Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Way back in 2006, we ran a cover story called "Who Cares?" that spotlighted eight young Arkansans under 35 who were doing great things for their community. The idea was to offer a kind of antidote to those who see the younger generation as hopeless, apathetic and disconnected.
Fortune's wheel, as Will Shakespeare was wont to say, is always turning. It's a whole different world now: gas prices through the roof, a looming deficit crisis and the ongoing Great Recession, with the economy way, way down and unemployment way, way up.
Even in the face of that seeming despair, a good number of young folks in Arkansas are just as motivated and positive as ever about the future. To prove it, we've rounded up eight more sub-35-year-olds who are doing extraordinary things for their state and the nation.
What's that feeling in our chests when we recall our conversations with them? Ah, yes: hope. And they've brought enough to share.
WHAT HE CARES ABOUT: The homeless
If Jesus comes back, he's probably not coming to the big church out on the freeway. More than likely, he'll be riding shotgun with Aaron Reddin. The owner of The Van — a non-profit that delivers food, clothes and other necessities directly to the homeless — Aaron is an ol' school Christian of the sort that would likely make that rabble-rousing carpenter from Bethlehem proud.
As a teen-ager, Reddin wound up addicted to meth and living in his car. After getting clean and landing a job at the Union Rescue Mission, Reddin found faith and discovered his calling: bringing comfort to the downtrodden. A few years back, he started a drive among friends to collect used coats for the needy. From there, he started packing his car with donated items — everything from socks to canned food to underwear — and cruising the streets at night, giving freely to anyone who looked like they needed help. All while working his full-time day job at the St. Francis House shelter.
"If someone's got a need, we're going to meet it," he said. "Our slogan is: No rules, no apologies, just help."
About a year ago, Reddin officially started his non-profit, The One Inc., which operates The Van. The Van got its namesake when Reddin posted on Facebook that he needed a panel truck to haul things. That same day, a car dealer friend from Benton saw his request, and asked a car-dealing colleague if he had a van. He did. "The dude said: 'Don't move, I'm coming to get it,' " Reddin recalled. "He went over there, bought it from him, dropped it off at my friend's business and walked back to his car lot ... He refuses to let me tell anybody who he is."
These days, the simple white van and Reddin's mission have a loyal following of more than 1,000 fans on Facebook (www.facebook.com/itsthevan). The van itself is a bit sun-faded, but every surface is covered with the scrawled love of people Reddin has met along the way.
While The Van is technically a faith-based operation, Reddin doesn't have much nice to say about Christianity in America. He says it's a travesty that anyone should go hungry while churches costing millions of dollars are being built. "I'm pretty sure that my Jesus, today, would be in prison for arson," Reddin said, "because he'd probably burn down the big churches."
Reddin hopes to have another van operating in Memphis by this winter, and is currently building a shower and laundry trailer that he can tow to homeless camps (he needs stackable washer/dryers, pumps and a tankless water heater if anyone wants to help). He is, he says, very proud to be part of a generation that does things instead of talking about them. "We're sick of the bullshit," he said. "We're sick of the bureaucracy. We're sick of — especially young people in the church — 'Well, this committee has to meet. We've got $20,000 in the bank to help, but we've got to wait until next month's meeting to discuss it.' Well, that doesn't do a whole lot of good for all the frickin' people in your back yard who need help right now."
WHAT HE CARES ABOUT: Abolishing the death penalty.
There's a quote he heard somewhere that sticks with Christian Ruud: It's better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. It's an idea that's got quite a bit of import on why Ruud signed on in March 2010 as the first executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
A native of Wisconsin who lived in Minnesota for 12 years before moving to Little Rock in January 2010, Ruud was an insurance company attorney in his old life. Minnesota doesn't have the death penalty, so the issue really wasn't on his professional radar. After moving to Arkansas, though, he found himself square in the Death Penalty Belt, the Southern states that execute a greater percentage of their population than anywhere else in the country. "It's kind of like the Bible Belt," Ruud said. "There's probably a number of reasons why that is. There's higher crime in the South. There tends to be areas of greater poverty, so there's socioeconomic factors. It just seems like whatever reason people want to use the death penalty, there's a perfect meeting of those reasons in the Southern states."
