Campus News

Collaborative projects trace beginnings to 2019 bus tour

Heels on a Bus joined forces to tackle issues they saw throughout the state.

Tar Heel Bus Tour. West route with a stop in Kannapolis
The project to revitalize downtown Kannapolis described on the west route of the 2019 Tar Heel Bus Tour has "blossomed" since then. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The 2019 Tar Heel Bus Tour was a special one — and not just because of the cool “Heels on a Bus” shirts the participants wore.

That was the year then-Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz decided to “go big and go bold” with the annual tradition. Over three days, 90 faculty and administrators traveled 1,600 miles and visited 28 towns on three separate routes — east, west and southeast — crisscrossing the state.

They came back tired but energized, filled with ideas about how they could work with each other and the people they had met across the state to improve the lives of North Carolinians. That was October. A few months later, the world was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bus tour and the pandemic inspired the creation of Carolina Across 100, a five-year initiative launched in June 2021 to partner with communities in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, said initiative leader Anita Brown-Graham. Brown-Graham is also the Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the School of Government and director of the ncIMPACT Initiative.

UNC faculty members and senior administrators participate in the Tar Heel Bus Tour on October 17, 2019, to learn more about the issues North Carolinians care about and the people who are working to effect change. In this image from the southeast route, UNC Board of Trustees member Allie Ray McCullen welcomes participants during a stop in Clinton, North Carolina.

Board of Trustees member Allie Ray McCullen welcomes participants during a stop in Clinton, on the 2019 southeast route led by Anita Brown-Graham, seated in front. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

As the leader of the southeast route of the 2019 bus tour, Brown-Graham said she saw how much Carolina was already contributing to the state. With the onset of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on health, the economy and education across the state, she saw how the University could do more.

“What would have been appropriate 16 months ago is downright expected today,” Brown-Graham told the University’s Board of Trustees when introducing Carolina Across 100 to them in March 2021. “At every crisis/inflection point that this state has faced, this university has stepped up to respond.”

On this year’s bus tour, the first since 2019, participants will see at least two examples of the Carolina Across 100 initiative in action: the Rivers East Youth Alliance in Bertie County (east route) and Fairystone Fabrics in Alamance County (west route). Both counties are among the 37 participating in the “Our State, Our Work” program, which focuses on expanding pathways to living wage employment for young adults ages 16-24 who are not in school and not working.

Connections and collaborations

But the impact of the 2019 tour goes beyond the Carolina Across 100 initiative.

Since the 2019 bus tour, the revitalization of downtown Kannapolis, a project led by the School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative, has blossomed, said DFI Assistant Director Eric Thomas. The city opened a 4,900-seat baseball stadium. A building with over 300 apartments opened. The rehabilitated city center hosts several new restaurants and breweries. And the historic theater was preserved and reopened. “The effort has been wildly successful, and these new businesses have made the downtown core an arts, entertainment and food destination in the Charlotte region,” Thomas said.

A shared ride on the west bus led to the creation of an Ideas, Information and Inquiry class called “The Future of Food” because that’s where Anna Krome-Lukens, teaching associate professor in the public policy department, met Cary Levine, associate professor of art history, both in the College of Arts and Sciences. Levine, who is also director of the Triple I curriculum, was able to answer Krome-Lukens’ questions and encouraged her to put together a proposal.

For Amy Blank Wilson, associate professor in the School of Social Work, “the 2019 bus tour was transformative.” She is co-director of the Tiny Homes Village, a stop on this year’s bus tour. “What the bus tour did was give me the opportunity to make connections to the University at large. I could see the deep work going on all around me and feel the impact. I learned about the work of my peers on campus in ways that I still think about to this day.”

Lynn Blanchard

Lynn Blanchard led the east route of the 2019 Tar Heel Bus Tour.

Reflections from a reunion

When Lynn Blanchard, director of the Carolina Center for Public Service and leader of the east route of the 2019 tour, polled participants at a reunion in 2021, she discovered a wide range of collaborations and projects had sprung from connections made on the trip:

  • Setting up a statewide network to support psychiatrists in the care of patients with serious mental illness.
  • Reformulating the UNC Center for AIDS Research Community Consultation Board.
  • Creating the UNC Rural initiative in the Office of the Provost.

Some of the results were almost intangible but very important. Participants wrote about gaining “courage and passion to engage fully with the BIPOC community” and learning “to stand my ground for what is right.”

That long bus ride also helped a clinician develop an important quality for caregivers — empathy for patients.

“North Carolina is a large state, and patients come from hours away to be seen in Chapel Hill,” the physician wrote. “As a result of the Tar Heel Bus Tour, when someone arrives 15 minutes late from Rocky Mount, I am quick to remind my staff that it’s a long drive, and we extend every courtesy. No one gets turned away for being late.”