Readers and experts suggest ways to change Arkansas for the better.
by Ellie Wheeler, Leslie Newell Peacock, Leslie Newell Peacock, Jonathan Wilkins, Jane English, Eric Wilson, Benjamin Hardy, Chris Hancock, Meredith Martin-Moats, Carlton Saffa, Mara Leveritt, Catherine Crisp, Dan Rahn, Walter Manger, Special Sanders, Jack Wagoner, Jacob Pesicek, Tara DeJohn, Jeff Short, Omaya Jones, Stephen Koch, Randy C. Forst, David Sanders, Mark Christ and Stephanie Spencer
As is annual tradition, the Arkansas Times recently solicited suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to make Arkansas a better place to live. We present their ideas here and hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't only lack the right collection of advocates to be realized. See even more Big Ideas for Arkansas at arktimes.com/bigideas14.
Establish an intra-state legislator exchange program
By Ellie Wheeler
State legislators, by definition, represent the narrow interests of their individual constituents, but they're also responsible for passing laws that reflect the diverse interests of the state as a whole. There's a big difference between the ultra-affluent parts of Arkansas and the areas where poverty is prevalent, and those differences are reflected in many of the laws that get passed. But what if we could change that? What if we could show a representative from a rich district what it is like in a poor Delta school? What if a senator from a majority-white district could see the world through the eyes of someone who represented a majority-black one?
Let's institute a legislator exchange program. Each legislator would be required to spend a week in another area of the state at least twice each year. They would meet with the people there to learn about their unique needs, resources, strengths and limitations. During the week they would visit coffee shops, hospitals, schools and businesses. They would gain first-hand knowledge of the unique challenges other areas of the state face. They'd run into people who come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It's one thing to hear about such issues, but it's another to talk with people and share thoughts about how those challenges change lives.
Our legislature has 135 members — 35 senators and 100 members of the House of Representatives. Each district covers a lot of ground, but because of population differences, more than half of our legislators come from just 9 out of Arkansas's 75 counties. The needs of the state's rural and underpopulated areas are not equally represented. If we really want state laws to address statewide issues equitably, let's expand our horizons a bit. Who knows what might come of it? Here's hoping for fairer tax policies, education reform aimed at eliminating inequities, or maybe just the knowledge that not everybody's got it as good as you may have.
Ellie Wheeler is a senior policy analyst with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
Build a planetarium in Little Rock
The size of Kevin Delaney and Dr. Tony Hall's idea is astronomical: A planetarium for the River Market district downtown. Delaney, the Museum of Discovery employee who's appeared on the "Tonight Show" with his feats of science, and Hall, the astronomer at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, would like to do it right, build it from the ground up with state-of-the-art equipment — maybe not in league with the Hayden Planetarium, but something decent. "If you are going to put kids on the path to science and engineering, you've got to impress them," Hall said. The projectors that beam the images on the dome now use computers; "anything you can do on a computer you can do on a dome," Hall said, including taking the audience undersea or into cell structures. "We feel like, given the amount of STEM education happening all over Arkansas, the absence of [a planetarium] is noticeable," Delaney said. There's plenty going on in space right now, with the European Space Agency's landing of little Philae on a comet and NASA's Orion flight test, and there is plenty going on in Arkansas's science museum community, with the Amazeum going up in Northwest Arkansas, the Mid-American Science Museum renovation and the Reynolds Foundation-launched Arkansas Discovery Network. So what's it going to take? Maybe around $1 million for the building and the projector. There are grants available from the National Science Foundation that could help operate the planetarium. And though Hall wouldn't mind seeing UALR's own planetarium refurbished (its projector crashed and burned a while back), he thinks downtown makes more sense. "The more we looked into it, the more we felt it wasn't really practical [to build on campus]. College campuses aren't meant to have kids running around ... and we love the idea of having it in downtown," Hall said, especially if it could reach Little Rock's underprivileged kids. The planetarium could also give meteorite collections of UALR and the museum "a permanent home," Delaney said. Plus, Delaney said, the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society could use the planetarium "as a hub for space geeks."
-Leslie Newell Peacock
A Regional Food Innovation Center for Central Arkansas
Tremendous attention has been paid to the potential for a new technology-based economy in Arkansas. There's a palpable urgency to mentor entrepreneurs and create foundries for biotech and nanotech inventions.
Now, Arkansas's traditional economy — farming — is being invited to join the revolution, with the creation of what's being called a Regional Food Innovation Center as a companion to the Argenta Innovation Center maker/mentor/art space in downtown North Little Rock.
The idea came from forward-looking folks at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the state Agriculture Department, the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Their idea is to create a place for farmers and others to develop new foods, strategies for marketing and packaging, better access to nutritious food in "food deserts" and new agricultural technologies. The idea has already borne fruit: The partnership was one of just 26 in the nation selected by the federal "Local Foods, Local Places" program to win its assistance in improving economic opportunities for farmers and increasing access to healthy food.
On a trip to business accelerator programs in Chicago last April, Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Hub, met the creator of an electronic device that plugs into a combine harvester and collects data on crop and soil composition. The startup, 640 Labs, has since been acquired by Monsanto. It made Sabin wonder, what could the Hub do to address farmers' needs? "The more I dug into the idea, the more I learned about these efforts going on around the country," he said, and not just for farmers, but all involved in the food industry.
Sabin got with Zack Taylor, marketing director at the state Agriculture Department. Taylor brought in Amanda Philyaw Perez of the UA Cooperative Extension Service. The Hunger Relief Alliance, which wants to create a food "gleaning" facility where donated fresh food is collected for redistribution, got on board. The timing was just right: Perez was aware of the "Local Foods" initiative, which put out requests for applications in July.