Though there are ample inconsistencies with the way the death penalty is applied — more blacks are put to death than whites, more killers of whites are put to death than killers of blacks, more poor prisoners are put to death than middle-class ones — the ultimate question for Ruud is: Can we be sure we're not killing an innocent person? He says the answer, borne out by more than 100 exonerations of death row inmates in the past 30 years, is no.
"Although the police are, by and large, doing the best they can in really difficult situations, mistakes just sometimes happen," he said. "Prosecutors, by and large, do the best they can, but mistakes just happen. And the way the system is set up, there's just no guarantee that a mistake can't be made and an innocent person won't be put to death."
Ruud points out that Arkansas has a better track record than most adjoining states when it comes to the death penalty. There hasn't been an execution in five years, and the legislature has been willing to look at the issue in the past, including moving to exempt juveniles from capital punishment before the Supreme Court ruling made it a moot issue. Still, Ruud is working to push the ball forward, spreading the word of the group's mission through social media and outreach. He said the pendulum is starting to swing against the death penalty, even among conservatives, mostly because it's expensive and it doesn't deter crime.
"What's interesting about this cause, if you want to call it that," he said, "is that it brings together people from all over the political spectrum who agree on nothing else. But they can agree on this, because nobody wants to see an innocent person get executed. Nobody wants that."
WHAT SHE CARES ABOUT: Latino communities in Arkansas.
It's the luck of the draw that Mireya Reith considers herself an Arkansan, and is committed to fighting for the rights of Arkansas Latinos. When she was a girl, her father was looking to move somewhere a bit warmer than Wisconsin, where Reith was born. He found a list somewhere of the top five towns in America. The choice was between Silver City, N.M., and Fayetteville. After one trip, her father fell in love with Northwest Arkansas.
Reith spent summers with her mother's family in Mexico, but "Arkansas is my home," she said. "When I was growing up here, it was a very different place, especially in Northwest Arkansas. There really wasn't much diversity up here in this corner of the state. I think it was always my desire in general to be part of something bigger."
While Reith ended up going abroad with international groups like the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in Washington, D.C., working in HIV-AIDS policy development for the United Nations Development Programme and serving as an observer for Global Exchange during Mexico's 2000 presidential elections, that "something bigger" she was looking for really started to reveal itself during the 2008 election, when Reith signed on with Latinos for Obama. Their work on the ground in Northern Virginia helped flip the state's election totals from red to blue. "For us, it was an awakening, and I think an inspiration as well," she said. "In the case of Virginia, we did successfully change how that state voted." Seeking to harness the momentum from the election, Reith and friends founded The New Latino Movement, a nationwide association of young professionals committed to the civic engagement of Latinos all across the county.
"All of us that were involved in that process felt that we really had our finger on something," she said. "Maybe there was an opportunity here to introduce some new strategies, especially to those working in the Hispanic community, in terms of supporting and engaging and getting our community informed and involved."
Since moving back to the state, Reith worked as Hispanic Outreach Director for the Democratic Party of Arkansas, and is credited with helping double the Latino voter turnout between 2008 and 2010. She also was recently appointed by Governor Beebe to serve on the state Board of Education.
Reith founded a New Latino Movement chapter in the state, and is still instrumental in shaping the national direction of the group. In coming months, she will be working to get a new non-profit called The Arkansas United Community Coalition off the ground. The goal, she said, is to have a full-time, fully staffed non-profit open in Springdale by October 2011.
"We'll be working in general to promote the value of immigrants and their contributions here in Arkansas," she said, "primarily doing that through a strategy of grassroots organizing and community building — really helping communities, and especially immigrant communities here in Arkansas identify their vision for change. What are their hopes and their aspirations for their community? Helping them prioritize what is the greatest issue for them, and to actually help them commit to taking action."
WHAT HE CARES ABOUT: Future black business leaders.
