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 making Arkansas better. They’re working to understand the social media forces that may have helped tilt the presidential election for Donald Trump (Nitin Agarwal), advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable homeless population (Penelope Poppers) and investing in projects that make Northwest Arkansas a healthier and cooler place to live (Tom and Steuart Walton). They’ve ensured the preservation of the heritage of the Arkansas Delta (Ruth Hawkins), been at the vanguard of an electronic music subgenre (Yuni Wa) and made solar work for Arkansas municipalities and companies (Bill Halter). Craighead County Judges David Boling and Tommy Fowler took on a predatory private probation company that was putting citizens of their community in a cycle of debt. Joshua Asante is simultaneously the leader of two of Little Rock’s best bands, a sensitive portrait
The story of Jason Macom’s career as an internationally ranked cyclist began at the moment a lot of other athletes’ careers would have ended: with the amputation of his leg below the knee. A BMX bicycle racer since he was young, Macom took a tumble while playing bike polo in the summer of 2009 and shattered a bone in his right ankle. Over the next six years, he would endure several surgeries to try and correct the issue, leaving him in near constant pain. In the summer of 2015, however, a bone infection led to a long-delayed decision to amputate. Macom took what could have been seen as a devastating blow as an opportunity.
“I remember just trying to create a file in my head of all the things I could be able to do once we swapped over and I was able to get a prosthetic and start using that,” Macom said. “What could I do? Bike racing was back on the table as something I could do. I started looking into that more and more.” During the three-month recovery time following the amputation, Macom dove headlong into researching all he could about para-cycling: prosthetics, record times and the top-ranked disabled cyclists in the world.
“I sort of made it a mission to figure it out: looking at all the world record times, learning who the competition guys are, really getting into it from all those different angles. As soon as I got a prosthetic, I went straight home and put on cycling shoes and jumped on my bike.”
Macom soon realized that the walking prosthetic with which he had been fitted wasn’t right for cycling. After reviewing video of his “good” leg as he worked the pedals of a bike on a stand, Macom got to work developing a series of ever-more-sophisticated racing prosthetics, eventually working with friends in the local cycling community and a Little Rock machine shop to get the parts and pieces right on both the leg and his specially modified bike. These days, his racing leg looks a lot like a carbon fiber fan blade. “It’s very aero,” he said.
When he spoke to the Arkansas Times in October, Macom had just received his 2018 contract to join the Team USA Paralympic cycling
“I have to race for that spot,” he said. “Everything is earned on Team USA. It’s all based on previous results. It’s all, ‘If you’re fit at the time and the weeks leading up to the big race, you have to prove it and earn your spot on the roster.’ That’s the goal at the moment: to earn a spot on the roster to go to the world championships.” The selection race will be in held in February, with the World Championships in Rio next March. If he makes the Team USA roster, he can compete in what are known as World Cup events in countries around the world, including Japan, New Zealand and the U.K. The results of those races will determine which Team USA members will represent the United States in the 2018 Paralympic Games, which will be held in Tokyo in 2020.
“A lot of racing has to be done between now and then,” he said.
Tina and Trina Fletcher
One plus one, working for better schools in the Delta.
Twins Tina and Trina Fletcher were raised in Morrilton by their single mother. “We did not have the easiest childhood,” Trina said. “We were poor, working-class, living check to check. Most days when we came home from school, there was no one there; mom was working until 7 p.m.”
That history helps Tina and Trina relate to many of the students they meet in their work in the Delta with
The Fletcher twins, 31, did: Tina holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Arkansas and a master’s degree in secondary teacher education from Harvard University. Trina holds a bachelor’s degree in applied engineering from UA Pine Bluff, a master’s degree in operations management from the UA, a second master’s from George Washington University and a doctorate in engineering education from Purdue University. Tina interned with programs in the office of first lady Michelle Obama. Trina interned with Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar and Kellogg’s. One could go on; their accolades are many.
Here’s what happened to bring them to work together: About 10 years ago, Tina said, Morrilton High School invited them to speak to students about their success. “After that experience, we said, ‘We have really interesting stories. We think we could be valuable, to kids like us, first-generation college students, [from homes] with single parents,’ ” Tina said.
The twins joined up to become inspirational speakers, going to high schools, nonprofits, churches, telling kids to “take advantage of opportunities” offered by education. They are “blunt and honest,” Trina said, about their own struggles. They also talk about beloved teacher mentors who made the difference in their lives.
Then, last January, Forward called, asking Tina and Trina, now incorporated as Fletcher Solutions, to work with Crossett and Lee County as they talk about what they want their school systems to look like. Their job is to help bring people together to talk about what they want from their schools.
“A lot of it is just connecting the dots,” getting the community together. “There are resources right in the towns, like access to grant money,” Trina said.
For example, Trina said, on her visit to Crossett last week, a meeting brought together folks who may not have been in the same room before: parents, the mayor, the president of the bank, a representative from the community college, all asking, “How do we improve our partnership?”
“It’s fascinating, the work that these communities are doing,” Tina said.
Trina and Tina hope to improve students’ motivation to get an education, to help “plant a seed.” To that end, they connected students from Lee County with the UA’s Skilled Trades Camp. The students learned about careers in welding and HVAC, for example; they got to drive 18-wheelers. They also went to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Trina’s hope was that they would then share their experiences with friends back home: There is a big world out there.
Forward “is not the magic dust,” Trina said. But she and Tina are helping people in the communities write down what they want to achieve, how they can achieve it and how they can sustain the achievement.
