In the spirit of our Big Ideas issue, an annual showcase of proposals that would make Arkansas a better place to live, and last year’s celebration of the influential Arkansans shaping Arkansas in myriad ways, this week we present a group we’ve dubbed Visionary Arkansans. Why are they visionary? Because they have ideas of transformative power. From Carol Reeves, the University of Arkansas’s “entrepreneurship ambassador” on our cover who is working to develop a new school for innovation, to Epiphany, a Little Rock rapper who’s using hip-hop as an international relations tool, to Geania Dickey, an early childhood education advocate who helped secure $100 million in funding for the state’s pre-K program, many of those featured in this issue have taken — or are taking — a big idea and making it happen. OK, fair enough, others featured have a vision that is largely unto themselves, but without art and culture and food, what good is life?
On Sept. 21, many of the visionaries featured in this week’s issue will participate in the second annual Arkansas Times Festival of Ideas at the Clinton School for Public Service, the Historic Arkansas Museum, Heifer International and the Old State House. Sessions will run concurrently at each venue from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. There’ll be demonstrations, presentations and panel discussions, like our own version of Ted Talks. See the schedule on page 37. Sessions are free and open to the public, but reservations are requested.
Little Rock native Matt Price started the online retailer Bourbon and Boots with partners Scott Copeland and Mike Mueller with one idea — Other e-commerce startups were doing it wrong. “When you’re selling something that Amazon.com sells, you’re going to lose,” Price said. “They’re going to beat you every day of the week. So we wanted to sell things differently, and we wanted to create a deeper relationship with out consumers.”
Proudly Southern, featuring hip, handmade, artisan-quality items, the site has been a big hit with consumers who surf Pinterest for the next cute thing to add to their home, cupboard or wardrobe. The bottom line proves Price and Co. are onto something. With just six full-time employees, the company recently crossed the $1 million mark in sales, with a large percentage of that money going back to artisans.
Price sees the company’s success as a kind of pocketbook response to the impersonal, mass-produced items you might find at Target or the mall. “I think people want to have a more unique experience,” he said. “They want to know where their product came from. They want to know that someone locally made it, and a lot of people also want to keep the money in their local community.” DK.
Theo Witsell stood still in a thicket at Lorance Creek Natural Area just south of Little Rock and started naming off the plants encircling him. Southern high bush blueberry. Muscadine. Sweet gum. Willow oak. Yellow passion flower. Cinnamon fern, bracken fern, Southern lady fern, netted chain fern, Virginia chain fern, royal fern. Edible ground nut. Hardhack spirea. Wood-oats, plume grass, rough-leaved goldenrod. Sessile bell wort. White flat-topped aster; that’s a rare one, he said. Over there, elephant’s foot, partridge berry, lots of crane-fly orchid. St. John’s wort. Grape fern. Sphagnum moss, spongy in the sandy soil beneath our feet.
He was just getting going naming the 471 species of native plants that grow in Lorance Creek; the greatest diversity lies in a boggy area where, thanks to the power line mowing, sunlight has made its way in and allowed dormant seeds to sprout to life. He was there on this particular day collecting a sedge — Carex bullata — to send to a colleague in North Carolina who believes it’s a little different from its eastern family. It looked like any old grass to the uneducated eye, but Witsell could distinguish it —even without its fruit. The 38-year-old botanist for the Natural Heritage Commission and Little Rock native can identify about 5,000 plants, a skill he says he works on constantly to maintain. (He started out in wildlife biology, he said, but found plants easier to catch.) In 2001 he identified a new species endemic to Arkansas, Pelton’s rose gentian, which he named for the amateur botanist who found it in Saline County and showed it to him.
Witsell and others are now working on identifying eight or nine plants not previously described, many from the shale glades in the Ouachita Mountains. They are working to add to the state’s knowledge of its natural history, helping write the story of how the Arkansas landscape has changed by reading its seeds. You can’t know what’s out there unless you look, and that’s something fewer and fewer people are doing.
“There’s a low and declining level of ecological literacy in our society,” Witsell said. “People don’t go outdoors anymore,” and are further alienated from the natural world. And that’s a pity, not only because diversity is beautiful and fascinating but because who knows what more we can learn from the plants? He regrets being born too late to see the Arkansas of the past, with its bison and prairie plants, the things Thomas Nuttall saw. But look to Witsell to make his own mark and add new chapters to the state’s natural history. LNP.
Aj Smith, who like his wife, Marjorie Williams-Smith has taught art at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock since the early 1980s, considers himself “blessed.” “I never had to wonder about what I was going to be when I grew up,” the master of portraits in prints and graphite, said. It was always to be an artist.
What this couple, he a Queens College grad, she a Pratt Institute grad, did not know was that that a move to Little Rock from New York in 1982 so Aj could take a job as artist-in-residence at the Arkansas Arts Center would be permanent. Aj, who had been recommended by artist Benny Andrews, first said no to Arts Center Director Townsend Wolfe. Marjorie said no to Aj. Then Aj thought, “Just for a year.” He told Marjorie she could take the year off. They came to Arkansas. After the first year, they had a baby. And another. “The art community befriended us,” Aj said. And so it goes.
The couple are known in Arkansas and beyond for their deft draftsmanship and approach to art. Marjorie works exclusively in metal point, a difficult and time-consuming medium that produces an exquisite line with copper and silver, especially with Marjorie holding the stylus. She took up the art form after a 1985 exhibition at the Arts Center. Marjorie’s drawings of dried flowers are meticulous and delicate beauties. Aj also draws in silverpoint, which he describes as provoking an intimate connection with the viewer, but he’s probably best known for his larger-than-life portraits in graphite, which “jump out and shout at you.” Rembrandt would be proud to own their work.
