Visionary Arkansans 2014 

They make an impact in science, arts, social justice.

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It's time again for our annual Visionaries issue, a celebration of Arkansans with ideas of transformative power. This year's class is filled with people who are devoted to enriching life here, from theater to the natural environment to education. They've created political action committees (Amanda Crumley, director of the Southern Progress Fund), helped musicians reach an audience outside Arkansas (Jeff Matika of Green Day), worked to give the children of immigrants access to higher education (Rosa Velázquez of United We Dream). Joseph Jones is the founding director of Philander Smith College's Social Justice Institute. David Bailin is an artist of the highest caliber whose drawings make us think. Andrea Zekis lobbies for the rights of transgender people. All 25 are people with clear intent on what they want to achieve in life, and their visions help create our realities.

Patricia Ashanti
Nonprofit founder fights poverty in the Delta with adult education.

Delta Circles, founded by Patricia Ashanti in 2009, is a small nonprofit in Helena with a big mission: fighting poverty in the Delta by helping people help themselves.

"We've got a lot of challenges here, but there's a lot of hope that things are going to change and get better," Ashanti said.

With funding and support from the Arkansas Community Foundation and the Clinton School of Public Service, Delta Circles runs classes — one called "Getting Ahead" and another called "Financial Literacy" — to help people develop skills to tackle problems they may face as they try to lift themselves out of poverty. "They decide where they want to go, and we start to help them create those pathways," Ashanti said. "In some cases it could be trying to get into college. In other cases it could be trying to locate jobs, start their own business, buy their own home."

Delta Circles educates people on what Ashanti calls the "hidden rules" of the workforce and the middle class, and connects folks to resources for job training, education and entrepreneurship. It also gives people in the community, going through the same struggle, a forum to share their experiences and knowledge. "We allow the individuals that are affected by poverty the most to be a part of the solution," Ashanti said. "We recognize and respect the leadership ability that they already have and they're already using in their lives."

Ashanti, a Helena native with a background in accounting, was inspired by the work of Dr. Ruby Payne, an expert in generational poverty best known for her book "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" and accompanying workshops.

"The information just hit a chord with me," Ashanti said. "It brought the whole conversation of poverty to the individual level. Previously I had been looking at it on a community level. I saw that I wanted to work with individuals and families. With the struggles I have had in my life financially, I knew that with the information I was learning myself, others could benefit from that same information."

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  • Patricia Ashanti

The workshops are free and open to anyone in the community; facilitators are typically previous graduates of the classes. The "Getting Ahead" class meets once a week for 12 weeks and the six-month "Financial Literacy" class meets once a month. Delta Circles typically offers four classes over the course of a year. The program has had 160 graduates since 2009.

In addition to the classes, Delta Circles helped create a task force, partnering with the state Department of Workforce, Phillips Community College and Southern Bancorp, to help place people in jobs and ensure that they had the skills to succeed. Southern Bancorp was also a partner in the "Financial Literacy" class, offering graduates an individual development account — if people attend all six classes and save $600 over that time period, Southern Bancorp matches that by $2,000, funds that can be used for education, the purchase of a home, or starting or developing a business. Delta Circles is also hosting literacy programs and is developing a program to send literacy tutors to help employees on the job.

"We're working with individuals who are interested in moving forward in their lives," Ashanti said. "People who are ready to make changes. We're not trying to convince anybody that they need to try and get off food stamps or whatever. They have to make that decision for themselves. But if they have dreams and they have things they want, then our job is to support them. We are seeing a change in people's lives. They start to dream again." DR

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  • Brian Chilson
  • David Bailin

David Bailin
Artist's fine hand finds humor in human plight.

David Bailin describes his work as Kafkaesque, cites critic Harold Bloom on his website and believes the humor in his work can be compared to that of deadpan comedian Buster Keaton. Yet, he says Arkansas created who he is as an artist and he can't imagine living anywhere else. Bailin, who moved to Arkansas in 1986 with his wife, Amy Stewart, a lawyer, is a cerebral artist whose drawings are narrative works that reflect an evolution of his ideas in archetypical form. As a younger man, there was his larger-than-life Minyan series of 10 exquisitely drawn charcoals of images from the Holocaust overlain by symbols of Kabbalah, as if the symbols of Jewish mysticism could provide a healing blessing on the dead and living. That led to his Midrash series, his interpretations of Biblical stories in larger-than-life-sized charcoals, peopled by men in slacks and belts, women in shirtwaist dresses and purses, Yahweh wearing a tie. That was followed by what he calls the "cubicle" series, scenes of drab offices and desperate or sometimes pointless activity, and after that his "Dreams and Disasters" series. Sitting in the Townsend Wolfe Gallery at the Arkansas Arts Center, Bailin says the "official version" of the inspiration for the "Dreams" series is that "dreams come from the result of dealing with the routine," the daydreams that arise during repetitive or automatic actions, like driving. Which leads us to his work in the 56th annual Delta Exhibition, in which he won the Grand Award for his work "Slippage." (It's his fourth Grand Award.) "Slippage" is a terrifically composed scene, a suburban street lined by trees and homes on a titled horizon — drawn in charcoal, oil, coffee and pastel on paper — in which a man, in a suit, lies on his back under what might be a boulder. The road ends in a swath of white, much like the pillar of cloud that appeared to lead the Israelites from Egypt. Bailin draws and revises and draws some more until the purpose of the work has been achieved and the marks suit him. "Once you get the hook," he said, "it's playtime," and his abstract blobs of orange and green and red dance over the drawing and down the street. Bailin, who says his studio "has never been my friend," is working on the next outgrowth of "Dreams," about memory and senility. Appropriately, perhaps, he keeps wiping off what he's drawn. "If it was smooth sailing, I'd be making wallpaper," Bailin said. LNP

Kenneth Bell image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Kenneth Bell

Kenneth Bell
Music video director

One night in late 2012, Kenneth Bell went to a house party in Lonoke and nobody came. His cousin was throwing it, and the local rapper Pluto Maxx was all set to perform, but without an audience, they figured, why bother? Instead, Maxx turned to Bell, who'd brought his camera, and suggested they make a music video. "It's not how I planned it," Bell said. "It's just how it happened."

Little Rock's hip-hop scene has experienced an influx of new energy in the last couple of years, particularly with the emergence of young artists like Kari Faux and Young Gods of America, and Bell, 25, is one of its most important forces, having directed music videos for most of the members of this younger generation, plus veterans like Big Piph and Pepperboy. "I'm always in the middle of working on multiple videos," Bell said. "All the time. It's pretty much where my time goes."

Though his parents are originally from Forrest City, Bell grew up outside the state and moved frequently because of his father's position in the Army. He studied film at Towson University, just outside Baltimore, and then moved to Conway, where his dad had taken a job teaching R.O.T.C.

After shooting the clip for Maxx at his cousin's party, Bell began meeting other artists through the Little Rock-based "Good Vibes" rap showcases. He became a contributor to the now-defunct rap blog Natural State of Mind, and took on as many assignments as he was offered.

"It's different with every person and every song," Bell said of his process, and the diversity and vibrancy of his catalogue bears this out. Filming rap videos, he notes, can come with its own set of challenges, too. Most recently, there was the time he was loading up his car in the parking lot under the I-30 exit ramp after a shoot downtown, and found himself (and the rapper Pepperboy) surrounded by five police officers demanding their IDs and vehicle registration. "They said they'd been watching us for a while and we were acting suspiciously," Bell said, "but we'd only just walked up."

Bell cites his work with Big Piph, for whom he's been working as a videographer, and Kari Faux, whose most recent Bell-directed video was premiered by Complex magazine, as his proudest achievements, but it's the sheer volume of it all that confirms his status as one of the major visual stylists of the music scene. When I asked one rapper about Bell and his work recently, he nodded, sighed and said, "He's the truth."

"It's in a place right now where it could go anywhere," Bell said of the city's rap scene. "We're in a situation where we could really build a huge following here, while also making Little Rock known to an audience outside of Arkansas. We could create some mass appeal for the state. We just have to keep doing what we're doing." WS

David Couch image
  • Brian Chilson
  • David Couch

David Couch
Doing the people's work politicians can't stomach.

Little Rock lawyer David Couch makes an excellent point about why the petitions and ballot initiatives he's fought for since the 1990s are important: Though 49 percent of the voters in the state turned out in 2012 to vote for medical marijuana, go up to the state Capitol while the legislature is in session and try to find one elected official there who will say, on camera and without reservations, that medical marijuana should be legal in Arkansas. Just try.