Modeled on programs at Ohio State University, Oregon State University and the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in New Jersey, Arkansas's Regional Food Innovation Center, to be built adjacent to or near the Argenta Innovation Center, will have a certified kitchen to develop new food products, a labeling and packaging area, a greenhouse and garden for instruction, and a gleaning center. With access to the Innovation Center's Launch Pad for inventors and Silver Mine business accelerator, food industry entrepreneurs can explore new business models. "I have a lot of friends who are farmers," Sabin said, "and they are some of the most technologically adept people I know."
The North Little Rock location of the center would make access convenient for the state's food industry community.
The "Local Foods/Local Places" award provides the services of consultants that will work with the Innovation Center over a period of months to produce a plan; expect the first public hearing in February. When the plan is complete, the Food Center project will be eligible for funding from the partner federal agencies; agencies here will raise funding from local sources. Sabin said the partners are now working to expand the group, calling on others in the food industry to join in. "We want to cast a wide net to make sure we don't leave anybody out. Everybody from restaurant owners to St. Joseph's Farm," Sabin said. The group does not want to replicate other programs or compete. "We want to make sure it's value-added."
-Leslie Newell Peacock
Teach minority youth to hunt and fish
By Jonathan Wilkins
We live in a state where too many residents of urban, economically depressed neighborhoods don't have access to the natural world and all of the benefits that exposure to it provides. That's PC code language for: Poor black and brown folks from the cities don't ever go in the woods. They don't hunt, they don't fish, they don't forage. They suffer from a lack of meaningful physical activity, poor diets and the medical issues that result from not moving enough and eating crap food.
What would happen if some of the young people in these communities were introduced to hunting and fishing? Not a fishing derby at a stocked pond in Little Rock, but being mentored for the long haul in the woods of Arkansas and on its lakes and bayous.
Take an average 10-year-old with no exposure to guns except in media, and perhaps instances of human-on-human violence. (We'll use a boy for this example, but a girl would work just as well.) Bring him to an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission gun range and teach him how to safely and responsibly shoot a .22 rifle, under strict supervision. Transform the idea of a gun from a status symbol into a tool to hone a meditative skill. Find the target, steady your aim, let out half a breath, hold it, and slowly squeeze the trigger. Let the bullet going off surprise you.
Upon mastering the rifle range, take that child on a squirrel hunt at Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area. Let him hear the woods wake up in the morning and see the palette of colors that a sunrise produces in an oak grove. Show him how to walk with intentional, methodical, carefully placed steps, punctuated with long pauses of stillness and silence and breathing and listening. On a hunt, there is no bravado, only competency. Maybe he gets a squirrel, and maybe he doesn't. Teach him that there is always value in listening and learning from the woods.
Let these lessons build on themselves year after year. How to fish, how to swim and how to work with dogs. How to find food in wild places, how to process it and how to cook it. Link the privilege of participating in such a program to academic performance. Make kids earn every bit of it.
I hazard to guess that the result will be a child who absorbs skills that will help him succeed in living anywhere, whether in the city or in the country. There will be personal triumphs of harvesting deer and putting food on his family's table, but there will also be lessons derived from failure. And, the health benefits of walking and climbing and running will become evident.
You'll end up with a 16-year-old who has learned valuable skills and developed relationships with people he might not otherwise have ever met. Maybe the older gentleman who taught him how to gut a deer needs help this summer at the warehouse he owns. Perhaps the skeet instructor from last year is on the board of a local college. Or maybe none of that happens, and you just end up with a person who is able to live a healthier lifestyle, provide organic, free-range protein for his family, and pass on these skills to his own children.
Setting up such a program would require an investment of time and money from volunteers, schools, the AGFC, local chefs, business owners, land owners and others in the statewide community. But, it would be worth it to create an environment where people are more responsible for others and the world around them, a world that is a little bit more like the one most of us say we want to live in. Let's put our money and our time where our mouth is.
Jonathan Wilkins is an avid outdoorsman who lives in rural Pulaski County. He is a sales manager for Arkansas Fresh Bakery in Bryant.
Build a real workforce education system
By Sen. Jane English
My goal for a very long time has been to find a way to build a system for workforce development. Right now we have a lot of silos: K-12 education, two-year colleges, higher education and business all live in their own world. For me, though, education is "K through career." Even when you're in a career, there ought to be education and skills training that helps people move up in their jobs.
For the past 20 years, we've said the only way to be successful is to go to college, and there's only one path to go to college. But fewer than 40 percent of Arkansas students seeking a bachelor's degree graduate within six years of starting school. What good does it do for someone to go off to college and flunk out? Where do they go with the rest of their lives? We've got to have things in place to make sure folks can have a career.
There are not a whole lot of 18-year-olds who know what they want to do with the rest of their life when they get out of high school. We must get the business community to help us begin introducing different types of job opportunities to kids in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. We should create technical programs where kids in the ninth through 12th grades can take classes that teach them applied skills, whether it's in information technology or manufacturing. They can earn a certification along with their high school diploma and are able to get a job right out of high school.
In Lonoke, the school district has had a problem with students dropping out in ninth grade. The superintendent asked some kids why, and they told her, "Because there's nothing here for us." They said they wanted to learn how to weld. So, she set up a welding program in the high school. Now kids are learning math and science and English — all the things they're supposed to be learning — but they've also got something that catches them and holds on to them. It's a reason for staying in school, like football or basketball. Ninety-six percent of the kids who are in career and technical education programs graduate from high school, which is far higher than the average. They have something that has enticed them to stay.
We also have to get companies to help us understand what jobs are out there and what the skill requirements are. Other states have figured this out long before we have. We've had an Arkansas employer tell us that they can't hire computer science majors because some of the things the students learn at the university aren't relevant. We have a manufacturing company on Interstate 40 that's been without two or three management positions for years. We've got a data company that can't find the data people to come and work.
There are good things going on as well. For example, the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton has formed a partnership with local businesses to teach people the skills they need for one high-demand field: heating and air conditioning. In Paris, Cloyes Gear is working with the local Chamber of Commerce, the school superintendent and Arkansas Tech University to train workers.