Lately Aj’s been traveling to East Arkansas and his native state of Mississippi, talking to strangers, getting to know them, and drawing them for his Faces of the Delta series. As the world was glued to news of the birth of an English prince this summer, Aj said, he was celebrating the “majesty of ordinariness” that he found in such places as Marvell, where he met an 85-year-old man who was on the first amphibian vehicle to land at Normandy. The unassuming couple have worked steadily, perfecting their work, passing their knowledge on to students and enriching Arkansas’s arts scene. LNP.
Trish Flanagan’s time as a dual graduate student at Clinton School of Public Service and the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas taught her to multitask. While traveling in Southeast Asia on her international service project for the Clinton School, she had to wake at 4 a.m. to participate in a business class via Skype. “Buddhist monks were chanting their morning prayers in the background. It was surreal.”
One of her professors, Dr. Carol Reeves, had taken note. “I was literally in my seaside cabana and checked my email and she said, ‘You seem like you can get things done in difficult circumstances, do you want to be my teaching assistant?’ When you’re with Carol, doors start to open.”
The first door opened in Reeves’ two-semester new venture development class, where Flanagan’s team included a student pursuing a Ph.D. in Microelectronics-Photonics who’d invented a more efficient solar cell. The company they and two others developed, Picasolar, won more than $300,000 in graduate business plan competitions, including the prestigious MIT NSTAR Clean Energy Prize. Flanagan and her business partners are currently “trying to figure out how to transition from student business plan competitions into real life.”
The second opened when Reeves introduced Flanagan to Chad Williamson, a Clinton School alumnus with a background in teaching and startups who wanted to marry the two somehow. Once Williamson hooked up with Steve Clark, cofounder of the massively successful, Bentonville-based Rockfish Interactive, the two circled back around to Flanagan. In short order, the three had founded Noble Impact, a startup aimed at engaging students to pursue public service as entrepreneurship. It’s a trendy combination often called social entrepreneurship that Flanagan and her partners hope will one day be known as noble impact. Noble Impact teaches — and practices — a “no nonsense, results-oriented strategy just like you would in a for-profit. We want to see an impact,” Flanagan said.
“We’re looking at increasing educational options and outcomes for students who aren’t very much engaged in some of the traditional settings,” Flanagan said. To that end, she and her partners are working to develop a curriculum that even teachers without public service or entrepreneurship experience can apply.
Meanwhile, Flanagan is serving as director of social entrepreneurship initiatives at the University of Arkansas, a position supported by Noble Impact. She’s currently putting together a seminar for MBA students on social entrepreneurship and working on other ways Noble Impact can partner with the university.
Flanagan doesn’t come to education wide-eyed. She has years of experience teaching around the world — in Ireland and Brownsville, Texas, at an after-school program in San Francisco, at a school in Honduras. Her time in Honduras exposed her to “some of the most marginalized people in the world,” but also to the mixed results of international aid. That’s what led her to the Clinton School. “I’m very familiar with [school] politics that can help or hinder. What’s important is that our product can be helpful for teachers. It has to be world-class. We’re not looking to compete in a market that in many cases is saturated with alternative class structures. Instead, we’re really looking at how our curriculum can be infused in core subjects.” LM.
Photo archive king
North Little Rock’s John Rogers took a bit of luck and a good idea and — with plenty of 70-hour work weeks — made himself a multi-millionaire.
While seeking out sports memorabilia for his trading card shop in the late 1990s, Rogers began purchasing the archives of old photographers, licensing the sports photos to trading card companies and the images of celebrities and politicians to books and magazines. Eventually, Rogers built up an archive of around 3 million images to which he owned the rights. It was when a friend suggested the untested idea of buying the photo morgues of newspapers and selling and licensing the images, however, that Rogers broke new ground.
Since buying the photo archive of the Detroit News in 2009 for $1 million — a deal that required Rogers to return a digitized copy within one year — the Rogers Archive has since bought the photos of a host of great American newspapers, including the Chicago Daily News, the Boston Herald, and every paper in the McClatchy chain. In addition to selling photos of the famous, Rogers also pioneered the idea of online bulk sales of innocuous vintage photos — snaps of parks, schools and long-gone businesses. Sales of those photos have since turned the Rogers Archive into the biggest individual seller on eBay.
Having recently opened a new, 15,000 square-foot facility in North Little Rock, Rogers struck the archive’s first international agreement in April — a deal to digitize the photos of Australia’s Fairfax Media. Fairfax, which owns more than 70 newspapers in Australia and New Zealand, recently shipped what Rogers called “the first wave” of their materials to North Little Rock. Rogers said technology is helping the archives bump up its efficiency and digitizing speed, which helps it turn around projects faster. With the McClatchy papers, Rogers said, he was able to fulfill an 18-month contract in just 11 months, a speed the archive recently repeated with the digitizing of the photos of the Minnesota Star Tribune.
“[The Star Tribune was] 1.2 million photos, and we finished it in four months,” Rogers said. “It shows the speed with which we can do this process.” DK.
Open data advocate
As director of business outreach and public policy at Yelp, the online recommendation site, Luther Lowe spends much of his time explaining to policymakers and government agencies how his company’s platform can help them. Lately, he’s been focused on convincing cities across the country to make their restaurant health inspection data easy to access and read, so Yelp can include them among the details it provides about restaurants.
