Connecting Indigenous storytelling to build bridges in Charlotte

A story’s ability to bring people together is boundless. Ramona Moore Big Eagle knows this because storytelling is in her blood. Based in the newly Certified Welcoming city of Charlotte, North Carolina, Ramona is an educator, legend keeper, enrolled member of the Tuscarora nation, and recently, a gardener.

Through her work with the Universal Institute for Successful Aging of the Carolinas, a Welcoming Network member, Ramona’s project received a grant through Welcoming America’s Fund to Foster Belonging. Through the initiative, six organizations in North Carolina and Georgia received grants for programs that are focused on cultivating belonging among and between immigrant and non-immigrant communities.

Ramona’s project, Universal Sacred Harvest, brings the local non-immigrant community members together alongside the East Charlotte immigrant and refugee community around agriculture, nutrition, and most importantly conversation.

Since this past August, Ramona has been hosting weekly workshops at Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte, a community hub for immigrants and refugees. Using aeroponic growing techniques in a dedicated space, participants come together weekly to seed, water, attend, harvest, and share their stories as a way to bring a broad range of community members together, including non-immigrants.

Ramona’s personal experience has driven her life’s work to educate and bring people together through stories.

“As a person of the First Nations I’ve experienced othering all my life,” Ramona says.

When asked about her desire to work with immigrants and refugees, Ramona spoke of her own family’s migration story. Ramona's father was Cherokee and forced from his homeland of western North Carolina due to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcing Ramona's paternal ancestors south to the Charlotte area.

In addition to her formal teaching experience at the university and elementary levels, Ramona has taught Indigenous culture through stories, dance, and the arts for nearly 40 years. This deep experience makes it simple for Ramona to express why this project is so important: “When you bring people together over food and stories it’s an automatic winner; you are going to make people feel welcome and when people share their stories you find out that they are just like you.”

The Charlotte metro area has seen tremendous population growth, nearly doubling in size over the past decade. That population growth includes a diverse group of immigrants and refugees. Since the 1990s, 18,000 refugees have settled in the city and according to the 2020 Census 17.2% of Charlotte’s residents were born in another country. Changing demographics can sometimes cause tension in a community for longtime residents. Programs like the Universal Sacred Harvest are essential to fostering belonging and building relationships with community members across differences.

When asked about why it’s important to welcome immigrants and refugees Ramona says, “If you're new to a country, new to a town, new to a neighborhood and everyone has been in that place, you’ve always got these questions: Will people like me? Will I fit in? So it’s important that people are purposefully and intentionally made to feel welcome. Everyone that comes to this country should have that feeling.”