We also need to do more to help workers learn new skills and earn certifications. We have many people here in the state who dropped out of school to work; they're good people but they don't have basic skills, and employers recognize that. We have a program right now where employers can utilize state-funded adult education teachers to help employees learn basic skills — say, reading, or math — because the employers want to keep them.
This is why talk about the minimum wage is misguided. Who in the world wants their child to end up in a minimum wage job? Nobody! It's a good start, but only a stepping stone. There has to be a career pathway for that person to advance.
We've got to make sure that K-12, the colleges and the business community — this whole line of education and training — is hooked together. Education is a product, and we have to make sure that the product we're delivering to students is a good one.
Jane English is a Republican state senator who represents District 34. She lives in North Little Rock.
Use private capital to effect social change
By Eric Wilson
Innovation always carries risk, but the complexity and scale of challenges facing society require us to take that risk. Eighty-five percent of the economic growth in the United States comes from private-sector innovation. How do we direct that innovation toward society's most pressing problems?
Arkansas should join an increasing number of states in employing Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) — also known as "Pay for Success" — to mitigate the public's financial risk of innovation and access untapped private capital to invest in performance-based programming in social sectors.
First implemented in Great Britain, the first SIB in the U.S. was announced in August 2012 with the goal of reducing recidivism among 16- to 18-year-old males at New York City's Rikers Island prison. Here's how it works:
Goldman Sachs loans $9.6 million to the nonprofit MDRC, which manages the intervention program.
To offset the risk, Bloomberg Philanthropies guarantees $7.2 million of Goldman Sachs' investment.
An independent evaluator monitors and determines the results of the program. New York pays MDRC based on the associated cost savings from the reduced number of reincarcerations.
For Goldman Sachs to break even on its investment, the program needs to produce a 10 percent reduction in recidivism. If the program fails, the taxpayers pay nothing.
This model provides a platform for the public, private and nonprofit sectors to come together, leveraging their different strengths to solve a social problem.
With only five SIB projects underway in the U.S., both advocates and critics are anxiously awaiting the results of this new financial instrument. However, the U.K. is already reporting progress on its first SIB. While the national average of reconvictions for adult males serving sentences less than 12 months rose 10 percent, the SIB pilot intervention program at a prison in Peterborough, England, saw an 11 percent decline over that same period, putting investors on track to recoup their loan and possibly make a return.
The Social Impact Technical Assistance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School works with governments to foster social innovation, and played an important role in designing the first SIB projects in the U.S. Based on its experience, successfully implementing an SIB starts with "enthusiasm and commitment among leadership."
We saw an indication of this during the 2013 legislative session when Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) presented his public-private partnerships bill (HB 1251) to support major infrastructure projects. While the legislation ultimately failed to pass the Senate, it started the conversation about how the private sector can invest in public sector projects and share in the risks and rewards.
Cost-saving preventive services in government-funded sectors like prisons and early childhood education offer investment vehicles for the private sector to participate and offset the risk of innovation for taxpayers. SIBs have the potential to create a new social services marketplace in Arkansas to pilot and scale solutions that have a clear and measured impact. Pursuing this innovative model now is an opportunity to showcase our state's strong entrepreneurial heritage.
Eric Wilson is CEO of Noble Impact, a new high school education venture in partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. You can follow him at twitter.com/eric_wilson.
Welcome the future wave of Gulf Coast refugees
By Benjamin Hardy
Let's develop a 50-year plan for the Little Rock metropolitan area to deal with the very real possibility of a massive influx of displaced humanity from New Orleans and south Louisiana as ocean levels rise.
The truth about climate change is that nobody knows exactly what's going to happen in the coming decades, not me or you or James Inhofe. Maybe catastrophe will be avoided — or maybe, as indicated by the geological record and our best predictive modeling systems, higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon will incrementally dial up global temperatures, triggering feedback effects that accelerate the melt of polar ice caps and imperil coastal cities from Mumbai to Miami.
Obviously, what we most urgently need right now is prevention. We must implement global, national and state-level strategies to drastically scale back our use of fossil fuels (as Arkansas is contemplating doing). But we also need a state and local plan for what to do if business as usual continues and catastrophe comes to pass. Because they know the threat is real, coastal cities like New York, Chicago, and London have crafted long-term plans for dealing with rising seas and extreme weather events.
Inland states like Arkansas face a different challenge: migration. About 14 million people live in coastal counties along the Gulf of Mexico, and if the ocean threatens to overwhelm their homes in a generation, they'll have to go somewhere. Look at a map. Austin, San Antonio and Dallas would likely absorb refugees from Houston. Florida's huddled masses would stream toward Southeastern cities like Atlanta. And the residents of Greater New Orleans and south Louisiana will head north, to Shreveport and Jackson and points beyond.
Why not encourage the future New Orleanian diaspora to resettle here in Little Rock en masse?
We'll need a massive, rapid development of new housing and civic infrastructure. I suggest building along the banks of the Arkansas River, east of present-day downtown (the Arkansas is a lesser echo of the Mississippi, to be sure, but it's also a more manageable companion for a city). Since Little Rock so badly wants its own streetcars, development can center on a public transit system designed to mimic the look (if not the efficiency) of the St. Charles and Canal lines.
We'll need huge investments in social services and public education. We'll need to craft a workforce and economic development plan in collaboration with every major business interest in the region. I have high hopes that the Walton Family Foundation will feel some responsibility to pitch in a few billion dollars for resettlement costs, since they've invested so heavily in the charterization of New Orleans public schools in the past.
Pulaski County should welcome displaced New Orleanians with open arms partly because they're our neighbors and partly because every American bears the collective guilt of all those tons of atmospheric carbon. But we also stand to reap great benefits from their arrival, since (as was often said post-Katrina) the essence of New Orleans is contained in its people, not in a few particular square miles of Louisiana. The second lines and Carnival, the roast beef po' boys and the drive-through daiquiris, the brass and the bounce and all the more ineffable things that comprise the most beautiful and culturally complex city in America — that's what we'll welcome. What we're really talking about here is trying our best to move what will remain of New Orleans itself, salvaging whatever we're able in the face of unthinkable loss and transporting it to Arkansas.