“Usually the private sector, where the success of businesses relies on beautiful and functional products, is better equipped to take a [data] file and make it useful,” Lowe explained. “Taxpayers sort of subsidize creation of that information, but it doesn’t see the light of day because governments aren’t the best at putting the data in a place that’s easy to access. You’re not going to go to a dot.gov site before you go out to dinner; you’re going to go to Yelp.”
Lowe can back that contention up with data. In negotiations with a North Carolina municipality about making its restaurant inspection scores machine readable, Lowe dug up Yelp user data for the county and got the local environmental health director to provide him with analytics on users visiting the local restaurant hygiene page. In a recent month, 70,000 people in the county had visited Yelp compared to 444 who went to the local page. “So people using Yelp would be 150 times more likely to see [the county’s] data.”
Lowe predicts initiatives like Yelp’s are going to become increasingly more common. “This open data thing is a freight train and it’s going to open new markets.” Perhaps none bigger than in the health sector as the Affordable Care Act goes into effect. Next up for Yelp? Working with federal data sets like patient quality scores and cost metrics. LM.
Stage, screen and TV director
Fayetteville’s Jason Moore is proof that starry-eyed dreams can, in fact, come true. Over the past 20 years Moore has sweated a passion for musicals into a career as an in-demand director of theater, film and TV. After working behind the scenes on “Les Miserables” on Broadway for several years, he hit the big time by shepherding the groundbreaking puppet musical comedy “Avenue Q” to rave reviews and three Tony Awards. Hot off that success, Moore headed west to Hollywood, where he turned a $17 million budget and a cast of unknowns into the toe-tapping cult fave musical “Pitch Perfect.” Moore’s dance card has been full since then, including a new TV show for ABC coming this fall, directing duties for Tina Fey’s new film “The Nest,” and a deal to adapt the Archie comic books into a live action film. “I feel so grateful and bewildered,” Moore said. “This is what I had dreamed of.” DK.
Health policy expert
It’s a busy and momentous time to be a health policy analyst. The early provisions of Obamacare were beginning to go into effect when Anna Strong was hired on as health policy director at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in December 2011. A little more than six months later, the Supreme Court upheld the law, which will expand coverage options to hundreds of thousands of Arkansans (“I may or may not have done cartwheels in the Advocates office,” Strong said), but threw the question of Medicaid expansion to the states. Strong was confident that expanding coverage was a good deal for children and families in the state, but it would take approval from three-fourths of the legislature to make it a reality.
“Our state has a great history of compromise and a great history of working together to do what’s best for our citizens,” she said. “We did a lot of work trying to think about the best way to frame this opportunity we have.” In the end, coverage for more than 200,000 low-income Arkansans was achieved via the so-called “private option,” and there was no stronger advocate at the Capitol than Strong. She knew the numbers and the rules and regs inside out. (“That’s one of the reasons I love what we do — everything is researched-based.”) She also had a passion for finding common ground.
“For the most part, we all want similar big-picture outcomes,” she said. “We all want families to be self-sufficient, for kids to learn and succeed, for families to be safe. The difference in opinion occurs in how we get there. And that’s OK. I think it’s important to sit down and talk about those differences so we can understand each other and find a way to achieve those outcomes we want to achieve.” DR.
Civil rights champion
It was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom the day this reporter interviewed Rita Sklar, and the radio was recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King’s famed oratory. In his address to the crowd at the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, paraphrasing earlier words about human dignity, King asked, how long must we wait for our rights? “Not long,” he said, “because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Sklar, director of Arkansas ACLU for two decades, believes that. Despite the Arkansas legislature’s recent descent into a dishonorable territory long thought past, making voting harder and curtailing reproduction rights, the New York native believes that progress is inevitable and Arkansas could be a leader in a Southern progressive movement in the 21st century. It will take time.
“Some are in a state of despair over the conservative backlash,” Sklar said, “and that is what we have to watch.” Despair and hopelessness will get you nowhere. Sklar says she’s seen much progress during her 20 years at the helm of the ACLU. She’s also seeing an invigorated population of young Arkansans who are not content to see their rights chipped away. Sklar even found good in the latest General Assembly, praising legislation that protects privacy rights, including the nation’s first law that regulates what the police may do with license plate data.
Sklar gave another example of progress — “Look at Walmart! They just announced they’re going to give domestic partner benefits.” Walmart is responding to national pressure, of course, not homegrown, though the gay rights movement is no longer in the closet in Arkansas. Sklar also noted the 750-strong crowd of men and women who turned out at the state Capitol for a women’s rights rally. “It’s the largest progressive gathering I’ve been to,” she said.
Yet Arkansas took a few steps back during its last legislative session, something the ACLU is trying to correct in the courts. It’s in federal court, to get the state’s new law that would prohibit abortion at 12 weeks thrown out as unconstitutional. The judge granted the ACLU’s motion for an injunction, so the law has been stalled. The ACLU plans to challenge the state’s new law requiring government-issued identification to vote. Such laws happen “when we get complacent and forget our power,” she said. “I come from a place where one person was a small drop in the ocean. Less than insignificant.” Sklar said she tries to “remind people of the power they have in this small state to move mountains.” LNP.
Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) is a bull-headed, sharp-tongued, canny, relentless, petulant son of a gun. He is both genuinely funny and ferociously blunt in measures we are simply not accustomed to in public figures. At the ripe old age of 27, Burris, in his final term, serves the role of wily veteran in a freshman-heavy legislature. Love him or hate him, he’s a preternaturally talented politician, quick on his feet, with a knack for policy detail and adept at maneuvering to get his way. He’s a bit like the scrappy player on a rival sports team — you might jeer and boo, but boy, would you love to have him on your side.
