Walton-backed, $2.5M program aims for inclusion in diversifying region

The Walmart and Walton Family foundations are kicking in millions of dollars for the push to make Northwest Arkansas a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds.

The foundations this week are starting a $2.5 million, three-year project called TRUE Northwest Arkansas that includes training and support for nonprofit groups and a public survey and study into the region's inclusiveness.

Web watch

The Walmart and Walton Family foundations have launched a three-year program aimed at the inclusion of Northwest Arkansas’s increasingly diverse population. It includes a survey for the general public that asks for opinions on how welcoming the area is, the value of diversity and immigration on local schools, law enforcement, transportation and housing.

The survey and more information can be found at truenwarkansas.org.

TRUE Arkansas Advisory Council

• Terry L. Bankston, Bankston Consulting

• Kathryn Birkhead, Birkhead Consulting

• John L Colbert, superintendent at Fayetteville Public Schools

• Kim Davis, senior education program officer at Walton Family Foundation

• Abdellah Essalki, imam at Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas

• Mike Gilbert, chief operating officer for The Jones Trust

• Emily Hackerson, program consultant for Tyson Foods Upward Academy

• Phyllis Harris, senior vice president and general counsel at Walmart

• Ronnie Hoyt, deacon at St. Vincent DePaul Catholic Church

• Debbie Jones, superintendent at Bentonville Public Schools

• Monica Kumar, Kinship

• Melisa Laelan, founder of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese

• Yvette Murphy-Erby, vice provost at the University of Arkansas

• Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council

• Eric Pianalto, president Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas

• Anne Shelley, executive director at NWA Center for Sexual Assault

• Janie Simms Hipp, law professor and director of Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas

• Mark Snodgrass, lead pastor at Bentonville Community Church

• Margarita Solorzano, executive director at Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas

• Lisa Stuart, Transgender Equality Network

Source: Walton Family Foundation and Walmart Foundation

TRUE shares the goals of another regional initiative called EngageNWA, a Walmart Foundation-funded, Northwest Arkansas Council-affiliated initiative that released its four-year plan last month. Officials at each have said the area is becoming more diverse and needs an extra push to ensure everyone in the mix can find success at home and work, interact with local government and otherwise join the region's social fabric.

"Our family experienced firsthand the opportunities available in our region, and we want to make sure that is possible for others as well," Steuart Walton, a grandson of Walmart's founder, Sam Walton, and a member of the company's board, wrote in a statement on the project. "A friendly, welcoming and inclusive environment is vital to our region's quality of life and our thriving economy with its diverse workforce."

The name TRUE is an acronym for train, report, uplift and engage, each referring to a different aspect of the overall program.

The training, for example, would help nonprofits and other organizations learn and brainstorm ways to do their work with diversity and inclusion in mind. Uplift refers to helping service providers geared toward minority communities, such as advising them on making long-term plans or finding more monetary support.

Those providers are often small, grassroots organizations with relatively few resources, said Liz Alsina, senior program officer for the Walton foundation.

"You're doing incredible work; we want you to do more of it," she said in an interview Thursday.

The $2.5 million includes a grant to the Arkansas Community Foundation to oversee the project and create training curriculum as well as separate grants that will be awarded to participating groups to help them follow up on their training and ideas with action, said Erin Hogue, a senior program officer for the Walmart Foundation.

"Our hope is those organizations will start to think of what makes sense for them," she said.

A 20-member advisory council will oversee the entire effort and includes officials with the University of Arkansas, Protestant and Catholic churches, the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, Fayetteville Public Schools, Tyson Foods and the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas.

Though discussions about diversity center on ethnic and racial minorities, everyone benefits from helping those communities fully join the fold, said Yvette Murphy-Erby, a council member who is vice-provost for diversity and inclusion and a social work professor at the university. Students, to give one example, learn better when they're more diverse and can hear from people with other backgrounds and life experience.

"It's about creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for every single person," Murphy-Erby said Friday. "If we are going to remain competitive as a university, as a region, as corporations and even as a state, these are areas we need to excel in."

Growing diversity has propelled Northwest Arkansas' speedy population growth in recent years, according to the census and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. More than 80,000 Hispanic people and more than 10,000 Marshall Islanders call the region home, along with thousands more members of minority groups.

But the success and community engagement of minority groups has been bumpy because of history, discrimination, language barriers and other factors, advocates and researchers have said. Marshall Islanders, for instance, are among the region's poorest residents and suffer from diabetes, cancer and other ailments that can be traced back to dozens of American nuclear weapons tests on their islands in the Pacific Ocean.

School boards and teacher rosters are nearly all-white, even in school districts that are majority-minority, as are city councils. The black population is small and has grown slowly, in contrast with much of the rest of the state.

"We really want to make a meaningful difference in communities that have traditionally been under-supported," Murphy-Erby said.

EngageNWA's plan sets out 100 specific goals, including civics academies for newcomers, help for people of various backgrounds to become entrepreneurs and producing documents and services in more than one language. Tyson announced more than $260,000 in grants to support the plan.

Hogue at the Walmart Foundation said TRUE should help make even more of the EngageNWA plan happen. Margot Lemaster, EngageNWA's director, said they've worked together closely.

"It just shows how important it is and how seriously our region is taking inclusion," Lemaster said of the new program.

Murphy-Erby said now seems like a special time, with growing interest in every social group's success.

"The synergy is something I've never seen before," she said.

NW News on 08/19/2018