Couch got into petitioning in the early 1990s, when the law firm he worked for was hired to make a push for a ballot measure allowing casinos in the state. From there, he was hooked on petition drives, especially those that make an end run around politics to put third-rail issues on the ballot so the voters can decide what's best for themselves. Since then, he's been involved in such campaigns as those to take tax off food, the failed Regnat Populus petition drive in 2012 that would have asked voters to curtail gifts to and lobbying of elected officials in the state, and the 2012 medical marijuana initiative, which came within two percentage points of passage. Currently, he's involved in the drive to put a measure raising the state minimum wage on the ballot, and another to allow voters to decide whether to let alcohol be sold all over the state. Looking ahead, he's gearing up to help get ethics and medical marijuana measures back on the 2016 ballot. In every instance except the original casino petition drive that got him interested, he said, he's worked on the measures for free, just to be a part of trying to change his state for the better.

"It's really the purest form of democracy," he said. "We have a representative form of government, but the people can take issues and circulate petition themselves and get a measure on the ballot to let the voters decide." Even in the cases in which the petition drives or eventual ballot measures fail, he said, they can start a conversation and raise awareness, which can eventually lead to the bettering of the state.

Nearly every attempt to get on the ballot involves some amount of nail biting as ballot titles are considered and the petitions come in. Couch said the work is always "a twist and a turn." It's worthwhile, though, especially in today's political reality, where every decision a politician makes is potential ammo for his future opponents.

"Most of the petition work is something that's popular yet controversial," Couch said. "The politicians don't have the guts to do it themselves." DK

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Andrea Crumley

Amanda Crumley
PAC cofounder sees hope for Democrats in Arkansas.

From 1992 to 2012, Arkansas went from being the state that gave the country President Bill Clinton to the state that gave the country U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton. Sen. Mark Pryor is the last Democrat standing in a congressional delegation that was once mostly blue. Both chambers of the state legislature were taken by the GOP in 2012, and Barack Obama is about as well liked in Arkansas as Bashar al-Assad.

Arkansas Republicans tend to see their current dominance as permanent and destined, a consummation of an historical inevitability. Amanda Crumley sees it as a call to arms.

"I don't believe the reddening of the South or of Arkansas is a foregone conclusion, but it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy if Democrats don't spend time and money here," she said. "The Koch brothers dropped $3 million into our state, because they saw that Arkansas media markets are inexpensive and they could easily dominate the airwaves, stifle the debate on issues and drown out Democrats' message. ... Democrats can level the playing field and counterbalance the Koch machine if we make the same kind of investments in the South that we make in presidential battleground states — in developing smart data and analytics, continually communicating with and registering voters and building strong voter turnout."

Crumley is executive director of the Southern Progress Fund, a multistate PAC that she founded with Arkansas politico George Shelton and former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Their mission is to combat Republicans in down-ballot races across the South. This election cycle, Crumley is concentrating on her home state of Arkansas (she's from England, in Lonoke County).

While big donors and media lavish attention on the Cotton-Pryor matchup, Crumley has her eyes set on state-level races for several reasons: because Democrats need to build a strong bench of future talent, because the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity pours money into state races, and, perhaps most importantly, because state politics is increasingly where big policy decisions are being made.

"The gridlock in Washington has forced policy fights down to the state level," Crumley explained. "Issues like women's health, marriage equality, voting rights were once all federal issues. Now those fights are being waged in state houses, not in Congress. That makes state legislative and statewide elections for offices like attorney general even more important, yet those are the elections in the South that are traditionally underfunded."

Crumley has lived and breathed politics since she was a student at the University of Arkansas in the early '90s working for the Clinton campaign. After victory in November 1992, the 21-year-old Crumley headed to Washington and spent four breathless years working in the White House under George Stephanopoulos. She bounced around the country from campaign to campaign in the years that followed, eventually settling in Los Angeles in 2004. But after watching Republicans sweep into Southern state legislatures in recent cycles — and the acquiescence of national Democrats, who often dismiss the region as a lost cause — she decided to return home.

"My family is here, my roots are here, and I felt I could make a difference," she said. "Reports of the demise of Arkansas Democrats have been greatly exaggerated, and I think this election season will prove that." BH

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  • Amy Herzberg and Robert Ford

Robert Ford and Amy Herzberg
Their TheatreSquared bring new plays to Arkansas stage.

Few are the places in Arkansas where people can attend professional theater. Where they do exist, it's because people appreciate good playwriting and good acting. And then more people come to appreciate the theater. That's something Robert Ford and his wife, Amy Herzberg, counted on when they started TheatreSquared in 2005 in Fayetteville.

Ford is a Renaissance guy: an author, flutist, playwright and artistic director of TheatreSquared. He is quick to say that his wife, an actor and director, is the true visionary and that there are numerous people and grantmakers who made TheatreSquared what it is. (Ford and Herzberg also teach at the University of Arkansas.)

TheatreSquared is a stage where new plays get an audience, sometimes premiering regional works headed to bigger stages. It's the sponsor of the Arkansas New Play Festival, the 2011 winner of one of only 10 National Theatre Company Grants for new companies doing outstanding play development, and has commissioned new work with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its success was predicted, Ford said, by Herzberg, who a decade ago told him that Fayetteville could sustain a professional theater with equity actors and they should put one together.

The 175-seat TheatreSquared (originally planned for a space off the square but located instead in the Nadine Baum Studio of the Walton Arts Center) staged its first play in May 2006, and originated the Arkansas New Play Festival in 2009 with a grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which was looking for a project to celebrate Arkansas culture and history. The festival, which now includes readings at The Rep in Little Rock as well as Fayetteville, has just completed its sixth season, one that included the first fully staged play. Once working with a budget of only $100,000, the theater has now "broken the million-dollar mark," Ford said, and is breaking records in audience size as well. TheatreSquared has staged four of Ford's own plays, including the well-received "My Father's War" in 2008, a play based on Amy Herzberg's father's experiences as a Jew fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and in which Herzberg played the role of her father. A review in the Times called the performances "heartfelt," leaving the audience with "a real sense of the haplessness of war." The play has been read in New York, translated into Italian for a production there, and staged in Germany.

Perhaps the most widely known commission of the theater is "Sundown Town" by Kevin Cohea, a play about racism that featured bluegrass music by 3 Penny Acre; the NEA funded its commission.

"Our vision for the theater is to do work that is pretty fresh ... doing new work is very much a part of who we are. We fill a nice niche here," one that complements the Walton Arts Center's big Broadway shows, Ford said. "It's a perfect marriage between what we do and a region that's hungry for this. I'm incredibly grateful to the community." LNP

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Matt Foster

Matt Foster
Brewer pushes Arkansas beer culture forward.

Matt Foster has a vision for Arkansas beer independence. Today, commercial and home brewers across the state mostly use ingredients grown outside the state. But as the locally grown foods movement builds momentum, Foster sees an opportunity to pair it with Arkansas's growing love for craft beer. Last fall, the co-owner of Little Rock's Flyway Brewery launched the Arkansas Native Beer Project, an effort to brew beer made with ingredients grown and processed entirely in Arkansas.

Most beer is made using four things: barley, hops, water and yeast. Foster and other local brewers have long used Cascade and Nugget hops grown at Dunbar Community Garden. Last October, Foster connected with Jason Kelley, an agronomist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service who specializes in wheat and feed grains, and an assortment of local farmers to test-grow several varieties of barley, a crop that hasn't been grown in Arkansas since the rise of the automobile.

The experiment appeared to be on its way to success last winter, despite some harsh weather, but the week it needed to be harvested torrential rains came through the state, and the barley germinated on the vine. The Native Beer Project lost 80 percent of its first crop.

Foster is undeterred. A farmer in Wynne has agreed to grow hops and barley for him, and Kelley is growing some wheat that's especially suited for brewing. With it, he plans to make what's called a smash beer, which uses a single barley malt and single hop. "We want to find out what these grains taste like," he said. Meanwhile, Grant Chandler, a research technician at UAMS, has been working to isolate wild yeast strains by taking yeast samples from apricots, pears and strawberries at Dunbar Garden. Foster hopes to use Chandler's yeast to make what's known as a wild ale.

Foster is invested in the success of the Arkansas Native Beer Project, but it decidedly comes second to growing Flyway, the brewery he launched last fall after home brewing for nearly a dozen years. From last November until this spring, he operated out of a commercial kitchen in Quapaw Towers, brewing enough to supply local restaurants, mainly South on Main, where his Migrate Ale became that restaurant's unofficial house brew. People request it nearly every day, said bar manager David Burnette.