Funny thing is, that’s more or less what happened on the healthcare front. Burris, a diehard Obamacare opponent who never met a government program he didn’t want to cut, became one of the architects (and the most effective advocate) of the “private option,” the Arkansas version of Medicaid expansion. To Burris, this wasn’t the reversal that you might think. He fervently believes that Medicaid is a broken system; with many of the tenets of Obamacare coming no matter what, he saw an opportunity to influence policy in what he views as a more conservative, market-based direction. His long-term vision for healthcare would recast Medicaid as a program for the aged, disabled and the blind, while assisting working-aged adults in buying private health insurance. That leaves plenty of room for arguments to come about the future of the safety net, but in a reddening state, Burris’ pitch was the only workable option for expanding health coverage to more than 200,000 low-income Arkansans. In the coming years, progressives will likely go back to cursing him instead of cheering him on. But credit Burris with this — At a time when most Obamacare opponents refused to negotiate, Burris and his allies were willing to come to the table, shading the law’s implementation to more closely fit their vision (love it or hate it). DR.
Dr. Ann Robinson, who founded and runs the Jodie Mahony Center for Gifted Education at UALR, never wanted to be a teacher. Born in Wyoming to a family that included a long line of educators, Robinson said that seeing how hard her schoolteacher mother worked turned her off to the profession from a young age. Nevertheless, after landing a job teaching migrant workers, she went on to become a high school English teacher. Robinson said that the resilience and intellect of the smartest kids in her class was a big part of her going back to Purdue to get her degree to try and understand how to serve gifted children better.
One of only 25 centers for gifted education in the country, the Mahony Center (originally called the Advanced Placement Professional Development Center, but later named after the state legislator who wrote some of the early legislation to help establish gifted education in the state) was founded in 2001, funded by a grant proposal written by Robinson. While there has been gifted- and-talented education on the UALR campus since the 1980s, the center allows Robinson and her staff to cover the waterfront in the field — doing original research, teaching gifted children, and educating teachers on spotting and teaching talented kids.
“If you’re going to make any headway,” Robinson said, “you need to look at something a little more global — integrate what you do for kids, for teachers, for school in an active research paradigm. You really need to just pull that all together, and a center is a good way to do that.”
Last summer, the Mahony Center presented professional development classes to over 800 AP and pre-AP teachers, and their annual Summer Laureate for Youth program brings in hundreds of gifted kids from around the state for a week of fun and brain-building enrichment. American society, Robinson said, has a “love-hate relationship” with talented people. While we want the innovations, art, music, poetry, computer skills and engineering know-how that talented and intelligent people have, our education system isn’t always good at helping those people develop and grow. “It’s a little bit of an uphill climb,” she said. “You kind of have to explain to people why what you’re doing is ultimately going to give them the things society is asking for.” Part of getting there, Robinson said, is learning how to spot intelligent children from a young age — a task that can be made harder, she said, by issues like poverty, physical disabilities and learning disabilities, which can “drop a screen over talent.” Robinson, a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children, feels like her career has made a difference.
“They pay me to do what I love to do,” Robinson said with a smile. “In a state like Arkansas, you can effect change. We are a small state in that, if you really want to get something done, you can work hard here and get it done.” DK.
Early childhood education advocate
When you think of big policy changes, you probably think of the lawmakers that make headlines or the full-time lobbyists working the halls of the Capitol. But when it comes to early childhood education, Geania Dickey has had an outsized impact in Arkansas as a motivated citizen donating her own time.
“My family tells people I do public policy as a hobby,” said Dickey, a mother of two whose day job is Program Coordinator for Arkansas State University Childhood Services. A key facilitator for the Invest Early Coalition, which formed in 2002 to build support for the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K program, Dickey was deeply involved in the push to expand the ABC program a decade ago. That expansion carried a price tag of $100 million. “When you decide what you need, and you’re right about it, you walk up to people just like saying I need 50 cents for a Coke,” she said. “I gotta say, when we said we need $100 million — people laughed in my face.” But they kept at it, working closely with legislative champions like Leroy Dangeau and Joyce Elliot to build support. “I said, if [legislators] just knew what we knew then they’d have to do it,” Dickey said.
So the coalition produced one-pagers that began with “We know…” and cited research on the brain development of children before they ever stepped into kindergarten, or the return on investment of dollars spent on early childhood ed.
Sitting in a committee meeting one day, Dickey realized that there were limits to what she and the other volunteers, managing full-time jobs and kids of their own, could do. She sketched out a plan “probably no more sophisticated than a telephone tree our mothers used for PTA. We had a system that kept spreading the word. That’s how we did it. If I have a talent, it’s for seeing what needs to be done and finding people with the skills and interest to help me do it.”
The coalition was a force to be reckoned with at the Capitol, said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “Geania is just a phenomenal facilitator,” he said. “She was the glue within the early childhood ed community that kept those folks on the same page, and that’s where her vision and her advocacy work has just made a huge difference.” Over the course of three sessions, the legislature funded the $100-million expansion of ABC. That funding has been sustained through the recession while many states have gone backward, which Dickey views as a victory. But, she said, there’s much work to be done. She is focused on maintaining and improving the quality of early childhood education and providing more opportunities for infants and toddlers in the state, and is hopeful that the national Early Childhood Initiative will help on both fronts. “We have to do this, it’s the right thing to do, so we will,” she said. “That’s just how we work.” DR.
“The glue.” That’s how Courtney Pledger describes the role of a movie producer. “[The producer] holds it all together. It’s someone who plans the party, has the party and then stays afterwards to clean up.”
