SHAKING IT UP: Lawson (center with the bottle) is soon to open a bar and a retail store to sell her products. Kat Wilson

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 health care to social justice to good government. They’ve turned around struggling rural schools (Daisy Duerr), helped prisoners successfully re-enter society (Morgan Holladay of Compassion Works for All), transformed Hot Springs’ music culture (Bill Solleder) and created arresting art with a social justice message (V.L. Cox). Taylor Wilson is the youngest person to successfully achieve nuclear fusion. Stephanie Harris is working to recruit more women to participate in politics. Evan Young lobbies on behalf of transgender veterans. All 25 are people with clear intent on what they want to achieve in life, and their visions help create our realities.


Emily Lawson

The mix maker expands her footprint.


Emily Lawson had her epiphany in the Fayetteville Farmers Market. After attending culinary school, she was back in Fayetteville, finishing a couple of majors at the University of Arkansas and consulting for Arsaga’s, the venerable coffee house that’s long had a booth at the farmers market. Working the market one Saturday, selling coffee drinks and lemonade, she saw huge stalks of lavender across the way and said to herself, “How could I improve this coffee and lemonade? Lavender simple syrup.”

With that, or at least shortly thereafter, Pink House Alchemy was born. Much about the business has changed in the five years that followed, but Pink House’s basic offerings remain: 16-ounce bottles of simple syrup (Lawson: “Just basic syrup and a botanical or fruit in water”) and shrubs (“If you’re cooking and you need to heighten the taste of something, you use salt. That’s what a shrub is to a cocktail. Ours are fruit based and treated with vinegar”) and 5-ounce bottles of bitters (“a bittering agent that adds a note to a cocktail”).


From the beginning, Lawson had a vision that extended far beyond the Fayetteville Farmers Market. “I never saw it as a small cottage industry. I saw it as a playground for my sick personality to create all the time using whatever is new and fresh.” But big dreams mean slower returns. “Every penny the company has made has been put back into it,” Lawson said.

Today, with four full-time employees, a part-time marketing person, a part-time social media promoter (her girlfriend, the photographer Kat Wilson, who took this week’s cover shot) and a part-time food scientist, who helps Lawson hone her processes, Pink House has a national following, with orders coming regularly from New York, L.A. and Seattle, as well as regionally from Oklahoma, Missouri and throughout Arkansas.

Lawson says her cardamom simple syrup, which also includes a number of “secret spices,” put the company on the map. Smolder, a bitter that combines chipotles, black currants and vanilla, is another big seller. A new item, Woodruff syrup, made from sweet woodruff plant, which grows throughout Europe and Asia and is especially popular in Germany, is “so good, insane,” Lawson says, but only if you pair it with something that it complements, like a sour beer. It’s earned plaudits from famed gypsy brewery Evil Twin and a collaboration with Ozark Brewery in Rogers.

Next up for Pink House: a retail space in a pink house in downtown Bentonville, where Lawson will sell high-end bar products along with her concoctions. There she’ll also be producing and taste-testing (but not yet selling) canned cocktails. A few blocks away, in the bottom floor of a new residential development, she’s also soon to open her first coffee shop and bar, Foxhole. The coffee will come from Fayetteville’s Onyx Coffee Lab, the menu will exclusively feature steamed buns and the cocktails will be made interesting using “every bell and whistle and trick.” “We’re totally embracing the molecular [mixology] movement,” Lawson says. “But this not a sterile space. Our design is comfortable.” Call it a contemporary molecular dive bar, and look for it to open in October. LM


Robert McAfee and Chris McNamara

They’ve got a better plan to reduce CO2 emissions.

If you want to quickly understand the carbon fee and dividend plan that the Citizens Climate Lobby has devised to slow global warming, go to YouTube and watch Fayetteville CCL members and the duo Still on the Hill sing the plan to you.

“Let a fee be placed on carbon fuels at their source, might be on a well or a coal mine or on imports at a port … “ and so forth.

Or you can ask Robert McAfee, 65, the longtime environmental activist, and Chris McNamara, 30, co-chair of the Fayetteville CCL, to tell you how the plan will reduce pollution and put money in the pockets of people. Here’s what they told a reporter:

In year one, under the Citizens Climate Lobby plan, industries would be charged a fee — say $10 or $15 — on every ton of carbon dioxide they release. Then the fee revenue — every penny — would be returned to people in the form of a monthly dividend check. The fee would be both an incentive for industry to cut down on carbon emissions and a way to help folks, for example, pay their utility bills.

McAfee, who cut his environmental teeth in Australia, where he did a study of the history of that continent’s climate for his Ph.D., and who served on Gov. Mike Beebe’s commission on global warming, said to consider this Arkansas example: Entergy’s coal-fired White Bluff Power Plant near Redfield, which ranks 42nd in the nation in the production of CO2, released 10 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas in 2011. At $15 a ton, Entergy would pay a carbon fee of $150 million. In year two and subsequent years, the fee would rise every year, so costs to industry that aren’t reducing their CO2 release would go up.

Would companies just pick up and move to a country that doesn’t charge such a fee? CCL has figured that out, too: They’d be charged an import fee for their products sold here.


The economic modeling firm REMI (Regional Economic Models Inc.) has studied CCL’s plan and found that it would reduce CO2 emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels over 20 years and that the dividend turnback would create a huge economic stimulus. Cleaner air, more money in folks’ pockets. Something to sing about.

McAfee, who lives in Hackett (south of Fort Smith, population 812), first saw the effects of drought as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sahel in Mali. With his degree from Arkansas Tech in history as background, he decided to specialize in climatology (climate history) while pursuing a master’s degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin. A professor suggested he write his doctoral dissertation on Australian climate history while he was teaching in Sidney.

Back home in 1991, he started the Arkansas Environmental Education Association. In 2006, he traveled to Nashville to train with Al Gore on a slide presentation based on Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” that he would give to groups across the nation. In 2008, he was appointed to Beebe’s Governor’s Commission on Global Warming. “It was wonderful,” he said of the commission, a bipartisan group that produced a 450-page report that listed 54 reasons to reduce CO2. Published only digitally (though he printed out a copy), it went into the cyber equivalent of the round file.

But McAfee is excited in what he sees as real action today to address climate change. “I’ve been around 40 years and this year is the first time that people … are getting things done” in a way that reaches beyond talk. “Al Gore said change policy, not lightbulbs,” McAfee said.

McNamara is one of those young people who are doing more than talk. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to meet with Arkansas’s congressional delegation, meeting personally with Sen. Tom Cotton. Once the Arkansas Citizens Climate Lobby completes a study it’s commissioned of the carbon fee impact in Arkansas, McNamara wants to take it to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who no one would consider an environmentalist.

The CCL sell is that its plan is pragmatic, more effective and better for the economy.

On Aug. 3, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

McNamara believes the carbon fee and dividend plan is a better strategy, because while both plans will cost consumers more on the front end as companies pass along the cost of refitting plants or closing them, the fee and dividend plan will return some of that extra cost to consumers. The fee and dividend plan will also be cheaper to industry, McNamara said, since companies can choose to pay the fee rather than close plants that can’t continue to operate under the Clean Power Plan. Lastly, the carbon fee plan is estimated to bring about greater reductions in carbon emissions.

McNamara said McAfee and his connections in the field of climatology have given his generation a head start, taking it “light years ahead” of where they would be without their work. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” without the foundation laid by McAfee, McNamara said. “He’s made a huge difference.” LNP

V.L. Cox

Artist fights bigotry with ‘End Hate’ series.

V.L. Cox — the L is for Lynette, which she is known by to friends — had just completed a U.S. flag made up of 606 teabags that she made herself using pages from the Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, when a reporter dropped by her North Little Rock studio. Coffee-colored stains drip down the surface of the teabag flag, a project Cox has named “Stain” and which she created to portray the stain she believes the tea party has left on the country.