For much of the summer, he's taken a break from brewing to work on expansion. He and Jess McMullen, a longtime friend and business partner who recently moved his family from North Carolina to Little Rock, are poised to open a mid-sized brewery the likes of which doesn't currently exist in Little Rock.

Once in operation, it will be capable of producing 45,000 gallons of beer a year. (By comparison, that's more than three times the capacity of Vino's or Stone's Throw.) They'll hand-bottle 22-ounce bottles to distribute to area liquor stores, and they hope to soon occupy 100 taps around Central Arkansas. How soon? Soon is as specific as Foster and McMullen are willing to go before they sign a lease.

Flyway will debut with four beers: Early Bird IPA, Free Range Brown Ale, Migrate Pale Ale and Shadowhands Stout. "We're trying to make fantastic representatives of those styles," Foster said. The brewers have tested and refined the recipes for years. "We've been working on them for a long time," McMullen said.

The reception for Flyway's beer has already been positive. "I get emails, calls on a daily basis," Foster said. "Everything from people wanting to volunteer, to people wanting to have an event. And a lot of restaurants wanting to carry our beer." LM

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  • Jill Cross
  • Brad Harvey

Brad Harvey
Entrepreneur creates 'cool' smart-kid camp.

Since he ran a tutoring company during his undergraduate years at Texas Tech, self-acclaimed math nerd Brad Harvey has always loved education. The trick to educate, he said, is to make it cool. That realization came to him at what might be, in the eyes of any sporting 12-year-old, the antithesis of a schoolroom: Springdale's Balls N Strikes batting cage.

"Man, if you love baseball, this place is awesome," Harvey said. "But where's the batting cage for nerds? Where is the place where nerds can get better at what they love?"

Aside from school tutoring programs, he couldn't find it, and Harvey will be the first one to tell you he's not interested in founding another school, building classrooms or hiring teachers.

Harvey, who has worked in management at various mobile media companies and Tyson Foods, founded Nerdies, a day camp in Fayetteville for kids "who think smart is cool." He raised about $20,000 through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to cover startup costs, aided by support from people he calls ONs — Original Nerds — who've told him they wished they'd had a Nerdies in their golden days.

"Part of our goal at Nerdies is to create passion," Harvey said. "If you can talk my ear off about something, to the point that I get bored, then you're a nerd in that area. Secondly, because it is Nerdies, we're generally taking what are historically marginalized kids and giving them a cool place to call their own."

Nerdies opened its doors on June 9, and by the end of the summer, over 300 kids had attended at least one weeklong session. The camp hosted, among many others, a session on "Mods for Minecraft," several on robotics, one on hacking and two on drone-building. Harvey recently invested in a state-of-the-art gaming studio, complete with bright orange walls, flat-screen televisions and rows of plush gaming chairs, which he plans to rent out for birthday parties and the like. After all, he said, Nerdies isn't a school.

"I really purposefully seek non-teachers," Harvey said. "I'm really seeking and trying to find passionate people who do it and live it every day. For instance, my daughter is a musician. I know Benjamin del Shreve, a huge local artist, an NWA Music Hall of Famer. From an artist's standpoint, I don't even care what he teaches her, just as long as she can spend a week writing songs and being creative with him. That's more important to me than, 'Hey, this is a G chord.' "

But following a low summer turnout of the more artistic types, Harvey diagnosed his company with a marketing problem. Many of the creative minds who'd love to attend a photography session, he realized, might not feel comfortable branding themselves under the "Nerdies" banner. So, in August, he launched Arties, a sister camp of Nerdies, to attract those kids who feel an inclination toward more right-brained pursuits like standup comedy, filmmaking and creative writing.

"The big deal is that we've just gotta go do," Harvey said. "The learning is secondary to the doing. If we're going to build this, write this, shoot this, the learning has to occur. But we're very much outcome-focused. ... By the time they're 18 and they're applying for jobs, they can say, 'I've already shot 12 films.' "

Because a summer session at Nerdies costs $425 (Arties is $325), Harvey and his wife, Mandy, founded the Foundation for Nerd Advancement to raise money to provide access to kids who otherwise couldn't afford camp. Nerds from all backgrounds welcome the access to the cutting-edge technology and the expert guidance that Nerdies can offer, Harvey said.

"We had a kid who came bouncing through the door at 7:30," Harvey said. "His mom was visibly tired, and she said, 'Apparently my son says you should open at 7. He went outside and started my car this morning.' What kid wants to get up at 6 a.m. to go learn?"

Nerdies do. CG

Harvey's photo was taken by Jill Cross, age 11, who attended a Nerdies photography session this summer.

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  • Kelly Cooper, Arkansas Children's Hospital
  • Charlotte Hobbs

Charlotte Hobbs
Research in birth defects helps Arkansas mothers avoid risk factors.

Three out of every 100 babies are born with a birth defect. Dr. Charlotte Hobbs of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences knows that statistic from a lifetime of nationally recognized research into the causes of congenital disorders. It also bears for her a certain existential relevance. Hobbs' own mother was born with a potentially fatal birth defect — gastroschisis, a condition in which the baby's abdominal wall fails to develop properly, causing a portion of the child's intestines to extrude from her body.

"This was in 1928," she said. "My mom was born at home and the doctor came out of the room that my grandmother delivered her in and he was shaking his head, saying, 'I don't think the baby's going to make it.' But he had just read an article the week before about gastroschisis in some medical journal. Even though he was a GP, he redid the abdominal wall, got the intestines back in, sutured it all together, and for probably 6 to 8 weeks they didn't know whether Mom would make it or not. But they kept doing what they could, and she did make it."

"There's no question that it was research, or at least sharing scientific information from one physician to another, that resulted in saving her life," Hobbs said.

Today, Hobbs is the director of the Arkansas Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention, where she analyzes data resulting from a national 15-year study of birth defects that concluded in 2012. Hobbs was the principal investigator for the Arkansas site and is also heading a follow-up study that's just begun to identify participant mothers. The goal of both studies: to better identify the complex causes and risk factors underlying birth defects, both environmental and genetic.

The Arkansas center, Hobbs said, is "kind of at the forefront in terms of the genomics," though she's quick to add the work is done in collaboration with major research institutions, including Stanford University, Columbia University and MD Anderson Cancer Center, as well as similar state research centers.

Some factors affecting the risk of birth defects are well known to science. Taking certain medications, such as the acne drug Acutane, greatly increases the probability that an expectant mother will bear a child with a congenital disorder, while consuming proper doses of folic acid, a B vitamin, decreases it. Hobbs' work is contributing to that vital body of knowledge. Among the findings so far to emerge from the recently completed study: Mothers diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or those who are obese have a significantly increased risk of giving birth to children with various defects. That's an especially important public health message for Arkansas, which is home to counties with some of the highest diabetes rates in the country.

About half of all birth defects in the United States are congenital heart deformities, Hobbs said. Cleft lips and palettes are also frequent, as are neural tube defects such as spina bifida. And gastroschisis, the disorder that almost killed Hobbs' mother as an infant, has actually increased somewhat in recent years. Scientists aren't yet sure why, however — and so the investigation continues. BH

Kendra Johnson image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Kendra Johnson

Kendra Johnson
Human Rights Campaign state director works to close civil rights gap.

Though it's a Southern state that's backward in many ways, Arkansas doesn't have to bring up the rear in civil rights. That's the feeling of Little Rock native Kendra Johnson, who is working to help dissolve the idea that the South — even the rural South — can't be tolerant and inclusive of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

In July, Johnson was introduced as the new state director of HRC Arkansas, a third of the Human Rights Campaign's three-pronged "Project One America" campaign, which will install permanent staff and offices in Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, with a goal of bringing LGBT equality to the Bible Belt.

A graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy, Johnson went on to Spelman College, then left the states for Brazil, living there for 14 years while working in the nonprofit sector and as a teacher, translator and journalist. She returned to Little Rock eight years ago to be closer to family and to get her master's degree in public administration at UALR. Since coming back home, she's worked for several nonprofits, including Heifer International and the LGBT advocacy group Southerners on New Ground. Working for change, she said, is a passion.

"I've really been a lifelong volunteer and a lifelong activist," Johnson said.

