By Josh Stein
2020 has been difficult, with challenges we could not have planned or anticipated this time last year. Many of us are facing real hardships – we are fighting for our health and the health of our loved ones, navigating economic burdens and living with a great deal of uncertainty about the future.
In times like these, it becomes even more necessary to recognize the people around us who are doing the noble work of making North Carolina safer and stronger. It was an honor to recognize the recipients of the 2020 Attorney General’s Dogwood Award, an annual celebration of community leaders in North Carolina.
This year’s Dogwood Award recipients are addressing issues that are affecting our state and its people. The most urgent of those issues is the coronavirus pandemic. Frank Timberlake, the owner of Rich Square Market in Rich Square, fought challenge after challenge to keep his market open for customers. Peter Gilbert and Isaac Strugill, attorneys at Legal Aid of North Carolina, worked tirelessly to help keep North Carolinians in their homes. Dr. Carly Brown created Masks of Love to sew more than 6,000 masks for medical and frontline workers in western North Carolina. Mike Reardon created the Carolina Climbing Conservation Corps and hired people out of work during the pandemic to build climbing infrastructure and work to preserve our beautiful natural resources. And Dr. Ogugua Obi, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville, has been on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients. We all owe her and her health care colleagues across the state a great debt of gratitude for their dedicated work.
Since I took office in 2017, I’ve prioritized the issue of testing more than 15,000 old untested sexual assault kits in local law enforcement custody – kits that are key to getting justice for victims and survivors of sexual assault. Greenville Police Department Chief Mark Holtzman showed tremendous leadership by fully clearing out Greenville’s untested sexual assault kit backlog. Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry has taken the initiative to work closely with law enforcement in her county to test untested kits and get convictions – leading to 11 arrests in 15 sexual assault cases that date back to 1985 in the last month alone. Hayley Harris and Lara Purnell co-founded Layers of Dignity to provide clothes and support to sexual assault survivors after they undergo medical examinations in the aftermath of an assault. And Rep. Carson Smith was a leader in passing the Survivor Act through the North Carolina General Assembly last year. This law provides state funding to test kits and helps make our communities safer.
The opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on communities and families across our state. Dr. Anu Rao-Patel at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina has been a key partner on our MorePowerfulNC.org initiative to fight this crisis. Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood has worked to move people with addiction out of the criminal justice system and into the health care system where they can get the help that they need. Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone has worked with state and federal partners to go after dealers and traffickers using the I-95 corridor. Amy Upham, the Opioid Response Coordinator in Buncombe County, has led an innovative fight against addiction in western North Carolina. And Randy Abbott, who lost his own daughter Vanessa to this crisis, has turned his grief into action as the national volunteer coordinator for the SAFE Project, helping others get healthy from addiction.
This year, we’ve had urgent, overdue conversations about the critical work that needs to be done to make sure our criminal justice system treats everyone fairly and equally, no matter their race. Professor Jessie Smith at the UNC School of Government has conducted research on the need for pretrial release reform so bail decisions are based on public safety, not the size of an individual’s bank account. Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers has promoted transparency and integrity in his office and is holding law enforcement to the highest of standards. New Hanover and Pender County District Attorney Ben David has been fighting on behalf of families of crime victims and victims of domestic violence to ensure our families are safe.
And of course, we need North Carolinians to look out for each other and stand up for their fellow North Carolinians. Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has dedicated his life to the service of young people, stronger communities and cultural preservation. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan has devoted his career to protecting our beautiful environment including our air and water. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles has taken on a national role advocating for the need of cities to lead in protecting our climate for future generations. Christian Duenas is a DACA recipient who wants to ensure immigrants can strengthen our communities. Wendy Mateo-Pascual is a leader in the Spanish-speaking community working on a number of issues including health care and voting rights. Beth Messersmith works with MomsRising to champion paid family leave. Bishop Todd Fulton, founder of the Mt. Moriah Outreach Center, is a tireless advocate for people in need in Forsyth County. And Peter Gwaltney of the North Carolina Bankers Association has worked to prevent elder fraud and keep our loved ones safe from scams, especially in this pandemic.
This year’s Dogwood Award recipients are working to build healthy, happy communities in the face of overwhelming challenges. They are a reminder that when things are as hard as they are right now, we can all do more to step up and make a difference, to reach out to our neighbors and find ways to help each other. Together, we can make North Carolina safer and stronger.
Josh Stein serves as attorney general for North Carolina.