Five Questions on Leadership, Health, and Equity with Columbus County’s Randolph Keaton

We spoke to community leaders in and around our Healthy Places NC counties to gather their thoughts on leadership development, capacity building, and the role of equity in their work during this critical time in our state and country.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work. 

I was born and raised here in Columbus County. After college I joined the Air Force before eventually coming back home. I began working in the human services field where I stayed for about 20 years. In 2008, I was presented with the opportunity to start working with a small nonprofit organization in Columbus County. I currently serve as a Councilman for the town of Sandyfield, NC, and executive director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families.

Why is it important to invest in community leaders?

I think it’s important because I’m an example of what happens when people invest in you. The potential for leadership isn’t always obvious  Growing up, you might not know you’re a leader, but after awhile you can look back at your life and think about the things that led to where you are. Community leaders are a key piece of the puzzle in driving change and having a positive impact on the lives of people in our community. It creates a cycle through which current leaders can help coach and mentor future leaders as well.

How have past and current health improvement efforts in your community affected your ability to respond to current crises?

We’re a community hub, and that means our space was created with the community top of mind. Through this work, I’ve learned a lot about people and what it means to serve the community. You have to work with them and alongside them if you want to get them to a better place, which is why we believe in a case-management model and always looking at the whole person. When the pandemic struck, we were prepared because we know our people and we know who we can partner with to get things done. It’s easy to respond to a crisis when the folks already recognize your work in the community.

How does your work give power to voices that have not traditionally had power?

It’s important that there is a network of people investing in community groups where the most need is. Supporting nonprofit organizations, specifically led by people of color, is crucial to giving these communities the power needed to drive change and creating independence. If we’re going to make an impact in the community, we need to provide the tools to do the work and then reinforce autonomy.

How has equity played a role in your work and contributed to the success in your community?

We believe that inequities are interconnected in underserved communities. This belief has helped shape the approach we take to supporting the youth and families in our community. Equity is more than just a conversation; it has to be in the work too. It can’t be an afterthought either; you have to be intentional about it and recognize what it looks like. Relationships and partnerships are more genuine when we start at that place of understanding. I’m in more spaces now where the conversation is around equity or inclusion, and that certainly wasn’t the case five or six years ago.