REX NELSON: Two women who lead

Posted: October 21, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

In a recent column on the Sunday editorial page and in a story on the cover of the Sunday Pespective section of this newspaper, I outlined the things that are coming together that make me bullish on Pine Bluff for the first time in my lifetime. It's encouraging that the city's business community seems to be behind these efforts. Pine Bluff is a majority-black city in which the business leadership consists mostly of white males.

In a town where race relations have been strained for decades, what's most gratifying is the sight of these white businessmen working with black community leaders to achieve common goals. A trip to this historic Southeast Arkansas city allowed me to spend time with two black women who are making a difference, Annette Dove and Mayor Shirley Washington.

Dove burst onto the national scene in 2011 when Chelsea Clinton interviewed her for the NBC News program Rock Center.

Dove was back in the news last December when Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote a Sunday column that was headlined "Finding America's Mother Teresa."

"If this political season has you feeling down, meet Annette Dove," Kristof wrote. "She's a salve for our aches and wounds, for she represents the American grass roots' best. Dove, 60, is a black woman who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant and who has endured racism and domestic abuse. Drawing on her own experience overcoming difficulties, she now runs a widely admired program for troubled children. Funding the program in part with her own savings--even going into personal bankruptcy to keep it going--she transforms lives. Dove works seven days a week and struggles month to month to pay the bills with donations, foundation support and a state grant; when the money runs out, she prays. The poverty and disadvantage that Dove is fighting here in Pine Bluff, a poor, majority-black town of 50,000, are found all across America. But so, too, are people like Dove, battling for progress through churches, schools, Big Brother programs, advocacy efforts."

Donations came in after that national media exposure, but the money didn't change Dove. In fact, she was soon back to worrying about paying the bills at her youth center adjacent to Dollarway School District facilities. I'm with Tom Reilley, the New Hampshire investor who has adopted Pine Bluff and has created the Pine Bluff Rising organization. Reilley describes her as "the most powerful women I've ever met." On the bookshelf of her office is the word "faith" in large letters.

"I consider myself a servant," Dove says. "I had parents who spent their time helping others. When you're raised that way, it gets in your blood."

In 2000, Dove gave up her job, found an old house and began serving young people through an organization known as TOPPS, which stands for Targeting Our People's Priorities with Services. She later moved into a building at Townsend Park owned by the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department. The building is known as the Big Rec. She took over the facility in 2009 and signed a 50-year lease with the city in 2014 for her program that provides educational programs and food.

"The main thing for me is to provide these kids with a safe environment in the summer and after school during the school year," Dove says. "We were feeding 800 kids here this summer. We feed between 300 and 400 after school. I try to keep them off the street and teach them things like how to dress properly for a business environment and how to act during a job interview."

In late May and early June, Dove took 20 of her top students to London and Paris--the cities in Europe, not the small towns in Arkansas with those names. Many of the students were on an airplane for the first time. Dove says such trips allow teenagers from Pine Bluff a chance to experience different cultures and gain new perspectives.

Across town at the Pine Bluff Civic Center, which was designed in the early 1960s by famed architect Edward Durell Stone (whose projects included the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York), Washington hustles from meeting to meeting.

The mayor, who has lived in Pine Bluff for more than 35 years, has a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and a master's degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She was a classroom teacher for six years at Wabbaseka, an Upward Bound instructor for six years at UAPB, and then served for 16 years as a teacher and for another 16 years as an administrator for the Pine Bluff School District before retiring in 2010. In 2016, she defeated incumbent Mayor Debe Hollingsworth.

"I see people coming together as never before," Washington says. "We had a community cleanup on a recent Saturday and almost 400 people turned out. The fellowship was beautiful that day. People were actually looking forward to picking up trash. They know that Pine Bluff is a diamond in the rough. The next thing we're going to do is get more churches and civic organizations to adopt flower beds and plant trees around town. We have to get this city clean."

Washington says she has spent most of 2017 planning for the future. She views 2018 as a year when those plans turn into actual projects.

"This was the planning year," she says. "The year 2018 will be when we begin executing those plans. You don't change the culture of a city overnight, but I see people beginning to take pride in this place again."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 10/21/2017