Talk about buy-in: The Fletchers provided to school administrators in Crossett and Marianna surveys including 35 questions about what goals for education should be. The surveys, posted on the Crossett school website and distributed on paper in Marianna — with students inputting the results into a computer — elicited 400 responses from Lee County and 375 from Crossett. It’s not known how many downloaded the surveys or were provided the surveys, but the number appeared substantial to the Fletchers.
“Even though Forward is education-focused, it’s really an initiative in building community,” Tina said. Noting that Lee County schools have lost 500 students in the past 10 years, Tina said she’s discovered a passion for rural
Trina’s passion is to get students — girls and students of color especially — interested in STEM studies. And so a future chapter in the twins’ lives: “The 12th Street Collab,” a co-working space for people of all ages to grow their businesses. “That’s a wild animal of its own,” Trina said. The dream has foundations: The twins have bought property on 12th Street in Little Rock zoned commercial.
— Leslie Newell Peacock
From political to solar power.
When Clarksville Light and Water Co. decided to think about powering the city-owned utility with solar energy, it first looked to Missouri municipal systems. It next investigated the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp.’s solar power purchasing agreements.
Then, in early 2016, CLW General Manager John Lester said, the utility started talking to Scenic Hill Solar’s CEO Bill Halter. Halter, the former lieutenant governor of Arkansas (2007-11) whose political career included challenges to former U.S. Rep. Blanche Lincoln and his position as COO of the Social Security Administration, incorporated Scenic Hill Solar in 2015.
“Bill was more flexible, which accommodated our needs better,” Lester said. Scenic Hill’s solar panel technology was another attraction: Like the compass plant, a prairie sunflower, Scenic Hill’s solar panels follow the sun as it moves across the sky, rather than staying in one position. How the panels move is determined by weather stations that compute the positions in which the panels can best absorb the sunlight.
Halter’s firm was based in Arkansas, as well. “We do business locally, if not with the state, whenever we can,” Lester said. And because Halter is well known in several circles, technological as well as political, some 300 nationwide periodicals wrote about Clarksville’s contract with Scenic Hill, Lester said, giving the town a great “bang for our buck” in public relations.
The solar plant, being built on 42 acres owned by the city, will when complete in the middle of next year provide 5 megawatts of alternating current, enough to power 25 percent of Clarksville’s households, Lester said.
The biggest splash Halter’s company, which does commercial work only, has made was in September 2016, when international cosmetics company L’Oreal announced it was partnering with Scenic Hill to build solar power plants at the Maybelline plant in North Little Rock and another L’Oreal plant in Kentucky. The Kentucky plant is the largest commercial solar array in that state. Maybelline’s is the third largest commercial project in Arkansas. The North Little Rock project, which took only 49 days to construct, covers 8 acres and provides 10 percent of the overall energy needs.
The projects are like “bookends,” Halter said. Scenic Hill designed and built the solar plant for L’Oreal, which the company then bought. Scenic Hill owns the plant in Clarksville, which is buying power from Scenic Hill at a fixed rate of 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for 30 years. It can lower that price by purchasing the plant from Scenic Hill in seven years, when Scenic Hill’s tax credits expire.
The reasons companies are turning to solar power are many, Halter said. They can save money by owning their own plants or entering long-term contracts at fixed prices and not being vulnerable to the vagaries of electric grid price volatility. There are environmental reasons, because sunlight is a sustainable source of power. There are multiple tax incentives. There are public benefits, too, in the form of property tax revenues.
But more than the power of the sun or the declining cost of solar plants, a factor that determines how much a state turns to this cleaner,
Solar power growth in Arkansas could be affected by two policies being debated at the state and national level.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission will hold a hearing Nov. 30 on its net metering rules that regulate the price utilities pay when they buy excess energy produced by independently owned solar power plants. Entergy wants to pay at a lower rate that Halter says would reduce the benefit — but not zero it out — of generating solar power.
In September, the International Trade Commission ruled that Chinese solar panel imports are a threat to American manufacturers, which would allow the U.S. to impose tariffs on the panels, making the panels more costly to purchase. That might benefit U.S. solar panel manufacturers but harm the industry as a whole.
Still, thanks to New Market Tax Credits available from the federal government, Halter and Clarksville Water and Light are making plans for the future, Lester said. “It’s highly likely we’re building a second solar facility on a different property,” Lester said, thanks to the credits, created to stimulate the economy.
— Leslie Newell Peacock
Helping the most vulnerable.
From a new office and drop-in center on the seventh floor of a building at 300 Spring St. downtown, Lucie’s Place director Penelope Poppers can see the streets where many of the clients who come to her organization for help are forced to live.
Lucie’s Place — named in memory of Little Rock transgender resident Lucille Marie Hamilton, who died in 2009 — was established as a nonprofit in 2012 to provide services for some of the state’s most vulnerable homeless people: LGBT youths, the majority of whom were kicked out of their homes by religious parents.
“There are still a lot of religions that have very anti views on LGBT folks,” Poppers said. “Parents here in Arkansas might hear from their pastors that their LGBT kids are going to hell, or shouldn’t deserve to exist or whatever they say from the pulpit. The parents hear that and they repeat the same things to their kids. A lot of times, they either end up kicking their kid out of the home for being LGBT, or the parent ends up making it so bad that the kid just has to leave.”
Since starting the nonprofit, Poppers has learned the harsh reality of life on the streets for LGBT youths. Though some shelters in town will accept LGBT people, Poppers said others that are connected to churches with anti-LGBT views won’t. In the past, she’s been forced to tell kids looking for shelter to hide the fact they are gay — no rainbow T-shirts, no mentioning a boyfriend or girlfriend — just so they can find a dry place to sleep.
