WILKESBORO — In March, L.B. Prevette, the daughter of a poultry farmer in tiny Union Grove, was invited to speak to TV writers from Netflix, Hulu, ABC and other networks at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Prevette was among an impressive roster of speakers.
John Legend and Stacey Abrams talked about modern segregation. Geena Davis and Kerry Washington spoke of gender and storytelling.
She talked about Wilkes County.
Prevette, 28, did the same thing in Washington, D.C., last month at an event sponsored by the prestigious Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that promotes community and values, and on National Public Radio’s weekday show, 1A.
Ask Prevette what she did to garner such attention and she emits a self-deprecating laugh.
She asked the same question of herself when she saw the speaker lineup at The Getty.
“I just have people over for dinner,” Prevette said the other week, sitting in Anchor Coffee Co. in North Wilkesboro.
While it’s true that Prevette loves dinner parties, that’s only part of the story.
Prevette is among a group of Wilkes County residents who are working to rewrite their county’s narrative, from one that gained notoriety for its plummeting median income and number of meth labs, to one with a rich cultural history, beautiful scenery and goodhearted people.
A 2016 New York Times article that focused on the economic anxieties of regulars at a vape shop painted a picture of a county that was downtrodden and desperate. It both rankled and motivated Prevette and others to do more to boost the county’s good qualities.
“We’re not sad people sitting around a vape shop because the factory closed,” said Prevette, who works for Lowe’s Home Improvement. “We’re people who are still living here because we know it’s going to be better. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be so worth it.”
Ironically, it was another writer from The New York Times, columnist David Brooks, who has played a role in casting Wilkes County in a more positive light by recognizing the work of Prevette and other community builders.
Brooks, who writes frequently on culture and social connectivity, has a lead role in the Aspen Institute’s new program, Weave: The Social Fabric Project. The idea is to build a movement of Weavers, people who build community through connections and help others feel loved and valued, with the goal of transforming a society that has grown isolated.
He and his team traveled the country looking for “Weavers” and happened upon Wilkes County through one of those “friend-of-a-friend” situations.
On a visit to the county last summer, Brooks met with a group that included Brooklyn Mounce, Ashley Barton, Michael Cooper, Carol Canter, Heather Murphy, Shane Seeley, George Smith and Prevette.
They are a group of community builders whose work runs the gamut, from prison re-entry programs to promoting the arts.
Prevette figures she caught the Aspen Institute’s attention because of her unlikely, and ultimately, unsuccessful run as a Democrat vying for a seat on the board of commissioners in a heavily Republican county. The last time a woman held a commissioner seat was in 2004, and the last time a Democrat sat on the board was in 2010.
Prevette is also a lesbian, a fact that she does not hide in a socially conservative county.
She got slaughtered.
But what Brooks and others with the Aspen Institute found so intriguing was her willingness to insert herself in local politics and her track record of building community, person-by-person, through her many dinners.
“It’s what I’ve always done, have people over for dinner,” she said. “I think people are craving that: ‘I want to be your friend. Do you want to get a drink?’ People are afraid to be the first person to ask, so when it came down to joining the Weavers, they said, ‘Talk to L.B.’ I think it’s because I spend a lot of time talking to people.”
Cooper, a Wilkesboro attorney, was at the dinner with Brooks back in 2018. Like Prevette, Cooper is among the Millennials who grew up in Wilkes County, went away to college and decided to return. He wrote about Donald Trump’s appeal among rural voters in an essay for U.S. News and World Report in during the 2016 primary season.
“Being from a small town, you sort of knew everyone in the room. Your parents knew each other, so you know each other six different ways,” Cooper said. “So there was already a lot of connection, and there’s a tight-knit closeness that will help us thrive again.”
Cooper met Prevette at a local brewery’s trivia night that she organizes.
Though a seemingly small gesture, the trivia night at Great State Brewery and Taproom regularly attracts a big crowd.