“Stain” is part of the 53-year-old artist’s “End Hate” project, which started with an installation about segregation in all its forms, doors labeled “Whites Only,” “Colored Only,” “LGBT Only,” “Immigrant Only,” “Homeless Only” and “Human Being.” Cox took the “End Hate” doors to the National Mall, where she spent a day talking to the people from all over the world visiting Washington, D.C., about what prompted the project.

It was House Bill 1228, the state legislature’s “Conscience Protection Act” to allow people and businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. After hundreds of people protested at the state Capitol, the bill was pulled, replaced with one based on the federal religious freedom bill.

“I was sitting in Cracker Barrel [a pause here to laugh] having coffee with a friend when I got a text that HB 1228 was going to pass. I would never have dreamed it would pass,” Cox said. She thought about it a while and announced, “I’m going to Washington. … If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a bully.”

“End Hate” has expanded, with “Stain” and other pieces, built from other objects Cox has collected from flea markets and antique stores: There’s the bullet-riddled Coca-Cola sign that has a Bible embedded in it (“Ready, Aim, Fire and Brimstone”) because people are excusing their prejudices with Bible verse, “throwing the Bible around as casually as they shoot at signs” in the country, she said. “Eleventh Hour” is a birdhouse turned church, half painted black, half painted white, referring to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said was the most segregated hour in the week. No matter how we prefer to worship, Cox said, “I see no reason why we shouldn’t be breaking bread together” once in a while. There’s “Blessed Assurance (or maybe Ashurance),” which Cox constructed with a window from an 1896 church and wood from a pew that she burned with a torch. The vertical piece of a cross built into the window was made with a fire extinguisher from the 1940s. Another piece combines a pair of scuffed men’s shoes in a church dormer window, also backed with an old church pew, one in which eye holes were cut out to resemble a wooden Klansman’s robe. Cox said her grandparents told her they could identify disguised Klan members by their Sunday church shoes.

Cox is working on a piece incorporating the most remarkable artifact she’s obtained: A real Klan robe she bought from an antique shop. Stains on the back are blood, Cox has been told; the name of the wearer — Wallis — is embroidered in the collar. She wonders if it was worn during the Red Summer of 1919, when whites attacked blacks in dozens of cities across America, including Elaine.

“This series has been pouring out of me,” Cox said. “For once I’m trying not to control my work,” which has included her “Images of the American South” mixed-media series of people seen through screen doors, abstractions and other work. She believes art can get a message across that mere words can’t. Her constructions, she hopes, will make viewers stop and think — for themselves.

“I’m redirecting my energy into myself and my passion and not other people’s business, and I’m so happy,” she said.

Cox, who grew up in Arkadelphia, the daughter and great-granddaughter of artists, said she believes people have been neglecting the issues of race for too long.

“One thing these crazy people [racists] have done is poked a hornet’s nest,” where folks are no longer hiding their bigotry, Cox said. “I don’t want to hear the N word and faggot and queer. … It made me realize it was time to grow up” and return the sting. LNP

Excy Johnston

Former rodeo rider turns wild horse sanctuary into advocacy.

John Houston Eccleston “Excy” Johnston had been a successful architect for decades when he received a phone call one night at his ranch in Bigelow telling him that a group of wild horses was about to be slaughtered unless he did something to rescue them. “The slaughter-buyer had already picked them up,” he remembered recently. “Nobody could get the money together to save them. I got with a friend and we just — we went and got ’em. We paid the guy off and brought them back. And we’ve just been slugging away at it ever since.”

Johnston, who was born in Baltimore and lived in Austin, Texas, for many years before moving to Arkansas to be closer to his wife’s family, came by his love of horses honestly, having grown up on ranches and riding in rodeos. “The whole atmosphere is really quite incredible,” he said of his time riding broncs in rodeos around the country. “I did well enough to get myself from point A to point B, but never enough to make any sort of living. I used to just pick places I’d never been before and go.”

Johnston’s initial act of mercy has spawned a nonprofit organization, Wing Spur Wild Horses Inc., dedicated to serving as both a sanctuary for wild horses and an educational outreach opportunity. More recently, he has signed up an old acquaintance from his Austin years, the country singer and Texas personality Kinky Friedman, as a celebrity board member. Friedman plays fundraisers for Wing Spur and has committed to make future appearances in support of the project and to do whatever else is needed. Johnston plans to host a camp-out on his ranch in coming weeks, and is interested in hosting benefit events at the White Water Tavern.

“Horses are intelligent, feeling creatures that, in general, deserve better than going to slaughter,” Johnston said. “They have a role. There’s a pretty good argument for, as much as possible, leaving wild horses wild. We’ve got our 15. If we could save some more that would be great.” WS

Margarita Solorzano

Advocate helps Latinos engage in Northwest Arkansas communities.

Margarita Solorzano grew up in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and moved to the United States in 1990 to join her five sisters living in Southern California. Searching for a small and affordable community, she moved to the mostly white Springdale in 1996 to raise her two daughters. Solorzano got a job at a grocery store, where she could see the difficulties that Latinos had communicating and getting information, the looks that they received in line trying to pay for their groceries and the challenges that they faced in hiring other services such as doctors and lawyers.

So Solorzano got involved in the community, meeting with a group of mostly Hispanic women at local churches and public libraries, all of whom were looking for a support system in their new community. That group later became the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas (HWOA).

In an effort to tear down barriers to services, the HWOA published a Bilingual Newcomers Guide providing information about community resources.

The HWOA also works to improve children’s educational success and provide scholarships as an incentive to pursue higher education. Many of the Latino families that move to Springdale come for factory jobs. Their children are educated as ESL students; as such, Solorzano said, educators may not expect much from them or motivate them to continue their education.

“One of the things that shocked me when I came to the United States is that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated [here] more than it is in Mexico,” Solorzano said. “So we adopted the festival to celebrate community and [raise funds for] education.”

The festival — eight hours of music, food, performances and games — is held every year at the Jones Center in Springdale with the help of volunteers. All proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

Since 2000, HWOA has awarded 314 scholarships, ranging from $500 to $5,000, to deserving Latino students, many of whom are first-generation college students.

HWOA also created a mentoring program for young and older adults that provides personal development workshops, parenting classes and computer skill classes. The classes are taught in Spanish and include resume writing and job interview preparation. More than a thousand people have been served by the program.

“We want them to be a part of the community, be integrated into the community — not just taxpayers, but citizens who care about what’s going on and actively getting involved and getting things changed,” Solorzano said.

Since the HWOA’s founding in 1999, Springdale’s population has become increasingly diverse, with the addition of other ethnic minorities from the Marshall Islands, India, Laos and Vietnam. The HWOA works with several state and local organizations to create a more inclusive community for all of the area’s residents.

“[Without] integration, we have small pockets of people, living in the same place, probably having the same needs but never communicating or associating with the other group. If we work together, the community conditions [will] change, [and] they benefit everybody.”

Solorzano believes that Northwest Arkansas can be a model for other places in the state and country aiming to create more inclusive communities with diverse populations. KH

Ryan Harris

Former finance man helps fill a niche in Little Rock’s music scene.

Among the casualties of the 2008 market collapse, you can include Ryan Harris’ burgeoning career in financial services. A St. Louis native, Harris had played music for most of his life, but only as a hobby. At Washington University, he’d studied business, and after graduating took a position with a money management firm for a couple of years until the recession hit. The truth was, he welcomed the change — this wasn’t the career he wanted. “It ended up being kind of a moral conflict for me,” he remembered recently. “It was a sales job, and I realized I didn’t believe in what I was selling.”

After a soul-searching stint in Europe, Harris made the decision to focus on what he actually enjoyed. In college, his most meaningful experiences had been music-related. His professor Rich O’Donnell — the pioneering and eccentric composer, percussionist and instrument-builder — had been a profound influence in this respect, introducing Harris to the notion that it’s “OK to pursue something you love doing even if it isn’t practical.” He began booking shows with O’Donnell and eventually became a staple in the city’s art music community, “clawing” his way up at the Sheldon Arts Foundation (sometimes called the “Carnegie Hall of St. Louis”) from an internship to a receptionist gig to, finally, a job as program director.