The organization got a big publicity and fundraising boost in 2014, after a #DoubleTheDuggars campaign against the Duggar family’s $10,000 donation toward repealing Fayetteville’s LGBT civil rights ordinance went viral, including a mention by
Lucie’s Place recently moved into the larger, 1,000-square-foot office and day center. It’s also earned tentative approval to open a group home on Main Street. It expects to close on the property in a month. In the new Main Street home, Lucie’s Place will have 12 beds where young people can stay for up to six months before transitioning to a longer-term independent living home or their own apartment. The process of getting those beds hasn’t been easy, however. An earlier attempt to establish a home in the Leawood neighborhood was met by protest from a neighbor, leading Lucie’s Place to withdraw the plan. Poppers said the backlash was “disappointing, but maybe not surprising.”
“People still have these sort of backward ideas about LGBT people,” she said. “It was just a couple loud people. But that leaves me feeling very positive about the state of things. There weren’t a hundred people saying, ‘No, we don’t want this.’ It was just one or two. That’s not my favorite thing, but it’s better than it could be. We could have a hundred people saying they don’t want this.”
While Poppers said that attitudes are changing, she hopes a generation doesn’t have to pass away for life to get truly better for LGBT youths. Whatever the case, she believes she’s part of that change, and necessary for now.
“My concern is that it’s just not getting better quick enough for the people that we see that need things right now,” she said. “That’s why we exist: to catch them when we need to, when the world has been terrible to them.”
— David Koon
The Arkansas Delta would be a much less interesting place without the almost two decades of work put in there by Arkansas State University’s Ruth Hawkins. Director of ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program since it started in 1999, Hawkins has been instrumental in spearheading ASU’s efforts to save, renovate and preserve historically important sites all over East Arkansas, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott, where the writer Ernest Hemingway wrote sections of “A Farewell to Arms”; the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Museum in Tyronza; the Rohwer Relocation Camp, where over 8,000 Japanese-American citizens were incarcerated during World War II; Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village; and the recently restored Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the town of Dyess.
An employee of ASU for 39 years, Hawkins was originally a vice president for institutional advancement in the late 1990s, when the university turned its attention to preserving the heritage of the area. “We were looking at ways to match up the needs of the Delta region with education programs at the university,” Hawkins said. “One of the things we became aware of was the National Scenic Byway program. We felt like creating a route along Crowley’s Ridge, starting up in Clay County and going down to Phillips County, would be a way to link a number of the assets in the region together.” Working with mayors, county judges and volunteers in the eight counties Crowley’s Ridge passes through, Hawkins and her team eventually succeeded in getting the National Scenic Byway designation. Once that was accomplished, however, they were faced with another problem: What could they direct people to see along the route?
“We knew we had the Delta Cultural Center anchoring the southern end [of the scenic byway, in Helena/West Helena]. We had Arkansas State University in the middle, and we had five state parks and a national forest along the route,” she said. “But the problem was, when you got up to the north end, up near Piggott, there wasn’t really a developed attraction up there.” At that point, Hawkins began looking at the ties writer Ernest Hemingway, who married into the Pfeiffer family near Piggott, had to the region. Eventually, ASU was able to acquire and restore the barn Hemingway sometimes used as a writing studio, as well as the home that belonged to his in-laws, and turn them into a museum.
From there, the Heritage Sites program has seen a whirlwind of activity, including the full restoration of Lakeport Plantation. Students use the projects as a kind of laboratory to learn about the restoration and research that goes into historic preservation. It is the restoration of the Cash boyhood home, however, that Hawkins is maybe most proud of. Hawkins said the leaning and neglected house, which the Cash family moved into in 1935, sent a mistaken message to visitors.
“People were driving by that and thinking that was what Johnny Cash lived in. They thought he’d lived like that,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that when he lived there, it was a brand-new house. … I really wanted it restored back to the way it looked when the family actually lived there. His mother was very proud of that house. It was the first new house she’d ever lived in.”
Purchased by ASU in 2011 and opened to the public in 2014, the Cash house now sends a more correct message about the efforts of FDR’s New Deal in the area, providing visitors with what Hawkins called an “authentic” experience. That authenticity is what restoring old places can provide all over the Delta.
“To the extent that a structure can help tell a story, to me, that’s what’s important about preservation,” she said. “That’s true particularly here in the Arkansas Delta. For some reason, the stories are not recorded. We’re beginning to lose so many stories from the Great Depression and the New Deal, the era the Johnny Cash house represents and the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum represents. Many of those people are no longer with us, and the ones who are with us were children when a lot of this happened. So, to me, preservation is important in being able to utilize a structure to help tell the stories that would be lost otherwise.”
— David Koon
Maria Meneses is counting on the idea that America will keep her promises.
Brought to the United States from Guatemala at age 2, Meneses, 19, who formerly served as chairwoman of the Progressive Arkansas Youth PAC and works as the United Arkansas Community Coalition’s Central Arkansas Organizer, is a beneficiary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented people brought to the United States as minors to stay and legally work. Meneses said the election of Donald Trump has brought a wave of fear in the state’s community of approximately 5,000 DACA recipients, both that the program might be abolished and that the information they gave the government might be used against them and their families.
“It’s very worrisome,” she said. “You don’t know what ICE is going to do with all the information, what the Department of Homeland Security is going to do. They know where we live, where we work, they know where we go to school. We are Americans, and we have dreams of wanting to better ourselves and wanting to better the United States.”
In her work with the UACC, she has talked to Arkansas lawmakers tasked with coming up with a replacement. Sitting in a coffee shop near downtown, she cried as she described her frustration.
