SOT Meet Series

The Monday Meet series features conversations with people with strong ties to  North Carolina who have compelling personal stories. Either host Anita Rao or Frank Stasio talks with a range of people about their life, work, and how the two intersect.

Iheoma Iruka has devoted her career to understanding bias in early-childhood education, but she has very few memories of that period in her own life. Iruka was born in Texas, but her parents moved back to Nigeria when she was 3. She stayed there until after second grade when she and two of her sisters moved to Boston with her mother, and the family was split between Nigeria and the U.S.

An older Black woman standing in chef's gear: a black apron with a black buttoned shirt underneath and a black cap. The woman is looking off to the right and is wearing glasses
Courtesy of Sprouthouse Agency

When Hanan Shabazz was a child in her grandmother’s Asheville home, she remembers their house as the one where those in need of a good meal would come to be freely fed. The experience was formative for her as she grew up and opened Shabazz Restaurant in the early 1970s. The restaurant was part of Asheville's thriving Black business scene in the historic neighborhood known as The Block until urban renewal forced its closure. 

Sandra Lawson

In 2018, Sandra Lawson became the first openly gay, Black female rabbi in the world. But her path to rabbinical school was far from traditional. Lawson grew up in a Christian household with parents who didn’t get along. When she got to college, she lacked focus and dropped out.

A Black man in a blue USA track running outfit with USA and his last name 'Gillette' on the front. The man is running and the picture was captured while he was in mid air.
Credit: Joe Kusumoto

While he sprints toward the sand pit, his coach shouts and claps to offer direction. 16 steps. That is all it takes before Lex Gillette flies. After losing his sight at age 8, Gillette found others’ expectations burdensome. From the classroom to the playground, he sought out adults who understood his extraordinary skills. 

A woman in a colorful head scarf holding yellow flowers in front of brightly-colored art.
Courtesy of Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

The world of artistic expression called to Cortina Jenelle Caldwell at a young age. As a child she dreamed of becoming an architect, spent a lot of time journaling and loved losing herself in a good book. Her early life was characterized by hard work and perseverance, but it was also marked by trauma. 

A Black man in a black shirt smiling. He has his hands behind his head
Courtesy of Phonte Coleman

Robeson County-born, Greensboro-raised musician Phonte Coleman has traveled all over the world, but there’s no other place he can imagine living than North Carolina. A founding member of the rap group Little Brother, as well as a member of the genre-bending music group The Foreign Exchange, Coleman appreciates the quiet, lowkey community he’s built in the state and the focus on his craft that it affords him.

Gragg stands in front of a pink quilt top with yellow and blue squares. She is wearing a large necklace, drop earrings and a blue shirt. Her coily hair has streaks of blue.
Dare Kumolo-Johnson

Mavis Gragg never thought her work would “take her to the trees,” but that is where she has found herself. 

A Black man with brown curly hair in an afro wearing a black shirt with orange straps on his shoulders, standing in front of a boat that has a cage on it. The cage appears to be filled with oysters. The boat is white and has 'NC-4883-CJ' written on it.
Jeyhoun Allebaugh, courtesy Ryan Bethea

Ryan Bethea has a job to make many computer-bound office workers jealous. As an oyster farmer, his work takes him out into the waters of Westmouth Bay just off Harkers Island. Bethea farms on five acres and runs his business, Oysters Carolina, which sells fresh oysters to individuals, group events and one restaurant in Durham. 

A woman speaks into a microphone at a protest
Courtesy of Dawn Blagrove

Dawn Blagrove identified her life's work at an early age. As a young girl growing up in 1970s segregated Milwaukee, she read Sam Greenlee's novel "The Spook Who Sat By The Door." It tells the story of a Black CIA operative who goes undercover within the system and takes what he learned back to his Chicago neighborhood to help young people start a revolution. 

Headshot of Rissi Palmer
Chris Charles

Independent country music recording artist Rissi Palmer is not surprised by the feedback she has received about her new Apple Music radio show “Color Me Country Radio,” which explores Black, Latinx and Indigenous voices in country music. She has heard everything from, “Is this a limited series? You’re going to run out of people to talk to!” to “Why does everything have to be about race?” 

A Black woman squatting in front of a totally pink Cadillac with "TRAP" painted on the equallly pink garage door behind
Courtesy of Kyesha Jennings

The linguistic rules of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are widespread and catalogued — yet most classrooms still frown upon writing and speaking it. Hip-hop scholar Kyesha Jennings grew up in Queens, New York, and remembers teachers correcting her use of the possessive they and double negatives. Now, she’s on a mission to disrupt the common belief that all English follows one set of rules. 

Author Carole Boston Weatherford reads to students
Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford wrote her first poem in first grade. She dictated it to her mother on the way home from elementary school in Baltimore. 

Headshot of Sherrill Roland, an African-American man wearing a green ball cap and black T-shirt
Sherrill Roland

Visual artist Sherrill Roland spent 10 months in prison for a crime he did not commit. What kept him going was a quest to fulfill his dream of going to art school.

