Voices that matter 2022: The year in stories of the marginalized and underrepresented

By: - January 3, 2023 12:00 pm

Policy Watch’s tagline is “Stories and Voices that Matter,” emphasizing our mission to bring you stories you don’t see elsewhere and to amplify the voices of those who might otherwise go unheard.

This year, we pursued that mission with a series of stories highlighting some of those voices, including:

  • The work of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities to confront the nation’s racial history and today’s justice system.
  • LGBTQ students documenting and preserving UNC’s queer history
  • Graduate students struggling to make ends meet and using food banks as they provide low cost labor for their universities
  • Communities struggling to address the opioid epidemic — and those who have lost loved ones to a little discussed or understood issue within that public health crisis

1) NC A&T spotlights redlining, racial history

Conservative politicians, appointees and activists across the country continued to fan the flames of a moral panic around critical race theory. N.C. A&T — the nation’s largest HBCU — responded with a series of public conversations about a tangible legacy of institutionalized racism: redlining and its lasting impacts on Black people in America.

The series culminated with a conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author behind The 1619 Project. Facing political and donor pressure, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees sought to prevent a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, who was courted to teach at the journalism school of her alma mater. Pressure from students, faculty, staff, alumni and the public forced a vote on the issue, but Hannah-Jones decided to go to Howard University instead, where she established a new Center for Journalism and Democracy.

From that story:

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carlos Grooms, the NC A&T university library technician, began a regular virtual coffee break program. Employees would socialize with the colleagues they used to see in person every day. There was only one rule: no talking about work.

There was plenty outside of work on everyone’s mind.

‘Unfortunately, we experienced tragedies during that time,’ Grooms said. ‘We saw the murder of George Floyd on television. It made us think about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. It took us into a deeper conversation about systemic racism. And one day we had a very heartfelt discussion about redlining.’

Discussions about systemic racism and historical injustices like redlining have become a third rail in American education, from the K-12 level to college classrooms. Conservative activists and Republican lawmakers have dismissed such discussions as themselves racist historical revisionism and politically driven indoctrination designed to make white students feel guilty.

As bills are filed around the country to prevent and police the teaching of history and literature dealing with racism and Black experiences, those involved in the redlining conversation series say it’s that much more necessary.

‘We have to acknowledge, teach and fully discuss our past in order to know where we are today, why we are here and where we go from here,’ said the Rev. Bradley Hunt, president of the Greensboro branch of the NAACP and a participant in the panel discussion.

Redlining is such an uncomfortable discussion because it forces people to look at undeniable, systemic racism within living memory and reckon with its repercussions, Hunt said. To some, slavery might seem like an injustice depicted in history books, Hunt said, but redlining happened to the parents and grandparents of people living today — and it’s still happening in many communities.

‘In this city, in our state and our country there are so many things that we have always known about in our community,’ Hunt said. ‘But there was always this secrecy.’

‘Redlining is an example of an intentional effort by state, federal and local government rooted in systematic racism,’ Hunt said.

The problem isn’t just historical, said Dr. Padonda Webb, executive director of the Student Health Center at N.C. A&T.

Redlining continues to afflict the generational health of Black communities. Food deserts still exist in previously redlined neighborhoods, areas where Black people are still suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of resources and investment in redlined areas is still very much with us, Webb said.

2) Law enforcement, DA, students talk “restorative justice” at
NC Central

In April, Policy Watch reported on restorative justice efforts that started at NC Central University in Durham and have helped transform the way the city’s police, county sheriff and district attorney operate – for the better, they say.

From that story:

As NCCU law students in Professor Scott Holmes’s course learn, restorative justice is deeply rooted in indigenous traditions of conflict resolution. It goes beyond crime and punishment to center the needs and concerns of those harmed, including the wider community. It allows those who have done harm to take responsibility and — where possible — make restitution and repair that harm.

It may sound like crunchy granola liberal philosophy to some people. Its practitioners say they know that. But in Durham it has taken root and, according to law enforcement, the DA and the courts, is making a difference.

The DA and Durham Police both make referrals to Restorative Justice Durham — a nonprofit, volunteer-led effort that has since 2017 worked with the traditional justice system to help do the healing work — work often outside the expertise of police, attorneys and the courts.