Pledger should know. The Little Rock native produced the Emmy-winning “A Killing in a Small Town” TV movie in 1990, executive-produced “Cirque du Freak — The Vampire’s Assistant” starring John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek in 2009 and has two high-profile animated movies in the works now — “B.O.O” featuring the voice of Seth Rogen and due in 2015 for Dreamworks Animation and Ricky Gervais’ “Flanimals.” Pledger said she’s fallen hard for animation. “I love the people, the creators, and the process is so malleable as you move along. It’s not like you plan, plan, plan until the day the cameras roll and whatever you get is what you get. You literally get to grow it and change it ’til way down the line.” As an executive producer of an animated film, she also is able to work from afar, which allowed her to move back to Little Rock in 2011. A year after she arrived, she was tapped to lead the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, a nonprofit aimed at supporting film culture in the state. Her first job was pulling the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival away from the brink of financial ruin. Now in her second year guiding the festival, she’s helped put together easily the best line-up the festival has screened in its two decades. Aside from working on more animated films, Pledger said she’d like to make some documentaries and do some work in Arkansas. “I’d love, love, love to help produce some movies made here in Arkansas on a real micro-budget. Just roll up your sleeves and have no studio to tell you what to do.” LM.
Two great issues emerged in the 2013 Arkansas legislature — health care and crime — and Sen. David Sanders of Little Rock, a 38-year-old policy wonk, was in the big fat middle of both of them.
In a previous term in the House, Sanders studied and ultimately opposed the legislation that loosened parole for non-violent offenders. He feels vindicated in concluding then that the parole system was too flawed to handle the additional business. The evidence isn’t pleasant, including the infamous multiple parole violator who was charged with killing a Little Rock man.
Sanders got interested in parole and commutation issues as an aide to Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose commutation decisions, if motivated by redemption, were flawed by favoritism and poor judgment. Today, Sanders’ mantra is “mend not end” the parole system. He thinks inevitably it DOES mean putting more people in prison for longer times, but he’s not ready to say that will mean a greater expenditure of money, considering current wasteful spending and the societal costs of repeat violators.
A Walnut Ridge Baptist preacher’s kid, Sanders cut his teeth after graduation from Ouachita Baptist University working for Republican politicians. He thought for a time he wanted to be the next Bob Novak, a conservative syndicated political writer. He wrote a column for Stephens Media and became a familiar figure on AETN public affairs programs. But politics lured him back and many expect him to aim inevitably for higher office.
He does his homework. On crime and punishment, he can talk knowledgeably — and lengthily — about how recidivism rates are fudged; about trial delays, and about the importance of his legislation ending automatic parole for the worst sex offenders. He says repeat burglary offenders, though not technically violent criminals, also deserve a “discussion.”
The next session of the legislature is supposed to be restricted to budget matters, but Sanders has hopes of opening the floor to crime proposals. “Parole is a joke,” he said. “Parole should be earned.” In Little Rock, he notes that there are more parolees in three ZIP codes than the balance of the state combined. It makes it hard to avoid associating with the wrong people. Sanders says he believes in rehabilitation (if not for everyone). But he said he’s been told by corrections experts that the pressure to reduce prison population has caused a revolving cell door that means prisoners leave before they can fully take advantage of abundant education and training programs in stir.
“Thank you sir. May I have a few more months behind bars?” MB.
Nearly half of Arkansas’s immigrant population lives in Northwest Arkansas, and studies show that half of the immigrant population goes without legal representation. The Law School at the University of Arkansas founded the Immigration Clinic in 2008 to address that. Its director, Elizabeth Young, laughs that she “willed it into being.” Young had told one of her professors at George Washington University Law School, where she became interested in issues of asylum and “the intersection of international law and domestic law,” that it was her dream to return to Arkansas and start such a clinic. Young, 36, was, in fact, director of George Washington’s clinic when she heard the U of A was starting its program, “and here I am,” she said. Young, whose interest in immigration law was “solidified” at Oxford University, where she had the opportunity to focus on asylum for women, oversees the third year “student attorneys” in the clinic. Whether they decide to go into practice as immigration lawyers or not, they still learn how to “ask the right questions” and “understand clients from different backgrounds, which is important no matter what you practice,” Young said. Her students — who take indigent cases only — handled the widely publicized case of Jonathan Chavez, the UA honors student who was brought to Arkansas as a child from Peru and who was arrested in an immigration sting when he went to visit his mother in Florida over the Christmas holidays. Chavez is the only member of his family who is undocumented — he turned 18 before his naturalization application could be approved. The clinic’s student lawyers got Chavez a temporary reprieve from the Department of Homeland Security so he could finish his degree and continue his effort to stay in the states. The clinic takes about 25 cases a semester and has 30 pending and not all of its clients are from south of the border; some are Africans, Asians and Europeans seeking green cards. The clinic, Young says, is “definitely serving a need. … all the practitioners [in the area] were, like, thank God, they’ve called in the cavalry.” Young will talk about the intricacies of immigration law at the Festival of Ideas, addressing such things as why marriage isn’t the automatic ticket to a green card people believe it is, how victims of domestic violence or other crime can get what is called a U Visa that allows them to stay in the U.S. for a period of time in return for assisting in the prosecution of the crime, and deferred action, President Obama’s directive that provides high school graduates who came to the U.S. before 2012 temporary stays of removal. LNP.