Little Rock as we know it would be transformed, even subsumed — but hey, that's history for you. Like it or not, we'll probably inherit NOLA's climate as well. At least we'll have live oaks.
I know what some of you are thinking: Yes, there's a lot to love about New Orleans, but what about its unsavory elements? I hear you. Along with all the working and creative classes of the city, we'll also inevitably have to deal with a number of troublemakers and freeloaders. I'm talking about New Orleans' oil industry executives, financiers and old money scions — the people, in short, whose wealth and moral inertia will enable the climate crisis in the first place. I have my qualms too, but listen: We have to be charitable. If they reform their ways, they'll be welcome here in the new Little Rock as well. We believe in second chances.
Benjamin Hardy is an associate editor at the Arkansas Times.
Unlock the gate on the State Street overpass to
connect historic West Ninth with Philander Smith College
By Chris Hancock
Some call it a bridge to nowhere: the State Street overpass that leads from historic West Ninth Street to the campus of Philander Smith College, or at least it would, if not for the gate that closes the street to all vehicular traffic, making bicycle and pedestrian traffic impossible.
As a former employee of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, I heard several complaints from visitors, students and professionals after thwarted attempts to walk the short distance between historic West Ninth and Philander Smith.
There are often lectures, screenings, exhibit openings and other events along West Ninth at MTCC and Dreamland Ballroom and in various locations on the campus of Philander Smith College. It would be mutually beneficial for each of these cultural venues to allow visitors to walk or ride between Philander Smith and West Ninth.
Wesley Chapel, a historic church founded by the father of Charlotte Stephens, is located just inside the gate. Wesley Chapel would surely benefit from being more accessible to its congregation as well as visitors interested in its history. A closed gate isn't welcoming to the visitors — families, reunions, tour groups, researchers, jazz aficionados — who visit West Ninth and Philander to explore the rich history of the area.
Once known as "The Line," Ninth Street was a bustling east-west thoroughfare with a trolley line. It was a vital community with a thriving urban fabric of mixed-use development that was largely black-owned.
Booker T. Washington spoke at Ninth and Broadway in 1913. Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others performed at the Dreamland Ballroom and other jazz clubs along Ninth. Daisy and L.C. Bates ran their Arkansas State Press there, and, from the present location of MTCC, the Mosaic Templars operated a politically and financially influential headquarters.
The campus of Philander Smith once spanned north to West Ninth before Interstate 630 tore through the social and economic fabric of the district. As Philander Smith welcomes a new president and continues to attract competitive faculty as well as prospective students by hosting dynamic programming, this is an opportunity to envision the entrance at the State Street bridge as a gateway rather than a barrier.
Bicycle and pedestrian traffic are among the most vital signs of a thriving community. While we attempt to make other areas of our city walkable, why prevent it here?
It is pragmatic to allow pedestrian and bicycle traffic between Philander Smith and the burgeoning cultural corridor of Historic West Ninth Street, and it's poetic to bridge the divider that dismantled the district: I-630.
There are many potential compromises that will prevent unwanted vehicular traffic while allowing bicycle and pedestrian traffic, such as a side-gate, removable traffic poles or simply opening the gate and using a temporary traffic barrier.
A bridge is a terribly expensive thing to waste. One of the goals of the 2015 Pop Up in the Rock project, Pop Up West Ninth, is to use the bridge for community development in the burgeoning cultural district. Pop Up in the Rock, a joint volunteer project of studioMAIN and Create Little Rock, is a community development organization that creates temporary demonstrations (pop ups) of what is possible on a block with under-developed potential. These short-term demonstrations have lasting impact by illustrating what is possible when businesses, cultural institutions and communities come together.
A Pop Up West Ninth in the fall of 2015 is proposed to span from the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at Ninth and Broadway to Dreamland Ballroom at Ninth and State and across the State Street bridge to the campus of Philander Smith.
Chris Hancock is co-chair of Pop Up in the Rock 2015 and a City Beautiful commissioner.
Honor local culture through grassroots organizing
By Meredith Martin-Moats
When most people think of community centers, they imagine a large, modern building with glass double doors and an indoor basketball court. Such recreational facilities are an important part of any town, but we also need other shared spaces in our communities that nourish local culture and civic life.
In early 2015, the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources is slated to open a small community center in Dardanelle that will serve as an idea hub for Pope and Yell counties. It will be a home for small skill-sharing workshops led by community members, a living room for socializing, and a place for parents, elders and children (in both English and Spanish-speaking communities) to gather, share concerns and ideas, and learn from one another.
Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to work with Michael Morrow, the man behind the West Kentucky African American Heritage and Research Center in Russellville, Ky. Morrow and other members of his community researched the area's history and genealogies dating back to slavery and worked collectively to renovate and preserve structures dating from the 1700s. (White people often take for granted how easy it is to research our own histories. At the same time, we often forget the importance of knowing the everyday stories of our community's deep past.) As I watched Morrow turn near-dilapidated houses into places of fearless learning, I began dreaming of returning to my hometown of Dardanelle and exploring what it can mean to dig into the past with the goal of working toward a new kind of future. Together with Marie Williams, a Dover native who recently received her MA in history from Arkansas Tech University, we're working to create a community idea hub for our section of the River Valley.
The McElroy House is built on valuing our landscape and cultural resources, exploring how the past informs the present, and creating partnerships across generations, races and cultures. We work to find commonalities between working class communities in urban and rural areas across Central Arkansas. We believe in exploring the past for the sake of the future and the importance of deep listening and collective action.
So far, our work has focused on researching and documenting local oral histories and creating community-based media pieces for print and radio. Soon, though, we will open a community center in the house from which our organization gets its name. Built in the 1940s, this home once belonged to Lloyd and Golda McElroy, former tenant farmers and chicken plant workers who raised their family in Yell County. They were everyday people, living in a simple house, and their histories are similar to many others' in the community.
