Ashley Ward has spent much of her professional career in community work as it pertains to public health, especially the impacts from climate extremes. Much of her job has revolved around helping communities navigate federal policy and use science and research to improve decision making. These experiences have provided Ward with first-hand knowledge of how well-meaning Federal programs can create headaches at the local level.
Ward, 49, who has announced her candidacy to represent North Carolina’s 6th District in Congress, which represents Orange, Durham and parts of Wake counties, views this kind of breakdown as a key example of why there is a growing distrust of science and the Federal government.
“Government makes their job harder,” Ward said “I think one of the things we have to do, and this is part of relating to people in office, is have people that are making policy that actually understand what it will look like when it gets to the community. We need to understand things that look great on paper with the best of intentions, often are really hard to implement in practice.”
Her experience navigating where the rubber meets the road, Ward believes, is something that is missing in Congress, and is one of the main reasons she believes she should be there. Ward says in order for a representative to address the needs of his or her constituents, that person needs to understand those needs and not become removed from the community.
“I think we forget that half the job of a representative is in the community, constituent services,” Ward said. “Half is in D.C.”
Ward sat down with the News of Orange County to talk about growing up in the district, and why she thinks her skills and background would best serve the area as a member of Congress.
NEWS OF ORANGE COUNTY: What’s your relationship to this area?
ASHLEY WARD: I live right down Efland Cedar Grove Road, just outside of Hillsborough. I’ve lived in the district my entire life. I’ve lived in Durham and Orange County. Orange County has been home for more than 20 years. My grandparents were sharecroppers and they moved to Durham to work in the tobacco factory, my grandmothers did. My one grandmother had a third-grade education. Both of my grandmothers were extraordinary women who moved to Durham to get out of extreme poverty because they knew that working in the tobacco factories and the factories in Durham was the only way for them to improve their situation. They were both 16 and, you know, fell in love. Had my parents. My dad grew up in Durham. Both my parents graduated from Durham High School. My dad was the first in his family to get a high school diploma. He went on to start a small business that’s still in Durham. My parents divorced when I was very young. My dad remarried, but my mom was a single mom, in the 1970s. Life was really hard. Support for single moms in the 70s was not what it is now, and it’s still hard. Life was a bit unstable and right before high school, my mom and I moved to the northern part of the district on the border of Orange and Person counties. I went to high school in Person County and worked in tobacco fields. I learned so much going from Durham to Person. I gained so much from that community. Living in a rural community will change your mind about rural communities. I did not go to college when I graduate from high school. People didn’t talk about college then like they do now. I didn’t see that as a real avenue for me. I worked as a grocery store clerk and as a waitress, and then I entered the community college in Person County. That really changed the way I viewed myself. The instructors that I had at the community college were some of the first people in my life to say, “You could go further. You should go further.” I met my husband and we moved to Hillsborough where we raised our two girls.
When I was pregnant, I worked in my dad’s business, which installed low-voltage wiring. It did a lot of work in construction. That was also a really big learning experience and I learned a lot about the difficulties that small businesses face. When I was pregnant with my second daughter, we were living on one income. My husband said, “We’re already broke, so if you’re ever going to go back to school, now’s the time.” And so I applied to UNC-Chapel Hill. I was 30-years-old, had a four-year-old and a newborn and I headed back to college with all those 18 year olds. It was really an unusual and enlightening experience. But I met wonderful people at the university who did much the same for me that the community college did. They encouraged me to go further and gave me confidence in myself.
NOC: What led to your interest in science and extreme climate events?
AW: While I was at UNC, I worked with an organization on campus that did a Iot of community engagement in Warren County with local food movements. It was the first time I had been so engaged with a community. It was a great experience. I went on to get my Master’s degree and Ph.D, and I lectured at UNC for a few years. I got a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program, which mostly focused on extreme heat events in the Carolinas. I was later recruited to work at the Nicklaus Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
NOC: There is a need to bridge the gap between meeting the needs of urban areas and rural areas. How do you think having lived and worked in both gives you an advantage in understanding the needs of each?
AW: The truth is, rural communities simply do not feel their concerns are considered as important as the concerns of urban spaces. There tends to be a lot of attention placed on urban spaces, and for good reason. But the only way we bridge this gap is to do the work in both. Rural communities have to feel — as do urban communities — that they have a voice at the table. They have to feel like they can express their concerns. There are some concerns happening, particularly around climate change, that more directly impact our rural communities. Most people don’t know that North Carolina is, I think, still the second-most-rural state in the country, in terms of percentage of the population that lives in rural areas. A lot of our development, factories, manufacturing, take place in more rural areas because land is cheaper. Rural areas often have some of the highest rates of poverty, the least access to health care, the most exposure to, and risk from, extreme weather events. When I was in the meeting for the National Climate Assessment, we had to fight to get a chapter devoted to rural areas. It was a direct demand that they specifically think about the southeast and in particular rural areas in the southeast, and how they will be impacted by what’s happening. People in rural areas worry about childcare, so do people in urban areas. People in rural areas worry about economic stability, so to people in urban areas. We have more in common than we have not in common. But we have to find that common ground, and develop policies that do not happen at the expense of our communities.
NOC: Do you think distrust in science grows when it’s filtered through the government lens? If so, how would you address that?
AW: There are a lot of people who have not actually seen the evidence that government can be a positive force in their life. In fact, maybe they’ve seen the opposite. In my career I worked closely with people to bridge policy, science and communities. That’s the mission of the RISA program. That work changed my perspective. It was transformative for me to see people in communities throughout the Carolinas — with almost no support — struggle every step of the way, trying to navigate federal policy. This is how they see government. We need to develop new policies that actually address the problems that communities have. But you have to be able to implement policy in communities without exacting an enormous burden.. I find that public servants everywhere at each level want to do a good job. They want to be able to take what they’re asked to do, implement it, and see positive results. But if we get so wrapped up in the difficulty of the implementation stage, the impacts seem to get smaller and smaller. I think that’s a problem. There aren’t enough voices in the room when we’re writing the policy who’ve actually worked in the community implementing the policy. I think we need more of that at the federal level.
NOC: You talked about how local government can be effective in working with and meeting the needs of its community: What do you think this region’s local governments are doing right?
AW: We face a lot of big challenges right now and our local governments have had to make a lot of difficult decisions, especially around Covid. I served on the Covid task force for Orange County, so it was good they brought in local voices. There was a lot of criticism, but I think they’re doing a good job. And the evidence shows. It’s an incredibly difficult moment to be a public servant. I often think the hardest things that we have to do is to look at our friends and our community members and explain to them why we’re making policy choices that some don’t agree with. I’ve always felt the leadership in this community is approachable. I feel, even when I disagree about something, that at least I can talk to them about it. I do feel like leadership in our community tries to be true to their mission to public service.
NOC: If you are elected to Congress, how would you do things differently to make your constituents feel like they’re still being heard and that you’re still are open to what the issues are?
AW: I believe strongly in things like focus groups. There is nothing that replicates getting in front of people, talking to people, relating to people. It becomes so much harder to pass bad policy, vote for bad policy, or ignore the suffering of the people that you serve, if you have to look at them in the face at your next focus group. There’s a saying I believe is true: The closer you are to a problem, the closer you are to the solution. That is the approach. I strongly believe in what I said earlier about how half of this job, the more important part of this job, is constituent services. You cannot effectively serve a constituency if you do not know them.