“There was nothing else to do in Wilkes County on a Friday night,” Prevette said.
Growing up near the Iredell County line, Prevette worked on her dad’s farm. His work ethic and willingness to help out neighbors became ingrained in her.
But as a teenager, Prevette was ready to bolt. One night at a post-MerleFest party, she was called a derogatory name for a lesbian and knocked-out cold.
“I love my community. There’s nowhere more beautiful than the foothills,” she said. “But I told my dad, ‘I can’t be here.’”
She went away to college but after her dad died her sophomore year, she returned to help take care of the farm.
Finally, a family friend convinced her to go to a college in Nevada. Prevette went, studying marketing at University of Nevada in Reno. She loved it, but home, and the desire to live a purposeful life, pulled at her.
“I kept thinking of the versions of me that were still in high school. All these queer kids who are living through it. Who are still afraid,” Prevette said. “I missed community and I missed intentional community. I wanted to come back to matter.”
Prevette wound up joining forces with Forward Wilkes, a community group that Megan Barnett started a few years back to make the area a more vibrant, engaging community. Forward Wilkes has started such things as Tuesday night bike rides, community yoga classes, teen gatherings and meetings for LGBTQ teenagers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Many of the events are held in public spaces, which are both free and have high visibility.
Brooks took note of all these happenings, which helped guide him as he wrote his new book, “Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.” The book focuses on the value of putting relationships above personal gain.
Brooks has written that Wilkesboro was “one of those places with a poor social infrastructure, with a paucity of places that nurture relationship. ... Today there are people from all walks of life trying to build places where relationships can form.”
Perhaps because she is both well-spoken and blunt-spoken, Prevette has served as the face of the local group of Weavers at some of these bigger events, including the gathering at The Getty and at the Aspen Institute in Washington.
It’s a job she’s happy to take.
The local Wilkes Weavers came back from the Washington gathering energized and ready to do more to help a community that has taken its share of economic hits, including the recent loss of 680 jobs from the corporate offices of Lowe’s Home Improvement.
“There’s this energy,” said Prevette, as bicyclists gathered outside Anchor Coffee for a weekly group ride. “For people to see our residents on a stage like that has people wanting to be a part of it, to lean in.”
Kailah Moodie is the epitome of a survivor.
Too often, her family went without food, and she brought her school lunch home to keep her younger brother fed.
The 17-year-old spent last winter doing her homework by candlelight in her frigid Winston-Salem home because her family had no electricity.
And through it all, she has spent her life battling intense pain as part of her diagnosis of a musculoskeletal pain syndrome, juvenile primary fibromyalgia.
“Some days, I wake up with excruciating pain that makes it hard to move,” the Middle College graduate said. “But being in a single-parent, low-income family, I can’t fall back. I have to push through the pain and help my family survive.”
At times, her family has been without clothes or shelter, said Moodie, who also has chronic problems with her feet from a car accident when she was 6 years old.
She sums it all up simply as “difficult,” as if her struggles were as commonplace as the average rigors a high school student might face.
“My mom has been plagued by several illnesses, so as a single-parent family, I have to think ‘If she gets sick, where are me and my brother going to go?’” said Moodie, who moved with her family to Winston-Salem from New York at age 9. “But seeing my mom persevere and overcome has made me realize I can face anything.”
With a mother who is disabled and a brother to care for, Moodie has had to rely on her defiant inner strength to not only survive but excel.
She said her friends, family and faith as a Jehovah’s Witness have propelled her through school and to graduation day where she finished in top five in her senior class on May 23.
Moodie plans to study nursing at either Winston-Salem State University or Forsyth Technical Community College, inspired by all the nurses who helped her and her family.
“It’s been difficult. There’s always been a lot to deal with,” said Moodie, who will turn 18 on June 14. “But everything I’ve been through has just made me really grateful for all the little things.”
Staff members with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools are scoping out potential locations to build a new Ashley Academy for Cultural & Global Studies and Brunson Elementary School.