We've worked with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center to create a low-impact parking lot that will reduce water runoff, and we'll explore ways everyday people can rethink our relationship to this most important of resources. We'll cover the grounds in perennials donated from area gardens and native plants that attract bees and butterflies. We'll cultivate vegetables in partnership with a local heirloom seed saving group that is working to ensure our regional vegetable varieties are around for generations to come. We believe that even small amounts of food production can reduce food insecurity in low-income communities; in a largely low-income state, people in both rural and urban areas have been engaging in resource conservation and so-called "green living" for generations.
We plan to hold workshops on everything from understanding the local election process to making herb tinctures, from anti-racist dialogue to knitting classes to developing initiatives for creating locally based incomes. Community members will suggest topics, and our offerings will grow to reflect a diversity of needs and voices. We want to bring people together to explore history, even the difficult stories we all need to learn in order to work across divisions of race, class and culture. We don't know exactly where this will lead us, but that's the point. We want to create a space, both conceptually and literally, to bring people together so we all listen deeply to one another and find ways to learn from our past in such a way that plans for our collective future.
Our center isn't about acquiring big grants for sustainability initiatives or complicated programming. It's about starting where we're at, rethinking our approaches to living and working spaces, and honing the skills of our grandparents for our current needs. We want our center to be a working example of how even the simplest structure can be a place to harness rain, grow a little food and rethink local resources for the benefit of all.
Meredith Martin-Moats is a mother, organizer, folklorist, gardener, oral historian, freelancer writer and Arkansas native. She writes at boiledownjuice.com.
Create a safe place for Craigslist transactions
By Carlton Saffa
At first glance, this Big Idea might not seem so big at all. That is, of course, unless you were one of the two Little Rock men shot on a Tuesday evening last month while trying to kick the tires of a used car spotted on Craigslist.
The Little Rock Police Department ought to dedicate a few of the 44,000 square feet in its new 12th Street Station as an Internet transaction space. It would be a safe room (as well as a spot or two in the parking lot) from which a Craigslist seller and a Craigslist buyer could meet without shooting at one another.
Like most good ideas, this one is borrowed, inspired by a similar bazaar in Pennsylvania, but that in no way diminishes its potential impact on our city. Interestingly, Little Rock is perfectly poised to implement this plan, with 6,300 square feet of that new substation reserved for retail currently sitting vacant, and likely to be for years to come. It appears that the bond financing that made the station possible now makes, for the time being, that portion of the building unavailable for outside retail lease.
So there it is. It could be up and running by week's end. I'm no tech wizard; I've never bought anything off Craigslist. But here's one big idea that may save your life or at least give you some peace of mind while buying or selling your stuff.
Carlton Saffa is the Arkansas manager of Washington National insurance company. In January he'll begin work as senior advisor to Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson.
Call out prosecutors for misconduct
By Mara Leveritt
Do what the Arkansas Supreme Court won't: Call out prosecutors who don't play by the rules.
Though the state Supreme Court continually reprimands private attorneys for missteps — it disbarred President Clinton — the court has not sanctioned a prosecuting attorney in at least the past 25 years. This bias protects state's attorney's political aspirations, while concealing information about violations that may have caused grave injustice.
The nonprofit Center for Prosecutor Integrity is addressing this nationwide transparency problem. Using state and federal court records that cite prosecutor misconduct, the nonprofit has created a multifunctional public database: prosecutorintegrity.org/registry/database.
It costs about $50 to research a case for inclusion on the Registry of Prosecutor Misconduct, which partly explains why only two cases from Arkansas have been added so far. But tax-deductible donations could change that. Send checks (and the names of cases in which courts have found misconduct, if you know of any) to: CPI, P.O. Box 1221, Rockville, MD 20849. Mark your checks "for Arkansas" — and help lift that thumb off our scales.
Mara Leveritt is contributing editor to Arkansas Times and the author of the books "Dark Spell," "Devil's Knot" and "The Boys on the Tracks."
Continue the private option
By Dan Rahn
Nothing is more important to the future of our city and state than the health of the population. The best idea I can think of to make Little Rock and Arkansas better places to live, work and raise a family is the continuation of funding for insurance expansion. As a society we must all work together to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to have access to high quality health care. Positive change in our health system rests on this issue of access.
Dan Rahn is chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Arkansas needs a state fossil
Anne Orsi, a Little Rock lawyer and "dinosaur geek," and paleontologist Walter Manger, professor emeritus in the department of geosciences at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, are among those who would like to see Arkansas name a state fossil. Arkansas is one of only 10 states that have not designated a state fossil. In fact, Orsi thinks we could use both a state fossil, to honor the giant nautiloids found in Northwest Arkansas, and a state dinosaur, Arkansaurus, the only dino uncovered in Arkansas (since the state was largely underwater during the Cretaceous). Orsi hopes to get teachers and elementary students involved, for both a science and government lesson: The children could learn about Arkansas's ancient past as well as how the legislature works by following the passage of a bill naming the fossils through the committees to the floor. Manger wrote the following for the Times:
Sea monsters in Fayetteville? It's true! In 2003, the longest straight-shelled nautiloid cephalopod ever found, bearing the imposing name Rayonnoceras solidiforme, was excavated from a culvert near Interstate 540 (now Interstate 49) in the Fayetteville city limits by three geology students from the University of Arkansas.
The shell of this specimen measured 8 feet. Amazingly, it was the second such find of a giant Rayonnoceras: The previous record for this species, measuring a mere 7 feet, 2 inches, had been found in Fayetteville 40 years earlier. Both individuals lived and died about 325 million years ago in shallow seas that covered the southern Ozark region during what geologists call the Mississippian Subsystem of the Carboniferous System. The nautiloids are distant cousins of the smaller modern chambered cephalopod Nautilus, which is coiled and lives in deep-water environments of the Indo-Pacific region.
