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Championing Community-Led Solutions for Inclusive Growth in Northwest Arkansas

April 15, 2021
New five-year strategy supports equitable access to opportunity for all residents

What makes a community thrive? We know the ingredients include high-quality schools, economic and cultural vibrancy, a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, and housing that is affordable and accessible through diverse mobility options.

All of those elements are essential to ensure a thriving future for Northwest Arkansas.

The region’s quality of life has already helped make it one of the fastest-growing Heartland communities in the country. But we know that not everyone has equitable access to the opportunities the region provides – and we know that needs to change.

At the Walton Family Foundation, our goal is to help Northwest Arkansas become one of the most inclusive places to live in the country. We believe inclusive growth means everyone who calls Northwest Arkansas home benefits from the region’s successes and can fully participate in all the area has to offer. That includes addressing issues like housing and mobility and increasing efforts to ensure all students are prepared for college and quality jobs.

Inclusive Growth and a Vibrant Economy
Northwest Arkansas has earned a deserved reputation as one of the best places to live in the country. But not everyone can benefit from all Northwest Arkansas has to offer. A commitment to ensuring growth, and the opportunities it offers, is inclusive, will help the region through a recovery period and build a vibrant economy.

The foundation’s five-year strategy has three shared goals that unify our work. We will:

  • Champion community-driven change to reflect the voices and needs of the communities we support.
  • Prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion in our grantmaking and the voices we engage.
  • Collaborate with partners to develop innovative approaches that bring people, resources and ideas together.

We also plan to listen and learn. Earlier this year, as we launched the next phase of our work in Northwest Arkansas, we invited community leaders to share their vision for inclusive growth and a vibrant economy – and talk about the barriers still in the way.

Melisa Laelan, executive director for the Arkansas Coalition of the Marshallese, told us that the first step is to better acknowledge and embrace the “different cultures in different communities” throughout the region. Northwest Arkansas is home to the largest population of Marshallese in the continental U.S. – about 15,000 – mostly living in Springdale.

Laelan noted that many Marshallese struggle to meet their housing needs and face food insecurity.

“They have to either choose to pay rent or put food on the table,” she said.

To address those economic, social and cultural barriers, Laelan cited the need for strong collaboration between the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

“The intersectionality among these different sectors … is just so important in terms of raising awareness and ensuring that the underserved communities, marginalized communities are at the table” when policy decisions are made, she said.

The region needs to be more focused on providing “equitable opportunities for communities that are underserved.”

Without a community that truly welcomes all people, and not just in a token way, but really giving everyone a seat at the table, these productive, creative collisions don't happen.
Allyson Esposito, Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange

Allyson Esposito, executive director of the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange (CACHE), says inclusivity in the region’s vibrant arts and culture sector requires welcoming participation by people from all communities and backgrounds.

“By its nature, the creative economy is inclusive because it thrives on innovative ideas, new combinations of sectors. It’s the fundamental principle that the most useful, most productive and most creative ideas are always central no matter where they come from,” Esposito said.

“Frankly, these ideas often come from the margins of a community … Without a community that truly welcomes all people, and not just in a token way, but really giving everyone a seat at the table, these productive, creative collisions don't happen.”

She describes Northwest Arkansas as “a treasure trove of creativity” that stems from the diversity of its population.

“We have the opportunity to coordinate and connect and equitably resource the full range of our inspiring creative economy.”

Rafael Rios, farmer, founder and executive chef at Yeyo's Mexican restaurant in Bentonville, cited the importance of mentors and access to capital in creating an inclusive business environment in Northwest Arkansas. Rios launched one of the region’s first food trucks in 2006 and succeeded in part because of support from community leaders and access to venues like the Bentonville Farmer’s Market.

“Quite honestly, being included into the Bentonville Farmer's Market as the first nonwhite farmer to ever be there was groundbreaking,” Rios said of his family’s experience.

There is enormous talent within immigrant communities, Rios said, and it’s incumbent on community leaders to find out “what this talent really needs and wants and how they feel so that we can empower them and give them the tools they need.”

As we have become more diverse … you've seen our prosperity grow. I don't think that's by accident.
Barry Moehring, Benton County Judge

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring says the region’s prosperity has grown as it has become more diverse.

To be truly inclusive, government and communities must lead the work to ensure that public services are more easily accessible, that public spaces are welcoming to all and that people have access to more affordable housing options and multiple modes of transportation.

Judge Moehring noted that Bentonville’s next iteration of parks will include cricket fields – reflecting a desire to serve the city’s ethnically and culturally diverse populations. It also reflects a recognition that inclusivity drives growth.

“As we have become more diverse … you've seen our prosperity grow,” he said. “I don't think that's by accident.”

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