'He is an activist'

D’Ander Jones works for diversity in region

Posted: April 19, 2018 at 5 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE D'Andre Jones is pictured at the launch of the "Barbershop Books" project, which collects children's books through area barbershops. Jones and the Democratic Black Caucus kicked off the program in July.

Fayetteville activist D'Andre Jones has a habit of seeing a need and stepping in to see if he can solve it.

Take, for example, his impulse to run for city council in Joiner, Ark., when he was in his 20s.

Barack Obama Salute to Diversity and Inclusion in Education Banquet

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hilton Garden Inn in Fayetteville, 1325 N. Palak Drive

Cost: $35

Tickets: eventbrite.com

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"Growing up, I saw that the need was monumental there," he said. "There was definitely a need for African-American representation, for people of color to secure better jobs, a need for more educational outlets -- the same needs we have today were prevalent in my community."

But instead of finding these seemingly insurmountable issues overwhelming, Jones recognized he was in a unique position to help.

"There was a need for a younger perspective on the city council," he said. "Most of the people who were serving were well over 40. I don't think they realized that there was an age gap. I was able to identify the needs of the younger generation, the younger citizens, and was able to bridge the gap. And that was one of the reasons I ran as a young person of color: I understood the need, and I wanted to be resourceful."

Jones served on the Joiner City Council for two terms and later stretched his political muscles to serve as staff assistant to former U.S. Rep. Marion Berry of Stuttgart. But when Jones relocated to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas, he thought he had put his political activism behind him.

"My goal was to complete my degree, get a job and live my life," he said with a chuckle. "I had no idea I would become an activist, times 10."

The more he looked around, Jones said, the more he realized Fayetteville was fertile ground for new initiatives and policies that would encourage inclusion and the celebration of diversity -- two causes close to Jones' heart.

"I realized early on that all of our solutions lie in policy change -- and if that's going to be change that's relevant for people of color, then there must be someone at the table who is able to articulate the policy that will help move black and brown people forward."

With that motivation, Jones' involvement in political and social causes in Northwest Arkansas blossomed. His first big success was in helping form the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus, an auxiliary of the Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus.

"That was born out of a need for a political presence in Northwest Arkansas for African-Americans," Jones said. "We've had more people of color run for office than ever before since it formed. That's because of the work the caucus has done as it relates to awareness and having a voice at the table."

One example of the kind of change the caucus has been instrumental in affecting is the 2017 launch of an area branch of the "Barbershop Books" initiative, a program that seeks to make reading more accessible to young people of color by hosting community donations of children's books at local barbershops.

In 2015, Jones noticed a lack of cohesive city planning organized around Black History Month. Seeking a way to promote the celebration across the community, he partnered with the nonprofit group Compassion Fayetteville to try and push this initiative. In 2018, Compassion Fayetteville publicized 14 events occurring throughout the area in February.

"It has grown and will continue to grow," Jones said of their efforts.

Compassion Fayetteville member Pattie Williams says Jones has been responsible for increasing minority participation in the coordination of Black History month events. "When we started out, he was the only person of color on the team," she said. "But he has been a magnet. Out of a team of 13 or 14 people, it is now 80 to 85 percent [people of color].

"To me, he stands as an example of somebody who is going to come out, show up, be willing to take criticism and just keep on going."

Jones was also instrumental in bringing an affiliate office of the National Urban League to Northwest Arkansas.

"Generally speaking, D'Andre is going to be supportive of any organization whose purpose centers on bringing people together and providing opportunities for justice and equality for all people, regardless of their race," said Myra McKenzie-Harris, a member of the local Urban League board. "The Urban League mission is to change lives and empower communities, so that mission is going to resonate with D'Andre."

The successes Jones has achieved thus far have done nothing to slow him down. In April, he's part of three events that will help honor the past, present and future of the civil rights movement.

Jones joined with the Northwest Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Council to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the civil rights leader, who was assassinated April 4, 1968. And on April 21, the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus will hold its sixth annual Barack Obama Salute to Diversity and Inclusion in Education Banquet, an event Jones helped start.

"Six years ago, I met with the members of the caucus, and I noticed that there was a lot of interest in celebrating educators, particularly educators who were dedicated to inclusion and diversity," Jones said.

This year, that group includes Parice Bowser (UA director of Greek Life), Melody Morris (assistant principal, Elmwood Middle School, Rogers), Rodger Hunter (UA student athlete development coordinator), Angie Maxwell (associate professor, UA's J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences) and Mojha Kahf (professor, UA's J. William Fulbright college of Arts and Sciences). Lifetime achievement honorees include Arkansas State Sen. Uvalde Lindsey and Fayetteville High School's Betty Smith. In addition to recognizing educators, the caucus also awards scholarship money to deserving students. This year, for the first time, those students will be high school seniors hoping to continue their post-secondary studies.

"We're going to be looking at the more nontraditional high school students, the kids who might not have the highest [grade-point average]," Jones said. "Let's say there's a child who grew up in an atmosphere where education wasn't a top priority. Maybe there's a single mom, who has to work all of the time. It might be difficult for that student to have a high G.P.A., but if these students want to go college, we want to be a financial resource for them. We think of Obama's perspective on equity in education: We know that providing kids with a quality education is a great equalizer. We know that if we help provide them with an education, their lives change -- socially, economically, all of it. We want to help those students who might not otherwise be considered for financial support."

As far as the future of the civil rights movement in Northwest Arkansas, Jones and Compassion Fayetteville hope to take a big step forward when they form the first local Black Lives Matter group in Northwest Arkansas. The official date is yet to be determined, but it should be sometime in July. Jones said one of the national Black Lives Matter founders, Patrisse Cullors, will be in attendance.

"We had an event in August of 2017 called 'Black Lives Matter: The Truth Behind the Movement'," Jones explained. "We had between 500 and 600 people show up, and we generated a lot of feedback. The mayor attended; the police chief attended. Everyone was on the same page. We really appreciated that. We want to continue informing the public of the real meaning of the group and what we hope to do in Fayetteville."

Jones was also recently appointed to the Fayetteville Civil Service Commission, where he will help review appointments and promotions within the police and fire departments.

"He's going to play a special role in helping to ensure fairness, equality and opportunity to the police and fire department applicant pool," noted McKenzie-Harris.

"If we want to be a community of inclusion, we have to make sure that all Americans from all walks of life are included and appreciated," Jones said. "It's like getting invited to the party and being allowed to dance in any way, shape or fashion that you want to -- and being appreciated for that dance and that style. When I think about diversity and inclusion, I definitely think of it in those terms, and I think that's what makes a community great -- having all of these perspectives to create a more vibrant community."

"He is one who puts himself out there," summed up McKenzie-Harris. "There are those who talk about change and advocate passively for change -- he is a doer. He is an activist."

NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE D'Andre Jones (right) of the Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus speaks April 7 during the Living Wage Campaign...

NAN Our Town on 04/19/2018