Clapsaddle's headshot
Courtesy of Annette Clapsaddle

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle spent years writing her first novel, and it garnered critical acclaim: she won an award and became a finalist for another. Yet she could not find an agent to publish it. So, she started again, this time with the support of the Great Smokies Writing Program. 

A class photo of fifth graders from the late 60s in front of the U.S. flag. There is an even split of Black and white students, mostly grouped in clumps. In the front row, four girls have their legs crossed.
Courtesy of Janet Perez

How do visually impaired students learn best in a virtual classroom? That is Janet Perez’s job to figure out this year. She is the instructional and assistive technology facilitator at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. Though she is sighted, Perez has plenty of feedback for web designers to make online learning more accessible (including some flaws on WUNC’s website). 

Carrie Knowles in front of a microphone
Courtesy of Carrie Knowles

Writing has been a central part of Carrie Knowles’ life since she was a young girl. She pursued creative writing as her major in college, even though it went against her father’s wishes.

Lightner and his mom.
Courtesy of Kai Lightner

The climbing started with baby gates and wooden balconies. As a kid, professional rock climber Kai Lightner had a lot of energy and a love for scrambling up anything he could find. 

Headshot of Ndelo.
Courtesy of Eric Ndelo

Street fashion is a venue for activism, according to Eric Ndelo. Through screen printing, he has elevated social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, empowered young artists and taught entrepreneurship to Congo youth. It was all part of the vision, he says.

Jeffries stands in uniform next to a sign that reads 'Lindsey Jefferies NC's First Female African AMerican Black Helicopter Pilot for the NC Army National Guard.'
Courtesy of Lindsey Jefferies

Captain Lindsey Jefferies was the first of her six siblings to graduate from college. As a child, her family struggled financially and was constantly on the move in search of better paying jobs and a lower cost of living. She hoped that getting a good education could be a ticket to a more secure future and set the goal of attending UNC-Chapel Hill.

Collins sits at a table under a George Floyd mural that reads "George Floyd Rest in Power."
Courtesy of Armando Collins

For Armondo Collins, growing up in a predominantly-black neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota meant several things. It meant that he had to pass through majority white, wealthy communities whenever he wanted candy from the corner store. And it meant that he got stopped by the police a lot. 

Two old photos of Smallwood
Courtesy of Arwin Smallwood

Arwin Smallwood grew up in the rural town of Indian Woods, in the northeastern part of North Carolina. The ten-square-mile community is the home to descendants of the Native American, African and European people who lived there over hundreds of years. Smallwood came of age there in the 60s and 70s. 

Courtesy of Jessica Yinka Thomas

Jessica Yinka Thomas grew up in both the United States and West Africa. Her father, a Nigerian economics professor, and her mother, an American computer scientist, raised their four kids between Miami, Nigeria, Senegal and eventually Maryland to get them ready for college in the states.

Sylvan Esso on stage performing for a standing crowd, backlit by blue stage lights.
Graham Tolbert

They are a Grammy-nominated duo of musical magpies. The shared nest of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn is woven with treasures from ambient, Appalachian gospel, EDM, post-rock, folk-pop and trap music. Yet Sylvan Esso is anything but patchwork. 

Courtesy of Richard Watkins

Richard Watkins has always moved in multiple circles. 

a colorful artists' rendering of the greenhouse effect
Jaime Van Wart

Eleanor Spicer Rice spent her childhood fascinated by ants, flies, maggots, bones and other natural curiosities. Her family encouraged that inquisitiveness — her father would take her on walks in the swamps near their Goldsboro home, and her parents never told her the bugs that enchanted her were gross.

Neuwirth stands in front of the exhibit with her two children.
Courtesy of Edward Neuwirth

As a child, Brandi Neuwirth remembers family chatter about her great-great-grandfather owning a school in North Carolina. But she was young and North Carolina seemed a world away from the life she lived in New York City. Her great-great-grandfather the Rev. Morgan Latta had a vision of a school that would educate the children of freed slaves.

Photo of Mia Ives-Rublee with her dog Vezzini
Chris Riggs / Courtesy Mia Ives-Rublee

Mia Ives-Rublee grew up surrounded by adults who were worried about her well-being. She has Osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic bone disorder more commonly known as brittle bone disease, and uses a wheelchair to get around. 

Red racecar speeding away.
Mark Menscer

Mark Menscer likes living between worlds. The “shock nerd” might spend the day chumming it up at a race track before heading home for a solitary night spent photographing the remains of a supernova. The Fayetteville native points to his unique upbringing for sparking his curiosity and wide-ranging interests.

Courtesy of Ronnie Pepper

Ronnie Pepper loves to hear stories as much as he loves to tell them. He grew up in the small Appalachian town of Hendersonville during the era of the civil rights movement in a house with no plumbing and only four rooms.

Ron Yorgason

Charly Lowry raises the hand-drum, strikes a heartbeat and begins reciting a song she wrote after leaving the comfort of her native community for college — “An existence so beautiful, so colorful/ deep rooted in originality/ eye-candy of shallow minds/ that was her reality, still/ she walks around with a smile/ for the whole wide world to see/ Inside’s ascreamin’/ Free yourself from strains of society.”

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