At an age when most young men worry about nothing more taxing than which one of their roommates drank the last beer, Ivan Hudson has a lot on his plate. The president of the Young Black Professionals of Arkansas, Hudson is shepherding in the next generation of black business leaders and opinion-makers in the state and trying to help stop a "brain-drain" that funnels the best and brightest out of the state.
A native of Tulsa with a business degree from the University of Arkansas, Hudson moved to Little Rock in September 2006. For the past two years, he's served as diversity business enterprise manager with the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. A member of the YBPA since 2007, he was elected president in March 2010 after serving as vice president of the group for two years.
The non-profit, which counts about 50 active members, was founded in 2006. Its members promote leadership with community service and networking. Since Hudson joined the YBPA, the group has participated in the Black Firefighters Association's back-to-school drives, held voter registration drives and hosted candidates' forums during the presidential and midterm elections. The average age for members is in the late 20s, he said, though they don't have a minimum or maximum age limit.
"We say 'young at heart,' " he said. "We've got some folks in the 50s and 60s who are active members and support the organization. They also serve as mentors to us. The name implies youth, but it also implies that you've got to be of a certain ethnic group, but that's not really the case. We have members from various ethnic backgrounds involved and we welcome that membership. We just want to be able to play a vital role in diversifying opportunities as it relates to leadership in Arkansas." That includes serving as a conduit to funnel black professionals to spots on non-profit boards and commissions.
Little Rock has a hard time retaining good minority leadership, Hudson adds, because the quality of life for young, educated African-Americans is seen as better elsewhere. "From a young person's standpoint, and specifically minorities, there's a brain-drain," he said. "It's easy for someone to pick up and get what is perceived as a better quality of life and a better standard of living in Dallas or Houston or somewhere outside of Arkansas, just because of the perceived lack of opportunities here."
As for Hudson, he's staying put, and trying through his work with the YBPA to help keep others here as well. "There's a huge void that needs to be filled," he said. "As long as I'm here, I feel like I can bring my resources and bring my know-how to the table to try and just make a difference. It's not easy, but you celebrate progress even if it's marginal. I've planted some seeds, and I care about nourishing those seeds and I care about seeing them grow."
WHAT HE CARES ABOUT: Arkansas film and film-making.
Growing up on a farm in tiny Hughes, Ark., film was a kind of magic for young Jack Lofton. After working to get the Little Rock Film Festival off the ground for the last five years and now moving on to found his own online hub for filmmakers around the state, it still is.
Born in Memphis, Lofton was raised in a quiet neighborhood in Dallas until the fourth grade, when his father inherited a working rice farm in Hughes. Marooned there in The Land that Cable TV Forgot with only his four siblings and a video camera for entertainment, his imagination bubbled to the surface.
"We were very creative," he said. "We would write plays. We'd use the video camcorder to make films, and that was something I was very passionate about. It got me into local theater." His father would often make him sit down and watch classic film marathons, and though the town had no theater, the video selection at the local mom-and-pop grocery store — run by an Asian owner with a taste for independent film — helped set the cinematic hook early.
Later, Lofton threw himself into acting with the same zeal he'd later bring to his role as executive director of the Little Rock Film Festival. He went to Lyon College on an acting scholarship, and eventually graduated with a double major in theater and political science. He was at a crossroads: find something to do in Arkansas, or go to Hollywood. He chose the bright lights, and eventually served as Joaquin Phoenix's stand-in on "Walk the Line" before realizing that he really wanted to be behind the camera. "I was weighing the choice of going to the William Morris mailroom, or coming back here [to Arkansas] and getting into law school," Lofton said. "When I came back here to do that [it] was right after the film festival was founded, and a few months before [school] was about to start. I immediately got plugged in with them."