Her goal at HRC Arkansas, she said, is to help the state reach a place where people are judged solely by their character. That means changing hearts and minds, and building bridges of understanding. "I think there are some progressive partners that we have — straight allies," she said. "There are a lot of people who are just supportive of having a loving environment for people to grow up in."

Johnson said HRC Arkansas will be working to extend legal and workplace protections for LGBT people across the state, but will also reach out to those who might have reservations about extending gay rights, including some religious leaders. By showing those with doubts on the issue that gay people in the state are decent, hardworking Arkansans who just want to be happy and provide for their families, she believes, the stereotype will be broken. That has to start one-on-one, Johnson said.

"Right now, really, there's a part of the United States that enjoys full civil liberties, and there's a part of the U.S. that has second-class citizenship," she said. "It doesn't make sense that, if you're a productive member of society, you should be denied basic human rights." DK

Joseph Jones image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Joseph Jones

Joseph Jones
Helping bring social justice to Philander Smith.

Joseph Jones has a uniquely challenging job. As the founding director of Philander Smith College's Social Justice Institute, he's charged with developing a new identity for the nearly 150-year-old school, and making sure it is maintained.

Established under the leadership of former president Walter Kimbrough in 2007, Philander Smith's mission of graduating students "who are advocates for social justice, determined to intentionally change the world for the better" expanded in 2010 when the Kresge Foundation awarded the school a $1.2 million grant to develop a center for social justice.

Kimbrough tapped Jones, a bright, young Philander Smith alumnus, then working as a professor of political science at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., to head the new initiative. Jones told Kimbrough "no" three times. He'd just finished post-doctoral research at Harvard for a book he was writing on W.E.B. DuBois for Temple University Press. He wrote opinion columns for a local pub. He was making a name for himself in Charlotte and at Johnson C. Smith. But ultimately, Jones said, the opportunity to create something from the ground up that could transform his alma mater was too good to pass up.

Jones realized right away that the school shouldn't roll out the new institute immediately.

"When I got here the same question kept coming up, 'What is social justice?' We needed to take some time to have that conversation." It began with a basic definition: "Social justice is people improving other people's lives," Jones said. From there, he talked about marginalization and oppression on the basis of race, economic status, sexuality, environment and more. That big-tent approach was intentional from the outset.

"We wanted to keep it as broad as possible because we were trying to make clear connections to the curriculum. I can go to a mathematician and a businessperson and a biology professor and say, 'This is how social justice looks in your discipline.' We try to empower and train professors to teach it in their classrooms. But curriculum belongs to the faculty. We can't tell them to teach social justice."

After three years of making the case for social justice, Jones estimates his office has gotten buy-in from two-thirds of the faculty. Meanwhile, every freshman is required to take a social justice seminar class. In the coming years, all classes taught in students' first year will have service learning components: Jones' office will help pair classes with nonprofits whose work provides both a practical application of the curriculum. The experience will show students ways to improve other people's lives.

Jones said he expected it would take two to three years for the Social Justice Initiative to grow into the Social Justice Institute. Along the way, he didn't expect to see Kimbrough leave ("I told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life. I said, 'I would've made you look so good," Jones said, laughing), nor did he expect to see his successor, Johnny Moore, come and go so quickly. Finalists to be the next president should be announced in the coming weeks.

In the near future, look for the initiative to officially transform into an institute and become more visible. In the fall, it will release a report titled "The State of Black Arkansas," modeled on the Urban League's "The State of Black America." In February, Philander Smith will host an annual social justice conference for students from all over the country. A social justice radio show produced by the institute for Sirius radio is in the works. The institute will also continue Archival Justice, a project that's already begun.

"Philander's contribution to Arkansas's history hasn't, at least from my estimation, been told in a way that explains the deep impact it's had in the state," Jones said. He hopes to correct that through research. "This is about giving voice to those who have been written out or excluded from history."

Somewhere along the way, Jones also plans to finish that book on DuBois he was working on before he took the job at Philander Smith. "I made a promise to my wife. It will be done this year. All I need is a week." LM

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Paul Leopoulus

Paul Leopoulos
Envisions better schools in memory of daughter.

The start of something very good — a foundation that awards scholarships to student artists, performers, designers and writers, and promotes arts-infused education — was something very bad. Thea Leopoulos was 17 when she was killed in a car accident in Little Rock in May 2001. Her father, Paul Leopoulos, said he woke up the day after his daughter's death and despaired that "no one would say her name" again, that "she would cease to exist." Leopoulos and his wife decided the next day to start the Thea Foundation.

It gave him purpose, he said, to create something in her name. Thea's foundation has taken the key that made her excel in school — a confidence-building art class — and given it to students across Arkansas.

"I don't see myself as a visionary," Leopoulos said, "as much as following where things lead me."

The foundation's first scholarship awards, to seniors at North Little Rock High School, totaled $1,000. "One thing lead to another," Leopoulos said, and the foundation began to increase its scholarship categories.

Today, the foundation awards $80,000 to 30 graduating seniors from all over Arkansas, dollars matched (or sometimes exceeded) by 20 state colleges. Thea will announce in September a capital campaign to raise $2 million to endow its scholarship program; the foundation has already raised $1.23 million in pledges.

Other projects brought to fruition by Leopoulos: Thea's A+ program that uses all manner of art forms to teach academic subjects. Its system to provide art supplies to schools. Its Thea Paves the Way sidewalk art chalk event at the Clinton Presidential Center. Its exhibition program for young professionals, The Art Department. A collaboration with other arts institutions to offer arts instruction in schools.

"The cosmos puts this thing in front of you," Leopoulos said, and you act on it. "I'm an early adopter kind of person," he added, "and that can get you real in trouble."

One of those early adopted programs was A+. Leopoulos learned about the teaching system on a visit to Hugh Goodwin Elementary School in El Dorado, where the Windgate Foundation had funded an A+ pilot program. Leopoulos was there to deliver art (from the Art Across Arkansas program, since defunct); when he got there, the principal grabbed him and showed him around so he could see what A+ was doing for the school. Leopoulos saw kids engrossed in their studies. Student scores had shot up exponentially after Hugh Goodwin's teachers embraced A+. "I ran out of the building and I called Linda and I said this is it!"

That was 2007. Since then, the Thea Foundation's A+ network has taken two steps forward, one step backward — the program requires serious teacher and principal buy-in — but now appears to be taking hold. In 2013, there were 12 A+ schools. Today, there are 17, including a program that will start in September at the Division of Youth Services' Arkansas Consolidated High School in Alexander. The Walton Foundation just awarded a grant to the foundation of $572,915 over the next three years to help with costs of A+ training and the creation of a virtual "learning network" for A+ staff, principals and teachers.

The foundation's newest project, Arts Reconstruction, run by the Leopouloses' son Nick, will partner with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Arts Center and Trike Theatre in Bentonville to offer arts classes in school. Unlike A+, this is a program purely to promote the appreciation of the arts, and it's started off with violin classes at four schools. The foundation and symphony provide the instruction and the violins free the first year, with schools picking up a portion of the costs in ensuing years.

It takes a lot of pluck to start so many programs, and "it costs some money," Leopoulos said, putting his head down on the table for emphasis. But, he said, "If you want something done, goddam it, go do it. And if some people want to help, great, but I'm not waiting." LNP

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Darlene Lewis

Darlene Lewis
Selflessly finding jobs for felons.

While lots of people talk about crime and recidivism in Little Rock, it's hard to find those who can point to hard facts and figures to show they're actually doing something about it. One of those few, however, is Darlene Lewis of Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders. An agency that specializes in finding employment for former felons, helping them provide for themselves and their families without falling back into crime, Lewis-Burnett doesn't charge for its services because, Lewis said, she doesn't want to take money out of the pockets of those who have none. They see around 100 people a week, most of them recently former felons.

The roots of the agency started back in 1987, when Lewis became alarmed at the number of young people in her community who had no idea how to get a job, putting them on the fast track to prison. In her spare time, Lewis started sitting down at her kitchen table with friends and family, helping fill out applications and making calls to see who was hiring. Through word-of-mouth, others heard she was willing to help. Soon, she was seeing dozens of people a week, many of them with felony records that barred them from most employment.

Lewis-Burnett was officially founded in 1999, and since then the agency has helped thousands of people a year find work. In addition to employment services, the agency teaches GED classes, computer courses, "dress for success" classes, interview skills and more, all for free. Lewis said the work they do is mostly funded out of her pocket, with help from occasional grants and donations.

"People tell me all the time: 'Why don't you just charge people for finding them a job?' " she said. "If I did, I'd be no better than any of the other agencies. These individuals are struggling to get on their feet."