In early 2013, as the Oxford American was preparing to open its new restaurant and performance venue South on Main, Harris moved to Little Rock with his then-girlfriend (now wife), and was appointed the venue’s first program director. He saw an opportunity from the beginning to fill a different niche in the city’s music scene, and to provide a new, regular outlet for local artists. “There are a surprising number of great musicians in Central Arkansas,” he said. “Unfortunately, very few of them can make a fulltime living playing music, simply because it’s a smaller economy that can’t support enough live music.” And rather than go “head-to-head with the existing, thriving rock clubs,” Harris decided to focus on concerts that better suited the restaurant’s size and atmosphere.

Local Live, the free weekly concert series Harris curates, has quickly become an essential part of Little Rock’s cultural landscape, a casual, sonically diverse, upscale but affordable experience that features different artists at 7:30 p.m. each Wednesday. It’s the premier option for, in Harris’ words, “people who have to be at work in the mornings and can’t start their nights at rock club times; people who love music but maybe have kids; people who want an experience where they can socialize, get a fantastic meal and great drinks and hear somebody who’s trying to create their own artistic identity.”

Harris also programs ticketed shows at South on Main, bringing jazz musicians and songwriters who may never have played in Little Rock before “because there hasn’t been a proper place for them to play or because nobody wanted to promote their kind of music.” Over the next few months, the venue will host Americana nostalgist Pokey LaFarge, Israeli jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen, brooding singer-songwriter Lera Lynn (featured prominently in the new season of “True Detective”) and an evening of “Georgia music in the round” featuring The Indigo Girls and Patterson Hood, which will serve as a kickoff for the Oxford American’s forthcoming Georgia Music Issue.

Asked whether there’s any sort of cognitive dissonance to programming mostly quieter, acoustic music when his own musical background leans toward prog-metal and experimental electronic music, Harris emphatically denied it. “I pull out the metal albums every once in a while, but I’m too old to go out to those concerts,” he said. “I’ve mellowed.” WS

Bill Solleder

Rocker adopts Hot Springs and develops its music scene.

In a past life, Bill Solleder was better known as Billy Spunke, front man for the Chicago glam-punk outfit The Blue Meanies (est. 1989), named for the wild-tongued villains from “Yellow Submarine.” Because they had a horn section, they were roped into the Third Wave of Ska, and by 1999 were signed to a dream deal with MCA. “The industry was still banking on the whole post-Nirvana alternative rock era,” Solleder remembered recently. “We were one of the last acts signed under that model.” Before long they were touring with Celtic punk band Flogging Molly, and not long after that — “we didn’t see it coming at all, everything was going really well” — they got a phone call telling them they’d been dropped.

Solleder, who was born and raised in Chicago and who studied at Southern Illinois University, decided it was time for a change. He’d fallen in love with a woman “through the mail” — a pen pal named Shea Childs — and in 2003 they relocated to her hometown, Hot Springs, where he took a job as a project manager with a construction company. He fell for Hot Springs right away, though he missed the vibrant music scenes he’d known in other larger cities. An old friend on her way to a set at the South by Southwest music festival in Texas asked if Solleder could find a place for her to play in Hot Springs, so he wandered into Maxine’s one night — “it was pretty shady in there at the time” — and asked if he could book a show. “Within two weeks I had booked five days of consecutive shows,” he said, “and before I knew it, we had an event going.”

Valley of the Vapors, the annual underground music festival Solleder founded in 2005, has only grown larger, more raucous and more prestigious in the years since. He and Childs founded a nonprofit organization, Low Key Arts, to support the event, and their efforts have continued to extend into other cultural arenas, becoming a kind of all-purpose engine for creative possibility in Hot Springs. Arkansas Shorts, a festival of short films by local and international filmmakers, was next, which in turn led to the Projection Digital Filmmaking Program, a hands-on movie-making course for young aspiring directors. “Over time we became part of the bloodstream of Hot Springs,” Solleder said, though he concedes that Valley of the Vapors still operates a little under the radar. To “embrace the whole town,” in 2011 Solleder started the Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Festival, which will continue this October.

Solleder’s new project, one that’s been in the works for nearly three years now, promises to raise the stakes for Low Key Arts and for the whole Central Arkansas arts community: Hot Springs’ first solar-powered community radio station, KUHS 97.9 FM. A longtime dream of station manager Zac Smith and engineer Bob Nagy, the station is the result of a massive local fundraising effort, including a successful Kickstarter campaign, and has already recruited a number of all-volunteer DJs and staff. There are shows dedicated to classical music, jazz, punk, metal, zydeco and EDM. Local theater group Red Door Studios has produced an exclusive radio play for the new station. Solleder himself currently hosts two weekly shows — one on classic rock deep cuts and another on the history of New Wave. “The goal is to be somewhere between NPR and college radio,” he said, citing Little Rock’s KABF FM, 88.3, as a primary influence.

Solleder, who also sings in the bands Holy Shakes and All the Way Korean!, said his hyperactive productivity could at first be attributed to general restlessness — “trying to cure the boredom,” as he puts it — but at this point he recognizes he has a significant role to play in Hot Springs’ cultural life. “I’d like to make a lasting impression,” he said. WS

Stephanie Harris

Attorney works to develop more women leaders.

For Little Rock attorney Stephanie Harris, the decision to start the group Women Lead Arkansas was at least partially sparked by a question she posed to herself back in 2013: Why, over a decade into the 21st century, are we still making a political issue out of whether women should have access to birth control?

“I couldn’t fucking believe it. You can quote me on that,” she said. “I thought that if we had more women in office, maybe we wouldn’t be having that conversation.”

Women Lead Arkansas ( is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group with the root goal of getting more women and girls interested in running for public office, volunteering for campaigns, and putting their names in the hat for leadership roles on appointed boards and commissions. Getting more women into those positions, Harris believes, will help solve lingering issues like gender-based pay inequality, girls being steered away from education in science, tech, engineering and math, and more.

“We still have very few women on our boards of trustees at institutions of higher education,” Harris said. “Women are more than half the people who go to college. Why is that? At last count, [women comprised] only about 26 percent of our state boards and commissions who were appointed by the governor.”

Since starting the group, Harris has had the opportunity to talk to women from all over the state. While she said younger women are less likely to accept the term “feminist,” most still believe in the basic tenets of feminism, such as equal pay for equal work.

Harris believes women leaders bring unique attitudes to the table, including diplomacy and more community-oriented decision-making. “I don’t like to think of us as trying to be more like men,” she said. “I think we have really complementary attributes. We think about things differently. Women tend to think about the impact of our policies more broadly. We tend to be the primary caregivers of our families, so we’re not just thinking about ourselves or our immediate family. We’re thinking about how things affect the community.”

Though it seems like the state has taken a few steps backward on women’s rights in the past few years, Harris is clearly playing the long game. While she said she doesn’t see either the Republican or Democratic Party doing much to “build their pipeline with women,” incremental steps by groups like Women Lead Arkansas will get us to a leadership landscape that more closely resembles society.

“It needs to be a long-term effort. Not just 2016,” she said. “We need to be building women up right now. … To me, it’s all about the numbers. We’ve got to get more women in office so it’s normal to have women in those positions. Until it’s normal, we’re going to keep having to have this conversation.” DK

Arny Ferrando and Don Bodenner

Doctor and researcher turn to experts in smell for cancer research.

Arny Ferrando, a Ph.D. researcher in metabolism, and Dr. Don Bodenner, an endocrinologist, don’t know if they’re visionaries or “crazy,” Ferrando said. Certainly, some folks could consider their research harebrained. But they would be wrong on two counts: The research is getting good results and it doesn’t involve hares. It involves dogs, and their amazing sense of smell.

