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During the spring of 2020, state leaders and organizations across North Carolina hurried to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, while North Carolinians’ responses to the pandemic became increasingly polarized.

One group of policy, business, and non-profit leaders used their participation in Duke’s North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF) to reach across partisan lines, enhance understanding of other perspectives, and explore ways to advance North Carolina’s interests and pandemic response from a position of common understanding.

The 34 participants in the 2020 NCLF cohort included members of the General Assembly, state and local officials, and leaders of nonprofit, philanthropic and business organizations representing a range of ideologies, professional experiences, and regional perspectives. A newly released report details the program’s activities and outcomes for 2020-2021.


NC Leadership Forum logo

NCLF has convened North Carolina leaders since 2015 to explore topics critical to North Carolina’s future while building relationships and trust across political and ideological differences. To date, more than 120 state and local leaders have participated, including more than two dozen elected NC officials.

Initially focused on exploring how North Carolina should respond to the opportunities and challenges of immigration, the 2020 NCLF program shifted in April 2020 to focus on the state’s response to COVID-19, including the effects of the pandemic on North Carolina’s immigrant population. While the program has typically been in-person, NCLF also switched to an online format during the pandemic, learning that it was possible to have meaningful conversation and build relationships remotely.

Through a series of workshops from March to November 2020, participants explored solutions to North Carolina’s challenges through in-depth consideration of questions including:

  • The trade-offs between mandating business closures and providing best practices and allowing businesses to re-open;
  • Whether schools should be 100% remote or offer in-person learning to meet the educational and social needs of students; and
  • Whether NC should aggressively enforce worker safety regulations in the agricultural and food processing industry or work with business on voluntary measures to protect workers.

With the support of students from the Sanford School’s PolicyLab, the group also considered Governor Cooper’s use of emergency powers during COVID-19 and whether there should be future constraints on such power. The group also discussed housing and evictions during this period, healthcare for undocumented immigrants, and the potential effects of economic disruptions on North Carolina’s long-term financial health.


“During a year of immense challenges, the program succeeded in fostering meaningful relationship-building and deepened participants’ understanding of the nuance and complexity of others’ views,” said Deborah Goldstein, executive director of the Forum. “Leaders often discovered that they shared similar values, but perhaps prioritized them differently. In other cases, they agreed on the goal, but not how to get there.”

Nearly 90% of participants said they formed relationships with one or more people of differing views through the program. 94% of participants reported better understanding the values, opinions, or priorities about COVID-19 held by people with different perspectives, and 65% said they have made or are making efforts to encourage or facilitate conversations between people of different parties or ideologies in their communities or elsewhere.

Several participants also noted that the program changed their approach to conversation—one attendee said that he “worked on putting himself in other folks’ seats. We all think we’re right, but have to keep talking to meet in the middle.”


NCLF will welcome its next cohort of participants for an in-person kick off session at Duke in October. This group will focus on improving health outcomes for North Carolinians, and includes participants representing several major health providers in the state, local nonprofit leaders, and state and local officials including several state legislators, NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson.

Later this year, NCLF will expand to offer regionally-focused cohorts in western North Carolina and the Triad, with a specific focus on housing availability in those areas.

About NCLF

NCLF was founded at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and is now housed within the Office of the Provost at Duke University. NCLF is jointly funded by The Duke Endowment, the John William Pope Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.

This article was originally published on Duke Today.