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SPRINGDALE -- Northwest Arkansas' increasingly mixed and diverse community helps its economy stay strong and its quality of life high, a panel of experts from Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and the University of Arkansas said Tuesday.

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a regional nonprofit group of public and corporate leaders, hosted the panel and focused its regular meeting on the growing share of the area's population that's Hispanic, Asian or part of other minority groups. The council reported ethnic and racial minorities in this corner of the state have gone from 4 percent of the population in 1990 to 27 percent now.

At a glance

Northwest Arkansas’ population has become more diverse over the years and is projected to become even more so, according to the Northwest Arkansas Council.

Year;1990;2017;2022 (projected)

Percentage white, non-Hispanic;96 percent;73 percent;69 percent

Percentage Hispanic;1 percent;16 percent;18 percent

Percentage Asian;1 percent;3 percent;4 percent

Other minorities;2 percent;7 percent;9 percent

Source: Northwest Arkansas Council

"Really our goal is that everyone who chooses to live here has the opportunity to live to their full potential," Nelson Peacock, president and CEO for the group, told more than 100 council members, mayors and other guests. "We'll need to embrace this change and do everything we can to integrate newcomers."

The word diversity encompasses all kinds of human variety, including different birthplaces, genders and other social identities, said Yvette Murphy-Erby, vice provost of diversity affairs and School of Social Work director at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Being open to every background is essential to the university's educational and societal mission as a land-grant institution, Murphy-Erby said.

Ben Hasan, senior vice president and chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer at Wal-Mart, added diversity includes white men, too. Finding and taking in the best people no matter where they come from encourages innovation and benefits everyone, Hasan said. But that works only if everyone feels welcome and safe doing the job. Isolation in the workplace or daily life can affect someone's mind in much the same way as physical pain, he said.

"People who feel included actually perform better work," he said. "If we get inclusion right, it is a lever for us to run a better business."

Salutes to the benefits of diversity are nothing new, but inclusion and its backlash are still major factors in some of today's most consequential events.

President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and other Republicans have pushed to limit immigration both legal and illegal, claiming doing so helps American workers. The Associated Press and other outlets this month reported Trump derided Haiti and African countries and said the United States should strive for more immigrants from Norway, which is mostly white.

Trump and his allies have disputed the wording and spirit of Trump's comments, and Trump on Tuesday told reporters he wants immigrants "to come in from everywhere."

The country on Monday celebrated the black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. almost 50 years after he was fatally shot in Tennessee. His convicted killer hated black people and supported George Wallace, who ran for president urging the country's people to be segregated by race, according to The New York Times and other outlets.

Protesters in recent years have said they carry King's flag when demonstrating against police shootings and bias against black people.

Revelations of sexual assault and harassment by several prominent men, meanwhile, have also prompted a national examination of sexism and the balance of power between men and women at work and beyond.

Panelist Mary Oleksiuk works as executive vice president and chief human relations officer at Tyson, which has a workforce heavily Hispanic and Marshallese. She said an early experience in her career as a scientist with all-male co-workers solidified her stance supporting the inclusion of women and others in the workforce.

"The first time I was pregnant, I got a condolence letter from my teammates saying 'bummer for you,'" she said, getting laughs from the group. "It is a journey. As soon as we take a step, there are six steps to take ahead of us."

Hasan said any push to nurture diversity and inclusion must confront thorny issues such as these. Wal-Mart held staff meetings after some of those police shootings and has trained its human relations staff and other employees to counteract their unconscious bias against some groups of people, for example.

"We like to say if you're not feeling a little uncomfortable, then you're not doing the work," he said. "People can't check how they feel about these things at the door."

Advocates have pointed out Northwest Arkansas is lacking in some ways in terms of inclusion; Springdale, which has a majority-minority school district, has an all-white school board, for instance. But Peacock and others Tuesday said the region has taken several steps to help new arrivals of all kinds. The council has started several initiatives aimed at helping recruiters draw talent from around the country and world and helping those people join the broader community.

Schools at all levels have brought on multilingual staff members and launched projects to help immigrant families make the most of the area's education system as well. Murphy-Erby and the School of Social Work are part of a recently started program that's meant to help Marshallese families save for college and become more financially literate.

"We're a gem," Murphy-Erby said of Northwest Arkansas, crediting the region for deliberately making itself more welcoming. "You don't see that a lot in other areas."

NW News on 01/17/2018

Print Headline: Northwest Arkansas leaders tout diversity

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