The dogs that hang out on the seventh floor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Science’s Reynolds Institute on Aging can tell if a patient has thyroid cancer. No, Ferrando and Bodenner are not taking the dogs to the patients. That wouldn’t work anyway. What their dogs do detect is the compound that a thyroid cancer cell emits into the bloodstream and urine.

Why, you ask, use a dog to diagnose thyroid cancer? The idea came up over lunch, when Ferrando, who had been working with search and rescue dogs, was describing to Bodenner the amazing ability of the dogs to sniff out missing people, lost kids, even Civil War graves and cremated remains.

Bodenner has the technology to detect nodes on the thyroid (half of us over the age of 50 have them), but has a harder time finding out if they are cancerous. There are a couple of reasons for that. Between 10 and 20 percent of the time the nodules “won’t give up the cells” to a needle biopsy, Bodenner said. Then, 20 to 30 percent of all biopsies can’t tell the pathologist whether the cells are cancerous or not.

Only 4 to 5 percent of nodules turn out to be cancerous, but that percentage is high enough, Bodenner said, that many patients want surgery. “So I’m going to send someone to surgery for a [condition] that’s 95 percent benign,” Bodenner said.

Enter Bella, a boxer lab stray picked up at a gas station, and Zooey, a golden retriever owned by ICU nurse Rachel Rosenbaum. They work for tennis balls. Trainer Stephani Waggoner works with the dogs, putting out several vials of urine on a multi-armed contraption that the dogs can walk around. When the dogs find a sample that has the cancer compound in it, they sit, look eagerly at Waggoner and she throws them their reward, their beloved balls.

Bella and Zooey were trained to detect the cancer compound first in human tissue supplied by surgeon Dr. Brendan Stack. Waggoner — a Marine who worked with bomb-sniffing dogs in Iraq — is working with Bella, Zooey and six other dogs to identify the substance in progressively smaller portions.

Bella and Zooey are the successors to Frankie, a shepherd mix who made the news last year when Ferrando and Bodenner published the results of their study at a conference on endocrinology. For that study, Frankie was presented with 34 urine samples provided by patients scheduled for surgical biopsies, with some known cancer-positive samples added in so Frankie wouldn’t work without a reward at some point. Frankie could detect that a sample was not cancerous nine times out of 10; he correctly identified 87 percent of the cancer samples as such. Now, Bodenner and Ferrando say, their reliability studies with Frankie’s successors have a 92 percent accuracy rate.

Bodenner and Ferrando say they’re “moonlighting” when they work on the scent project; Bodenner has a clinical practice and does other research, and Ferrando studies muscle loss in the elderly. But they are passionate about the work and would like to see the dogs eventually become an adjunct to clinical care — not just for thyroid cancer, but deadlier cancers like ovarian cancer. Bodenner does not intend to turn diagnoses over to the dogs, but he will at some point offer their evidence to a patient. He thinks the patients will trust them. To get to that point will take time and money (the National Institutes of Health won’t grant money until it’s sure the project is not “looney tunes,” as Ferrando put it.) Helping with research is the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, which has a division that breeds dogs for good noses and reward values. Auburn is now training its dogs using samples provided by UAMS.

While there have been several studies of dogs and their ability to smell cancer, UAMS and Auburn are conducting the first double-blind clinical trials, Ferrando said.

“Don’s the visionary,” Ferrando said. “He had the cajones to say let’s give it a shot.” Department Chair Dr. Jeanne Wei doesn’t mind dogs running around the seventh floor and supports the research, he said. Stack has been selfless in providing tissue, Bodenner added. There’s a cell biologist and a chemist on faculty studying the compounds to determine just what it is the dogs smell. And there are the dogs. They’re not in it for the science, but for the fun of it. It’s a wonderful team, Ferrando said. LNP

Evan Young

An advocate for transgender vets.

The old saying goes, if you enjoy your freedoms, thank a veteran. For veterans and active duty soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who happen to be transgender, however, serving this country probably feels a bit thankless at times. While gays and lesbians have been able to serve openly since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2010, transgender service members still live under the threat of being kicked out of the military simply for being who they are.

Pope County resident Evan Young, the current president of the Transgender American Veterans Association, or TAVA, is working to change that.

Young knows firsthand the threat under which transgender service members live. Young, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1989, served in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), as a recruiter at the University of Michigan and with the Hawaii National Guard before retiring from the military in 2013. Toward the end of his military career, believing he would soon be allowed to medically retire because of bad knees, Young began taking testosterone to transition from biologically female to male. He didn’t realize how quickly the hormone would work.

“Within five weeks,” he said, “my voice had bottomed out and my short haircut didn’t help at all. I came under investigation. It was essentially a race against time for them to find something on me.” Luckily, Young said, he was able to get out before that happened.

After retiring from the military in January 2013, Young joined TAVA, a group founded in 2003. He was soon asked to join the board of directors, and eventually served as secretary and vice president before taking the reins as president in December 2014.

TAVA has a 10-person board and a Facebook group with over 3,000 members (a drop in the bucket of what Young said is an estimated 135,000 transgender veterans in the U.S.). Day to day, the group — online at — helps trans soldiers and vets as they navigate life in and out of the military, including fielding calls for assistance from trans vets who run into problems while seeking medical care or gender changes in their VA records.

“We have direct lines to people who can get it done,” Young said. “We’ve helped so many veterans who are just in tears because they can’t get something they need.” Young said the group is also working on a program to help low-income or homeless trans vets with sometimes complicated and expensive legal issues like gender changes on birth certificates or driver’s licenses.

While Young believes the wind is blowing in the direction of transgender service members being allowed to openly serve — he says a recent directive from the Department of Defense leaves the decision on whether to discharge a trans soldier up to the top brass at the DoD, which is a good sign — he says there is still work to be done, and probably always will be.

“I think that everybody deserves a fair chance,” Young said. “As long as there’s a fight to fight, then I’ll be in there fighting for our rights.” DK

Bernadette Devone

Nonprofit leader gets South Arkansas organized.

Bernadette Devone probably knows more about South Arkansas than any Arkansan. The Virginia native, lured to Arkansas by ACORN and now organizing director for the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, puts about 1,000 miles on her car every week traveling to 10 communities, from Marvell in the Delta to Huttig in the Felsenthal. She’s been doing that for 13 years, working to help low-income residents of those communities to help themselves, and “we are actually making headway,” Devone said.

It’s hard work. Racism, Devone said, “is embedded in rural Arkansas in a way that you have to see it to believe it.” For example, when Huttig elected its first black mayor, Tony Cole, in 2010, KKK signs were painted all over town, dogs were poisoned, the white chief of police — fired by Cole — sued the mayor (and lost). The city of Marvell still has no public swimming pool. The city of Prescott’s efforts to construct a Confederate memorial has gone down the wrong way. These days, Confederate flags “are out and about. I see more and more of them every day,” Devone said.

And yet, Devone’s team has been able to work with communities to come together and work toward a future they want to see in towns wracked by blight, poor schools, unemployment and families dealing with a high number of incarcerated African-American men.

Devone came to Arkansas with a different perspective on religion. “I’m a religious person, I believe in the Bible and Jesus,” she said. But, as she traveled to churches to register people to vote in the 2000 election, she began to see that people here sometimes perhaps put more faith in prayer than action. Devone discovered that “a lot of the time people didn’t really understand why it was important to go to the polls and vote.” So, working with the Public Policy Panel, she and her team started holding political forums throughout South Arkansas. The team emphasized that people needed to learn what the candidates stood for, and to vote for them based on issues rather than friendships or family ties.

As Devone discovered, division is not just a product of racism. In Gould, which is 85 percent black, a group of activists formed there with the help of Devone’s team decided to call the city council’s hand on several of its actions (or inaction) — the town’s bankruptcy, its sewer system and more — and the city council passed an unconstitutional ordinance that sought to outlaw the group. The mayor, Earnest Nash, was assaulted, as a result of the division between the old powers and the new. Creating consensus “was not as easy as they thought,” Devone said. “There’s a whole lot more politics … in small town America,” she discovered. But, she said, for better or for worse, the town is more engaged politically.