Housed at the city-owned Willie L. Hinton Center on 12th Street, Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders is in the process of being evicted because Lewis, with very little money coming in, can't afford to pay the $389 monthly rent. She's been told she has to be out by Sept. 1.* Though what the agency does is surely worth $389 a month to the city just in terms of helping fight recidivism, Lewis said that if the eviction goes through, she'll try to find other space and work on to find jobs for those without hope. Hers is often the second face a newly released prisoner sees, after his parole officer.

"The parole officer sends them over to us, and then we're going to do everything in our power to find them a job so they don't go back down that road," Lewis said. "Whatever it takes to help them, that's what I'm going to do. I believe in setting people up for success, not failure." DK

*EDITOR'S NOTE: The day after this story was published, Darlene Lewis called to say she'd received word from City Director Bruce Moore that the city had decided to extend the eviction notice for Lewis-Burnett Employment Finders by 30 days. "He didn't say forever," Lewis said. "He said he was going to extend it for 30 days and see what we can do from there."

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Jeremy Lewno

Jeremy Lewno
Bicycle advocate sees Little Rock going beyond River Trail.

Jeremy Lewno, owner of the bike-tour and rental business Bobby's Bike Hike, grew up taking trips with his father's bus tour company across the country. His father, Lewno said, believed in connecting the state of Arkansas to the rest of the country, and vice versa.

"He'd tell them, 'The thing is you're a piece of Arkansas, and we're not just going out there to explore the rest of the country. We're going out there to bring people back to our state. ... So I want you guys to talk proud that you're from Arkansas, talk about how beautiful it is to the people you meet on these travels.' So he would engage the folks to be ambassadors to the state. I was inspired by that."

Now Lewno himself has aspirations to interconnect different regions within his hometown of Little Rock. When he became the city's bike-pedestrian coordinator at the beginning of 2013, Little Rock had just passed a sales tax to repave existing roads around town. With a bike master plan developed in 2011 that had grown "a little bit dusty," Lewno saw a chance to implement bike infrastructure at no additional cost to the public.

"It's the lowest hanging fruit," Lewno said. "You're just slapping paint on.

"We're also trying to connect everyone to the River Trail. We don't want people to have to drive their bikes. We're going to connect everything at some point so you can ride your bike to the zoo. It's not, 'Oh, do I go for a bike ride on this beautiful day or do I take my kids to the zoo?' No, you bike your kids to the zoo."

Lewno estimates that within the next two years, the city will see a host of new bike lanes to add to the ones already installed under his guidance. Backed by Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, he hopes to oversee a route connecting Daisy Bates to existing lanes on 12th Street, effectively implementing an "east-west corridor," joining UALR, Arkansas Baptist College and Philander Smith along with Central High and Dunbar Middle School.

Lewno's business, Bobby's Bike Hike, named for his late father, has operations in both Chicago and Little Rock. In Little Rock, Bobby's offers a historic neighborhoods tour, which takes bikers to the Quapaw Quarter, MacArthur Park Historic District, Central High, the state Capitol and back along the river trail. Bobby's also offers a pork and bourbon tour and a "Tyke Hike" for families. Lewno said that more than anything, in the face of an obesity epidemic, rising gas prices and a "renaissance of people interested in their own history," he wants to use Bobby's Bike Hike and his role with the city to "engage the community" and "get people healthy."

"I really do believe in biking and active transportation as the future of all good things," he said. CG

Jeff Long image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Jeff Long

Jeff Long
UA athletic director remaking the business of the Hogs.

Frank Broyles had the prescience to move Arkansas into the Southeastern Conference well before the Hogs' old league, the Southwest Conference, collapsed upon itself in the mid-1990s. But it has been Jeff Long who had the foresight to monetize that move in ways Broyles didn't touch before his run as UA athletic director ended on Dec. 31, 2007.

Long, 54, who came to Arkansas from the University of Pittsburgh to become the UA's fourth athletic director in 62 years, isn't without his detractors over his boosting of Razorback coffers and restocking of the athletic department's personnel. Many point to 2011 as the point where longtime midlevel donors began to be turned off with required donations to the Razorback Foundation to secure choice football tickets and game parking for some fans by as much as 200 percent. Long and his staff have continued to preach that even after the donation price hike, Arkansas fans still were enjoying seeing the Hogs at a bargain compared with the SEC powerhouse programs such as Alabama, LSU and Georgia. And, he will add in responding to Hog followers via social media — Long is a regular Twitter user with the average fan — the additional dollars will bring Arkansas's ancillary athletic facilities up to date with the rest of the SEC: a student athlete study center and a basketball "performance" center (a practice facility for men and women) appear to be foremost in Long's priorities, and eventually Reynolds Razorback Stadium may require more skyboxes and expansion at its north end to bring in more revenue to support both men's and women's athletics. Long brought both departments together when he arrived, something Broyles avoided doing.

Thanks to Broyles' move to steer the Hogs to the SEC, Long can look at anticipated payouts of $20 million or more each year from the new SEC Network on cable TV — at least that is the forecast from the financial gurus. Media has always been a Long focal point: One of Long's immediate moves upon getting the job in 2008 was to sign over media rights to what is now under the IMG Sports Management umbrella, bringing in more millions.

Meanwhile, the UA sports department has created its own news site while limiting basic media coverage at football practices from commercial newspapers and TV, all supposedly under edict from Long to bolster the web traffic to the new-and-improved arkansasrazorbacks.com.

Nearly all of the employees who manned the Broyles Athletic Complex or the Razorback Foundation offices before Long arrived are gone. Interestingly, some of Long's choice hires from elsewhere have moved out of athletics to other financial departments on the UA campus, away from Long's purview.

Those who were familiar with Long's four-year stay at Pitt, where he changed the traditional logo and the uniforms while finding new ways to separate the fans from their dollars with seating changes in football and basketball, could see the UA changes coming. He put his stamp on the athletic image of Pitt, which didn't have a tremendous national brand to begin with. At Arkansas, some of his moves have been met with resistance from longtime fans and the old guard of former Hogs, while outside the borders he's been lauded with such honors as Athletic Director of the Year in 2013 by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (in part because of his handling of the Bobby Petrino scandal and subsequent firing). His reputation for integrity in NCAA matters and his dealing with the Petrino incident led to his appointment by the leadership of the Football Bowl Subdivision universities as the chairman of the first-ever College Football Playoff selection committee, which will choose the top four teams to compete for a national title this season. JH

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  • Jeff Matika

Jeff Matika
At Green Day break, guitarist sheds light on local talent.

Jeff Matika moved to Little Rock in 1991. "I kind of thought this was going to be a stepping stone," he said recently. "I'd come here for a couple of years and figure out where I wanted to go." He fell into the music scene, playing shows and hanging out at Vino's until he got a job there, which he kept for 10 years. He toured the country in beloved local bands like Ashtray Babyhead and the Magic Cropdusters, before settling down in the 2000s with an IT job. "I had decided, I'm going to play music forever," he said, "but as a casual thing." Then he got a call from Green Day.

His old friend Jason White, a Little Rock native, had been playing with the band for a decade, and when they decided they needed a touring guitarist, Matika's name came up. He was flown out to Los Angeles and spent a panic-stricken night practicing Green Day songs in a hotel room. His tryout lasted two weeks. "I figured the worst that could happen was I'd get a cool vacation out of this," Matika said. A few months later he was playing the season finale of "Saturday Night Live," sharing a cramped backstage with Tom Hanks and Will Ferrell.

"For me, the big stages are almost not real," he says of his time with the band. "It's just so ridiculous. To play stadiums in Europe, with thousands of people, it's just kind of a blur. Somebody may be looking at me every once in a while, but the chances of me making eye contact with anyone are slim."

It's a long way from Vino's, but Matika found himself missing his hometown venue. Now that Green Day is on break for at least the remainder of the year, he's taken over Vino's booking and hopes to revive some of the '90s spirit of the place. He remembers it as a linchpin of the local music community, a space where young bands who "didn't really have their stuff together" could develop, and though he's aware that "times have changed," he wants to do his part.

He's also started a booking agency, The Poison Shop, through which he hopes he can encourage artists "willing and able to work" to think broader than the local scene. So far, he's working with Bonnie Montgomery, Kevin Kerby, Peckerwolf and Whale Fire, though he knows there are plenty more out there ready for the road. "People need to hear these bands," he said. "They need to get out of Little Rock occasionally and take it to the masses."