‘We have a very small toolkit as prosecutors,’ Deberry said. ‘What we have is incarceration and continued punishment.’

Through the partnership with Restorative Justice Durham, Deberry said, her office can help people who need more complete resolution than that.

“Victims are like, ‘That’s great that you sent somebody to prison, I guess,’” Deberry said. “‘But I still don’t understand what happened to me. I don’t understand why this person picked me.’ Because it’s often somebody they knew and care about. And someone broke that trust. So for us, in my office, when we send cases to RJ Durham — which has been a tremendous partner — we do send high risk cases there. Because that is where the transformative human work can happen. And we’ve learned we have to take a step back from that.

Aviance Brown, an attorney and leadership team member with Restorative Justice Durham, said it’s important to understand the restorative process doesn’t replace prosecution.

“Naturally, for anybody who hears from the DA if  you participate in this we may reduce your charges, that’s going to act as the carrot,” Brown said. “But they have to do the work.”

Toward that end, Brown said, her group stresses the work can’t happen without the consent and involvement of those harmed and those who exacted the harm. It often will also involve friends, family and members of the wider community. In cases where those who are harmed might not feel able to participate in the process directly, they can designate surrogates.

When a case is referred to Brown’s group — from small misdemeanors up to murder — they assess the case and whether it’s a good fit for their process. If it is, they follow four steps.

In an initial pre-conference, facilitators meet with everyone separately. They explain the process and let each person decide if they want to continue.

After that, they hold a “conference circle,” in which facilitators guide everyone involved through some core questions: What happened and how? What were they thinking and feeling at the time? How have they thought about it and what have they felt since? Who has been affected and how? What can now be done to make things as right as possible?

From there, the group will craft a “repair agreement,” with obligations to be fulfilled by those who have caused the harm. Finally, a closing circle allows all the participants to determine if those obligations have been fulfilled and whether justice has truly been achieved.

Brown said she has seen the process not only repair harm but also help people welcome those who have caused that harm back into their families — even if they go to prison. Repairing those broken places in a community — between individuals, families, friends and neighborhoods — isn’t the purview of police and courts, Brown said. In non-white communities, where generations of racist use of police powers and the legal system has left lingering distrust of institutions, this is particularly important.

‘We do know there is a tremendous need for law enforcement to be different, to no longer view their role as that ‘warrior’ as we’ve all heard but more of the guardian,’ Durham Police Chief Patrice Andrews said. ‘Shifting our mindset to how we keep people from re-offending.’

3) Low pay, high cost of living are sending UNC System grad students to food pantries

In May, Policy Watch talked with UNC System graduate students struggling to cover basic expenses such as food and rent as costs rise and they attempt to live on inadequate stipends from the universities to which they provide low cost labor.

University officials acknowledge the problem and say they are working to address it – but students say they’ve been hearing that for years without much tangible change.

From that story:

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

“Folasewa Olatunde didn’t want to go to the dentist. But sharp pain and inflammation in her mouth told her she should. The dentist told her she needed to have a molar removed and some cavities filled. The cost: more than $3,000.

‘For me that’s over two months’ of pay,’ she said. ‘So I’m just living with it, living with the pain.’

Olatunde, a native of Nigeria, is an international student getting her doctorate in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media at NC State University. She teaches classes at the school as part of her grad program. She’s living on a school stipend of less than $1,400 a month, after taxes. ‘And that’s just for nine months out of the year,’ Olatunde said. ‘Student fees are $1,300 a semester, so really that’s like two months of your pay right there. In the summer you’re just looking for anything to get by.’

In Raleigh, where studies show rents have gone up more than 20% in the last year, it’s hard for Olatunde to make rent, even with a roommate.

Like a lot of NC State students, Olatunde has been using the campus food pantry as she tries to make ends meet.

‘It can be really stressful, figuring out how you’re going to pay for things, budgeting to the last,’ Olatunde said. ‘The food pantry is good, but they can only provide as much as they can provide. There is a lot of demand.’