“Everyone likes accolades, and I’m no different,” Devone said. “But it’s more important to me that we expose what’s happening in these communities.” Meanwhile, her group continues to seek out leaders, connect people in communities with similar goals and “help low-income, marginalized people to understand that they have power, they have a voice and can make a difference.”LNP

Taylor Wilson

Nuclear physics prodigy keeps pushing.

What were you doing when you were 14? Whatever your answer to that question is, you probably didn’t just say, “I became the youngest person in the world to achieve nuclear fusion.”

That is, however, a claim that can be made by Texarkana native Taylor Wilson. In 2008, at an age when most people are still trying to master algebra and pass the test for their learner’s permit, Wilson built a working fusion reactor, successfully fusing atoms at a temperature 40 times hotter than the sun.

Since then, Wilson has twice been a speaker at the prestigious TED Talks series (giving one talk on achieving fusion and another on powering the world with small nuclear reactors); won the $50,000 top prize in a science fair sponsored by the White House for his invention of a device that can detect nuclear material in shipping containers at ports, and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to continue his research. An article published in Popular Science in 2012 by reporter Tom Clynes was expanded and published in July as a biography called, “The Boy Who Played With Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting and How to Make a Star.” A film project based on the book is rumored.

Now living in Nevada, Wilson, 21, said that he has long been fascinated with nuclear energy and the thousands of ways it can help society. He was around 10, he said, when he first became interested in the field.

“I don’t know what inspired me,” he said. “I think I realized that that was just about the most powerful thing I could do, right? Unlocking the fundamental structural and energetic element of nature. It’s really powerful, and it’s got the power to do a lot of things, whether it’s to solve our energy crisis or cure disease. It’s an incredibly powerful tool to me. That’s what’s drew me to it. I guess I’ve been doing it more than half my life now.”

These days, Wilson said, his main research focus is in reactor development, designing compact, modular systems that could someday power a small city. “That’s my major focus,” he said, “but I’ve got all kinds of projects, especially in basic science, to investigate a variety of things in medicine and basic physics. I’m maybe a little bit schizophrenic in my focus sometimes.”

While Wilson has called Reno home for several years, his parents live in Arkansas. He hints that he may be returning to his birth state at some point.

“The state of Arkansas has tried really hard to get me back there,” he said, “so there’s some things in the works. Hopefully that’ll all work out.” DK

Nia Aitaoto
Public health researcher follows the Marshallese to Arkansas

If you want to address the special health needs of Pacific Islanders, public health researcher Nia Aitaoto says, Northwest Arkansas is a good place to do it. Arkansas has the highest and the fastest growing population of Marshallese — natives of the Marshall Islands, just north of the equator in the Micronesia island group in the Pacific Ocean — in the continental U.S., drawn to the Ozarks for jobs in the poultry industry and cheaper living costs. The Marshallese may travel freely in the U.S. as part of an agreement meant to compensate them for the deadly radiation to which they were exposed during American nuclear bomb tests. They also live in Western states, but are concentrated here.

Aitaoto, a public health researcher who is herself Samoan, co-directs the Center for Pacific Islander Health, a position that allows her to split her time between Fayetteville, where the center is part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and California. She most recently did research at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, but worked in the Pacific for 17 years as a generalist in Pacific Islander Health.

“All the other ethnic groups — Hispanic, African American — have different centers at different universities. There are centers for native Hawaiians. But UAMS’ center will be the first to focus on Pacific Islander health, and will serve the country. … We follow our community where they move to,” Aitaoto said.

Using information from school districts and birth certificates as well as U.S. census data, Aitaoto puts Arkansas’s population of Pacific Islanders at between 10,000 and 14,000. (Census data is lower: “It’s common knowledge that we don’t do very well with surveys,” Aitaota said; census takers who visit immigrant households will often be told that the number of residents is the number the lease allows, rather than the real number, which could be much higher.) One of the jobs of the center is to collect better data on how large the community is.

The Marshallese have a number of significant health problems, most importantly type 2 diabetes. A quarter of the Marshallese has this diet-and-lifestyle-related diabetes, which is an extremely high percentage compared with 9 percent in the general population. It likely has something to do with a generation of poor food: Even before the U.S. used Marshallese atolls for bomb tests, Navy ships bombed the Japanese-held islands during World War II, damaging the vegetation of the Pacific Islands. Radiation from the later bomb tests poisoned the fish and what remaining vegetation there was, and the islanders had to live on canned food. Before the war, according to a government study, there was no diabetes and little hypertension among the residents of the Marshall Island chain, Aitaoto said.

The islanders also suffer disproportionate rates of tuberculosis, Hansen’s disease (leprosy), Hepatitis B and cancer. Their cancer is believed to be caused by radiation, whether through inherited modified genes or the environment. (A lot of the research into why that should be is classified, Aitaoto said.)

Because the islanders have what Aitaoto calls a “highly collective culture,” doctors who treat diabetes among the Marshallese have to involve more than the patient. “In the Pacific, it’s not yourself … it’s your family that will determine whether you are successful” in managing illness. The islanders have “a unique way of seeing things”; communication with them is “contextual,” Aitaota said. They may be speaking English, but to fully communicate, one must “read between the lines.” The center’s research will play a part in finding ways to tailor health care to the culture, by outreach funded by the Centers for Disease Control and by recruiting doctors and public health workers from the Marshallese community in the U.S.

“To me, it is very forward-thinking to have [the center] here,” Aitaoto said. Pearl McElfish, director of UAMS’ Office of Community Health and Research, is co-director of the center.

The center was created with a grant of $250,000 from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI), which has also awarded UAMS $2.1 million to study diabetes education in the Marshallese community.

The CDC has also made a grant to UAMS of $2.99 million to address health disparities among Pacific Islanders and Hispanics. LNP

Nicole Capri

Rep’s director of education gives young, aspiring actors a challenge. It works.

This year marks Nicole Capri’s 10th anniversary as director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s Summer Musical Theater Intensive program, which she’s taking as an opportunity for reflection.

I don’t want to become stagnant,” she said recently. “I think every few years you should take a step back and reimagine things.”

Capri, who grew up in Little Rock and graduated from Central High, initially returned to Little Rock over a decade ago to take a role in The Rep’s production of “Cinderella.” She signed on for a temporary stint in development and stuck around “for the health insurance,” before finding her passion in The Rep’s then-underutilized summer program. “When they first asked me to do the education program, we were doing residencies in the schools and they had a small camp,” she said. “I saw there was so much interest in musical theater especially, it was a niche that wasn’t being filled around here. So I proposed a program that would basically treat kids like adults, where over the course of a week and a half they would put on a show.”

The result was the SMTI program. It’s become so widely known that it now draws participants and staff members from all over the country. Over 600 students auditioned to take part in this summer’s program, which consisted of four sections (divided by age group) and 16 performances. “It caught on because kids loved the challenge,” Capri said. “They needed the challenge.”

Notable alumni of the highly competitive program include Chad Burris (currently starring in the national tour of “The Book of Mormon”), Charity Vance (singer-songwriter and finalist on “American Idol” season 9) and Cole Ewing (actor, most recently of the Disney Channel show “Lab Rats”). “They come out sweating,” Capri said of her students. “I’m sure some days they hate me. But in the end every single one says, ‘Thank you for pushing me.’ “

Looking ahead, Capri plans to one day add a dance company and a vocal company, and to produce more “straight plays.” Her immediate goal, however, is simply growth. “I’ve been practically a department of one,” she said. “It’s time to expand. I can’t do this by myself.” WS

Tamara Perry

Childhood asthma in rural Arkansas inspires doctor to pursue advances in telemedicine.

Growing up in Helena-West Helena, Tamara Perry always knew that she wanted to help others get and stay healthy. During her medical training she chose to focus on allergy and immunology because she suffered from asthma as a child. Perry also knew from personal experience the difficulties of getting asthma treated in a rural location.

