This is part three of a five-part series focused on innovative rural leadership in North Carolina. To read the other profiles in this series, go here.
There are varying creative or even practical ways to address a thing, whatever that thing is, that issue, that challenge, that stumbling block, to get from where you are to where you as a
community vision yourself to be. There’s not one way to get there.” — Bryan Thompson
More than a decade ago, Bryan Thompson was starting his career in local government as the town manager of Mount Gilead, a community of roughly 1,200 people in Montgomery County.
“I was fresh out of grad school,” the Goldsboro native recalls. “And there is a divide between the classroom and the actual in-the-field work.”
Thompson, who carefully considers each word and thoughtfully strategizes about his work, has always been interested in further developing his own skills, his own network. He knew about the NC Rural Center because of existing collaborations with the town of Mount Gilead. “The way that I viewed the Rural Center at the time was that it was a strong resource for many things.”
Quickly, he learned that the Rural Center’s leadership training program, the Rural Economic Development Institute, would be a great resource for him and his community.
“The REDI program seemed designed to pluck existing, emerging, or prospective leaders of the community to acquaint them with either knowledge, skills, resources, or networks.”
But more than that, he says, the program seemed to “help members of that community help themselves,” as they worked toward “developing a context for rural North Carolina, what it means to be a community in rural North Carolina, what are those challenges.”
“That’s why I gravitated to the REDI program.”
Thompson applied and was accepted.
He quickly understood the value of being in a room, regularly talking with people from rural communities all across North Carolina, tackling tough community issues in their own backyards.
“It wasn’t a tutorial or an orientation. It wasn’t clinical,” he says. Instead, the program pointed directly to community success stories, how leaders got from Point A to Point B, and the hurdles they scaled along the way. “That has a lot to do with the backbone of support the Rural Center has from rural North Carolina. It’s a very two-way relationship.”
Thompson was especially interested in the discussion about solving problems and “being exposed to the varying challenges of different communities that may be indicative of the region,” as he worked alongside his REDI cohort.
“Just to see the dynamism of challenges throughout the state, that we might share very similar experiences, but to one degree or another they take shape differently in our communities,” he says. “While there are shared challenges there are unique circumstances or contexts related to those challenges.”
However, those unique circumstances also offered their own lessons about innovative approaches and interventions.
“You find that even with a similar challenge shared through more than one community, each of those communities approached that challenge in a somewhat different way,” Thompson recalls. “Sometimes that different way of going about it still resulted in a success. It opened my eyes that there’s not just one right way of doing things. Some of these communities not only have an appetite to meet challenges head on, but a creativity and vigor to think more dynamically about those challenges and driving to solutions.”
Those lessons have been instructive in his own career.
He became the town manager of Erwin, in Harnett County, in 2008. Five years later, he took the top job in Siler City.
Siler City has a very large, multigenerational Hispanic population. “That presence has weathered economic hardship and is very much a real fixture in our community,” Thompson explains. When he came to Siler City, he knew that engaging the community holistically and providing services that spoke to its unique needs would be important. “Our deliberate intention, I hope, in local government is always to ensure that we’re providing the level and types of services desired by the community as a whole,” he says.
Language and cultural differences are natural inhibitors to effective communication between the town government and this community, though, so Thompson and his colleagues had to get creative. “There are a number of things that have been done to try to address that in a meaningful way,” he says.
Thompson and other community leaders participated in Go Global NC’s Latino Initiative. The program, run through the UNC System, connects local leaders to a better understanding of their Hispanic communities. The 20-year-old program works with a multidisciplinary group of participants from government, nonprofits, and the private sector to cultivate a deeper understanding of the unique challenges North Carolina’s Hispanic communities face. The program culminates with a week-long visit to Mexico, a trip Thompson says was incredibly valuable to his work in Siler City. “It gave us a better sense of who this portion of our community is as a people,” he explains.
Siler City also partnered in an effort to apply for participation in the UNC Center for Global Studies’ Building Integrated Communities (BIC) program. The three-year program includes intense focus on bridging gaps between a community and its Hispanic population. The BIC program recently delivered the results of an assessment that aims to understand immigrant experiences in the community and offers recommendations to Siler City about ways to support better inclusion.
Thompson has also participated in small group conversations in Hispanic neighborhoods in Siler City, working closely with a local nonprofit called The Hispanic Liaison. With other town department leaders, Thompson held meetings with residents to talk about municipal services and answer questions about the role the town can play in their lives. In addition to sharing information, the sessions build a bond among residents and leaders.
He says all of that work—the connections made, the knowledge shared, the genuine understanding gained—harkens back to his time in the REDI program, and the similar takeaways he garnered through his participation in it.
“There are varying creative or even practical ways to address a thing, whatever that thing is, that issue, that challenge, that stumbling block, to get from where you are to where you as a community vision yourself to be. There’s not one way to get there.”