Olatunde’s situation is emblematic of a growing problem, said Mike Giancola, assistant vice provost and student ombudsperson at NC State. ‘We have seen significantly more usage at the food pantry and significantly more food insecurity among students — grad students and undergrads — in the last two years,’ Giancola said. ‘We are doing what we can through programs like the pantry and our Pack Essentials program which provides further assistance, but we know it’s not enough.’

The majority of graduate students don’t receive stipends from their universities at all, Giancola said. Those who do — primarily students pursuing Ph.D.s — get them because they’re expected to devote most of their time to their studies and to their work as teaching or research assistants. ‘That leaves very few hours for an extra job to help cover expenses, even for the students who can do that,’ Giancola said.

Many international students face an even greater challenges in that they are in the country under study visas that don’t allow them to take on work unrelated to their studies. ‘For students who are here on study visas, they are supposed to be able to show they can cover their expenses while studying here,’ Giancola said. ‘But that doesn’t take into account a lot of things — the pandemic, of course, but also inflation and the increased cost of living, rents going up 20 to 25 percent in the last year.’

Stipends for graduate students vary widely by university and programs within those universities’ schools. Minimum annual stipends range from $7,000 to $18,000. The money doesn’t approach the actual cost of living — especially in cities like Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, home to some of the UNC system’s largest universities.

The most recent study on food insecurity and homelessness among NC State students found the highest level of homelessness in the past six months was among those pursuing a master’s degree (18.3%). Reported food insecurity was also highest among master’s (27.2%) and Ph.D. students (19.8%).

“That makes sense when you think about it,” Mary Haskett, an NC State psychology professor and co-chair of the university’s Steering Committee on Student Food and Housing, said. “If families can help with expenses, they often can help in the first four years. After that, family resources are limited. So often times students who are moving on to graduate school, students are picking up those expenses on their own.

4) “Queerolina” exhibit explores LGBTQ history at UNC-Chapel Hill

The history of UNC-Chapel Hill, the nation’s first state-sponsored university and the flagship campus of the UNC System, is a fraught one. Acknowledging all of that history has been a slow and difficult process: from the slave labor that built it, the buildings named for enslavers on its campus and its honoring of the cause of the Confederacy with a monument that stood there for more than a century.

But another corner of history was kept in darkness throughout the life of the university – the stories of its LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.

In July, Policy Watch reported on a project that seeks to correct the historical record, showing that LGBTQ students have always been a part of the story of Carolina, whether or not they have always been acknowledged.

From that story:

Carolina Pride Alumni, UNC Libraries. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)

“Hooper Schultz, the Ph.D. student and oral historian who helped organize the exhibit, said the project helps fill in important gaps in Carolina’s history that are too common.

‘Historically in archival collections like at Wilson Libary or elsewhere, the fact that someone was gay was often hidden — it was something that was considered an embarrassment,’ Hooper said.

‘Sometimes the family or the library themselves were restricting those records or not tagging them as queer. So there’s a whole history that is there, but isn’t apparent unless you know who to talk to about it.’

The exhibit’s oral histories stretch back to before the second World War thanks to interviews with alumni conducted by Chris McGinnis in the 1990s and early 2000s. The alumni stories document periods in which LGBTQ students, faculty and staff had to stay in the closet or risk expulsion, firing or even jail. But it was just as important to highlight stories of queer people finding themselves and their community at Carolina, Schultz said.

‘I think there’s this idea of the abject queer person before 1995 or whatever year you want to say, where queer people really just existed and were miserable and trying to escape to the city,’ Schultz said. ‘And that really wasn’t the case. You have stories of queer people in Tarboro in 1945. As a historian I’m always aware of that, that we need to present the people we’re studying as well rounded, fully human, not one flattened image.’

Too much of queer history is a document of persecution and adversity, Schultz said. While that’s part of the story, he said, it isn’t enough.

‘To only focus on what was and is bad is not doing my community justice, not doing the University of North Carolina justice,” Schultz said. ‘It’s important to say ‘yes, there were people who were outed at the university, who had horrible experiences of injustice. But there were also people who came from another place in North Carolina were able to come to the university and be out. Many years ago it had that reputation and they had that experience. That’s very important for this project.’