Thanks to student loans, Lofton said he was able to work for the LRFF dirt cheap. He was with the festival for five years, but made the "mutually beneficial" decision to hang up his spurs this year to pursue his own projects. He's currently finishing up a law degree while simultaneously directing and editing three documentaries, including a doc about former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and another called "God Hates Gaga," about the Westboro Baptist Church picketing a concert by Lady Gaga during a blizzard. The big news for Lofton, however, is that he is gearing up to launch an online clearing house for www.arkfilm.org, which will deal with "anything and everything" about film and media in Arkansas, including providing a statewide location and crew database. Most of all, he just wants to help film and film making thrive in the state he calls home.
"I've planted my roots here, and I'm devoted to the community at this point," he said. "I've been given a lot, and instead of me packing up and working in New York or L.A., which I'm sure I could do, it satisfies me much more to be in the community, to stay where I'm from and make it happen here."
WHAT SHE CARES ABOUT: The Democratic Party of Arkansas.
As someone who has bled Democrat blue since she was old enough to know who the president was, this year's Republican sweep during the mid-term elections made Jessica DeLoach nervous.
"I sat up very late that night watching the results come in, thinking: OK, catch your breath," she said. "This is the pendulum swinging back the other way. This is a first-term president, his first go-round with midterm elections. We've seen this before. ... It's very easy to be disappointed, but you can't let that disappointment take the front seat from political knowledge. For those of us who do have that knowledge, it's important for us to believe."
The president of the Young Democrats of Arkansas since May 1, DeLoach has been a believer for a long time. She said the "sweet, funny answer" for why she's a Democrat would be that her grandmother down in El Dorado raised her that way. The real reason, though, goes deeper even than blood. "I'm a Democrat because I believe that out of every political party I've ever studied, this is a group that — no matter how many people criticize it — there are people in this party who truly believe in improving the lives of other people. ... I've found a resting place for the things that I believe in under this party. I think it's that personal side of it that keeps me here."
Now finishing up a triple-major bachelor's degree at UALR — political science, liberal studies and theater — DeLoach said the Democratic Party offers the kind of "mental freedom" that's often lacking in the modern GOP. "Use the pro-choice issue," she said. "There are plenty of Democrats who are pro-choice, and there are plenty who are pro-life. And we all tolerate each other. The issues are emotional on the surface, but at the core, we can ask what's best for our society." DeLoach says that same sense of ideological freedom is increasingly being pushed out of the Republican Party. "There are so many smart, talented, true Republicans," she said. "They are dedicated to community service. They do care. But they're being shouted down right now by the idiocy and the lies. I'm still shocked that people want to get rid of the EPA. That one just goes right over my head. "
Even though she may never cast a vote for a Republican (she keeps the option open, she said, but never has), DeLoach knows she lives in an increasingly red state. While she acknowledges the outlook for the Democratic Party in Arkansas may not be rosy, she said it's still not hopeless by a long shot. She said the future of the state — who will lead it, and where — lies in the hands of voters who lean Democrat.
"You have to make a decision," she said. "I'm going to stay home on Election Day based on my shade of blue, or I'm going to see the bigger picture and see how quickly this state can change if we lose the state legislature. Yes, it's becoming more red, but it's definitely not worth giving up on."
WHAT SHE CARES ABOUT: Underprivileged children and families.
In her small office in the old Union Station near downtown Little Rock, Susana O'Daniel doesn't have her master's or bachelor's degrees framed and displayed. Instead, she's hung the 25-plus-year-old certificate she got as a girl when she graduated from a Head Start pre-K program, and a colored map of Arkansas, showing each county's average life expectancy. The life expectancy gap between the poorest counties — those in the Delta — and the richest counties in the state is 10 years wide. As a community outreach coordinator and lobbyist for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a non-profit that does public policy research, outreach and lobbying in favor of social welfare and social legislation issues all over the state, O'Daniel said she keeps her Head Start certificate and the map within sight to remind her of why the work they do there matters.
Born in Denton, Texas ("I don't bring up Texas in mixed company," she said; "it doesn't do me any favors"), O'Daniel was raised in Mena. When she was a girl, O'Daniel's mother, a library director, often gave her books that profiled social justice heroes like Cesar Chavez and Gandhi. She decided at a young age to try to devote her life to being an advocate for change. "I just knew really early on that there were some injustices in this world," she said. "I thought: That is wrong, and what can I do to change that?"
