Little Rock has a paternalism problem.

I cannot count the number of times that more established people have told me how I should think, how I should dress, how I should get my hair cut and when it is my time to place my name in the proverbial election hat. I have talked with many people my age and this issue is not unique to me. There is a pervasive "wait your turn" mentality in Little Rock, and when coupled with the "we know what's best" mentality, it is disheartening and disenfranchising.

On Sunday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an editorial that epitomized my sentiments. The editoral was titled "Big Thoughts," and it was a retort to the Think Big strategic plan to make Little Rock more attractive to the millennial generation. I was one of the co-chairs of the Think Big strategic initiative. There were a few points in the editorial that had a paternalistic overtone.

Think Big was a wide-ranging plan, with recommendations for a dedicated funding source for public transit, for repurposing War Memorial Golf Course into a central park, for a juvenile diversion program for Pulaski County, and much more. However, the editorial focused on one idea Think Big did not discuss: charter schools.

One of the foundational principles of the Think Big project was for young people, ages 25 to 40, to offer their perspective on how we should live, work and play in Little Rock. Some leaders in our community understand that young people need to be more involved in the direction of our city. As a result, the ideas created from Think Big were intended to be by young people for young people and the future of Little Rock.

The editorial attempts to undercut this important fact by essentially telling us that, as it relates to education, charter schools are "what you need to think/talk about." In fact, the article said that charter schools are the "most promising innovation in public education in a decade" and that the Think Big members could not seriously promote their recommendations while ignoring charter schools. Sentiments like those expressed in the editorial are a microcosm of a greater societal issue, where those in authority or perceived positions of power attempt to regulate the conduct and conversations of others.

The editorial speaks of charter schools as the savior to all things public education. Personally (and not on the behalf of all Think Big members), I disagree with that notion; conversely, I do not think all charter schools are ill-conceived. Nonetheless, as it relates to Think Big, the Education Task Force developed recommendations that were important to them and other millennials. They focused on other issues such as pre-K, restorative justice and middle school partnerships with local businesses. The editorial would make more sense if the Think Big recommendation spoke ill of charter schools, but it does not. It simply addresses the importance of early childhood education. Ignored by the editorial is the fact that pre-K improves student performance in grades 1 and beyond. It is well documented that students who participate in pre-K obtained higher literacy rates than those who do not. This is a noble issue that we hope will be supported and implemented.

The Think Big strategic plan was intended to be the first of many periodic plans and was not intended to address every issue in Little Rock. Rather, it was conceived to allow younger people to express their vision for the future of Little Rock. It was a much needed opportunity for young people to get involved, without waiting on someone to pass the proverbial torch. Personally, I expected to receive some criticism and pushback after publishing the report, but when I read the editorial I did not sense constructive criticism or new ideas. I felt the "system" and "way we do things" telling us that instead of thinking big, we thought wrong.

If Little Rock is going to be all it can be, then we need those in positions of prominence to stop telling everyone else "how it is" and to start listening to "how it can be." As long as there is the pervasive paternalism, Little Rock will continue to be what it is, not what it can be.

Antwan Phillips is a lawyer with the Wright Lindsey Jennings firm.


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