King Biscuit Blues Festival executive director Munnie Jordan loves Helena, but she didn’t start out loving the blues. Jordan, who lives in the Mississippi River town that draws tens of thousands of blues fans for the festival every October, wasn’t a fan when she was talked into helming King Biscuit in 1992 after the original director stepped down. One of Jordan’s first acts was to go after a big fish — funding from Splash Casino, which had just opened across the river. With that sizeable check from its neighbor, King Biscuit grew like cotton in July. Jordan went on to direct the festival until 1997. After a hiatus of more than a decade — during which time legal wrangling snatched away the famous “King Biscuit” name, leaving the annual affair to be called the much-less-colorful Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival — Jordan returned as director for the 2009 year. The next year, the festival’s 25th anniversary, Jordan was instrumental in getting back the name, with firms hired by the festival eventually tracking down the owner of the “King Biscuit” trademark in California. The name is now licensed in perpetuity for use by the festival.
While Jordan said the logistics behind King Biscuit are a huge undertaking, it’s still going strong, and gets a little bigger and better every year. Though she’s still not “a guru,” she said the blues has grown on her.
“We keep it going one way or the other,” she said. “It’s got a heartbeat … nothing can kill this festival. It just keeps popping like a heartbeat.” DK.
Economic development chief
Grant Tennille, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission since 2011, is overflowing with more ideas about the future of economic development than could possibly fit in these pages.
While he’s best known for big projects, such as the incentives package to bring Big River Steel to the state, Tennille said that much of the crucial work to come is in refining the educational pipeline to give Arkansans the skills they’ll need to grab job opportunities in the state (and to make the state more attractive for industries considering whether to locate here).
“Education and workplace development is far and away the most important thing that we can do and need to continue to do in terms of securing economic prosperity for the future,” he said. “It’s at every level from pre-K all the way up through 2-year schools and 4-year schools.” The state has achieved a lot on that front, he said, but there “is a big hole for us in the next tier up, the more highly skilled training. For example, today’s manufacturing jobs take more skill than they used to. We need more mid-level engineers, people who can run entire systems, people who can design.” That means working closely with companies to figure out their specific needs and creating centers of excellence at 2- and 4-year colleges in the state tailored to those needs. “It’s pretty obvious, but nobody is doing it really well right now,” he said. “If you can be one of the first states to crack the nut, then you’ve got an advantage.”
Tennille also made headlines this year for his support of gay marriage, arguing that a more welcoming environment would be good for business. “I would apply that same logic to anything that’s different,” he said. “If you’ve got smarts and a great idea — and even better, some capital to back you up — we want you here. Whatever we can do as a state and a society to say, ‘Hey, come on down,’ we oughtta be doing. The interesting thing is, we do it in practice much better than we do it on the front page of the newspaper or in the halls of the Capitol. A perfect example is Welspun — they’ve got a Hindu temple out there. Great people, who have made homes here. And they’re comfortable here. … Arkansans in the microcosm are some of the most welcoming people on the planet Earth. … Whenever I fret about the macro, I kind of look at the micro — in reality we do a much better job than we preach, in making all welcome. But we have got a reputation — right, wrong or indifferent — that stretches back to the ’50s. That hurts us. Anybody that tells you it hasn’t hurt us is lying to themselves. Because we’re starting 25 yards back from the starting line, I feel like we’ve got to do more.” DR.
Chane Morrow, better known as Little Rock rapper Epiphany, has quite possibly discovered a new niche within the business of rap music — He’s a rap ambassador. In the last year and a half, he’s traveled to The Gambia, Mauritius, Seychelles and Thailand to perform and teach hip-hop. Embassies in Africa sponsored him and local producer Dondrae Vinson, better known as Ferocious, through their cultural exchange budgets. An embassy in Bangkok referred Epiphany to the American Chamber of Commerce, which underwrote his time in Thailand. It’s a gig Epiphany happened onto via a college friend from his time at Stanford. “It’s the closest thing since I started rapping where I’m doing what I want to do all day long,” he said.
There’s a sort of formula to his visits — He talks to students about the history of hip-hop and the lessons they can take from the culture and apply to everyday life — creativity, communication and discipline. He also often works collaboratively with local musicians. The trips culminate with a concert, where Epiphany weaves in guest appearances from local performers. In The Gambia, 7,000 people came out for the show. “Beat boys” spun on their heads and flipped off each other’s shoulders. On songs with vocal hooks, Epiphany had locals come out and sing in their native Wolof/Mandinka.
After his travels, Epiphany took some time for self-reflection and came up with a new personal mission statement. He said he wants all his projects to “be rooted in entertainment, be challenging to the viewer and creator, have a sustainable financial aspect, have a sustainable community aspect and have cohesive, narrative aspect.”
Another big focus — working to bring Global Kids to Little Rock. The New York-based nonprofit teaches high school kids from at-risk communities about international relations and sends some of them abroad for hands-on learning. Epiphany is working with the Hot Springs foundation KYE-YAC, Arkansas Business Publishing Group’s Olivia Farrell and others in the community to raise $100,000 to bring the program to Central Arkansas. They’ve already raised $10,000 through concerts, music sales and other initiatives. LM.
Marlon Blackwell, 56, a practicing architect and department head and distinguished professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas’s Fay Jones School of Architecture in Fayetteville, says he doesn’t consider himself a visionary. “Give me a product and I’ll provide a vision,” he says; his philosophy — buildings can be both pragmatic and beautiful at the same time and there’s no reason design can’t be part of any structure, for anyone — is “more of a goal than a vision.” Take, for example, the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Springdale, which started life as a metal shop building. “We took metal siding and used that material to make a beautiful church,” Blackwell said. The firm earned a 2013 American Institute of Architects National Honor Award for the structure.
