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Lead for North Carolina fellow talks rural brain drain, water infrastructure

A young white woman with brown hair and a white tank top smiles at the camera.
Courtesy of Talula Dechev
Talula Dechev started working for Columbus County last year as a Lead for North Carolina fellow.

For the past five years, Lead for North Carolina has been helping local governments hire more young people. WHQR sat down with Talula Dechev, a Lead for NC fellow based in Columbus County, to talk about her work in water infrastructure and rental inspections.

Nikolai Mather: Talula — thanks so much for joining us. So Lead for North Carolina fellows are like, young people with backgrounds in political science and government, and they get paired with municipalities and counties throughout NC. But how do y’all specifically help rural communities?

Talula Dechev: So what we're seeing today is a lot of the times, younger generations that are in rural communities, as soon as they have the opportunity, they move out to larger cities. Which is a trend we've seen throughout time, you know, kind of go where the opportunities are.

It not only creates an aging generation, but all those newer ideas and initiatives that younger minds have go out the door once they leave. So Lead for North Carolina is all about bringing those initiatives and those younger generations back into rural communities, because younger minds are so imperative and vital for communities.

NM: Absolutely. So you’re one of those fellows — you started working for Columbus County last year. What do you think of it?

TD: Columbus County, I think, has that community drive that I've never seen before in my life. Like, I was super nervous moving here as a vegan with [New] Jersey plates. You know, I stepped into the office, and it was literally like, I was welcomed with open arms. I work with the kindest, friendliest people. And even though we didn't come from the same upbringing, the same background, maybe some of our values are different, like when you're all working towards that common goal of just trying to make your community better… things just kind of sort of fall into place.

NM: Totally. I guess there was also probably a sense of culture shock, though, right?

TD: Almost in a sense of, like, amenities, I've noticed. I never had to think twice about drinking the water coming out of my tap. But you know, you see here, there's literally homes that don't have clean water running from their tap.

NM: Yes. And that's something you worked on — this plan to help 2,000 homes get better water quality. Tell us about that. 

TD: Yeah, so my role in this project was a bit more of behind the scenes research. After we got a quote on how much the project would be from Green Engineering, and after we applied for some grants, the project total was still at more than $30 million.

NM: $30 million?!

Yeah, for a rural community that is on the unit assistance list – which makes it harder for us to get loans and things like that – a huge price tag.

Luckily, in 2017, I believe, the General Assembly passed legislation which allows units of governments to charge a one-time system development fee. I won't get too much into that. It's just like a one-time fee, users can pay. And then when they're hooking onto county water, that money then goes to water infrastructure.

NM: And that got them clean water. It's funny — you'd think these solutions would be super exciting and dramatic, but it seems like it's a lot of like, legal research and talking to experts and — not necessarily boring stuff, but not fancy stuff. 

TD: Yes, exactly. I was working on mobile home park inspections, which, at first doesn't sound too fancy. But it was really meaningful to me because I got to advocate for tenants' rights, be it there was missing skirting under the mobile home or abandoned units or accumulation of trash from the owners of these mobile home parks.

I think it's so important to kind of advocate on that behalf of tenants. And kind of almost put owners in check a little bit to make sure that they're doing things correctly.

NM: Absolutely. Well, Talula, any words of wisdom for young folks interested in rural government?

TD: I say, go out and do it. The government wants and needs your talent and help, especially younger generations. Come back to your hometown, stick around for a couple years, help out. Give back to the community that helped raise you.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.