“I’m a 4.0 [GPA] bio-chem pre-med student,” she said. “I want to be a doctor.
Meneses resigned as chair of Progressive Arkansas Youth PAC to serve on the campaign of Democrat Gwendolynn Combs, who is running against Rep. French Hill in the 2nd District. She’s also going to college full time and working a waitressing job while continuing her outreach efforts with the UACC. If DACA recipients are forced to leave the country, Meneses said, we will all be poorer.
“I know one DACA recipient who is the mother of a U.S. citizen — a toddler,” she said. “Let’s say she was to be taken away? What happens to that child if she’s not prepared? He goes into the foster system. Things like that. Not only does the removal of DACA affect the recipients and their families, but it also indirectly affects American citizens as well. We pay taxes, none of which we can receive back in return, or any of the benefits they provide.”
As for herself, Meneses is at a dark crossroads, having to imagine two futures simultaneously: one in which she serves as a doctor in Arkansas, and another in which she could be deported to a country she can’t remember. Either way, she said, she will face the future with the adaptability immigrants
“Wherever I end up going, whether it’s here in the United States or back to Guatemala, I know that as an immigrant I can adjust quickly and get it together,” she said. “If I can do it here in the United States, I can do it anywhere in the world, as long as I’m willing and dedicated to do it for myself and for those I care about.”
— David Koon
It seemed like Joshua Asante became the closest thing Little Rock has to a rock star almost overnight. Or maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you saw him nine years ago when he was relatively new to town, tall and taciturn and hanging out at open mic nights. That’s when he says he started singing out loud again for the first time in decades. (He’d stopped when he was 5 or 6; his father and he had fought about him singing. “I was/am stubborn,” he says by way of a partial explanation.) The poems he’d been delivering in front of the mic morphed into songs that his friends cheered. Before long, he’d cut an EP and started Velvet Kente, a band full of accomplished players who synthesized a broad swath of black music — ’70s-era funk/soul, West African chants, electric blues. The 2009 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase was the first time many in Little Rock had seen Velvet Kente, and that battle-of-the-bands served as a sort of coronation for Asante and his soul-stirring vocals, powerful enough to quiet a noisy bar. Velvet Kente won handily and went from a band that few people knew to the most in-demand one in town, the rare local act capable of consistently filling Little Rock venues. Then in 2010, Asante joined up with another group of veteran Little Rock musicians and formed Amasa Hines, a similarly genre-bending unit that pulls as freely from sprawling psychedelic rock as it does Afro-beat. As Velvet Kente began to play out more sporadically, Amasa Hines took its place as the band Little Rock celebrated above all others.
Now, almost seven years later, Amasa Hines has done all the things a promising band does en route to broader success: It’s toured the country widely, playing the likes of SXSW and the Newport Folk Festival. It cut an excellent debut LP, “All the World There Is,” in 2014. It secured a national booking agent and management company based in New York and Nashville. That none of that has translated into broader fame or significant remuneration doesn’t strike Asante as a reason to hang it up.
“I feel like a lot of bands don’t make it. That five-year mark is like, ‘Whoa, man, we’ve been at this for a long time.’ ” But if you have been making good moves and good music, you should be patient with it.” Success in music is like making a half-court shot, Asante added. “But I’ve made a few of those,” he said with a smile. The band just completed a new EP that Erik Blood, a Seattle producer/engineer most known for collaborating with Shabazz Palaces, is mastering. Asante expects the band to shop it to national labels for release next year. (Meanwhile, Velvet Kente continues to play Little Rock shows sporadically, often with a massive ensemble, including multiple horn players and percussionists on stage. Velvet Kente is slated to play South on Main on New Year’s Eve, debuting many new songs.)
But music is only part of Asante’s creative life. He’s long been an accomplished photographer and his reputation has grown in recent years. His tender treatment of his subjects, especially of black women, often accented by shadows or resplendent in colorful dresses or jewelry, has earned him empathetic praise: Consistently, the people he shoots tell him, before he took their picture, no one had ever photographed them the way they saw themselves.
Hearne Fine Art has hosted an exhibition of his photographs, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center has acquired several shots, Coulson Oil commissioned a series of cityscapes from him, and next year, Little Rock’s Et Alia Press will publish a book of his photographs. See his work @joshua_asante on Instagram or at churchofchaos.com. Moreover, he’s been able to carve out a meaningful revenue stream from his work. Despite never advertising himself as a commercial photographer, he shoots portraits for pay about three times a week.
“I’ve been obsessing over photography way before I ever picked up a guitar or started writing songs,” he said. “I’ve always been more confident as a photographer. For one thing, I’m framing photographs and portraits in my mind’s eye all the time. It never turns off.”
His creative work extends further. He’s laying out a book for celebrated artist Delita Martin, formerly of Little Rock and now of
“I want to be in those conversations along with the people I admire, eventually, and I want a level of comfort that comes from my own creative output, rather slaving for somebody else.”
— Lindsey Millar
Spearheading experimental theater in Benton County.
The last time this reporter spoke with Laura Shatkus, she was holed up in preparation for an adaptation of “1984” by Lookingglass Theater Artistic Director Andrew White. She included the following dispatch: “Just survived my first hurricane by sleeping inside a movie theatre inside a theatre-theatre in Florida. For my job. Life is an adventure!” It is, particularly if you’re an actor and the founder of the Northwest Arkansas-based theater group ArkansasStaged. The floating theater collective kicked off the year with an Inauguration Day reading of Lauren Gunderson’s “all-female political farce” (“The Taming”) and ended its 2017 lineup with a fully staged Halloween performance of “Empanada Loca,” a macabre take on the legend of Sweeney Todd starring Guadalupe Campos, with the occasion marked by specialty empanadas courtesy of famed chef Matt McClure of The Hive restaurant.