One of the great challenges of the architect, he says, is, “How do you take architecture of any type, whether a bicycle shed or a courthouse, and develop it in such a way that it contributes to the fundamental civic dignity of the place?” Architecture can change the way people react to space. “Watch someone who walks into a great cathedral,” he said. They’re elevated by the light and proportions and soaring space. “My argument is, why can’t we do that with a car dealership? With a library? Why don’t we invest in that?”
That’s what he tells his students, who he describes as “very hungry and not particularly worldly … they tend not to be very cynical, and this is good.” Blackwell’s prize-winning architecture reflects a range of ideas, from the soaring, skinny skeleton of the Keenan Tower House in Fayetteville to the wooden rain-screen cladding that students in the UA Design-Build program have embraced in their designs for downtown Little Rock’s Pettaway Neighborhood. He may be most known in Central Arkansas for his design for the Creative Corridor in downtown Little Rock, a building and streetscape plan that would transform four blocks of Main into a cohesive arts-business-residential zone, a concept that won the 2013 Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Award.
The world, the German-born architect says, is his inspiration, but Arkansas — its people and history and environment — is in his work’s DNA. LNP.
When her husband’s job took them to France more than 10 years ago, Tandra Watkins decided to train as a pastry chef. “I’d been cooking for years but hadn’t any formal training,” she said. “I felt like that was my opportunity. It was really intimidating, but my husband really encouraged me to just do it. He said, ‘You’re either going to talk about it or you’re going to do it.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ ” The tricky part — Watkins didn’t speak French. She enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and decided she would take notes on what she saw and try to follow by visual example. “It was crazy, but I learned really quick,” she said. “You just pick up on things, and slowly as time went by I caught on and learned culinary French.” Watkins worked in pastry shops and catering jobs in France and Portugal until she and her husband moved back to Little Rock in 2007, and she became executive pastry chef at Ashley’s in the Capital Hotel. It was a fitting landing spot for Watkins, who grew up in Cabot and said she’s always felt connected to the South. “I really am just that person that loves pies, loves banana pudding, loves all those things that we grew up with,” she said. While she employs the finesse and technique she learned from French cooking, she thinks her success comes from sticking to the basics. “The food that I make is still the food that I grew up with,” she said. “I’ve gone around the world and I’ve done some things and seen some things that have influenced me and influenced the food. But it’s still me and approachable. We like to think that we like all this frilly and overly complicated stuff. But honestly I think that we just like simple food that’s good.” Whatever she’s doing, it’s working — This year, Watkins was named a James Beard semifinalist. DR.
Since 2008, students from Dr. Carol Reeves’ new venture development class at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas have won 19 national business plan competitions, more than twice as many as any other school in the country. What’s that mean? Money! UA teams racked up more than $2 million in winnings during that stretch.
That early validation and investment helped 10 of them become viable businesses in the last five years. Reeves names Bentonville’s Movista, a retail analytics company with 23 employees, and Fayetteville’s cycleWood Solutions, which makes biodegradable and compostable plastic bags and appears poised to be acquired soon, as perhaps the program’s two greatest success stories.
Why has Reeves’ two-semester class been so successful at starting up viable businesses? “We work really, really hard,” said Reeves. “That’s not very glamorous, but it’s the truth.” Reeves guesses she probably reads and provides feedback on teams’ business plans 100 times during the course. The makeup of the new venture teams is key, too, Reeves said. The class typically includes veteran executives pursuing an MBA as well as students pursuing a Ph.D. in the sciences. (In 2006, the university developed a graduate certificate program for non-business students.)
Two years ago, Reeves became associate vice provost for entrepreneurship, a position that didn’t exist previously, and travels the state promoting start-ups. “Someone summed [the position] up as ‘entrepreneurship ambassador,’ ” Reeves said. “That sounded about right.” She still spends about half her time teaching graduate students.
Last week, university higher-ups gave her the green light to begin exploring the creation of a school of innovation and entrepreneurship at the UA. (Universities are made up of colleges that contain departments; a school would extend across colleges). “I was given permission to dream big,” Reeves said. “The state of Arkansas really needs something like this. Until we have a really strong educational system, it’s going to be hard for us to have a strong entrepreneurial community,” Reeves said. “I’ve heard [Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director] Grant Tennille say he’s never had a company not want to come here because of tax breaks, but he’s had a lot who don’t come here because they can’t get an educated workforce. I believe that wholeheartedly.” LM.
While getting Internet Famous isn’t exactly on most peoples’ bucket list — mostly because it usually involves video of you running from the police, crapping your pants in public, or drunkenly making out with a domesticated animal — Sherwood’s Joseph Birdsong got Internet Famous the old fashioned way — by being funny enough to cut through the jungle of online content that sprouts up bigger every day. Since Birdsong started making his hilarious, viciously self-deprecating YouTube videos in 2007, he’s become a genuine Big Deal on the Internet, with over 95,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and more than 15,000 views every time he puts a new episode online.
Raised in Greenbrier, Birdsong said he never quite felt like he fit in as a kid. “It was difficult in a lot of ways,” he said. “I never felt like I could be myself in high school, or in any school.” After starting college at UCA, Birdsong often found himself alone in his dorm room, with only his computer for company. Looking for a way to express himself, Birdsong started watching video blogs uploaded to YouTube, then a little over two years old. “I thought, let’s just give it a go and see where it could take me,” he said.
While his first videos only got a handful of views, Birdsong slowly developed his shtick — geeky, confessional, pop culture obsessed, hilariously navel-gazing about his own thoughts, fixations and shortcomings. “A few people with more subscribers began to notice me, and then they would share me with their audience,” he said. “I kinda got lucky in that aspect. I made some friends who were also really good at making videos and really enjoyed it. We’ve all sort of grown as the site has grown.”