When he's on vacation from his role as part of the biggest rock band in the world, he's committed to giving back to the Little Rock scene. "I don't know how long it's going to take to get a foothold on this and get things going again," he said, "but I've got time." WS

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  • April Seggebruch and Stan Zylowski

April Seggebruch and Stan Zylowski
Startup founders battle retail inefficiency, build community.

Stan Zylowski and April Seggebruch were students in the master's in business administration program at the University of Arkansas Walton School of Business when they came up with the idea for a new business: an app to track employees.

Zylowski had worked for vendors selling products in Walmart and Sam's, and he knew that companies operating in retail stores had a problem: They were losing millions of dollars in inefficiency and fraud because they didn't have a system in place to manage remote employees.

"These companies have people all over the United States, and their job is to represent the brand by doing work in the store — like build a display, return products, check in stocks, place an order," Zylowski said. "On a given day, you might have 70 or 80 people working inside a Walmart, for example. All of that stuff was reported via scout's honor. There was no real way to ensure that people were where they were supposed to be, doing what they were supposed to be doing."

Zylowski and Seggebruch came up with a solution: Movista (originally called Merchant View), founded in Bentonville in 2010. "Our job is to take companies and help them mobilize their workforces, particularly through smart devices," Zylowski said. "Everything a worker needs is on a single application on their smart device."

What began as a startup with just the two of them in an office suite has grown to a company with 25 employees and revenues in the multimillions.

Companies tailor Movista's app to their needs, with options for task management, data flows, mapping, document sharing, scheduling, payroll, communications and more. One big advantage for companies is that it allows managers to simply identify where the workers are and track their progress. "First of all, it is their time clock," he said. "It delivers their schedule to them. If you want to really boil it down, it's 'where do I want you to be, what do I want you to be doing, when do I want you to do it? '

"Twenty percent of the time — that was the presumed industry standard — [workers] who said they went to the store didn't go to the store at all. What we saw was an opportunity to apply technology to address a big problem in business."

Movista started with a focus on retail, but Zylowski and Seggebruch expect their concept to be applicable to other businesses, too. "If you think about the problems we're describing in retail, they're really no different than if you're talking about trying to manage pharmaceutical reps or oil field auditors or financial auditors or anybody else," Zylowski said. "You've got people running around, you don't know where they are or what the heck they're doing — you need to be able to harness all that."

As the company has grown, Bentonville has been booming, too; Zylowski called it a "city on fire" in a recent interview. Zylowski and Seggebruch say that Bentonville was a natural home for Movista given the connection to retail, but it was a risk. "Northwest Arkansas four years ago — it was known for supply chain, for logistics, but for tech — never," Seggebruch said.

The city's growth is good news for Movista. "All of the social development and leisure activities around Northwest Arkansas really help us," Seggebruch said. "The [Walmart] AMP in Rogers, the flourishing of downtown Bentonville, it's huge for us because that really supports our efforts to recruit talent into the state."

Zylowski and Seggebruch have taken an active role in fostering business and cultural growth in the region, sitting on boards of the Bentonville Chamber of Commerce, the Rogers public library and Trike, a children's theater in Bentonville. They have also supported a number of businesses, restaurants and commercial and real estate development in downtown Bentonville, including playing a significant role in backing and developing the concept for the highly successful restaurant Tusk and Trotter.

It's a symbiotic relationship between town and company: Zylowski and Seggebruch's activities have helped Bentonville grow, and that growth will help build the sort of community that will allow Movista to attract and retain startup talent.

"You can't put your blinders on and expect the rest of the folks around you to do all the heavy lifting," Seggebruch said. "We participate to the benefit of the community and to the benefit of Movista, because as that tide rises, it lifts the Movista ship."

As companies like Movista succeed and new startups emerge, while cultural and culinary options keep popping up, Zylowski and Seggebruch hope that the various things happening in the "city on fire" will feed on each other.

"It's a shared vision of creating our own Silicon Valley, our own Austin," Seggebruch said. "Not to replicate what they've done, but really to own our Northwest Arkansas culture." DR

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  • Mark Thiedeman

Mark Thiedeman
Making films about sex, religion and the South.

In 2011, a year after Mark Thiedeman returned to Little Rock from New York, he screened a short film called "A Christian Boy" at the Little Rock Film Festival. He describes the short as "nearly silent and totally controversial," which seems right, since the plot summary uses the phrases "evangelical radio program" and "sexual awakening" in the same sentence. Accordingly, he expected the worst. The response surprised him. Not only were audiences supportive, they wanted to help.

This has been the pattern of Thiedeman's career ever since. Each year, he makes another ambitious and uncompromising film about the South that revels in the region's hypocrisies and complexities; and, rather than rejection or confusion, he finds his work increasingly celebrated and embraced. He finds new fans, fundraisers, volunteer crew members. Today, after a widely acclaimed full-length feature ("Last Summer") and this year's award-winning short, "Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls," Thiedeman, 32, is probably the most promising representative of a local film scene that hardly exists, not that he sees this as a problem. "At one point I thought of leaving Little Rock and heading back to New York, but I very quickly changed my mind," he said recently, "because I realized that there's a level of generosity and support that people have for me and for my work that I don't think I would find anywhere else."

Originally from New Orleans, Thiedeman came to Little Rock in middle school, and attended Catholic High, which more than anything else left him lonely and bored (he eventually changed schools, graduating from Parkview).* "I spent a lot of time alone," he said of his high school years, "and the best way I could think of to occupy myself was to watch movies." After Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" convinced him he should be a filmmaker, he enrolled in New York University. "It was a very expensive experience," he said of his time in film school, though he allowed that it gave him the opportunity to study with personal heroes like Kelly Reichardt ("Meek's Cutoff") and become immersed in the retrospectives and independent theaters that have always distinguished the city's film culture.

Thiedeman's films, visually arresting dramas about adolescence, sexuality and Southern identity, are deliberately impressionistic, steeped in the art-house traditions of the 1960s and `70s. "I think that in some ways I feel more of a kinship with Russian filmmakers than I do with American ones," he said. "A lot of Russian films deal with a kind of spiritual conflict that I think is very familiar to me as a Southerner."

His latest effort, "Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls," won the Charles B. Pierce Award for Best Film Made in Arkansas at this spring's Little Rock Film Festival, though Thiedeman describes it as primarily an experiment. Alternating between color and black-and-white, the film is a nuanced portrait of a friendship between two outsiders at a Catholic boarding school. He wanted, he says, "to make a movie that people would actually really enjoy, which isn't typically my first goal as a filmmaker."

Thiedeman is currently in pre-production for his second feature, which he isn't ready to talk about in much detail. In his spare time, he's part of the collective behind Splice Microcinema, the biweekly film screening series held at the design space Few. Thiedeman frequently introduces the films, which are as diverse and as challenging as the selection he had access to in New York. The goal, he says, is "to turn cinema back into an event." WS

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  • Brian Chilson
  • Annabelle Imber Tuck

Annabelle Imber Tuck
Former Supreme Court Justice fights for access to justice.

"If people can't get access to the courts and feel like they're getting a fair shake, that to me is the end of our judicial system," said Annabelle Imber Tuck, a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice — the first woman to be elected to the state Supreme Court — and current chair of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission. "This is so basic. Our country is at a place where people are not sure the legal system is on their side — there's a court system set up only for people who can afford it."

The Access to Justice Commission was created by the state Supreme Court in 2003 and given one directive: "To provide equal access to justice in civil cases for all Arkansans." In a criminal matter, defendants are legally entitled to a public defender if they can't afford an attorney, but no such guarantee exists for low-income people in civil matters, including potentially life-altering problems, such as legal issues related to domestic violence, child custody or housing foreclosures. Two legal aid organizations provide legal services for Arkansans who make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level (that's around $15,000 for an individual or $30,000 for a family of four), and they serviced around 15,000 clients last year, but because of limited capacity, they had to turn away another 15,000. On top of that are thousands more of the working poor who make a little too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to be able to afford an attorney. That's the puzzle the commission, of which Tuck has been a member since 2005, is trying to solve.

One big push has been a focused and organized statewide fundraising effort for legal aid organizations. The Commission has also been active in organizing and recruiting private attorneys to represent clients pro bono or what they call "low bono" (the lawyer volunteers to work for a reduced rate that the client can afford).

Tuck and the Commission are also advocating new approaches beyond traditional full legal representation.

"We can't continue doing the same thing," Tuck said. "Thinking outside the box is the only way we're going to be able to make the courts accessible to people and make the courts actually mean something to people."

