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MDC Lecture Series

"Back to the Future: Race, Power, and the N.C. Fund"

An MDC Lecture marking the N.C. Fund’s 50th anniversary

The final lecture in the 2013 MDC Lecture Series marked the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Fund and looked at the way the Fund’s leaders and organizers responded to those who called their work “radical intrigue.” It also looked at the extent to which similar tensions exist today after 50 years of racial progress—and the enduring structural barriers that keep people poor and divided.

The North Carolina Fund was Gov. Terry Sanford’s landmark effort from 1963-1968 to go outside of government and create an organization that would directly address poverty and segregation. In the name of morality and economic development, it included black and white civic leaders, community organizers, and volunteers in efforts to alleviate dire living conditions across the state, both urban and rural. As their work took hold and a national War on Poverty began, those they were trying to help stepped up, calling for a role in the process. In doing so, they inadvertently challenged the local power structure that stood to benefit from continued racial segregation and discrimination. It became evident that to dismantle poverty at scale would require addressing a deeply rooted power structure that was prepared to fight back.

Dr. Robert Korstad, Duke historian and co-author of To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America (UNC Press 2010) talked about the Fund’s transformation from a focus on service to justice with the person who found himself at the heart of it: Dr. Howard Fuller, a top community organizer for the Fund, who went on to become superintendent of public schools in Milwaukee. Their conversation was followed by a panel discussion with current community organizers and anti-poverty workers about how North Carolinians can, are, and should be addressing the barriers that are creating a widening wealth gap and upward mobility crisis that threaten the region’s economic and social wellbeing.

MDC Panel Discussion from MDC on Vimeo.

The panel was moderated by Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Executive Director Leslie Winner, and included:

  • Laurel Ashton, Former student organizer and field secretary for NC NAACP 
  • Micah Gilmer, Frontline Solutions 
  • Deena Hayes, Racial Equity Institute 
  • Ivan Kohar Parra, Lead Organizer, Triangle Community CAN (Congregations, Associations, Neighborhoods)

Read the event program to learn more about the panelists.

Panel Discussion Q&A from MDC on Vimeo.

“Back to the Future: Race, Power and the N.C. Fund” was held November 12 at MDC’s Learning Center in its headquarters at 307 W. Main St. in Durham. 

This lecture was made possible in part by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Cynthia "Mil" Duncan, PhD

Poverty and Politics in Rural Communities: What's Changed Over the Last Twenty Years?

On June 27, MDC hosted rural poverty expert Cynthia "Mil" Duncan for the second installment of the 2013 MDC Lecture Series. Twenty years ago, Mil Duncan and her colleagues interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life in three remote rural communities—Appalachia, the Delta region of Mississippi, and northern New England—trying to understand why poverty persisted. In her book Worlds Apart, she argues that the absence of a middle class and deep divisions between haves and have-nots in areas dependent upon coal and plantation economies undermine community institutions essential for children's opportunities. A more diverse, less poor community in northern New England was not divided and invested in community institutions that served everyone. This year she returned to those communities to learn what changes have occurred. She talked about those changes and what they may tell us about development and opportunity in chronically poor and transitioning rural communities.

MDC would like to acknowledge and thank the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation for their generous support of the MDC Lecture Series. 


Mil Duncan is research director of AGree and professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. From 2004-2011, she was professor of sociology and founding director of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, an interdisciplinary research center focused on vulnerable families and sustainable development in rural America. From 2000-2004, she served as the Ford Foundation’s director of community and resource development; from 1989-2000 she was a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Duncan wrote Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America (Yale University Press 1999), which won the American Sociological Association’s Robert E. Park Award. She is now updating the book for a new publication in 2014. She has written numerous articles on poverty and development, and edited Rural Poverty in America. Among her awards are the Earl D. Wallace Award for Contribution to Education Reform in Kentucky, the Thomas R. Ford Distinguished Alumni Award for Sociology at the University of Kentucky, Distinguished Lecturer talks, and several public service awards. She serves on several regional and national boards related to poverty and development. Mil Duncan received her BA in English from Stanford University, and her MA and PhD from the University of Kentucky.  

Mayor Otis Johnson, PhD

Building Equity and Opportunity in a Southern City: From paved streets to paying jobs

Former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson kicked off the 2013 MDC lecture series on Thursday, February 21, with his lecture, "Building Equity and Opportunity in a Southern City: From paved streets to paying jobs." The mayor reflected on his 30-year career in public service and his efforts to bring together the city’s community and business leaders to close the gaps between the two Savannahs.

Mayor Johnson is a longtime neighborhood leader on issues of youth development and led the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Youth Futures Commission in Savannah. He was also dean of the School of Social Work at Savannah State and is a former chair of the board of trustees of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. He is currently a member of the Aspen Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Change.

(As part of his lecture, Mayor Johnson used a graphic to illustrate Savannah's approach to fighting poverty. The graphic can be viewed and downloaded here.)

Professor Peter Edelman

So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty In America

On Monday, June 18, 2012, Georgetown Law poverty expert Peter Edelman visited the MDC offices in Durham, NC, to discuss his book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty In America.