These days, in addition to making new videos every week and blogging for his website, josephbirdsong.co, Birdsong does a video advice column on sex and relationships for mydamnchannel.com. Next month, he plans to restart a podcast he’d shelved when he decided to get a degree in visual merchandising at the Art Institute in Philadelphia a few years back, and recently started up a new weekly radio show called “The Big Gay Radio Show,” which airs from noon to 2 p.m. Fridays on KABF in Little Rock. Though Birdsong said many popular video bloggers have “bought really nice apartments” over the years by doing product endorsements in their videos, he hasn’t really cashed in on his fame. “I’ve turned down probably 99 percent of the opportunities that I’ve been presented with, because that’s just not me,” he said. “As much money as I could have made by now, I probably could have had no student loans, but I know I wouldn’t feel good about that.”
Birdsong returned to UCA to get a second degree (in creative writing) and is back living at home with his parents, a fact that he says helps keep him connected to viewers who are in the same situation. He said he tries to make his videos about things actually going on in his life. “I think people like to see that there is someone else in the world who is just sitting there, may not have a whole lot to do, and just wants to talk.” As for the secret of being funny online — “A lot of cranberry juice mixed with a lot of alcohol,” Birdsong said. “That’ll do it.” DK.
Steve Bethel leads Angel Eye, a healthcare start-up with a proposition anyone who’s ever had a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can appreciate — A web video camera system that allows family and friends of babies in the NICU to see live footage of the infant from home. Additionally, parents, through one-way audio, can talk to the child.
The prototype system was created in the mid-2000s by Dr. Curtis Lowery and other clinical staff at the Center for Distance Health at UAMS (“the true visionaries,” Bethel said). The system was installed at UAMS and refined over time. Lehigh Valley Health Network in Pennsylvania started using it in late 2012. That encouraged UAMS to move forward on monetizing the technology, and in January, Angel Eye Camera Systems LLC was born. The new company has received startup capital from local investors and TriStar Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture fund based in Nashville, Tenn.
Bethel comes to the company with a wealth of business experience in the healthcare sector, including stints covering the industry at CitiBank and Stephens. So far he’s sold the Angel Eye system to Texas Health Resources, a large health system in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and he’s actively marketing it nationally and internationally, while the company looks to broaden the reach of its technology. Bethel said that might include making it more interactive for use in adult intensive care units.
“Arkansas, being a very rural state, has been a real innovator in terms of telemedicine,” Bethel said. “When you come to deliver [at UAMS] and your baby ends up in the NICU, then there’s no way to stay connected with the patient if home’s three or four hours away. Angel Eye was an offshoot of trying to keep families and friends connected with the patient even when they’re far away.” LM.
Barbara Satterfield is proof that if you are in your 40s and want to fulfill a dream to become a potter, you can. In her 40s, Satterfield, who had been a theater major at Hendrix College, decided to get a degree in art. She went to the University of Central Arkansas, studied under Helen Phillips — who couldn’t believe Satterfield had never worked in clay — and got a bachelor’s degree, then headed to George Washington University to earn her MFA. A friend said, “Barbara, you know you’ll be 50 by the time this is over.” She replied, “I’m going to be 50 anyway.” Satterfield — who was also the director of UCA’s Baum Gallery from 2001 to 2011 — uses a borosilicate glaze to create a surface like a shiny egg — white, smooth, touchable. Her vessels, hand-built rather than thrown, are organic in shape. She sometimes adds material from nature to the pots — such as her work “Tethered,” in which arms of a vessel both embrace a kelp pod and echo it. The work was worth the wait. LNP.
It’s been a good year for Mark Christ. As the state continued to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (1861-1865), Christ was selected to receive the Booker Worthen Literary Prize for best literary work in Arkansas for his book, “Civil War Arkansas, 1863 — The Battle for a State,” and was also awarded the 2013 State Leadership Award from the Civil War Trust, which honors battlefield preservationists.
Christ is not a re-enactor. He is not an apologist. He tries, he says, “to be open-minded.” The community outreach director for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program and a member of the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, he has worked to create a “thoughtful commemoration” of the war “without judgment.” (He praised Helena’s “holistic treatment” in its commemoration of the battle there.)
Along with writing a history, Christ has worked for many years recording the state’s 770-plus war-related operations, identifying and interpreting battlefields and seeking money to preserve them, mapping out Civil War trails and a battlefield tour for the public in the Passport Program (which, he said, gives visitors a “visceral connection” to the past). Christ laments the fact that Arkansas history — Civil War and otherwise — is so lacking in school curriculum, given the special place he believes the state holds. Do Arkansas schoolchildren know that the battlefield at Pea Ridge is one of the “most pristine, unchanged” battlefields of the Civil War? Do they know Arkansas was second only to Tennessee in the number of union troops produced in Confederate states? That the Union captured Fort Smith without a fight in what Christ calls the “coolest battle in Arkansas”? That the first scene in the film “Lincoln” is set at the Battle of Jenkins Ferry in Grant County, where generals on both sides were lost? What about earlier than that — does the public in general know that the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought at Arkansas Post, as Chickasaws and British brigands attacked the fort? “It was a right smart skirmish,” Christ said.
History is, of course, more fascinating than factoids, which is why Christ’s book won the Worthen Prize. Christ has gone above and beyond in his history outreach duties, making a subject that many shy away from out of shame or fear of boredom an enjoyable foray into Arkansas’s past. LNP.