Shatkus described the women at that “theatre-theatre in Florida,” The Hippodrome, as “scrappy, strong” and “badass,” and the Arkansas Times couldn’t help but think, upon hearing those words, that she must have fit right in. An aspiring English teacher who jumped ship on her career plans when she discovered she hated student teaching, Shatkus dove headlong into the Chicago acting world without any formal theater training — and actually managed to get work. For a whole decade, even. “I used to joke,” she said, “if somebody said something technical to me in a rehearsal, I would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that means. I didn’t go to theater school.’ Brought down the house.” Though her M.F.A. in acting from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville means she’s had to put that quip on the shelf, Shatkus still embraces the idea of demystifying theater-speak in favor of connecting with an audience — and, despite the title of “artistic and managing director” that precedes her name these days, erring on the side of uncertainty. “I love saying, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ ” she said. “And giving people permission to say that, because this art form is totally collaborative.”
Collaboration is exactly how ArkansasStaged got going — and how Shatkus ended up at its helm. The company was founded in 2013 by Sabrina Veroczi and Kris Stoker, and after founding a
That work includes stagings of “everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary American plays to the poems of Baudelaire and the absurd musings of Gertrude Stein,” it says on the company’s 2018 season fundraising website. The ArkansasStaged performance of Lauren Gunderson’s aforementioned political farce (which generated $1,000 in proceeds for Planned Parenthood) opened at 21c Museum Hotel with a note from the playwright, who waived her royalties for any companies that would perform “The Taming” on President Trump’s Inauguration Day. It ended as follows: “Theatre isn’t supposed to be a safe place, it’s supposed to be a brave place, so let’s be brave together.” As if in accordance with that mantra, ArkansasStaged has made the most of being without a brick-and-mortar performance space, transforming rooms at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and 21c into sites for George Brant’s “Grounded,” UA professor John Walch’s “Craving Gravy,” Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” and David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” an erotic two-person comedy.
“I’m very interested in telling stories that are not being told here,” Shatkus said. “Stories about women, very contemporary theater. Not to say that The Rep [the Arkansas Repertory Theatre] and TheaterSquared aren’t doing that, too, but maybe being independent means I can take more risks,” a couple of those, she said, being “Empanada Loca” and the S&M-heavy “Venus in Fur.” “It’s definitely an R-rated play,” Shatkus told me, “but some of my oldest patrons, who I was afraid
For Shatkus and ArkansasStaged, who are devoted not only to producing plays that amplify and explore the stories and voices of women, but to doing so with a donation-based admission, it turns out that not being beholden to the trappings of a facility (or a board, or a historic legacy) comes with its own set of challenges, but also its own freedom. “I’m just adding to the conversation,” Shatkus said, “with my unique background of appreciation of theater in Chicago, appreciation of experimental theater, appreciation of site-specific theater — using the site to inform the play. And really just giving opportunities to wonderful people that I know are capable of doing the work.” A lot of what’s been done at ArkansasStaged, she said, was a matter of good timing. “Part of being a producer is seeing who should be put together, who makes sense together. How can you bring these forces together to make something good?”
— Stephanie Smittle
Tom and Steuart Walton
Heirs with a vision.
As a kid growing up in Northwest Arkansas in the era of bike-centric movies like “Rad” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” there weren’t many places to follow up on that cinematic inspiration in real life. In fact, there weren’t any bike shops at all. There was the flagship Wal-Mart in Bentonville, where you could stare at rows of Huffy cruisers hanging from hooks in neat rows overhead, adorned with the essentials: Disney-themed decals, handlebar streamers, neon plastic spoke beads. Now, though, over a dozen high-end cyclist outfitters dot a curve along Interstate 49 between Bella Vista and Fayetteville. Thanks to networks of bicycle trails like Slaughter Pen, piloted by Walmart heirs Steuart and Tom Walton, the area has become a darling of a destination for cyclists around the world. The brothers, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton, are expanding on the company’s mid-aughts recruitment efforts with a network of stellar singletrack bike trails and projects like the Momentary, a 63,000-square-foot
“Cultural experiences are not isolated,” Tom Walton said in an Aug. 31 announcement on the Walton Foundation’s website. “With its proximity to the Razorback Regional Greenway and the recently opened culinary school, Brightwater, the Momentary will be a space where cyclists, foodies, artists and the entire community converge.” Under the direction of Lieven Bertels, formerly the director of the Sydney Festival in Australia and the year-long Leeuwarden-Fryslân 2018 European Capital of Culture in The Netherlands, the industrial space — slated to open in 2020 — will be repurposed to house art that might not fit so neatly into the fine-art focus of the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, its exposed pipework and warehouse walls in keeping with the contemporary, experimental nature of the art within its walls.
“Art is transforming lives in Northwest Arkansas,” Tom Walton said. Before projects like the Momentary can make a life-changing impact, though, people have to be able to get to it. And, by way of another one of Tom’s experiments, residents won’t necessarily have to do that by car. The Momentary sits at 507 SE E St., about a mile south of Crystal Bridges and right on top of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile off-road, shared-use trail that stretches from Bella Vista to south Fayetteville. According to
As it stood in 2015, pedestrian and cyclist activity peaked in the late afternoon and early evening on weekdays, suggesting that use was primarily recreational. Still, the per capita usage of the paved trails clocked in at rates comparable to cities with much longer histories of trail development, like San Francisco and Portland, and it’s not far-fetched at all to imagine once-sequestered corners of Bentonville connected to one another. In fact, a Google Maps search will tell you that it only takes about five minutes longer to bike between Crystal Bridges and the Momentary than it does to drive, and future trail networks are bound to narrow that gap even further.