A political junkie — when she was 11, she gave up Saturday morning cartoons and started watching Saturday morning C-SPAN — O'Daniel's primary focus is lobbying at the state level on tax and budget issues. While that might sound about as interesting as swatting gnats, O'Daniel's excitement for her job is infectious, as is her respect for the AACF, which helped push through the ARKids First legislation, and which has lobbied for bills to benefit everything from foster child welfare to the pro-immigrant DREAM Act. In the latest session, O'Daniel was instrumental in securing a fix for an error in a 2007 law that had placed a higher state tax burden on one of Arkansas's most vulnerable groups. "When that bill was drafted," O'Daniel said, "there was an error in the writing, and it actually worked to exclude single head of household with two or more dependents." AACF tried unsuccessfully to change the law in the 2009 session. "We were really thrilled that in this session, we were able to get that fixed." She's currently gearing up for the next session, where she will — among other initiatives — help push the idea of an Arkansas earned-income tax credit.
At 30, O'Daniel said she's happier than she's ever been. She loves working at the state level, she said, because she knows she's probably going to be able to see change happen within her lifetime. "I love Arkansas," she said. "I love the potential here; the people who I meet in my job who are looking around in their communities and seeing what they can do. Maybe it sounds kinda cheesy, but they're doing stuff! They're making things happen."
WHAT HE CARES ABOUT: Poetry, publishing, and his gay literary magazine, "Assaracus."
Oddly enough, Bryan Borland knows the exact date he became a poet: Jan. 20, 1993. If that date rings a bell, it's because it was the day Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president.
"My brother had just died, and I was sort of lost," Borland said. "He died on December 15th, 1992. That whole time, I was just sort of spiraling around, very vulnerable I guess. And I saw Maya Angelou get onstage and read 'On the Pulse of the Morning.' Something about that just blew me away."
Borland, who came out of the closet at 22, started writing poetry, and has since been nominated twice for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. His 2010 collection, "My Life as Adam," is still garnering praise from all over the country, and was included on the American Library Association's first "Over the Rainbow" list of gay and lesbian literature. Borland also finds time to run Sibling Rivalry Press, which publishes marginalized authors. His true baby, though, is "Assaracus." As far as he knows, it's the only literary print journal in the country devoted to gay male poets.
"I love that it's from Arkansas," he said. "For the longest time I'd say I'm from Little Rock, but I'm actually from Alexander. And I'm very proud to say that the only print journal of gay poetry is from Alexander."
Several Ivy League universities are subscribers, and the journal has paid for itself so far. The fact that the world seems to want to hear what "Assaracus" has to say gives him hope.
"It says that it's necessary. It says that it's valid. It gives people a voice," Borland said. "I want to give people the microphone, give them the stage, and let them speak. That's what the journal really is. It's giving them the stage to be heard, and the fact that Yale, Brown, Stanford and Cornell and all these other places are interested — that's just cool."
The title of the journal is a tribute to publisher John Stahle, who designed and launched "My Life as Adam" at the Rainbow Book Fair in New York City in 2010. Stahle's journal, "Ganymede," named after a Greek demi-god, was the first place to publish Borland's poetry. When Stahle died in April 2010, his journal effectively died with him. Borland stepped in to collect work for and publish a tribute issue. In return, he got the contacts and editorial boost he needed to start his own journal. In Greek mythology, Assaracus was Ganymede's earth-bound brother.
While Sibling Rivalry Press will soon issue some of its books electronically, Borland said he'll never offer an electronic edition of "Assaracus." He said he likes the idea of somebody finding a dusty copy in a book store 20 or 30 years from now, opening it up, and finding something that speaks to them. Borland realizes he's being a little exclusive by publishing only gay authors there. But until they can be published elsewhere, he'll keep on.
"As long as there is a kid in his dorm room in Kansas who it might, not even to exaggerate, it might save his life to read a poem by one of these authors — as long as that person exists, I think there's a need for a journal like this."