Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Ten years after its formation, the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality continues to grow under the leadership of its first full-time employee, Executive Director Susan Hartman.
For Hartman, nonprofit work has been a lifelong calling. She previously worked in areas of domestic violence awareness, hunger relief and suicide prevention. "I've always been drawn to community service and activism," she says. "I had over 30 years' nonprofit experience, and I finally wanted to bring that to my own community in my own hometown."
The center traces its roots to the Northwest Arkansas Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, a grassroots organization that focused on local advocacy, and, in 2015, merged with Northwest Arkansas Pride, the organization responsible for the pride parade and celebration held each June.
Hartman says reinvigorating the organization is one of her primary missions. She's proud of the fact that the center has survived 10 years, a rare feat in the world of LGBTQ nonprofits, but knows that to stay meaningful the center has to change with the community. "We're an organization that's got to keep growing and changing," she says. "With the huge population increase in Northwest Arkansas, the size of our community has increased proportionally. From  to now, we're seeing an ever-increasing level of diversity in who our community members are. We have diversity in age, in income, careers, in lifestyles — singles, married, raising children, in race and nationality. It's our job at the center to make sure that every segment can call us home." Now that same-sex marriage is legal, Hartman believes it is important that the community does not become complacent. "Our work is far from done. The issues of quality of life are still the same as they were before the ruling."
Hartman wants the center to be a resource for community members who are looking to build networks and put down roots. "Northwest Arkansas is a community that had has a variety of responses to the LGBTQ community as a whole, but we still face a lack of understanding and fear, and even hate in the community," she says. "There's still a powerful need for our work, but we have to be strategic in how we go about it."
A large part of that strategy will be informed by NWA LGBTQ Next, the center's new census program, which aims to take the first-ever census of the LGBTQ community in Benton and Washington counties. "We want to meet the needs of our community as well as we possibly can, but first we need to understand just who our community is and what their needs actually are," Hartman says. The census will begin in October, with results to be published in December. Along with an online survey and canvasing, the project will include at least two town hall meetings and one-on-one interviews hosted by the center. "This project will really guide us for the next five to 10 years," Hartman says. "Hopefully this will be a model that other LGBTQ organizations across the nation can emulate."
Having concrete demographic data would not just be a first for Northwest Arkansas, but also Arkansas and the South, and it would allow the center to target its fundraising efforts. With the hiring of a full-time executive director, and the existing board of directors shifting from a managerial to a governance role, fundraising is important to the center's growth.
Hartman has big plans for ways in which she'd like to see the center grow. Its two year-round programs, a series of peer support groups and NWA Hope, an HIV education and testing program, are popular, but Hartman would like to see the formation of a diversity business association that would showcase LGBTQ-owned businesses as well as employers who are looking for a more diverse workforce, along with more programing for LGBTQ youth and senior citizens in the area.
The center's tent pole program, the annual pride celebration in June, has grown from 200 participants in 2007 to almost 5,000 in 2015. "Pride really enables us to have a constant visibility to the greater Northwest Arkansas community. It reminds people that the LGBTQ community is a solid component of this area," Hartman says. "I personally would like to create programming that gives people a reason to stay in Northwest Arkansas. We want LGBTQ Arkansas to know that they don't have to leave home to experience a great quality of life."
The Center's next event will be Northwest Arkansas Equality Night, which it will co-host with the University of Arkansas Alumni Association's PRIDE Alumni Society. The Nov. 11 fundraiser will feature Emmy award-winning actor and playwright Leslie Jordan, who'll give the keynote address. Tickets for the event range from $30 to $50 and can be purchased at nwaequality.org.