In addition to its straight shell, composed of calcium carbonate, Rayonnoceras would have had several feet of tentacles extending from the aperture of the shell. Like Nautilus, it also likely had eyes, a jaw-like beak and a siphon called a hyponome. The nautiloids, and other cephalopods, swim by jet propulsion. Water is drawn in beside the head and forced out through the hyponome. The hyponome can be moved by muscles that allow the cephalopod to swim either forward or backward.
After death, these individuals would have floated in the ancient sea for some period of time. Other marine organisms, big and small, would have fed on the soft parts of these dead animals. The chambers would slowly fill with seawater, causing the shells to sink to the sea floor, to be covered by the barely oxygenated black mud that became the Fayetteville Shale.
A typical Rayonnoceras from the Fayetteville Shale might reach 3 feet: Hundreds of these individuals have been found in the Fayetteville Shale. Many other fossil cephalopods exhibit the same pattern of a few giant individuals, perhaps three or four times the average diameter of the typical specimen. So how did these individuals become giants? A number of modern cephalopods, and other living organisms, exhibit what is called mass semelparity, meaning they reproduce once and die — like Pacific salmon — in a single area. This explains the many "hot spot" fossil localities recorded in northern Arkansas by the UA's department of geosciences, and why these students were out collecting on that January day in 2003. These individuals are all about the same size. Giants, such as our 8-foot specimen, have a pathological condition that prevented them from reaching sexual maturity; hence they continue to grow to sizes far greater than a typical mature adult.
Arkansas has achieved worldwide recognition for its Carboniferous fossil cephalopod occurrences. Faculty and students in the UA geosciences department have produced nearly 60 years of world class research on these fossils, involving literally hundreds of papers and presentations. Type specimens from the southern Ozarks are housed at many of the major American museums and universities, including the University of Arkansas Museum. Most of the world's researchers on Carboniferous cephalopods have visited the university and northern Arkansas. The quadrennial International Symposium on Cephalopods — Past and Present was held in Fayetteville in 2004, the only time it has been held in the United States. It would be fitting to acknowledge these contributions by designating Rayonnoceras solidiforme, particularly its two pathologic giants, as the state fossil of Arkansas.
-Leslie Newell Peacock
Embrace community policing
By Special Sanders
As I have watched the tragic events unfold recently in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; and Cleveland, I can't help but ponder where we go from here as a nation and as a state. It seems that we conveniently run away from our past instead of completing an honest assessment of our present.
The unrest in Ferguson demonstrates that even small cities aren't immune to the disconnect that exists between minorities and the police departments that serve them. I live in a town in Southeast Arkansas with a population of fewer than 5,000, yet I feel there is nothing to prevent the place I call home from becoming the next Ferguson. Many young minority residents (myself included) do not trust the local police due to past misbehavior and a sustained lack of professionalism from former officers. Even with new staffing, it's hard to trust those would-be leaders when we still encounter disrespect and suspicion from law enforcement. If citizens lose hope in the justice system, people do not cooperate with local police even in instances where working together would produce mutually beneficial outcomes.
I don't have all the answers, but it's time for a statewide initiative to encourage all Arkansas police departments to embrace community policing. Officers need to get out of their cars and speak to the citizens in the neighborhoods they patrol. They should connect with folks via social media. Cops should work with local nonprofits and reach out to youth — not just small children, but teenagers and beyond. If officers feel that they cannot relate to the people they serve, then their department should make an investment in diversity training and community outreach efforts so that these groups of individuals are at least vaguely familiar with each other.
For this to succeed, it can't just be the work of the police, however. Members of the community need to do their part by talking with law enforcement and letting them know how they feel — positively and negatively.
None of this can happen without trust. In order for people to gain the trust of others, they must first feel that they will be taken seriously and that their viewpoints and perceptions matter.
Special Sanders is a community organizer who lives in McGehee.
Build a wall
By Jack Wagoner
My initial starting point for my "Take Back Little Rock" initiative would be to build a Berlin Wall-type structure immediately on the west side of Interstate 430 where the city demographic changes from blue to red. People on the west side of the wall would not be allowed to cross over to the east side. People on the east side would be allowed to move to the west side, but once they left the east they would never be allowed back. Anyone on the east side caught voting Republican would be ejected from the east side, required to live on the west side, and be required to immediately join the Chenal Country Club and Fellowship Bible Church. This would make those of us who have lived 50 years in Little Rock more comfortable, since to us Little Rock ends at I-430. We generally refer to everything west of that as "East Perryville."
Jack Wagoner is a Little Rock lawyer.
Reform juvenile justice
By Jacob Pesicek
The Arkansas juvenile justice system needs major reforms. To reduce incarceration and recidivism among our youth, we need proven approach that includes a highly responsive probation program for juveniles, evening reporting centers, notification caller programs for upcoming juvenile court dates, and improved statewide data collection.
A model already exists for the first item for the probation program. Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) imposes predictable and immediate sanctions for probation violations, such as detected drug use or missed probation appointments. These swift, incremental sanctions are more effective at modifying behavior than traditional probation. An independent 2009 study conducted for the U.S. Department of Justice found that HOPE probationers were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime than probationers not in the program, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their probation officer and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked. Overall, they were sentenced to 48 percent fewer days of incarceration.
Saline County is now home to a pilot program for adult offenders that's modeled on HOPE; why not extend that program to juveniles?
Second, in many rural, low-income areas of Arkansas, judges have limited alternatives to incarceration. Even when alternatives exist, juveniles frequently are not matched with appropriate existing programs. In more urban areas, evening reporting centers are popular and relatively low-cost alternatives to incarceration for youths charged with non-violent offenses, often in cooperation with local churches and schools. Youth crime tends to increase during the times of day when kids are idle or unsupervised, so providing them with recreational, educational and other structured activities on weekday evenings and on weekends makes a big impact.
Evening reporting centers should be expanded and provided with more resources. Hiring staff members from the local community and providing free transportation to and from the ERC are essential to their success.
