online recently to discuss the many COVID-19-related challenges facing North Carolina, the diverse group didn’t have much difficulty identifying shared concerns.

Finding a consensus on solutions was a greater challenge.

Working to find common ground on issues of deep division is the purpose of the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF) at Duke  In its fourth year, NCLF provides a venue for North Carolina leaders to discuss the nature of challenges facing the state, understand different points of view about how to address them, and to advance mutually acceptable solutions that improve the lives of North Carolinians.

The Sanford School helped develop the program starting in 2013 and since then, Duke has invested in the program as part of its strategic plan to increase its engagement with the local community.

This year, the group originally planned to discuss immigration and actually met in person to begin such a conversation in early March, but quickly shifted to focus on addressing the impact of COVID-19.

“As local officials, business leaders, and nonprofit advocates, the leaders in NCLF have been at the front line of addressing community needs since the first cases of COVID arose in NC. We wanted to provide them a space to hear from each other about how they were addressing community needs and wrestle with the difficult tradeoffs our state will face for the next several years,” said NCLF Executive Director Deborah Goldstein.

During the remote meeting, participants identified everything from whether local immigrants were afraid to seek medical care to the impact of COVID on the economy and state budget. Many of the deepest divisions were whether businesses and schools should reopen and the role of government in making such decisions.

A primary goal of the program is to encourage relationship building among its participants, which required a different approach if the group had to meet remotely. In April, NCLF shifted to online programming, holding monthly informal conversations from April to June with small groups of 5-10 members of the cohort at a time.

NCLF first brought the full group together over two half-day online discussions in July, where attendees brainstormed a range of concerns about how COVID was impacting their communities.

The full cohort reconvened for two half-days Sept. 9 & 10 for further discussion about where they differed the most. Participants began by considering the pandemic’s impact on housing, health care, the state budget, and workers and the economy. Taking a deep dive into reopening businesses and schools, the group shared the values underlying their different points of view and held a lengthy discussion about the details of their disagreement.

When considering what modifications to a proposal to restarting in-person learning in schools would be required to win more support from opponents, participants identified many ways in which they share similar goals for children’s education and health, and deepened their understanding of the details of options, costs and tradeoffs that must be considered in making this decision.  

In November, NCLF will hold a fourth session this year to explore additional COVID-related topics such as health care and the role of government in a public health crisis. The program has also used this period to convene alumni from prior years to continue working together on pressing issues in the state and is working with students, faculty and staff on several projects through the Sanford School’s PolicyLab and the SSRI to inform cohort discussions and evaluate the impact of its work.