As for Steuart Walton, when his focus isn’t on the trajectory in front of the handlebars, his thoughts lean skyward. Game Composites, an aircraft company founded in England in 2013 by Walton and Phillip Steinbach, finished construction on its Bentonville production facility in August 2016. There you can take entry-level classes in aerobatics — or, if you’ve got an extra $400,000 kicking around, customize your own brand-new GB1 Gamebird, a sleek two-seat monoplane that cruises at around 230 mph.
For those of us with shallower pocketbooks, we’ll settle for enjoying the fruits of the efforts that earned Tom Walton the title of 2016’s Arkansas Tourism Person of the Year: world-class museums and green spaces to be enjoyed by everyone — even those of us who aren’t heirs to a dime-store fortune.
— Stephanie Smittle
Cheryl Roorda and Zachary Smith
You might call Cheryl Roorda and Zachary Smith Hot Springs’ low-power couple. That would describe the solar-powered radio station, KUHS-FM, 97.9, that Smith directs and Roorda is involved
But you wouldn’t call Roorda and Smith low power. The couple, also known as the polka duo The Itinerant Locals, has invested lots of wattage into their adopted home of Hot Springs. Since moving to the Spa City 14 years ago, they have fulfilled Smith’s longtime dream of creating a community radio station, rehabbed a building at 240 Ouachita Ave. that Roorda says was on its last legs, and are finally on the verge of opening their own restaurant, SQZBX (Roorda plays the accordion), where they’ll serve beer they’ve brewed in their spare time while running a radio station, rehabbing a building, playing every Friday night at the Steinhaus Keller restaurant and beer garden and raising two children.
Smith said he was “underemployed and hanging out in a coffee shop talking philosophy with other underemployed people” in Seattle many years ago when he began to think about creating a radio station that would give musicians and artists access to media. But he didn’t have the resources. In 2013, when the Federal Communications Commission finally promulgated its rules for such low power stations, all the elements were in place: Smith, Roorda, a nonprofit to hold the license — Low Key Arts — and the experience of broadcast engineer Bob Nagy. The community rallied around, especially after it was decided the station would be solar-powered, Smith said, participating in Kickstarter and other fundraisers. The station, which has a license for low power FM, with an equivalency of 100 watts, went online in August 2015.
KUHS has 70 volunteers a week — including Smith — who run the station and DJ. The volunteers are from all walks of life — from Karl Haire, a sales rep at Car-Mart, who DJs the “Dad’s House” program (playing “music I would hear when I spend time with my dad just talking or sharing our life experiences”), to Jane Browning, executive director of the United Way, who DJs “the Heart Beat” (“exploring our community’s needs, challenges and solutions, pulling resources together in volunteer service”), to pastor Mark Maybrey, who DJs the “Blues and Roots Review” (“featuring blues music of all types, roots of rock ‘n’ roll, Americana and a special interest in the grooving, soul, bluesy sounds from Muscle Shoals both past & present.”) The station’s reach is 5.6 miles (though there are gaps), but its
The couple hopes to open the SQZBX restaurant and brewery, in the same building as KUHS-FM, in a month to six weeks. The restaurant will feature six of the Roorda-Smith family brews and cider on tap, along with pizza,
That puts the opening at just about the time that Smith and Roorda will be honored at Preserve Arkansas’s 2017 Arkansas Preservation Awards dinner with the Excellence in Personal Projects — Commercial award for their work on the Ouachita Avenue building. The event is scheduled for Jan. 19 at the Albert Pike Memorial.
— Leslie Newell Peacock
Onie Norman doesn’t tell her age, but her career of public service in the Delta does. A resident of Dumas, Norman traces her community work back to the
“She’s unabashed. She’ll ask questions of anybody. She may make people in power uncomfortable, but she’s not intimidated,” said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Public Policy Panel.
“I’m just trying to make a difference in my community,” Norman said.
Recently, Norman worked with the mayor of Winchester to bring attention to the town’s sewage problems. Residents of the tiny town of 167 or so who either couldn’t afford to install or keep septic systems in good repair were piping their sewage straight into neighborhood ditches, Norman said. The soil of Winchester, a nonporous clay, also made septic systems problematic. The problem has been long-running; help from the state has been expected for years. Mayor General Alexander told Norman he’d “run up against a brick wall” after a grant in 2016 did not get funded, and took Norman on a tour of the town, where she learned the smell was so bad that people were being made nauseous; they could not even sit outside. Norman started making phone calls and writing emails. The state Department of Health, legislators from Drew County, Governor Hutchinson, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. No luck.
Then, she said she thought, “We’ve got to bring this to the public.” TV stations KLRT, Fox 16, and KARK, Channel 4, took up the cause in August, shooting footage of the raw sewage and interviewing residents. In September, the deputy director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission announced the commission would provide Dumas with $3.9 million to bring Pickens and Winchester into the system and another $2.3 million to connect to Dumas’ drinking water system. The towns are still working out the agreement.
Norman also serves on the Housing Authority for Dumas, which recently opened The Woodlands, a renovated apartment complex in an area Norman described as previously blighted. She is pushing for the creation of a Boys and Girls Club in Dumas that would serve the children of Gould as well. “She has good ideas,” Dumas Mayor Johnny Brigham said. “Sometimes she gets in a little bit of a hurry” to see them funded, he added.