Third, as simple as it sounds, placing a call to remind defendants of an upcoming court date has been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood of a "failure to appear" in court. This conserves court and law enforcement resources. A Jefferson City, Mo., a pilot program showed a 43 percent reduction in failures to appear if live callers contacted the defendant one week before his or her court date. (Automated calls, on the other hand, were determined to be less effective.) We could do something similar for Arkansas juvenile defendants, perhaps with court-vetted volunteers.
Finally, data collection on juvenile justice in Arkansas must be improved. Juvenile detention centers in Arkansas are locally operated and have limited uniform or centralized reporting requirements, according to a 2014 report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families ("Why Detention is Not Always the Answer"). Forms are left incomplete in many cases, which means there is often no record of whether a youth was placed in detention awaiting a hearing or if he or she was detained upon being judged delinquent. Effective and lasting change will require broad-based community support and participation; in order to make the case for reform, we must have good data and measurable results.
Jacob Pesicek is a pro bono lawyer at Janus Institute For Justice, a nonprofit organization committed to the advancement of environmental and social justice through education, advocacy and activism, social media, volunteerism, community outreach and other forms of non-violent, civic engagement.
Encourage gay foster parents
By Catherine Crisp and Tara DeJohn
Imagine a state where you are a child and you have been removed from your parents because of neglect or abuse. Imagine that you are placed in group homes, residential treatment centers and numerous foster homes and have been moved from place to place to place. The primary reason behind these moves is driven by a lack of placements: There just aren't enough foster/adoptive parents to meet the demands of children lingering in care.
Imagine that you are an adult with a stable job, a loving spouse, a home to share, and you want to be a parent to a child who needs loving parents. Imagine that despite being identified as a parent anyone would want to have, you continue to be denied the opportunity to parent a child because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. You are denied this right because people in Arkansas continue to believe that LGBT people are still unfit to parent and you and your spouse are consistently overlooked as potential parents.
Now imagine that all this has changed. Imagine that child welfare workers throughout the state of Arkansas have been adequately provided with placement resources and are supportive of LGBT adults who want to be foster and adoptive parents. This change in people's attitudes has led to more than enough foster and adoptive parents for all the children in Arkansas who need care. This is the vision we have for Arkansas.
We envision Arkansas as a state where LGBT adults are actively recruited and encouraged to become adoptive and foster parents, thus increasing the number of children placed in loving homes and reducing the number of out-of-home placements. We also envision a state where child welfare workers in both public and private agencies throughout Arkansas are trained to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of all youth in care, including LGBT youth. We envision a state where child welfare workers understand LGBT youth's unique needs and support them in being placed in loving and caring homes.
Catherine Crisp and Tara DeJohn are assistant professors in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's School of Social Work.
Biodigest pig waste
By Jeff Short
Feeling down every time you eat a BLT?
That's how I feel, knowing I am encouraging the Cargill piggery at Mt. Judea to go about its business, raising animals that create tons of manure each day, a byproduct Cargill must deal with in a way that preserves profitability of the operation. Concentrated Area Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are nasty affairs, and are the source of much of the meat we consume in this nation. To keep the piggies safe and healthy as they grow, Cargill washes the solids they excrete into large holding ponds. Once the ponds get full, the manure-water is sprayed periodically on the surrounding landscape.
All the data — anecdotal and empirical — suggests that various forms of nasty waste will work its way into local watersheds and groundwater and end up in the Buffalo National River. If that is not enough, the accompanying smells wafting from the spraying will surely sting your nose and eyes — and no doubt, disturb your concentration if you are at the nearby school or church.
The latest mitigation proposal is to treat the filthy pond water with pyrolysis, an energy-intensive technique used in a wide variety of industrial processes in cooking (as in making confections), the chemical industry and the energy industry. In this case, the pyrolysis would be used to vaporize the hazardous components in the pig water, which would range from bacteria, pass-through medicines and other drugs to keep the pigs healthy, and the feces with all its attendant, volatile organics. There are several ways to "pyrolyze" stuff, but apparently the Mt. Judea system will go the high-temperature route — burning — leaving a nice crusty carbon. This "char" may actually improve soil quality if the soil has a high clay content, since the minerals are concentrated and released slowly.
All of this will raise the cost of my BLT.
My big idea is to use biodigesters instead. They will not only treat the waste and smell, but also generate methane that can be used to offset energy costs for the operation. The technology is not new and is "scalable" to big or small operations. Biodigesters are currently being used to treat pig effluent in the United States, Australia, China, Philippines and many other locations. The process is fairly simple: Put some of the piggery water into a vessel or other device for a couple of weeks, manage the process to maintain temperature, residence-time and control off-gassing, and you are left with a fairly innocuous product and energy in the form of biogas.
The paybacks are abundant. The biodigester reduces the volume of the pig water and destroys pathogens while reducing the presence of odors. Application of the residue (digestate) is beneficial to the soil — generally, without noxious smells from ammonia. Since the farmer is making — and, it is hoped, using — the biogas for the piggery operation, there is an offset to the carbon dioxide emissions from other energy sources.
An agricultural engineering study in Thailand shows the extent of the return-on-investment of a pig-poo biodigester system. Basically, for every 8.3 Thai pigs, the system derives one cubic meter of biogas (methane). This is equivalent to about 23 ounces of gasoline or from 1.2 to 1.4 kilowatt-hours. Multiplied by thousands of pigs that will reside at the Mt. Judea CAFO during their growth, biogas systems could equate to more profitability with less environmental or social impact.
Air Force (Ret.) Col. Jeff Short was an engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy and a commissioner on the Governor's Commission on Global Warming.
Institute a West Little Rock 'sprawl tax' to subsidize downtown housing
By Omaya Jones
Although the renewed focus on economic development in downtown Little Rock is positive, it also raises serious concerns about gentrification: Over the long term, will current residents be displaced as housing values rise? Will the new crop of people flocking to the downtown and South Main areas inadvertently price out their lower-income neighbors?