Voters in 2016 approved a $350 million bond request, which includes just over $25 million for a new Brunson School as well as money for design work on the new Ashley school.
Darrell Walker, the school system’s assistant superintendent of operations, said that currently there is no money to pay for the Ashley building or land.
“We would have to identify funding sources,” Walker said.
The estimated cost for the building is $30 million.
Walker said there are multiple owners of the 10 to 11 acres of land that the school system is looking at as a potential site for the new Ashley building.
The city of Winston-Salem owns 18 lots, which were recently appraised. There are also about six other property owners that the school system would have to negotiate with for the rest of the needed acreage.
As for the new Brunson Elementary, six sites are under consideration, Walker said.
“We are in the process of evaluating those six sites to see what it would cost to build on each one of them,” he said. “Then we will come back to the board in August with our recommendation.”
Walker said that the properties under consideration are within the current residential zone where the existing schools sit.
In other business, the school system’s operations staff recently estimated the cost of a proposed stadium at Reynolds High School to range from $5 million to $6.5 million.
“Our board was interested in seeing what have we paid in the past for a stadium in today’s market and what is the cost of what the proposed Reynolds stadium would be,” Walker said, referring to the school board.
He said it would cost about $3.5 million if the school system were to build a stadium. That amount, adjusted for inflation, is based on the cost of some of the school system’s last constructed stadiums, including the one at Walkertown High School, in today’s construction market.
In addition to the $3.5 million in construction costs, Home Field Advantage, the group that has raised more than $1 million to build a stadium at Reynolds High, would have to pay $1.5 million for such items as stormwater retention, retaining walls and site preparation, Walker said.
“The minimum that Home Field Advantage could build right now is $5 million,” Walker said.
The price would rise another $1.5 million if other features were added, including artificial turf.
Walker said that Home Field Advantage has spent $270,000 on the design for the stadium and $160,000 to construct a practice field for Reynolds High.
He said that the current memorandum of understanding between the school system and Home Field Advantage notes that the group would privately pay for the whole stadium.
“Until that changes, we are working on that understanding that it’s all privately funded,” Walker said.
Reynolds shares a stadium, which is nearly 6 miles away, with Parkland High School.
At the board of education’s Tuesday meeting, several people spoke for and against the stadium during the public sessions.
Laura Burrows, the parent of two Reynolds High graduates, said she appreciates the Buildings and Grounds Committee’s discussions about using some public money for the stadium.
“The Home Field Advantage effort took hold about seven years ago because we recognized the opportunity for the stadium to be a true public/private partnership,” Burrows said.
She mentioned several impacts on students and families as a result of Reynolds not having an on-campus stadium, including students and families often scrambling to find transportation or not being able to attend games, band students practicing formations in a narrow parking lot, students changing their clothes in their cars and fewer fans.
“We are simply shutting out students and families who just can’t access our stadium,” Burrows said.
Kathryn Spanos, the president of Home Field Advantage, said the group started years ago with a group of parents who saw a need and went to the school board to find out why the school didn’t have its own stadium and if there was a possibility of a stadium.
“The board had just been denied a bond by the county commissioners, and there was not a bond in sight,” Spanos said.
She said that their group decided to do something on its own and has so far raised more than $1 million.
“Unfortunately, as with most public projects, public dollars come with it,” Spanos said. “We’ve seen with on-site facilities that has been a commitment from the board in all the bonds.”
She said that their group wants the board to step up and do want it has done for the other high schools.
Joshua Ziesel said he is not against a stadium at Reynolds but is opposed to the frequent use of the word “equity” by some speakers to advocate for the stadium.
“Equality is not the same thing as equity,” he said. He said that the project would be about equity if the monies involved were exclusively Reynolds’.
“But they come to the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board meetings week after week to talk about equity for their kids while completely ignoring and neglecting to discuss the needs of all students across the district.”