Now, as director of telemedicine at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Perry is working to help patients and health care providers stay connected when they can’t meet face to face. As part of her work, she’s developed a mobile app for asthma patients.

Of Arkansas’s 75 counties, 70 percent are considered rural and the majority is medically underserved, without enough health care providers for the number of people in the county. Forty-six counties are served by a single hospital and 21 counties — almost 30 percent of all counties in the state — do not have ready access to a hospital.

“In traditional medicine the doctor is in one location and the patient has to come to that location, oftentimes waiting days, weeks and months before seeing the provider,” Perry said. Telemedicine makes it possible for medical information to be exchanged via two-way video, smart phones, wireless tools and other forms of technology.

“Telemedicine is changing the way we practice medicine,” Perry said.

Asthma is the most common childhood disease, affecting over 7 million children in the United States every year. It causes inflammation in the lungs, narrowing of the airways and excess production of mucus, making it difficult to breathe. This triggers coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, which often requires medical treatment and presents challenges to leading an active lifestyle.

Traditionally, an asthma action plan is given to patients by a specialist like Perry on a sheet of paper giving detailed instructions on what to do when they are having symptoms, how to take their rescue medications and when they need to seek medical attention.

Perry designed the innovative mobile telemedicine application for asthma patients with a research team at Children’s. It’s still in the trial phase and is being evaluated for its effectiveness in treatment and patient health outcomes.

The app not only gives the same instructions as a traditional asthma action plan, but also allows for patients to input data that can be tracked by their physician, including symptoms, daily medications and use of rescue medications.

The data will assist physicians in determining and identifying patterns in the patient’s symptoms and identifying the best methods of treatment.

“It is much easier and much more feasible to expect a patient to keep up with an app on their phone as opposed to a piece of paper. It’s in line with what we as a society are utilizing every day in terms of technology.”

Perry hopes to expand existing technologies and implement new telemedicine services in the next six to 12 months.

“At Children’s Hospital we treat a lot of diseases that are life-changing and have a great opportunity to significantly impact and improve our patients’ life outcomes. We are working hard to make sure that what we are doing is right for our patients, providing what they need and want, and filling gaps that we haven’t been able to fill before.” KH

Morgan Holladay

Nonprofit leader tries to bring compassion to the prison system.

There is a growing consensus across much of the political spectrum that nonviolent offenders need to be diverted from prison, or at least serve shorter sentences. Significantly fewer politicians and activists are agitating on behalf of the thousands of others who are serving time for violent offenses.

That’s a problem, Morgan Holladay says. “We need to change discourse. We need to work on rehabilitating and empowering all people in prison.” As executive director of Compassion Works for All, she is confronting that disparity with healing, hope and compassion as her tools.

CWFA has roots stretching back more than two decades, when Little Rock Buddhist and psychotherapist Anna Cox heeded a call from the Dalai Lama challenging his Western students to do more outreach in U.S. prisons. After Cox began mentoring prisoners, she decided to start Dharma Friends, a monthly newsletter filled with Buddhist teachings. Ultimately that led to the formation of Compassion Works for All as a nonprofit to more broadly help prisoners find spiritual healing.

Holladay, a Buddhist who interned with CWFA while she was obtaining her master’s degree in social work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is following the path Cox has set. She mentors prisoners one on one, teaches a compassionate communication class based on the teachings of Marshall Rosenberg at the Tucker Unit and does re-entry counseling.

“We talk through their [post-release] plans. We talk through the emotional aspects of going home. Sometimes we role-play things like how to talk to your kids about where you’ve been. We talk about resources and what’s available. A lot of them don’t know about the Affordable Care Act, or where the nearest community health clinic is.”

Meanwhile, Holladay is also working to expand CWFA’s reach by turning it into something of a training institute. One program she hopes to soon train others in is called Letters from the Inside. It’s a 20-session group workbook for at-risk kids filled with letters from adult inmates.

“Kids go around the room and read the letters. Then we talk about some of the core themes. Some things that might come up: ‘This guy is using drugs because he was beaten as a child by his father. So he starts using drugs. Starts hanging out with a lot of people who’re using drugs. Then he starts stealing so he can buy drugs, and then he ends up in prison.’ Then we ask, ‘What are some other ways that he could have coped with this abuse?’ And we come up with strategies.” What often comes out in discussions is that the kids have experienced similar abuse, Holladay said.

Also on her wish list: working with the Arkansas Department of Correction and the Arkansas Community Correction on sensitivity training.

“If someone who is working directly with inmates thinks they’re subhuman, then nothing is going to change.” LM

Zane Anderson

Pilot recognizes market for drones.

Though Jetsons-style flying cars don’t seem to be forthcoming anytime soon, you’ve got to admit that it’s pretty cool here in the future. Take drones: the small, unmanned aerial vehicles, usually equipped with a camera to beam an image of what the drone is “seeing” back to the pilot in real time. With unmatched stability and maneuverability thanks to the multiple propellers keeping them aloft, drones have already been invaluable in fields from filmmaking to search and rescue.

In Arkansas, one of those in the vanguard of the technology is Zane Anderson. From a base at the North Little Rock Airport, Anderson runs Airborne Information Systems, the first company in the state to win an exemption from FAA regulations that allows it to commercially operate what the FAA calls a Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or SUAV.

Anderson started the helicopter service Aerial Patrol Inc. in 1983. In recent years, he saw drones doing some of the tasks that helicopters had once performed. “We pretty much had a lock on [the local helicopter] market,” he said, “but when drones came along, they started taking a big chunk of our market. So it was, if we can’t lick ’em, join ’em.”

The SUAVs operated by Airborne Information Systems aren’t like anything you can purchase at the local hobby shop. About 3 feet across, with six electric motors, they are mostly used for inspecting places that might be dangerous for a human to get to, such as the tops of tall electricity transmission towers. Anderson said the drones have about a 20-minute battery life and are subject to a multitude of regulations from the FAA. They can’t, for instance, be operated at altitudes over 200 feet, can’t leave the range of the unaided “line of sight” of the pilot (about 1,000 feet, Anderson said) and must weigh under 55 pounds.

Though Anderson said getting the FAA license to commercially operate their SUAVs was a “long, drawn out process” — one that included writing safety and operations manuals and filling out a detailed explanation of why the craft should be exempt from the requirement that it be equipped with seatbelts — he understands why the red tape is necessary.

“I think the FAA doesn’t know exactly where they’re going with it. That’s why it seems slow. It isn’t really slow, it’s just that their attitude about it is changing every day. … The ones that we operate, the battery on them is about like a motorcycle battery. It would be as if a plane hit a brick. It would go right through the windshield or take a motor out for sure.”

With the safety and regulation concerns slowly being worked out by the FAA, Anderson believes the technology will come into its own in the next few years. He said there is already the potential to go much further than is currently allowed.

“It’s been pretty amazing to see what they can do,” he said. “You can program them to do things autonomously. They’ll do whatever you tell them to go do. But the FAA doesn’t like that.” DK

Jerri Derlikowski

After a career in state government, education policy wonk takes expertise to the local level.

Jerri Derlikowski is doing it all backwards. After a decade and a half of working in state education policy — first as an analyst and administrator at the Bureau of Legislative Research, then for the past three years in the nonprofit world at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families — she’s now headed to the trenches. Derlikowski left AACF this summer to launch her own one-woman shop for schools in need of turnaround, with a focus on small, rural districts.

“I’ve kind of evolved,” she told the Arkansas Times. While on staff at the legislature, she said, “I had to be very neutral, very cautious not to express my opinions. Then I moved to the nonprofit world where I was freer to advocate for policy I thought was needed to close the achievement gap. … My next big step is to get out and put some things in practice that I think I’ve learned through [my] policy study.”

What Derlikowski has learned is this: To reach low-income kids, schools need to provide wraparound services, a label that includes everything from pre-K to after-school tutoring to providing family health services, child care and job training for parents.

“It’s employment opportunities and support. It’s literacy training. In areas where there are a lot of non-English speaking parents, [it’s] English classes. … It’s anything that gets the community and the family more involved in the school.”