5) Stories of struggle and loss in the ongoing opioid epidemic

In the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic killed more than a million Americans, ground large parts of society to a halt, and further divided an already fractious nation over solutions. That was enough to make many people all but forget the opioid epidemic rampant before the advent of COVID.

Those still struggling with addiction or who have lost loved ones to it have not forgotten. In August, Policy Watch looked at the initial efforts of counties to decide how to use funds in a historic $26 billion national opioid settlement – money they will see over the next 18 years.

We also reported on the deadly threat of fentanyl, a staggeringly potent synthetic opioid many don’t even realize exists until they or someone they love has overdosed on it.

From those stories:

Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake Co. Board of Commissioners

“We lost 57,000 people in Vietnam war,” said Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “Forty-three thousand people died of overdoses in America last year.”

Willie Rowe, a Wake County ABC commission member, said the U.S. is just beginning to wake up to addiction as a health issue. (Rowe won election as Wake County Sheriff in November.)

Race and class have a lot to do with that, Rowe suggested.

County figures show white people in Wake are overdosing at higher rates than Black, Latinx, Asian and Native American people. But between 2015 and 2020, the rate of overdoses has increased 223% among Hispanic people and 224% among Black people. For whites, there has been a 74% increase.

During his years working with the Wake County Sheriff’s office, Rowe said, he saw shifting views on drug addiction and many other social ills depending upon who was most affected.

‘We saw it with the crack epidemic,’ Rowe said. ‘That was a criminal problem. But now we see with opioids it’s crossed over to other parts of town. Suddenly it moves from a criminal problem to a health situation. People see it as, ‘Well, they’re drug users. They brought it on themselves.’ Until it’s someone they know.’

From our story on North Carolinians dying of fentanyl overdose:

The same factors that made the drug popular in medicine — ease of use, potency, adaptability — quickly made fentanyl and its analogs popular in the illicit drug trade. Cheaper and easier to produce than heroin — and up to 50 times more potent — fentanyl allows illicit drug manufacturers and traffickers to adulterate drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, reaping greater profits from products that could be far less pure but dramatically more powerful. Pills sold as Molly (MDMA), or even Vicodin are increasingly found to be substantially or entirely fentanyl.

‘It’s cheap and easy for them to manufacturer powdered and liquid fentanyl and add it to cocaine, heroin, anything to add potency and fill it up,’ said Dr. Padma Gulur, anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist with Duke Health. ‘You hear about it all the time, 35 people overdosing because they were doing what they thought was cocaine but it had been adulterated with fentanyl. They didn’t know any better until they stopped breathing.’

Illicit drugs have never come with reliable quality control or ingredient lists, Gulur said. But with fentanyl, people getting something for which they are unprepared can quickly become fatal.

“People who may just be at a party and think ‘What’s one time?’ or who may even take it unknowingly because someone dropped in their drink, those people end up dying because they don’t have the knowledge or awareness of what is in there,” Gulur said.

U.S. opioid overdose deaths quadrupled from 8,050 in 1999 to 33,091 in 2015, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They accounted for 63% of drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2015, driven by heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

From May 2020 to April 2021, that overdose death number topped 100,000 for the first time, with 64%  of deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone — mainly fentanyl and its analogs, either as an adulterating agents in other drugs or on their own.

“We had no idea this was going on here in North Carolina,” Barb Walsh said. “It wasn’t something we heard about.”

In North Carolina, death certificates don’t have a specific code for fentanyl’s involvement in a drug overdose. There is a code – T40.4 — for ‘other synthetic narcotic overdose.’

The Epidemiology, Surveillance and Informatics unit of the NC Division of Public Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Branch notes that most of these cases are ‘due to illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogues,’ but can also include prescription fentanyl and other, less potent synthetic narcotics like Tramadol.

An analysis of statistics from the NC Office of Chief Medical Examiner finds overdose deaths with that code went from 442 in 2016 (the first year for which the office had such statistics) to 3,163 last year — an increase of 616%.

As of May of this year, there have been 1,342 deaths bearing the code — on track to beat last year’s record number.

‘This is becoming more and more common in North Carolina, these overdoses — in Wilmington, in Fayetteville, all over the state,’ Gulur said. ‘And this isn’t going to be a bad time. This will kill you.’

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.