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Ryan Watley. Go Forward Pine Bluff 3

Building a Generation of Prosperity in the Delta

February 23, 2022
In Jefferson County, Arkansas, Go Forward Pine Bluff is charting a path to greater opportunity.

All residents in the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta deserve equitable opportunities to learn, achieve financial security and become leaders in their communities.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to working with local communities and organizations imagining a brighter future for the Delta – and putting that vision for change into action.

For the Delta to reach its full potential, the region needs higher-quality schools and educational programs, more workforce training and economic opportunity and strong partnerships among organizations already working to build a flourishing region.

In Arkansas’ Jefferson County, Go Forward Pine Bluff believes their city is a place of possibility, where everyone can thrive.

I spoke with executive director Ryan Watley to talk more about how his organization is mobilizing community leaders across local government, business and education to build a new generation of prosperity for his hometown.

Ryan Watley. Go Forward Pine Bluff 1
Ryan Watley is executive director of Go Forward Pine Bluff in Jefferson County, Arkansas.

What are you working to achieve here in Pine Bluff?

I see our community at a tipping point. Pine Bluff has a generation of people who grew up here and left, but would be interested in returning if the performance of the schools improved, entertainment returned and businesses started to locate here again.

Our community is already improving in many ways. We have a new library, a new aquatic center and an innovation hub that is helping train up our residents in the jobs of the future. Here in the Delta, we appreciate what we have, not what we’ve lost. And the opportunity is ours alone to define ourselves moving forward.

I love the opportunities I had growing up here. This community helped shape me, and now, I could not be more proud to be a part of creating these opportunities for others. Change is inevitable, but what remains is a chain of community leaders who care about what happens next.

Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Drone photo
Go Forward Pine Bluff is working to spur economic development and improve education opportunities in the Jefferson County, Arkansas city. "I love the opportunities I had growing up here. This community helped shape me," Ryan Watley says of his hometown.

What are some of the specific challenges Jefferson County is facing right now?

To start, too many of our K-12 teachers are uncertified. No one goes to an eye doctor who isn’t licensed – and it’s just as important to send your child to a school with qualified, well-trained teachers.

Through our TEACH Pine Bluff program, we’ve partnered with institutions of higher education to recruit and retain quality teachers for our school districts. We need to make sure our schools possess a culture and climate that teachers want to be a part of, and that starts at the top, with leadership.

Ryan Watley. Go Forward Pine Bluff 4

We also need to make sure that once these students enter the workforce, they have the skills required to be successful in a modern economy.

Right now, we are faced with a community that needs more digital and specialized skills. It’s why we are running digital training programs through our innovation hub – The Generator – for middle and high school students.

Through the Generator, we also run a beginning entrepreneurship class and a maker space open to anyone in our community who wants to build their skills.

It’s all here if we can work together to make it happen.

The Generator also supports our community as they work to build generational wealth. We have classes that meet individuals where they are, with one-on-one consultations to push them towards their goals. This support is vital, because we are dealing with a population that doesn’t have generational wealth and they don’t have the collateral for business space.

Ryan Watley. Go Forward Pine Bluff 6

You operate under the mantra #OnePineBluff. What does that mean?

It’s a hashtag that originated with our Mayor and it guides our work. It means that we are trying to bring as many partners together as possible, all pulling on the same agenda at the same time.

Our challenges are well documented. In some areas we’ve done really well, but in others, we aren’t moving the needle like we need to.

Go Forward Pine Bluff. Aquatic Center
The new aquatic center in Pine Bluff, Arkansas is one of several facilities Go Forward Pine Bluff has helped develop in the city.

If we get the support we need, I know Pine Bluff can be a community where your children can be educated, where you have the skills to be competitive in the global economy, where you have the support you need to start a business, and where you have a good home to rest your head. It’s all here if we can work together to make it happen.

Ryan Watley. Go Forward Pine Bluff 2
Ryan Watley meets with Leigh Cockburn, the office manager at Go Forward Pine Bluff.

Why is it so important that change in the Delta be led by local organizations?

Not only do we have the pulse of what’s going on, we are accountable to are neighbors and the people who believe in us.

We have charted out a plan. We know what our community needs to be successful. And we are the boots on the ground implementing that plan.

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