It's not inevitable. If we were to focus on building affordable housing, lower-income people wouldn't necessarily have to leave the neighborhood, which would be a boon to everyone. This could be accomplished with a new property tax on sprawl in West Little Rock.
John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, argues that there's actually nothing wrong with gentrification in itself, but only if the poor people stay. The key to reducing crime and violence and building a better city, he argues, is having a healthy mix of people of various backgrounds and incomes living side by side. If the problem with gentrification is the displacement of people who are already living in a community, then what we need to do is implement policies that allow them to stay in the homes and neighborhoods that they helped to shape. Our focus should be on increasing the housing supply in these areas, by creating incentives for developers to build for low- and middle-income families. A "sprawl tax" — an additional property tax — on property between, say, Shackleford Road and the town of Roland would help pay for incentives. This would hopefully slow the pace of development on the western fringes of the city and encourage investment in downtown Little Rock.
"Density matters because we're a social species geared to learn from people around us," writes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of "Triumph of the City." Cities are hubs of innovation and creativity, especially when they are home to diverse populations living side by side. We should be implementing policies to promote that, not encouraging continued outward expansion.
Omaya Jones is a Little Rock native with a B.A. in comic books. He enjoys public policy as a hobby and knows just enough to be dangerous.
Develop exhibit 'pods' for Arkansas
By Stephen Koch
This idea isn't so big, so it must be eminently doable, right? In fact, its essence is travel-sized.
While on a book tour this year, I stopped by the Simply Jazz and Blues Festival in Beckley, W.Va., and discovered a travel trailer that the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame has outfitted into a tribute to its native heroes. Exhibits are mounted behind Plexiglas on either side, and a rubber-matted path runs through the middle.
Something similar could be done with Arkansas music, which is so often overlooked. (Beloved, heavily featured Mountain State performers Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Withers would likely be crowded out of the musical conversation if they were Arkansawyers.) But music is only one possibility. The concept could be expanded to create other educational pods on practically any Arkansas subject, which would be nearly as viscerally cool as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's mobile aquarium.
Speaking of travel, commuters could ponder these pods on platforms while waiting for the electric tram running through the center strip of Wilbur D. Mills Freeway (I-630), or while aboard the noiseless commuter boats ferrying folks from west Pulaski and outlying counties to and from downtown Little Rock along the Arkansas River.
Stephen Koch is the author of "Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B" and the host of "Arkansongs," a public radio program syndicated throughout Arkansas.
Go native with plants
By Randy Forst
Here's an idea for healthier plants and less fertilizer and water use in our gardens: Go native. Using natives is ideal: The plants that are native to where you live have spent hundreds of years adapting to growing conditions. That means they don't need much help from you to grow — less fertilizer, moisture and mulch. Once they are established, they are usually as tough as nails. Have you ever been driving along the highways in the month of August and noticed the red/orange blooming plants in the ditches? This plant is butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and the Highway Department doesn't have to tend it: Its tap root keeps it going even during dry conditions.
Native plants tend to have better manners in the garden. By this, I mean that they are rarely invasive. Nature has a way of keeping them in line with natural predators.
Native plants are a great way of introducing birds and butterflies to the garden. They rely on it for food, shelter and nesting habitats. Nothing makes a garden come alive more than seeing colorful butterflies and birds darting around in the landscape.
Native plants can be quite beautiful. They come in a wide array of colors, from the white bloom of Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota), the yellow of goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), the orange of Blackberry Lily (Belamcanda chinensis), the red of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), the pink of spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), the blue of Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) to the rosy hue of purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida).
No sun in your garden? There are native plants for the shade as well. If you are fortunate enough to have both growing conditions in your landscape, try planting a few of each. In a few years you could have a whole garden planted in the oldies but goodies, and you will have done the environment a favor, too.
For more information, call or email the Pulaski County Extension Office at 340-6650 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Forst is with the Pulaski County Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
Make health care costs transparent
By Sen. David Sanders
The rise of high deductible insurance plans paired with tax-free health savings accounts (HSAs) has created more engaged health care consumers. But there is a problem: A bedrock principle of consumerism is that end users should be able to make informed decisions based on price and quality. Consumers need access to better information if they are to choose the best insurance policy, primary-care doctor or hospital to meet their needs. Currently, the burden often rests on the individual, who, when something goes wrong, just wants the system to work correctly.
How exactly is the average consumer supposed to navigate our complex structure of doctors, specialists, surgeons, hospitals, outpatient clinics and ambulatory surgical centers — not to mention the multiple payers involved (insurance companies, self-insured plans, Medicaid and Medicare)? This is all made more complicated by outdated and overlapping regulatory and legal structures that vary according to jurisdiction and who is paying. Transparency is sorely lacking.
In the past, insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors have been barriers to creating objective health care transparency measures. Their fear: A more transparent system would financially advantage some players in the health care system at the expense of others. As a result, quantitative and qualitative measures — how much care costs and how good that care is — remain largely invisible to the patient.
So, it's no surprise that costs inflate, insurance rates increase, waste and abuse rise, and misdiagnoses fuel unnecessary treatments and procedures. Meanwhile, the end users (and taxpayers) increasingly feel disconnected from their health care and helpless to do anything about it.
Arkansas has consistently received failing grades from organizations that rate states' health care transparency laws. That needs to change. Here are three substantive statewide initiatives that will get the ball rolling:
a scorecard that rates health care providers based on validated, regularly updated information about price and quality, including diagnoses, medical procedures and outcomes.
disclosure and reporting of all ownership arrangements, grants, studies, awards and clinical trials made to the institutions and/or individuals we entrust with our health care.
a tax incentive for individuals, families or businesses that use an independent, nongovernmental decision-support system staffed by medical professionals to assist with health care choices based on patients' medical information and the latest peer-reviewed data.
Retreating to a single national health policy might appear to be the only way to gain certain