Tangible results of Norman’s activism, like an apartment building or a sewer project, may be limited, but she believes simply bringing the problems of the Delta to light — its lingering “Jim Crow” mentality that has kept the African-American residents, which represent more than half the population, impoverished; fear of a change in the status quo by decision-makers; laws in the legislature on food stamps and the like — is accomplishment in itself. She is proud of her work with the Public Policy Panel, helping people understand how the political system works, that the public has a voice and should use it. “When I served on the Quorum Court, I tried to empower people. People would say, ‘You can marry people now.’ She told them that there was far more to being a justice of the peace than that.
Her unsuccessful runs for mayor — the first black woman to run — and for county judge “opened doors and minds for people. I did it to show that any African American can do this.”
Norman said people from the community have helped outsiders — “we’ve trained the researchers” — to understand to whom they should be talking to address needs, and it’s not just the entrenched power structure. For example, the efforts to promote tourism, like creating the bike trail down the Mississippi levee, are fine, she said — but most people who actually live in Delta towns won’t be enjoying those trails.
“I think our elected officials let us down,” Norman said. “I would like to see people hold them accountable. … We’ve had people on the Quorum Court for 30 or 40 years. Now look, let’s be real. That’s a long time. … You don’t have that energy anymore. They’re good people, but once they get in, they don’t have an opponent.”
— Leslie Newell Peacock
Researcher studies how social media legitimizes disinformation.
The same day the Arkansas Times spoke to Nitin Agarwal in his office at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, three major Internet media companies — Facebook,
While some questions veered into the political milieu of the point of the cyber deception (to elect Donald Trump, according to U.S. intelligence), it was also a much broader moment. An “initial public reckoning,” according to The New York Times, as a question, and fear, lingered over the preceding: How does democracy work in a world dominated by social media?
Since 2009, Agarwal, professor of information sciences, has been paid by, among others, the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and now the Department of Defense — with a massive $7.5 million, five-year grant — to study the dissemination of information on social media. He’s looking at the effect of social media on human behavior, human behavior on social media and then how that new social media affects … well, it just keeps going. “It’s kind of a co-evolution, how the behavior is changing and how the social media platforms are changing,” he said, creating a cycle of influence. His research tries to suss out this push and pull to create a “sort of a digital ethnography” of information online.
In creating these ethnographies, Agarwal said his team looks “at that from the entire range of good, bad and ugly.”
But, lately, it’s been the ugly: how bots help cloud and haze messaging to dismantle truth; the way radicalization works in online communities, especially with ISIS; how fringe narratives go from blogs to mainstream sources.
For someone tasked with picking at the things that keep some of us up at night, Agarwal was surprisingly chipper, and positive, when a reporter walked into the office; offering him almond chocolates from a recent trip to Turkey because, he said, he’s been “going through them faster than I should.”
Agarwal came to studying social media before the doomsday proclamations of the death of truth were infused into the zeitgeist. In 2003, when he graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Information Technologies and began applying for graduate programs in the United States, Mark Zuckerberg had not yet created Facebook. By the time he graduated six years later with a doctorate from Arizona State University, “social [media] was just gaining momentum,” he said.
His background and work had largely been in investigating large sets of data from a mechanical background. He looked at the burgeoning internet as a “viable data collection platform” to harvest huge amounts of information about “how human behavior in society evolves,” he said. With this in mind, in August 2009, Agarwal came to UALR as a professor and “found a home here,” he said.
After a few years studying blogs, Agarwal started seeing the effect of tweets and bots on human behavior.
In, 2013 Russia annexed Georgia and waged “regular warfare as well as cyber warfare … disseminating false narratives … trying to inject this narrative so that they can influence the local population and the local people are thinking,” he said. The Russian government, just as governments have done for years, hoped to use propaganda to legitimize the effort. “This is not a new problem. Look at what happened during WWII. Instead of pamphlets being dropped from the airplanes, now it
In part, this speed was because of the new “menace of the bots,” another weapon in cyber warfare’s arsenal.
Agarwal has a large graphic of a group that uses bots on social media: ISIS. The swirling graphic depicts 80,000 to 100,000 Twitter account estimated to be linked together to spread a certain message.
Whereas ISIS may use a chatroom to recruit users, bots help distort truth. Users will program bots to, for example, pick a certain hashtag and flood it with tweets, often coded with misinformation from both sides of the issue. “The goal is not to have a certain outcome — the higher goal is to create divisions in the society, to polarize discussion in society; to unravel the fabric of democracy in the free world,” Agarwal said. This deluge of mass information muddles the truth. “Social media has done tremendous damage in that aspect,” he said.
But, Agarwal and his group COSMOS — Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavior Studies, composed of graduate students from around the world — see a system that has been created and can be changed.
“The entire goal is to find out what kind of models can be used to counter this information,” he said.
“We can take one of the two paths. We can just completely ignore, deny what is out there. Which,” he says immediately, “is not an option.” Or, “we get involved in these discussions,” he continues, “and the community can rally around this issue.”
— Jacob Rosenberg
Sens. Joyce Elliott and Jim Hendren
Making a rare bipartisan case for considering race in policy.
In September, state Sens. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and Jim Hendren (R-Sulphur Springs) proposed an eight-member bipartisan panel — composed equally of Republicans and Democrats — to discuss how race affects policy and life in Arkansas and look for ways the legislature could work to address race relations in the state. The Arkansas Legislative Council soundly rejected their proposal.
But Hendren and Elliott say they want to continue to discuss race, because of the unrecognized role it plays in politics and Arkansans’ lives, including their own. They talked about their proposal and their desires to keep talking about race relations at a recent Political Animals Club meeting in Little Rock.