One project has been a website (which can be found at arlegalservices.org) that serves as a hub for legal resources, not just for legal aid and pro bono attorneys, but also for the general public. One program, which operates a bit like TurboTax, guides people step by step on how to complete the forms they need for a simple legal action, as well as instructions on what to do.

This program recognizes the reality that more and more people are representing themselves. Tuck acknowledges that it would be better if people were able to hire a lawyer, but given the costs, that simply isn't a realistic option for many Arkansans, about half of whom make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. "You're basically asking people to take food out of their children's mouths, or be homeless, to pay for a lawyer," she said. "That's not going to happen."

The other innovation the Commission is promoting is "unbundling." The basic idea is that private attorneys would offer limited services for the more complicated aspects of the case or court appearances rather than full representation. Clients would take on the less complicated parts of the case, representing themselves, perhaps by consulting arlegalservices.org. The goal is to make this piecemeal representation profitable for private attorneys via higher volume, but more affordable for clients who are willing to take on some of the work themselves. "It's a new economic model," Tuck said. "The private bar will get access to more clients" and, rather than paying for an online service like LegalZoom that may have inaccurate information, lower-income Arkansans will be able to get legal help they can afford.

Tuck calls it a three-legged stool: 1) Full representation via legal aid, pro bono and "low bono" attorneys for the most complicated cases; 2) helping people with the tools they need to represent themselves on simple cases and 3) encouraging private attorneys to use the "unbundled" model for cases somewhere in between. The more success they have developing the latter two, the more resources legal aid will be able to devote to the clients who need the most help.

"We should be able to have an organized and effective way to make our courts accessible to our citizens," Tuck said. "That's where my passion is. If we don't do this, then there will be a real disconnect between regular folks out there in America, such that the court system will only be a court system for hire. It will not be a court system available to every citizen. As the third branch of government, we have an obligation, so that courts will remain independent and viable in this country. Why would people want to invest in a justice system that is not there for them?" DR

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  • John Van Brahana

John Van Brahana
Geologist works to protect Buffalo River watershed.

When Dr. John Van Brahana, a recently retired University of Arkansas geology professor, heard about the details of C&H Hog Farm, the first (and so far only) facility in the state to get a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit, he was alarmed.

C&H is located in Mt. Judea near Big Creek, one of the largest tributaries of the Buffalo National River. Critics believe that the waste produced by the facility's 6,500 hogs poses an unacceptable risk to the Buffalo River watershed, as well as odor and health concerns for the Mt. Judea area.

Brahana is an expert in the unique karst geology of the Ozarks, with its irregular limestone formations. Karst areas are porous; it's extremely unpredictable where the water that so easily soaks in will reappear.

Brahana wrote a letter to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality in June 2013: "I know of no active karst consultant who recommends that a CAFO be sited on karstified limestone, particularly upgradient from so sensitive a natural resource as the Buffalo National River, with its direct-contact use by canoeists, fishermen, and swimmers." His letter was ignored.

Concerned about the environmental risks from the more than 2 million gallons of hog crap and wastewater that the facility will generate, Brahana began volunteering his time to do water testing and monitoring in the Mt. Judea area. His work has focused on two areas: attempting to determine water pathways below the surface, and testing water for pollution.

Brahana injects a non-oxic dye into the groundwater; the dye acts as a sort of fingerprint that allows Brahana to determine how quickly the water is moving and where it's going. The dyes "are moving through rapidly and they are not being attenuated in any way," he said. "If it was contaminants instead of dye, if contaminants get to this level in the rock that's immediately below the soil, then we've got some problems." This mapping will also help establish where to focus future water sampling efforts.

Brahana has also done water testing for people in the Mt. Judea area. About 40 property owners have invited Brahana to test their water for nutrients and bacteria (Brahana offered to do the testing for C&H but the farm declined). The goal of this initial testing has been to establish a baseline; Brahana will follow up with future testing to try to monitor whether the hog farm is leading to pollution in the area.

The state legislature last year approved funding for pollution testing and monitoring on the farm, work that will be done by water and soil experts at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Brahana expressed great respect for the UA testing and the scientists involved but said that their directive — focusing on nutrient management and monitoring the soil and surface streams — was insufficient given the terrain. This has been Brahana's concern from the beginning, starting with the permit itself. "They didn't look at ground water, and they didn't look at karst," he said. "The groundwater moves as quickly as water in a stream — except that exact location of pathways is very difficult to predict. The high velocity of the water in conduits is capable of transporting sediment, organic matter, fecal waste and dissolved solids from the CAFO."

With funding from conservation groups and private donors, Brahana plans to continue the work that he believes ADEQ should have done in the first place, and to communicate with state officials about his findings. "I am grievously concerned," he said. "These are special places and they justify being a little careful about how we treat the land and the water." DR

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  • Yash Mori
  • Rosa Velázquez

Rosa Velázquez
DREAMer works to empower Arkansas immigrants.

In 2012, Rosa Velázquez traveled from her home in De Queen to Washington, D.C., to speak to the Obama administration about a proposed change in immigration policy that would eventually grow into the memorandum known as DACA, or "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals." DACA, which was officially authored by the White House a few months after that meeting, directs U.S. immigration agencies to exercise prosecutorial discretion in deporting individuals who are illegally residing in the U.S. but originally came here as young children. It's since become a blessing for some 580,000 young people who have lived in the U.S. for as long as they can remember — and a dirty word to many conservative activists who say such acts of compassion fuel more illegal immigration.

Although Velázquez and others in her group, a delegation from a national organization called United We Dream, were invited to the table by administration officials, the meeting had to take place in a nearby church rather than inside the White House. That's because Velázquez and several other activists couldn't pass a White House security clearance: They didn't have government-issued identification. They were, and are, undocumented.

"I have been in the U.S. for the past 26 years," says Velázquez, who was brought to Southwest Arkansas by her mother when she was 5 years old. She quickly learned English as a child, and by the time she was a senior in high school she knew what she wanted to do with her life: go to college and become an English teacher herself.

She won a scholarship to Ouachita Baptist University. Then she discovered her status rendered her ineligible.

"It was not until I had my scholarship taken away that I knew what it really meant to not have a green card," Velázquez recounted. "And since then, I've had difficulty going back to college and finishing a degree. So that's why I'm still working for immigration reform, because I go back to that day and I see kids who are in that situation now."

Velázquez is the co-founder of Arkansas Coalition for DREAM, one of several Arkansas groups that successfully pressured on Sen. Mark Pryor to support a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. (It has since stalled in the House.) Arkansas Coalition for DREAM also holds workshops to help eligible immigrants apply for DACA.

"We have 12,000 people that could qualify for DACA in the state of Arkansas, but only 3,000 have applied. We still have a large pool of students that haven't been able to be reached," she said. But the undocumented immigrants are only one part of the picture: There are many tens of thousands more immigrants in Arkansas who are U.S. citizens, or legal residents who could one day become citizens.

"There are 100,000 Asian and Latino voters in the state of Arkansas that could potentially turn out to vote," she said. "We're going to be focusing a lot on civic engagement [this year]. We're doing door-to-door voter registration. We're going to help the people who are legal permanent residents qualify to become citizens through the workshops that we have; then we'll come knock on their doors and get them registered to vote.

"I think numbers are important, but at the end of the day when you're able to change a life by providing that service, and six months later they have their license or their Social Security number? That's life changing. I get messages at 11 p.m. saying, 'I got my certificate, I'm a citizen' or 'I got my social.' I don't have words for stuff like that." BH

George West image
  • Brian Chilson
  • George West

George West
Teacher encourages students to give voice to discrimination.

In 2005, George West, a civics and economics teacher at Little Rock Central High, hosted in his classroom a group of Japanese-American visitors who, once held at the World War II Japanese internment camps at Rohwer and Jerome, had returned to Arkansas to take part in a memorial event sponsored by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. The visitors told stories to West's students, who were encouraged to take notes and ask questions. West himself videotaped it.

After that conversation, West, who loves journal prompts, asked the students to scribble something they remembered their guests sharing, whether a story or a simple truism. Then he added part B — "Why do you think that story sticks in your mind?" — and part C —"Why do you think this story would be important for others to know?"

"There wasn't this usual inhibition about putting thoughts into words on a piece of paper with pencil in hand," West said. "I understood then that that was the prompt that unlocked the reactions and the responses the students were having to this story that a person had shared with them."