“The Arkansas Department of Education is really focusing on what’s happening academically, [and] we have a lot of support for schools that are struggling inside the classroom,” she said. “But all the research keeps showing that for low-income children in particular, one of the reasons they’re not as successful as they could be is [because of] stress and dysfunction around them in their homes and communities.” Wraparound services can alleviate some of that, she says.

Derlikowski points to the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City as an example of what an ambitious school-neighborhood partnership can accomplish in boosting outcomes for kids. Closer to home, she cites the academic gains of high-poverty, majority-minority schools in Springdale. But after years of studying the nuts and bolts of education funding, she holds no illusions that such a vision can be accomplished without ample amounts of money and human capacity.

“The difference is that [Springdale’s] Jones Elementary is a very poor school population, but it’s in a wealthier district. Springdale spent a fortune hiring someone to get a [federal] Race to the Top grant. It was a godsend — $27 million for one district. And from what I hear, it’s been put to good use.”

Derlikowski plans to use her years of grant-writing experience and deep knowledge of the various players in Arkansas education to offer small schools the same opportunities enjoyed by their larger counterparts. “The bigger schools usually have capacity internally to apply for grants,” she said, but in rural areas “their staff is at maximum capacity for taking care of school business. … They need more support, but they also have the least resources.”

Right now, she’s talking to anyone and everyone who might be able to help, from the Arkansas Education Association to Forward Arkansas, the education partnership affiliated with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. She’s betting that one person with the right know-how can make all the difference in the life of a school and its students. BH

Tufara Waller Muhammad

Cultural organizer pushes for change.

Tufara Waller Muhammad, an artist, activist and community organizer, recently returned to Little Rock after serving 11 years as the Director of Cultural Programs at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee from 2004 to 2015.

Muhammad has worked for the last few years with local groups including the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently as a leader for the Alternate ROOTS Facilitation Pilot Training Learning Exchange workshop in Little Rock. Previously, Muhammad traveled the country as a Centers for Disease Control-certified HIV/AIDS counselor and worked locally with the Arkansas Equality Network and its Safe Schools Campaign.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Muhammad moved to Arkansas as a child, attended Little Rock public schools and went to Philander Smith College on a music scholarship. She toured the country as a musician and poet, and continues to use her artistic skills as a part of the Datule’ Artist Collective, founded in 2011.

Muhammad doesn’t necessarily see herself as an activist, but simply as a woman who is continuing the work of her people.

“I can go back five generations in my family’s history in Arkansas and find organizing women who were artists, midwives, medicine makers, community educators, strategic planners, advocates, musicians and cultural workers. So, honestly [my doing] anything else would be me being [something] other than what I was born to be.”

Community organizers must honor the cultures, traditions and realities of people they work with, Muhammad said. They can use art to foster conversation and build relationships for progressive policy changes. “[Organizing] is not always an exact science because communities are as different as the people who live in them,” Muhammad said. You’ve got to “figure out the right people to invite into the room.” Over time Muhammad has learned that certain types of personalities are needed, most importantly people who are willing to listen and are committed to working with others. That includes teachers, respected faith leaders and artists who will help members of the community remember where they come from and visualize where they can go.

Muhammad stresses the importance of engaging people of all ages in the process.

“We exist in an intergenerational society. The dominant culture tells us to fear our youth and that our elders are fragile, judgmental and disposable. None of this is true. Elders hold the history, culture, memories and experiences [of a people] while our youth force us to stretch our imaginations [as] to where we can go. … We all need each other [in order to make a change.]”

Muhammad’s ultimate goal is to encourage people to remember that everyone is human and divine all at the same time.

“When we know this, we cannot treat each other unjustly or deny that all people count.” KH

Robert Lowry

Preacher does missionary work in the River Valley.

In late March, when Rev. Robert Lowry rose to address an emergency meeting in Little Rock to discuss HB 1228, the so-called “religious freedom” bill then before the state legislature, he wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to say. So, he just spoke his mind.

“This bill is what I called it this morning from my pulpit: It is blasphemy. It is an abomination, and it is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Lowry said of HB 1228, which aimed to legally sanction a religious right to discriminate against LGBT people. The reverend also included a plug for his congregation, First Presbyterian of Clarksville, which at the time he called the only church “in the Arkansas River Valley to publicly declare that all of God’s children, just as God made them, are welcome to come and be in God’s house.”

Lowry was born and raised in Little Rock but moved away after he graduated from high school in 1988. He wandered for 20 years — Nashville, Austin, Detroit, Chicago — before coming back to the state in 2007.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of Arkansas after I graduated from high school, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Arkansas once I turned 40,” he told the Times. “I’d done large, urban ministry for a while and I was ready for a break.”

His focus is on helping congregations transition through crises, and he came to First Presbyterian three and a half years ago after the church lost its pastor to an illness and was facing financial trouble. It’s become an open-ended assignment. “I’ll stay as long as they’ll keep me,” he said with a laugh. And has his advocacy work shortened his lifespan as a pastor in a conservative Arkansas town of 9,300 people? Not so far, he said.

“In my own congregation, there were people who were very uneasy about the changes happening in our denomination, who in some cases were supportive of what happened this last legislative session. But they’ve seen the world hasn’t exploded. The church hasn’t been turned on its head. All that’s happened is that we’ve taken our vocabulary of generosity to a new place, and I think that’s how you convince people. Just by demonstrating that there’s nothing dangerous about generosity of spirit, about kindness and openness, about treating people equitably and fairly with the assumption of everybody’s value.”

Meanwhile, in the larger community, “no one outside of a handful of clergy has had anything negative to say. Most people’s response has been, ‘I don’t agree with you,’ but they appreciate my willingness to stand up and say what I believe. I think to a large degree there’s an ethic of standing up for your ideas that’s respected, even if we disagree. For the most part, it’s been neutral to good.”

The most satisfying reaction, he says, has been from LGBT people in Clarksville. “Some are quiet, some are open, but they appreciate it … especially students on the [University of the Ozarks] campus, who felt they could be a little more secure in being themselves, a little more secure in living their lives.”

Still, Lowry acknowledged, it’s an uphill climb.

“Progressive, mainline Protestantism is not exactly thriving in small-town America,” he said. “In the mainline traditions, what we are trying so hard to do is communicate a theology of generosity, gentleness and inclusion. Our political culture says [that] is squishy and spineless — but the political culture doesn’t get a vote in the theology of the church. We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined for too long by the outside. We need to define ourselves from the inside.”

If the fight for inclusion is how Lowry is defined, so be it. “I can’t think of anything more worth doing. … it’s a matter of fundamental justice and fundamental fairness,” he said. “One of the best moments of my year was standing on the state Capitol with 20 of my colleagues. There are only 86 churches in the Presbytery of Arkansas. There were 20 pastors out there that day who are Presbyterians.

“One person at a time, one issue at a time, is the only way we’ll shift the narrative of the church.” BH

Omavi Shukur

Decorated native son returns to fight mass incarceration.

After graduating from law school, Little Rock native Omavi Shukur moved to New Orleans as part of the Public Defender Corps, a highly selective three-year fellowship that provides intensive training to new attorneys in public defense. But no matter how successful he was as a public defender, Shukur found that he was usually only able to win temporary relief for the people he represented.

“There were two things I couldn’t address in the courtroom: the poor opportunity structure that led my clients to the defense table, and the draconian laws my clients were being faced with.”

When politicians talk about retaining human capital, or battling brain drain, they’re talking about creating policy to encourage people like Shukur to work in their home state. Policy was a motivating factor for Shukur, a graduate of Parkview Magnet High School, Columbia University and Harvard Law, to return to his home state, but it wasn’t aimed at him. Instead, it was everything that had led to Arkansas’s mass incarceration crisis.

