This is part five of a five-part series focused on innovative rural leadership in North Carolina. To read the other profiles in this series, go here.
“I always thought what I thought was right and that everybody thought the same way as me. I’ve learned we can get to ‘right’ all sorts of ways.” — Paula Swepson-Avery
Paula Swepson-Avery had spent decades working for Broyhill Furniture in McDowell and Caldwell Counties, one of the most recognizable names in furniture. She quickly rose through the ranks from Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine operator to production manager. She set up processes and systems to create a production workflow to make the company as efficient as possible. She built a career in the manufacturing sector, but back-to-back layoffs nudged her in a different professional direction—one that continues to pay big dividends for her hometown.
In the summer of 2016, during a period of layoffs by the company, Swepson-Avery learned about the West Marion Community Forum, which at the time was a few key community leaders from West Marion and members of the McDowell County Health Coalition Built Environment Pod who met monthly to discuss community-driven solutions to improve the West Marion Community.
“By August, we decided we wanted to continue the work of engaging our community in a meaningful way and making positive changes over the long-term,” Swepson-Avery says. She became a co-chair of the group’s steering committee. Then, in November of that year, the role evolved into that of a coordinator.
“What we do is just find ways to make our community better, using our own knowledge, assets, voices, and talents within the community,” she says. But her humility belies the breadth of the Forum’s work. The organization has five working groups, each focused on a community priority: public transportation, affordable housing, affordable childcare, youth empowerment, and a community garden program called “Keeping It Fresh.”
The Forum played a critical role in launching free public transportation service in West Marion for their residents in need. They even influenced county-wide policy changes related to transportation by coordinating petitions to establish a local transportation system. This resulted in new financial resources, new jobs, and the county hiring one of their community leaders as the director of the McDowell Transit System. Thanks to the Forum’s work, residents now have transportation to doctor appointments, work, community college, and other locations.
“The best thing about the Forum is that it allows you to dream,” Swepson-Avery says.
Teenagers in the county have been able to participate in Project Revive, the Forum’s youth engagement program. Grants and other fundraising projects helped to pay for a small group of kids and chaperones to take a trip through the Deep South, including stops at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the newly-opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the victims of white supremacist lynchings.
The bountiful garden—one of Swepson-Avery’s personal points of pride—serves as a base for a Thanksgiving meal giveaway. In 2016, the Forum delivered and served more than 200 meals. “We took meals to the rest homes, to the sick and shut-in,” she says. “The next year we gave out over 300 meals. Pretty sure we’ll go higher this year.”
Swepson-Avery juggles volunteers, work plans, and supporting other neighborhoods in the county to model the forum’s community engagement process. It’s a significant departure from making furniture. “The only thing I knew was manufacturing,” she says. “I don’t know that much about grassroots and community work other than what I’ve done right here.”
In 2017, she learned about the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI) from a professional connection and decided to apply to the program. “I was trying to broaden my horizons,” she recalls. “I was struggling in doing this work because I wanted it perfect. If I say I’m going to do something, I want it perfect.” During the course, Swepson-Avery made a host of connections with other North Carolina leaders, and she learned plenty about effective economic development work in rural communities. But it was a personal lesson that stuck with her.
“They gave us this handout about managers versus leaders,” she says. “I looked at it and I was like, ‘Wow. I’ve been a manager all my life—not really a leader.’ It opened my eyes because a leader should really encourage the growth of other leaders and not micro-manage people. In community work, you have to be flexible and know that things are not always going to be perfect – mistakes are where true growth happens.”
Reinvigorated—and with a new appreciation for the role she could play as a leader—Swepson-Avery dove back into the Forum’s work. “The growth over the past two years, for me, has been amazing; I can see it within myself.”
In the spring of 2018, the West Marion Community Forum became an official nonprofit organization; Swepson-Avery was named its executive director. As she and her partners at the Forum continue their work, they deepen their connections to their community. Swepson-Avery says that before she got involved with the Forum, the most she knew about local politics and voting was what she learned from a family member who serves as Marion’s mayor pro tem. Now, she’s in regular conversation with elected officials, has presented to the Marion City Council multiple times, and has hosted community leaders for Forum-led work sessions. “We’re seeing a shift with the city in terms of how we work with them,” she says.
The shift is personal, too. Swepson-Avery decided to run for McDowell County Commission in 2018, believing her knowledge and perspective could serve even more of her neighbors. It’s not a surprise coming from someone whose life motto is the inspirational verse of a gospel song: “If I can help somebody along the way, then my living will not be in vain.”
She’s quick to give credit to others—to her co-chair in those early days of the forum, to her partners, to funders, to REDI. Swepson-Avery recognizes the value of partnerships, and how her natural inclinations might not be the best way to achieve the results she wants. Lessons from REDI have stuck with her. “There’s different ways you have to go at it. I always thought what I thought was right and that everybody thought the same way as me,” she says. “I’ve learned we can get to ‘right’ all sorts of ways.”
Collaboration is now central to her approach. “We’re dreaming,” she says, “and it’s coming together.” Hers is a transformative journey—not just for her own life, which has changed dramatically since leaving the manufacturing plant floor, but for all of McDowell County.
“We’re not making widgets,” Swepson-Avery says. “We’re building community.”