So West, alongside fellow civics teachers Cynthia Nunnley and Keith Richardson, developed lesson plans calling on all of their ninth grade students to go home over Thanksgiving break and interview their relatives or older family friends about their experiences with discrimination, whether as a member of a movement or as an isolated individual.

The stories flowed in — not just those from the Central High crisis or even just the African-American Civil Rights Movement, but stories from the Tiananmen Square protests, stories of life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, stories of marrying outside a strict Indian caste system, stories of sexual assault in the workplace. Under the guidance of West, Nunnley and Richardson, a small team of particularly driven students assembled to read the hundreds of essays that were pouring in and collectively answer part C of the original journal prompt for each one. Out of hundreds, they published the 60 "most important" essays in a book called "Beyond Central, Toward Acceptance." A little over two years later, a new wave of students read a new wave of essays and published a new anthology, "Mapping the Road to Change: Insights on Perception, Prejudice and Acceptance." The team also created a website, lrchmemory.org.

In making presentations to various conferences around the state and the nation, Memory Project team members such as Central seniors Ginny Greer, Sally Goldman and junior Eric Peters have developed a storytelling method called the Griot Project, named for the tradition of wandering storytellers and oral poets in West Africa. The method demands that members of the Memory Project team commit to memory a story that resonates with them and then retell the story in a way that "gives voice" to the person who originally told it.

For its emphasis on recording lessons from the past, West said, the Memory Project represents not only the opportunity to ask questions about history, but also stories that weren't so commonly told 60 years ago, such as those of the LGBT community or those of Mexican and Central American immigrants.

"It's not one person's vision," West said. "And if it were, it would just peter out. Actually it's every person's. The project becomes a way to envision not just the events of the past, but current issues of present-day life in Little Rock and America." CG

Sherece West-Scantlebury image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Sherece West-Scantlebury

Sherece West-Scantlebury
Nonprofit director moves the needle.

Next to the Walton Family Foundation and the Walton Charitable Support Foundation, Little Rock's Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is the big dog among Arkansas nonprofits, a funder that's both large enough to get the attention — and dollars — of massive national foundations and sufficiently engaged in Arkansas to have its stamp on much of the state's nonprofit infrastructure. Last year, the foundation gave $3.2 million in grants to 77 groups working in Arkansas. Since it was founded 40 years ago, it's supported hundreds of Arkansas nonprofits and granted more than $140 million.

"I don't know if people realize the important role nonprofits play in civil society in the state," Sherece West-Scantlebury, president and CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation, said recently, while her two little dogs, Peaches and Herb, scurried around her feet in the foundation's River Market district office. "We need to keep it a flourishing, strong sector, so it can provide the kinds of support and services needed to kids and families throughout the state, especially in our rural communities."

When West-Scantlebury was hired to head the foundation in 2007, the board asked her to develop a strategic plan for the coming years. She came up with Moving the Needle, an ambitious set of goals for making Arkansas a better place. The plan calls for taking steps to increase prosperity (the glass half-full version of reducing poverty), increasing educational attainment, strengthening communities (especially those that have been marginalized) and building nonprofit infrastructure.

The way the WRF gets things done, of course, is by providing resources. But it's far from a passive partner, West-Scantlebury said. "We're a transformational foundation, not transactional. We don't just write checks. With our goals, we're very intentional."

One of the WRF's initiatives, "Why Arkansas?", asks and answers why the state is a place where outside do-gooders can find a high return on investment (chief among the reasons is our relatively small population). Such a campaign seems hardly necessary considering Arkansas's low rank among all sorts of educational, health and wealth categories compared to other states. But urban areas typically attract the attention of national funders and the federal government first, West-Scantlebury said.

As the foundation's 40th anniversary in December nears, look for it to be more vocal about the good works its grantees are doing in the state. West-Scantlebury said the foundation will spread the good word, so that people say things like, " 'Wow, there are some great things happening in Eudora or Luxora or other parts of the state.' " LM

Robin White image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Robin White

Robin White
Central High Site superintendent seeks dialogue about race and reconciliation.

For Robin White, "dialogue" is everything. When she came to Little Rock in 2008 to become superintendent of the National Park Service's Central High School historic site, she brought with her plans to make the site into a world heritage center, where groups from around the globe could engage in productive conversation.

"People are uncomfortable with talking about race, OK?" White said. "But I think there can be no reconciliation until we go to the root of the problem, until we really address our disparities, our differences. Why is my dark skin a sin? What made me so different? Or why is it painful for you to look at me? Why do you hate me? Those things we need to talk about and our fears of things that are different, of people that are different, because it boils down to our lack of knowledge and fear."

Next summer, White and the historic site will host the 2015 Social Justice Conference, "My America: Moving Beyond the Color Line: Civil War to Civil Rights," to address some of these questions. White has invited speakers to discuss, among other topics, Arkansas's history in the context of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears and Japanese internment in World War II. She hopes it will lead to wider discussion, debate and dialogue.

"This is our history," White said. "The thing is, this is not black history. This is America's history. That's why I said this is my America, my America. What does America think of me? I love who I am. I love my country. Does my country love me?"

During White's tenure as superintendent, the historic site has sponsored programs like the Central High Memory Project, organized by another Times' Visionary, George West; an annual poetry slam at the Mosaic Templars Center, and the Youth Leadership Academy, a service-learning club that involved a group of high school students in education about the historic site and in engagement with the community around Central High. White sees more room for expansion of educational programs.

"What we really need to do is have a summer program for the youth here," White said. "Or we should have an after-school tutoring program. We could also open the doors and have a language-learning program. We could do that."

As a young woman, White herself attended school in the North, but her "rearing was on plantations, whether in New Orleans, South Carolina or Mississippi."

"I was married to the South. But I also knew, bearing witness to the things that were happening, that I was going to have to make a difference, and this is it, coming into this agency. Whether it's working with gangs, whether it's working with Native American tribes or the Latino community, everywhere I go I'm part of the universe, and my job is to make a difference. I don't look at myself as an agent of change. I look at myself as part of the problem, and I have to become part of the solution." CG

Andrea Zekis image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Andrea Zekis

Andrea Zekis
Advocate for transgender rights fights for community.

Before Andrea Zekis made the decision to transition into living as a woman in July 2009, a friend told her that she should be prepared to lose something: a home, a job, or family. It turned out that, among other things, she lost part of her old life. Originally from Illinois, Zekis moved to Arkansas in 2005, and worked three years for a local TV station before following her childhood dream and taking a job as a mapmaker for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, where she's been for five years. Soon after getting the job with the Highway Department, she made the decision to transition. The next time she visited friends at her old job, she said, she was turned away. "I was no longer welcome in the newsroom," she said. "They thought that I was going to be a distraction."

After a trip to the national LGBT conference Creating Change, Zekis was asked to lobby Arkansas politicians during the National Center for Transgender Equality's Transgender Lobby Day on Capitol Hill. She decided to not only stop living "stealth," but to become an outspoken activist for trans equality in Arkansas.

She formed the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition in February. The group has since held town hall meetings all over the state, and has put together one of Arkansas's first surveys of how transgender people view their access to health care. Zekis has also worked with other advocates to organize an online list of trans-friendly service providers in the state, including doctors, therapists and support groups. The list is available at artranscoalition.org

"Part of what I was hoping with a statewide organization was to say, 'If you live in Little Rock or Fayetteville, that's great, but you don't have to live there to have access to education and resources and to find a community,' " she said. "There are transpeople who drive two or three hours to Little Rock from Hope or Mena just to see a doctor, and that's a burden."

While the number of transgender Arkansans has been estimated at over 9,000, Zekis said that figure may be low. Getting a more accurate picture of the trans community, she said, is one of the coalition's short-term goals. They'll be holding another town hall in Fort Smith in September, and the group took 14 transgender Arkansans to D.C. for Transgender Lobby Day this year, where they met with Arkansas's representatives from both parties.

As the Transgender Equality Coalition comes together, Zekis said, it's important to her that the group is a collaborative effort, with "a table that's big enough for everyone who wants to be at that table," including transpeople, parents, spouses, family, friends and allies both gay and straight. Zekis said she feels like she's helping to make her adopted home a better place.

"I love my life now," she said. "I love Arkansas, and I will defend Arkansas when I go and talk to other folks outside of the state. ... Arkansas has always been a place that had a little bit of everything. There's a place for everyone in this state. Everyone is able to find their place here." DK

*This sentence has been updated to reflect the correction that Thiedeman graduated from Parkview.

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