When Keaton Smith thinks about the future of Northwest Arkansas, he envisions a community where every resident has a voice in shaping how the region grows.
“I know from first-hand experience just how powerful community-led change can be,” says Keaton, board chair at Partners for Better Housing, which works to create affordable, sustainable neighborhoods that bring diverse groups of people together.
“Not only does it instill in individuals a greater sense of agency over the type of future they want to build, but it also creates more successful, lasting solutions for the greatest challenges of our day.”
As a relative newcomer to the region, I am in awe of the people – like Keaton – who put their heart and soul into building a vibrant, inclusive place where all can access opportunity.
What does that look like? At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to helping create opportunity and enhance quality of life for all in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta Region of Arkansas and Mississippi. The foundation supports community-led change that addresses the unique needs of each place, whether that is inclusion and vibrancy or equitable opportunities to learn and build financial prosperity.
From the moment I joined the foundation as director of our Home Region program, I have seen that the vision of building a diverse, thriving region isn’t just aspirational. It’s happening city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood.
As a foundation, we can help but you make the difference.
I’m grateful for change makers in the Delta like Sanford Johnson, the Mississippi director of Teach Plus. He says the work to overcome generations of inequity in Delta must be driven by communities, with support from partners investing in the potential of the region’s people.
“If you plant a seed in the Delta, it will grow, but you can’t throw seeds in the ground and walk away. You need to cultivate the soil, water those seeds and support the plant if necessary.”
I’m grateful for Northwest Arkansas education leaders like Dr. Debbie Jones, superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools, who strives to make her school district “a place where everyone belongs” and every student can find their purpose and pursue their goals.
“It starts with the basic belief that no one should cross our (graduation) stage and leave without being prepared to follow their dreams,” she says.
Because we live in a changing world where tomorrow’s jobs require today’s workers to learn new skills, I appreciate the groundbreaking work local organizations like Upskill NWA, CareersNWA and Ignite Professional Studies are doing to help workers and students prepare for fulfilling, sustainable careers.
Entrepreneurship is the engine that drives job creation in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta. The foundation is proud to support community-led efforts that help residents start and grow successful businesses.
In the Delta, Tim Lampkin co-founded Higher Purpose Co. to invest in Black entrepreneurs who face systemic barriers to capital and training that are essential for success.
“Our goal is to help people who have been overlooked and underserved and provide them with the same resources and treatment as anyone else,” Tim says. “It’s about leveraging the spirit of ownership to create generational wealth."
In Northwest Arkansas, diverse entrepreneurs are bringing new energy and talent to a region that has long embraced innovation.
I’m thankful for organizations like EforAll, which is lowering barriers to capital, training and professional support for diverse entrepreneurs. They don’t lack good ideas, but too often lack financing to bring them to life.
Our region is also lucky to have people like Reginald James, who through Music Moves is sharing the stories of Black musicians and making Black music more accessible to students in Northwest Arkansas.
“Music is a language of understanding,” Reginald says.
The region’s growing diversity is reflected in cultural institutions like INTERFORM, which has a mission to promote fashion created by underrepresented artists.
During the height of the COVID-19 crisis in Northwest Arkansas, INTERFORM demonstrated the commitment to community that reflects the spirit of the region’s artists. It mobilized its designers and staff to produce and distribute thousands of face masks to protect area residents.
“A crisis was never on the agenda, but in working towards a common goal, we found lightning in a bottle,” says Robin Atkinson, INTERFORM’s CEO. “I am proud to be part of a staff who in the face of crisis never hesitated, and part of a diverse creative network that has risen to meet this moment.”
Just like any community that experiences rapid growth, Northwest Arkansas is facing rising demand for high-quality housing for the region’s workforce – particularly for middle-income earners critical to the region’s prosperity.
I’m thankful for people like Keaton and Casey Kleinhenz, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of Bentonville and Bella Vista, who are finding creative ways to meet the demand for workforce housing.
“If we want newly developed neighborhoods to reflect the broader community, we have to set more realistic goals on what all residents can afford,” says Keaton.
What I see in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta is the same Heartland spirit I have experienced elsewhere - the size of our challenges is never greater than the determination to overcome them.
I want to thank all of our grantees for your belief in this region and its future.
Over the coming year, and as the foundation works to fulfill its five-year strategy, I look forward to getting to know all of you better – to listen actively to your ideas, follow your guidance and work in partnership to support and sustain the work you do to help Northwest Arkansas and the Delta thrive.