Rocky Mount, North Carolina
2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
Pulling Together in Rocky Mount Brings Opportunity for All
Railroad tracks cut straight through the city of Rocky Mount, N.C., literally slicing Main Street in half. The tracks are a boundary, created in 1871, between Edgecombe County on the east side and Nash County on the west.
Today, the people of Rocky Mount, which is 58 miles east of Raleigh, N.C., are working to boost opportunities and equity in all parts of town, east and west. The goal: To make the railroad tracks feel more like “a zipper pulling both counties together” instead of a dividing line, said Ron Green, chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club of the Tar River Region.
Leaders of all ages have started on a journey to reverse generations of disinvestment and structural racism that have led to a persistently high poverty rate in Edgecombe County, while Nash County has prospered. They are addressing key drivers of health by expanding economic opportunity, building community wealth, and increasing access to affordable housing.
Around town, signs with the word “Imagine” hang in the windows of empty storefronts. More and more people are doing just that. On the east side of the tracks, an empty parking lot will transform into a 50-unit, affordable housing complex. New shops and restaurants have opened next door to the $48-million Rocky Mount Event Center for youth sports, which is attached to a new Federally Qualified Health Center, operated by the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) of Rocky Mount.
These are outward signs of deeper change in how power is shared in this city of 54,000, the hometown of jazz pianist Theolonius Monk and boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. When the city began planning for how land would be developed around the new event center, residents from adjacent neighborhoods, who had only nominally been part of the process, did not just ask to be heard—they demanded it.
“We had to tip the table over and pound on it, saying you can’t do a study of our neighborhood without our voices,” said Sue Perry Cole, a longtime resident and president of the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations. Others listened. The result: a commitment from the city for equitable development and the creation of more housing opportunities in an economic corridor on the east side of the tracks.
“We used our voices strategically,” Cole said.
The Rev. Richard Joyner, a member of the Rocky Mount City Council, described Rocky Mount as experiencing “a real conscious wake up.”
Rocky Mount now encourages engagement through neighborhood associations and the Community Academy, which provides leadership training and support.
“Before, people came into the neighborhood to tell us what we needed,” said Tamisha Patterson, president of the South East Rocky Mount Neighborhood Association. “Today, we’re unified and willing to work and make change.”
This city on the Tar River saw boom times in the early 1900s, fueled by railroad work and jobs in tobacco processing and textiles. By the 1960s, a steady slide in those key industries caused a hollowing out of downtown.
In building a Culture of Health, community partners are making the connection between quality jobs, affordable housing, economic development, and racial equity. The city is providing seed funding for communities to identify houses for renovation, and creating a system for those funds to be channeled back into neighborhoods.
People are starved for the opportunity to speak to their own needs and wants and desires and dreams. They may need a little support in doing so, but they have ideas, they have dreams, and they want change. They want it now.
—Sue Perry Cole, President
North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations
Rocky Mount, North Carolina
“Health is the sum of all of our lived experiences,” said Reuben Blackwell, a city council member and president of the OIC, which provides education services, employment training, behavioral support, and primary medical care services.
Rocky Mount also is beginning to address racial equity as a key driver of health. In 2017, in the wake of unrest in Charlottesville, Va., the Human Relations Commission held a series of community conversations about race and history in Rocky Mount, which led to a debate over removing a Confederate statue from historic Battle Park. After the death of George Floyd in 2020 and a peaceful protest at the monument site, city council immediately moved to remove it.
The people of Rocky Mount are changing how things are done, encouraging optimism about the future. “For a long period of time, we didn’t have a lot to be hopeful about,” Cole said. “But we’re hopeful right now.”