In May of 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a commencement speech at Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. At the podium before several hundred Black graduates, he implored them to “work passionately and unremittingly for first-class citizenship.”
After Dr. King’s visit, there were repercussions. The state legislature slashed funding for the school. Despite the setback, young Delta leaders continued to follow Dr. King’s appeal, successfully desegregating downtown Little Rock. Then, they moved the state headquarters of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee from the capital to Pine Bluff.
Stephanie Sims, director of the university’s museum, says that spirit of leadership and boldness still defines the school today.
“As Black Arkansans, there weren’t a lot of options for education in the Jim Crow South,” she says. “With the creation of UAPB, we finally got a ‘yes’ in a long series of ‘no’s.’ And we’ve produced such stellar leaders, from Dr. Samuel Kountz to Dorothy Hoover. At the museum, we are able to tell their stories – to inspire our current students and remind them that all you need is one yes.”
Today, this legacy is being carried on by the university’s next generation in the form of the Emerging Scholars and Leadership Academy (ESLA).
In its pilot year, ESLA will eventually help 100 UAPB students strengthen their capacity as future leaders of the Delta through academic support, mentorship and career opportunities.
Encouraging and supporting the next generation of diverse, home-grown leaders in the rural Arkansas-Mississippi Delta is a major priority for the Walton Family Foundation. Through support for ESLA, the foundation can support local leaders as they build and sustain a brighter future for their community.
The academy is the brainchild of current business marketing student and former foundation intern Zaria Moore.
A Little Rock native, Zaria spent her high school years carrying on the legacy of civil rights pioneers in her hometown through The Memory Project, an intergenerational oral history program for students and community members. “As young people, we are now the keepers of this history,” she says.
Zaria also carries another legacy, as the granddaughter of two UAPB graduates. “They were both here during the Vietnam War. My grandfather knew if he didn’t study hard, he would be drafted,” she says of his experience.
Her idea for the leadership academy initially sprung from another internship at the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce. Zaria says she was impressed by the training opportunities for local residents to become leaders in their community.
“I thought this kind of training could be good for everybody, especially students,” she says. “I graduated high school during COVID. This program fills in what so many of us missed out on – how to do internships, how to build a resume and more. Through the leadership academy, we’re making our own examples, and holding them to a higher standard.”
The program is run by Tim Campbell, a UAPB and Clinton School of Public Service graduate and Peace Corps member. He is among the ‘250 Most Influential Leaders in Arkansas,’ according to Arkansas Business.
Tim understands what an opportunity like this can mean for students and how the weight of history can propel students to be great.
“I grew up on Wolfe Street, three blocks from Central High School,” he says of his alma mater, home of the Little Rock Nine. Despite the violence in his own neighborhood, Tim says he was always determined to be a product of his decisions, not his environment. “I can remember hearing the band practice as a child, and my dad taking me to games. To be a Central High Tiger meant you were a part of something, a part of history, a part of greatness.”
With his 30 inaugural fellows, he’s developed a 10-week schedule this semester designed to become a one-stop-shop for student development. The leadership academy will support student retention, build financial literacy and career readiness and focus on “softer” skills like developing executive presence.
Student mentorship will also play a big role. A mentor herself, Zaria says that for her peers, “interacting with a fellow student can feel easier, more casual, and more honest about what support they really need.”
Tim says his biggest goal is “to create a pipeline of talent from and for the Delta, a full-circle educational commitment to create self-awareness, fine tune values and develop leaders who operate at a very high level.”
If a fellow is majoring in biology, the academy will work to eliminate their barriers to success, whether they need help applying to medical school, affording tutors or support with exams. The program is open to sophomores and above with a GPA of at least 2.0.
Of the launch, Zaria says the excitement on campus is palpable.
“People stop and talk to me about it all time,” she says. “It’s brand new. But beyond even the services the program offers, it’s also offering a sense of belonging that students have really been missing.”
Tim says it’s also a program that is built by and for his community. “I’ll put it this way: I grew up on Hooked on Phonics. It’s a great program, but it didn’t have roots in who I was or what I can relate to. My grandma was the one who taught me to read. Programs like the one we are building will only be sustainable and successful if they have a basis in the community. In the Delta, a lot of folks don’t know what’s possible because they haven’t had exposure. We are going to change that.”
Of his time living and learning in the Delta, Tim jokes that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Of her time living and learning in the Delta, Zaria says that “Here, you can make something out of nothing. You feel like someone is aways on your side, ready to help you grow.”
Through the leadership academy, Tim says the university is now offering a platform that’s been needed for years. “The Delta is special. The sense of community and home here is like no place I’ve ever been. Now, we get to show the world what leadership looks like.”