WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — A local organization is using research to empower people to make changes in their communities.

Action 4 Equity started as boots-on-the-ground activism. In 2018, a group of parents and members of the Forsyth County community got together to demand better conditions for students at Ashley Academy in Winston-Salem. At the time, the school was experiencing mold and air quality issues.

Since then, Action 4 Equity has established itself as a full-on coalition made up of community members who all want to see a change in their neighborhood schools.

“Action 4 Equity’s mission is to drive education equity in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and really prioritize the lives of black and brown children,” said Dr. Crystal Ellis, VP of research and strategy. “An organization like ours is needed because of the systemic disadvantage facing our children and our families in our communities.”

According to the Center for American Progress, schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students. A4E is using statistics like this, and stories from people in the community to empower people to lobby local and federal lawmakers to change policies.

Addressing disadvantages in communities of color was especially important for Sharlee Hainsworth who is a Winston-Salem resident and mother.

“I came into this work because I am a mom and I care about making impactful changes through policy so that my kids can live in a better world,” Hainesworth said.

Hainesworth is now a lead researcher for Action 4 Equity. She spends her time gathering data on inequities in her community while centering the people directly affected by that data.

“You could read a research report and get all the numbers about something, but you don’t get to hear the stories and the lived experiences of the people who are most impacted by that,” Hainesworth said.

This bigger movement may have started with Ashley Academy, but it hasn’t ended there. A4E continues its push toward a more equitable Forsyth County by leading community research projects, advocating for disadvantaged black and brown youth, and partnering with local nonprofits. There are now several smaller organizations and initiatives under the A4E umbrella, including the Forsyth Promise.

“Equity itself is very important. Unless we take care of everyone in our society, everyone suffers. So if we are looking at the conditions for the people who are facing the worst of conditions in our society and we address those conditions, then by default everyone benefits from that.” Hainesworth said.

The process of building a new Ashley Academy continues. According to a WSFC schools spokesperson, in November of 2022, the Board of Education approved roughly $350,000 for the purchase of land for the new Ashley Academy. In June 2022, the board approved funding to begin the design of the new building. The design is expected to be completed later this year or early next year. What has not been determined is funding for the construction of the school.  

The spokesperson goes on to say state Senator Paul Lowe has asked for state funds in the current state budget process to assist the district in construction, but to date, a state budget has not been approved. The district is also considering if the project could be part of a new bond referendum.  If a referendum were approved to happen, and if the project was included, then it would be placed in front of voters. That could be in late 2024 or 2025.