Shukur first became interested in the inequities of the criminal justice system at Columbia and delved deeper into the subject at Harvard, where he studied under a veritable who’s who of civil rights lawyers, including Lani Guinier, Randall Kennedy and Charles Ogletree. In one summer during law school, he clerked for the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., perhaps the leading nonprofit confronting issues of race, poverty and mass incarceration.

Shukur brought that resume to Little Rock earlier this year to found Seeds of Liberation, a nonprofit whose mission is to work “alongside Arkansas’s marginalized communities to create a just, equitable and empowering criminal justice system.”

So far, he’s hosted “Know Your Rights” training sessions for the Little Rock EmPowerment Center, Our House and the Veterans Justice Outreach Program. He’s held listening sessions, asking marginalized groups questions such as, “What problems do you see in criminal justice policy and administration as it exists? What does your ideal criminal justice system look like? How do you think we can get there?”

Arkansas passed comprehensive criminal justice reform in 2011 with Act 570. It didn’t stick — in addition to the punitive parole policies implemented by the state Board of Corrections after a serial parole absconder murdered a white teenager in 2013 — because the reform was top down, Shukur said. “There was no informed constituency to hold policymakers accountable. We want to develop bottom-up change.”

To that end, Shukur wants to connect with “people directly impacted by incarceration who want to take an active role in the criminal justice policy discourse.” Despite Arkansas’s sizable recent prison growth — in 2013, Arkansas’s prison population grew at seven times the rate of any other state — Shukur believes “it’s not a matter of if incarceration is going to go down, it’s when and what role we play in that.”

Seeds of Liberation is based in the law offices of Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), the legendary civil rights lawyer. Next year, Shukur says he will start practicing law in Arkansas, either as part of Seeds of Liberation or in private practice. Regardless, look for him, he says, “to use litigation as a tool to combat the mass incarceration crisis in Arkansas.” LM

Rep. Jana Della Rosa

Republican rep fights for transparency.

Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers isn’t exactly a Rockefeller Republican. A first-term representative from one of Arkansas’s reddest corners, she first entered politics a few years ago by volunteering with a grassroots group called Conservative Arkansas. But on one issue at least, Della Rosa is among the General Assembly’s leading voices of sanity: transparency in elections.

In the 2015 session, Della Rosa sponsored HB 1233, a bill that would have required candidates for statewide and legislative elected office to electronically file their campaign contributions and carryover funds, rather than filling out a paper report. Arkansas is one of only 10 states that have not yet moved to electronic filing.

As Della Rosa told the Arkansas Times, that means anyone who wants to know which individuals are bankrolling Arkansas elections has to sift through some 3,500 separate PDFs on the website of the secretary of state to assemble an accurate picture.

“You get into the secretary of state’s system and you discover that it’s essentially a useless database,” she said. “If you want to know who gave money to me [as a candidate], you can easily see that. You have to look through a dozen or so [monthly reports], but that’s not too bad.

“What is completely hidden is the donors. Who’s giving the money, who’s influencing [whom]. That’s what that bill would have uncovered. If everybody’s reporting into the same database, then you can look across all candidates and see who the donors are, and that’s really what I was trying to make transparent in Arkansas.”

Della Rosa feels accountability and transparency aren’t partisan issues.

“You don’t want puppet masters,” she said. “I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on. I’m sure the Democrats have theirs as well — I don’t know who they are on their side, but I know who they are on my side, and it’s not good. You don’t want any single person wielding undue influence over a group of legislators. That’s just bad news.”

Della Rosa also supported the other major campaign finance reform bill of the last session, authored by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), which targeted so-called “electioneering” advertising. Wealthy individuals can spend unlimited amounts of money on radio or TV ads to support or attack a candidate, as long as the spending is nominally independent of the candidate’s campaign — and what’s worse, under current Arkansas law, such spending goes entirely unreported. Tucker’s HB 1425 would have required reporting of electioneering ads, which have expanded in Arkansas in recent cycles.

“Free speech doesn’t mean anonymous free speech, and that’s what’s happening now,” Della Rosa said. “If you’re going to put that much money into politics, the public has a right to know. … There are people who are buying legislators, either directly or indirectly. I don’t want to imply legislators are selling out, but you feel a certain obligation if someone has put that [money] much into it.”

Unfortunately, both pieces of transparency legislation failed to pass the General Assembly this year. Della Rosa’s HB 1233 died on the House floor, 48-33, with most of the opposition coming from her fellow Republicans (although a number of Democrats also voted against it). Several legislators said publicly they were voting “No” because they weren’t sure they were technologically skilled enough to file on the Internet.

Though she says she was “surprised and disappointed” at the bill’s defeat, Della Rosa takes her colleagues at their word. Right now, she’s working with the secretary of state’s office to improve the state’s online filing system in hopes of addressing concerns about ease of use. She plans to seek money to that end during the upcoming 2016 fiscal session, and then bring her transparency bill up for another vote in 2017.

“There are always going to be those who want to operate in the shadows, but you just have to keep shining the light,” she said. BH

Daisy Dyer Duerr

Educator employs technology in St. Paul turnaround.

Four years ago, Daisy Duerr got a call from her old superintendent to come back home to Madison County to fix the school in St. Paul (pop. 163). At the time, Duerr was still settling into her role as a new high school principal in Paris (Logan County), but she rose to the challenge. St. Paul needed her more.

“As educators, it’s important to not stay with the status quo. If things are going great where we are, it’s our job to go somewhere else and make things great,” she said. “So, I accepted that position and when I got there I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. What have I done?’ “

Duerr herself graduated from Huntsville High School, 30 minutes to the north, and earned her degree from Lyon College on a basketball scholarship. She grew up familiar with the hardships of the Ozarks. But she was still struck by how badly St. Paul was struggling since its consolidation with the Huntsville district nine years ago.

“They’d had five or six principals in a row, and they hadn’t had any success. They were in the second year of school improvement for literacy and math. … Immediately, I saw that people’s expectations were extremely low,” she said.

The first thing she did was to call each staff person at the school before the year started — individually, all the way down to the custodians. Then she began introducing herself to every parent she could meet, and pulled together a leadership team of parents, teachers and students. Together they developed two focus points for change.

The first, she said, was building relationships, student by student. “In a rural, isolated school, you’d think everybody’s going to be close with somebody. But they weren’t — it was like, ‘Oh, I know their cousin,’ but they weren’t building real relationships with staff.” Duerr set up an advisory program and ensured every student had two advisers, which she says was decisive in stemming the decline of the school’s enrollment. When she arrived, St. Paul had bottomed out at 199 students after shrinking nine straight years; by the time she left this year, enrollment had risen to 235.

It was the second piece, though, that got people’s attention: technology. When she arrived in 2011, Duerr said, the school had almost no modern technology and no money, but the new principal promised teachers and students alike that she’d find a way to change that if everyone put in the necessary work. She followed through, writing grants that allowed the school to obtain an array of tablets, netbooks and other devices.

“In June of 2012, after my first year, we sent every teacher home with an iPad and told them to keep it all summer. We preloaded it with stuff, gave them one day of training and told them, ‘Just play with it.’ And they were so empowered by that, because an administrator had told them, ‘Hey, you’re a professional and I trust you.’ That was the best start to a year I ever had.”

Similarly, she trusted her students with a “bring your own device” agreement, allowing them to use their phones in school for academic purposes. “We’re 80 percent free and reduced lunch, and people say that if you have a poorer student population, then that’s not something that will work” because the students wouldn’t have phones. That was not the case. “We kept taking phones away from kids who had their phone out, and I thought, ‘We’re sure punishing a lot of kids for them to be too poor to have phones.’ “

Perhaps more powerful than the technology itself was its motivational effect — the idea that teachers and kids alike deserve to have access to quality tools. In any case, St. Paul High School now ranks in the top 10 percent of Arkansas schools, based on student achievement, growth and graduation rate, and its accomplishments have earned the school — and its principal —national recognition in education circles, including an award this spring at Digital Learning Day, an annual event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Duerr left St. Paul this spring and is now living in Ozark, where she’s working on a book and planning her next challenge. BH