Growing up in South Arkansas, “I was uncannily aware of the savage inequalities,” Elliott said. “I loved hanging around the old people and listening to what they were saying. That’s when I learned so much about people being afraid and knowing things just were not equal. And, eventually knowing it was all embedded in race.” She recalled going to a school that was not integrated and saying the Pledge of Allegiance or reading the founding documents “knowing it was not true” based on her experiences with racism. “That just became part of a bedrock for me, of knowing someday I’m going to do something about race. Because it shouldn’t be this way. And I was a child, but I never lost that desire,” she said.
As a legislator, Elliott has been a dogged champion for policies that push back against structural racism. Especially in recent years, with Republicans in control of the legislature, that has been an uphill battle.
Hendren said he grew up going to a school that was “100 percent white” in Northwest Arkansas.
“I guess I would say I was naive and uninformed about the world that many people live in,” he said, “and also, even our own history.” After college at the University of Arkansas, Hendren joined the Air Force and “that’s where I really started to have my eyes opened.”
“I can tell you, I may have been taught the Little Rock Nine and what happened at Central High, but it certainly didn’t sink in and I didn’t understand it,” he said. “As a National Guardsman for 15 years, to think that the governor would activate the Guard to come and keep kids out of the school. … And then to have the president nationalize them and say, ‘No you’re not, you’re going to protect those kids.’ That’s such an amazing thing.
“I think so many kids — all across our state — don’t fully understand the period from 1865 to the present and what happens in our country with regard to race relations,” he said.
For Elliott, racism is structural. She pointed to a structural column in the room where the Political Animals were meeting. “It’s like it’s embedded in that column, you don’t know what’s holding that column up and something is. You take for granted it’s going to stand. You don’t go around wondering what’s holding it up,” she said. “It’s structured into the systems we have.”
Hendren said he agreed that bias was built into some systems and they “need to be fixed.” But, Hendren said he did not want to discuss the “abstract” nature of racism. He wanted “facts and figures.” And, he added, “What I will not agree is that there is a unanimous effort to be racist.”
“I don’t just have the time and desire to do
The idea of considering these issues is not an unusual idea — or a new one — to deal with a country’s “original sin,” Elliott said. She talked about South Africa’s reconciliation councils after apartheid and the commissions established after
Hendren and Elliott promised to continue the discussion and will push the committee forward in the future.
— Jacob Rosenberg
Judges Tommy Fowler and David Boling
Taking on a private probation company.
When Tommy Fowler and David Boling ran for separate district judge positions in 2016, both talked about a problem in Craighead County District Court: The Justice Network. The for-profit, Memphis-based organization had run probation services for more than 20 years in the county and had been known to keep people convicted of misdemeanor offenses locked in a cycle of debt fueled by high fines and fees.
“In our courts, we have three options we can do,” Boling told The Jonesboro Sun in 2016 during his campaign. “You can do probation, you can do community service and you can do fines. And I think one of the mistakes that
Fowler also talked to the Sun about the company. “It’s not a money-making arm of the
An Arkansas State University student researching the subject told the Sun about a man who was selling his plasma each day to afford the fines. Another probationer, after not paying a $25 seatbelt ticket, saw the charges blossom to $2,400 in fines, 40 hours of community service and 10 days in jail, the Sun reported.
In January 2017, both men took office and promised to kick The Justice Network out by July 2017. In the meantime, they have worked on stopgap amnesty programs to help people pay fines or have them waived. It was a move meant to fundamentally change the court system in Craighead County for the better. To give an idea of
The Justice Network sued the judges in June. It said it was contractually obligated to receive the money from the imposed fines and fees. No court date has been set for the lawsuit. (Fowler and Boling declined to be interviewed by the Arkansas Times, citing the pending lawsuit.)
— Jacob Rosenberg
Producer trying to make sense of a digital world.
In YouTube comments for Yuni Wa’s “So 1989” (which had 998,858 views in early November), no one talks about Little Rock, or the legacy of the Stifft Station neighborhood where he lives with his grandmother in a house across from the old Woodruff Elementary School, making beats on a Dell Inspiron desktop computer. The commenters do not try to guess his real name (which is Princeton Coleman; he chose Yuni Wa because it means “universal” in Japanese in a shortened form, and “it’s a cool language, literally an
Yuni Wa is a sound and force from their computer. “It’s very personal and impersonal at the same time,” the soft-spoken Wa said of his music.
As Wa, he has jam-packed his consciousness into his music. “It’s a lot of emotion,” he said. “
Wa’s songs don’t have specific references to personal tragedies. Instead, he conveys his emotions through elegant electronic pulsations. His music has been called Vaporwave, though thinks he’s more expansive.
Vaporwave is an attempt at nostalgic reconstruction of consumer-first music from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a sub-sub-sub-genre of electronic music. Imagine remixed Muzak into a slow, smooth heartfelt jam.
Unlike the classic model of
“My relationship with Little Rock isn’t too, too good,” he told me. Mostly he’s achieved success online. His album covers are made by a guy who lives in the Netherlands, he said. His 20,000-plus monthly Spotify listeners, 9,336 followers on SoundCloud and the 233,587 who have viewed his YouTube channel are not concentrated in Little Rock. Sometimes he even struggles to book shows. “We’re still facing the local gatekeepers now,” he said.
The “we” is a growing creative collective that regularly meets at Paramount Skate Shop in North Little Rock, trying to create an “in-house society of creatives,” he says, so they can photograph and film and produce away from the current structures of art in Little Rock. The group includes rappers Goon Des Garcons, Solo
— Jacob Rosenberg