Learning about Rural Forward NC, from the Student’s Perspective

Learning Rural Forward NC’s Work Through the Partnership Managers

By Rebekah Bass, RFNC Program Associate, Davidson College

Rural Forward NC (RFNC), a program of Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, does so many things! While I hoped to write this blog after my first week, I have already worked here a month, and that month has been filled with many new experiences. Writing about the Partnership Managers and their work was RFNC Director Calvin Allen’s vision for me to orient myself to the work of Rural Forward NC. Now, I have had the opportunity to go out to 3 of the Healthy Places NC Counties where RFNC’s Partnership Managers are principals (meaning they lead RFNC’s work there), and I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the funders at the Kate B Reynolds Charitable Trust. Even though I’m past my initial orientation phase, I’m still learning so much about RFNC and its work every day.

In this blog, I’m sharing what I have learned from interviews with RFNC’s three Partnership Managers, Kathryn Gaasch, Minda Brooks, and Erin Carson. I have not formally interviewed our Associate Director, Brandy Bynum Dawson, our Director, Calvin Allen, or our Data and Metrics Analyst, ShaCoria Winston, but I have been able to experience their work, and it is wonderful and impactful!


Kathryn Gaasch, Partnership Manager: McDowell and Burke Counties Kathryn Gaasch chose to explain her personal background to set the context for why she is in this line of work and how that impacts the skills she brings to partnerships. Kathryn had the unique opportunity to take a class taught by Rural Forward NC Program Director, Calvin Allen, in her Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University. This class contributed to Kathryn’s focus on community and social factors in environmental conservation. This connection made her very excited to begin work that focuses on the social determinants of health. In her work, Kathryn is most interested by food systems and substance use.

In our interview, she explained that Rural Forward NC is new to McDowell and Burke Counties. Rural Forward NC expanded to the western part of the state only last year. Because of this, much of Kathryn’s work has been to develop relationships with leaders in the community and to understand the innovative work they have done, are doing, and their visions for the future.

Work in Burke is still formulating, so Kathryn’s current projects are located in McDowell County. Kathryn identified her key projects as The Local Food Advisory Council, The Foothills Food Hub, the Substance Use Work Group, the McDowell Youth Forward, Brandy’s Project, the Reentry Council, McDowell Access to Care and Health (MATCH), and the Marion East Outreach Campaign. The primary interventions Kathryn has implemented in her partnerships are, facilitation, strategic planning, and organizational and board development.

Kathryn is navigating the balance of individual capacity and the desire to support more bodies of work. She is excited about future developments with the Marion East Recreation Project and Centro Unido. She also finds joy from the one-on-one meetings that form relationships.

Erin Carson, Partnership Manager: The Twin Counties (Edgecombe and Nash Counties) When I interviewed Erin Carson about her work, she chose to give a wide view of the buckets of focus and strategies in the Twin Counties, and then, she zoomed in to talk about how the work is moving and being led by partners in community.

The 3 major strategies to improve health in the Twin Counties are equitable food systems, disrupting generational trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and addressing substance use. The history of agriculture, people’s relationship to the land, and racial injustice in the food system makes creating a more equitable food system in the region crucial to improving the social determinants of health and health outcomes in the Twin Counties. Local coalitions made up of grassroots groups, residents, key institutions, and small growers are advocating for better food policy, more opportunities for marginalized communities in the food system, and mapping to identify root causes of issues. The strategy to disrupt generational trauma and adverse childhood experiences is to increase awareness of trauma in communities through trainings and information-sharing across sectors. Additionally, it involves advocating for more trauma-responsive policies that aim to heal instead of punish, especially for youth, as well as connecting people to counselors and support resources, particularly by integrating physical and mental wellness in primary care.

For substance use, the biggest obstacle is that there’s a lack of data specific to the Twin Counties about what the substance use issues and root causes are. With no data, interventions and strategies are based on assumptions and may do more harm than good. The two main coalitions that have formed to address substance use are focused mostly on opioids. Residents and stakeholders see a need to find the root cause of substance use issues and best practices for intervention at the community level.

Erin is using Rural Forward NC interventions such as strategic planning, organizational development, and coaching to support local leaders and organizations in strengthening themselves, becoming more resilient, and building their capacity to be successful in their work. Some of those key partners include Just Foods, the Conetoe Family Life Center, the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, Golden Organics, Rural Opportunity Institute, the Boys and Girls Club, Project Momentum, and the community advisory board of the Twin Counties Partnership for a Healthier Community. She is using interventions such as facilitation and convening to bring individuals and groups doing important work together so their work can be more impactful, and they can tackle issues in various ways across sectors. The facilitation support also helps groups focus their work and move from ideas to action. Some of those partners and coalition members include OIC, Down East Partnership for Children, cooperative extension, faith-based organizations, and representatives from health entities.

Erin came to work for Rural Forward NC after working with another Healthy Places NC initiative in Halifax County, the Catalyst for Healthy Eating and Active Living program. Her work with them as a Catalyst Coordinator made her committed to the community work in rural eastern North Carolina. What brings Erin the most joy in her work is seeing the emerging leadership in the community. She admires the intergenerational learning that is developing.

Minda Brooks, Partnership Manager: Rockingham and Beaufort Counties When I met with Minda Brooks, she identified her main projects for partnering to be: Western Rockingham Recreation Dreamers, and Be Healthy Rockingham County. In Beaufort County, the list includes: the Behavioral Heath Task Force, Beaufort County Healthy Eating and Active Living Food Council and Collaborative, and work with two grassroots nonprofits on capacity-building support.

Minda explained that she has been providing facilitation for the community partners’ monthly meetings in Beaufort County. In contrast, her work in Rockingham County has been more coaching and supporting the leaders working with the various groups and occasionally coming in to facilitate towards a specific goal.

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust has identified two areas in Rockingham County where it believes it can support the community in making change: reducing obesity through healthy eating and active living and reducing rates of substance misuse and overdose deaths. This is in alignment with the recently released 2020 Community Health Assessment Priorities, which are Mental Health/Substance Abuse with an emphasis on Opioids, Social Determinants of Health with an emphasis on Education, and Physical Activity and Nutrition with an emphasis on Diabetes.

Beaufort County is also working on reducing rates of obesity and substance misuse and overdose.

Minda’s interventions include supporting the data collection projects, facilitation, coaching, strategic planning, organizational and board development, and connection building. Her greatest frustration is keeping up with the administrative work, while also trying to be fully present in community. Minda finds joy in her work through supporting local leaders and partnering with communities to cross lines of difference to work towards change together.

Though Minda has transitioned to another job, her insights still illuminate the important work that is being done in Beaufort and Rockingham Counties and the most important methods of being in good partnership with county leaders.

Soon to Come Our team is growing! RFNC is currently hiring a new Partnership Manager (who will focus on disaster recovery partnerships) and a new Program Support Administrator. Not only is our team growing numerically but also geographically! Healthy Places NC is going to launch partnerships in the Southeastern Counties of Bladen, Columbus, and Robeson later this year.

Conclusions Getting to learn about the work of each Partnership Manager has been so exciting. It has prepared me better to jump in and help wherever I can for my summer stay at Rural Forward NC. I see that there are many things that each Partnership Manager balances: • I see their commitment to amplifying the voices of the leaders of their counties. • I see how excited and passionate they are about helping form equitable responses to the social determinants of health.

It is inspiring to get to first learn their perspectives on their work and, now, to get to see it in action.