Who should be the 2021 Tar Heel of the Year? Tell us who you’d pick.

·5 min read

After more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, a divisive political climate and a racial reckoning that’s still resonating, leaders have emerged.

They’ve amplified underrepresented voices. They’ve educated those who need critical information to save lives. And they’ve shown a way forward as we slowly emerge from a pandemic like no other.

That’s what we’ve seen this past year among those named The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, which recognizes people who have made lasting and significant contributions to the Triangle, region and beyond.

Now it’s time to honor The Tar Heel of the Year, and we want to know what you think.

Every year since 1997, The News & Observer has recognized North Carolinians who have made a difference in a major way. Honorees have come from all over North Carolina and from different sectors, including the arts, business, philanthropy, education and science.

Past winners include Triangle developer Gregg Warren (2019), former executive director of DHIC, who has been a champion of affordable housing, the Rev. William Barber (2018), the late N.C. State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow (2002) and Nobel Prize-winning cancer researchers Aziz Sancar and Paul Modrich (2015).

Last year, we recognized Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, for guiding the state through the pandemic.

Tell us about the newsmakers and trailblazers you meet every day. Tell us who they are and how their impact has been felt across the state. You may also cast your vote for one of the people we’ve already written about this year as Tar Heel of the Month. Those names are below.

We will announce the honoree in December.

Here’s how to nominate a Tar Heel of the Year:

Make your nomination at nando.com/tarheelnominate.

Be specific about why you’re nominating this person.

Nominees can come from any field and be any age.

Nominations are open to the public. Final selections will be made by N&O staff members.

Deadline for nominations is Sunday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m.

Tar Heel of the Month 2021

Zeynep Tufekci: The UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor uses her platform on social media and in the opinion sections of Scientific American, The Atlantic and The New York Times to inform the public with practical advice about what to do during the pandemic. Her guidance often contradicted or preceded what global and national health experts were saying at the time, but she often was right — becoming “perhaps the only good amateur epidemiologist,” according to The New York Times.

Jennifer King: The North Carolina native, high school and college athletic standout was named the assistant running backs coach for the NFL’s Washington Football Team in late January. She’s the first Black woman to be a full-time assistant coach in the National Football League.

Ariana DeBose: The Broadway and film star, who grew up in Raleigh and Wake Forest, played “The Bullet” in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton,” and was nominated for a Tony for her role in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” She plays Anita in the new Steven Spielberg-directed version of “West Side Story,” to be released in December. DeBose, a dancing-singing-acting triple threat, also advocates for diversity and inclusion issues.

Rissi Palmer: The singer-songwriter, who lives in Durham, has spent more than a decade making a career in country music — one of the few Black women to do so. Now she’s elevating the voices of new and old Black country artists by showcasing Black, Indigenous and Latinx artists through her Apple Music radio show “Color Me Country.”

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi: The family physician and professor at Duke University emerged during the pandemic as one of the most prominent voices in and for North Carolina’s Hispanic community. She formed Latin-19 with Duke pediatrician Dr. Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti in response to the coronavirus pandemic. She shares public health messages with Latino residents on the coronavirus as well as how people can get tested and vaccinated.

Bill Smith: The chef helped shape modern Southern cooking for 25 years as the chef of Chapel Hill’s iconic restaurant Crook’s Corner. But he’s also known for focusing a lifetime of civil rights activism on the causes of immigration and LGBTQ equality.

Katie Mack: Mack, an astrophysicist and assistant professor of physics at N.C. State University, has elevated the understanding of science to make it more accessible. In the past year, her book, “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking),” a detailed look at the physics behind the likeliest ways the universe will ultimately be destroyed, has been lauded for its ability to convey complex and abstract concepts in digestible nuggets.

Olympic medalists and NBA star P.J. Tucker: A slew of Olympic medalists with North Carolina ties, along with P.J. Tucker, who helped the Milwaukee Bucks win the 2021 NBA championship, demonstrated on an international stage how strength, perseverance and years of working toward a goal can finally pay off.

Barbara Lau: For the past 15 years, Lau has dedicated her life to championing the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray as executive director of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham. Lau played a role in developing Murray’s residence into what is now the Pauli Murray Center.

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