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At Under 40 Forum, Young Leaders Take On ‘Fractured Arkansas’

4 min read

Some of the state’s top young professionals presented their findings from the second Under 40 Forum in a report to Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday.

The forum, held March 2-3 at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, brought together for the second year “40 Under 40” honorees from both Arkansas Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal and challenged them to address socioeconomic issues affecting the state.

Their report, titled “Fractured Arkansas,” was presented to the governor in a closed meeting; organizers and participants talked about the presentation afterward. 

“This program is to help promote civic engagement,” said Janet Harris, director of programs for the Rockefeller Institute. “That’s just the best kind of conversation you can have, that there’s a free exchange of ideas and these people were telling the governor what they saw.”

The idea of a fractured Arkansas was a theme that came up in the inaugural conference last year, Harris said, when attendees discussed the divides between central and northwest Arkansas.

The concept took shape as a theme and challenge this year, with the 27 participants finding that while the northwest-central regional rivalry might have eased in recent years, other divides exist around the state. 

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, one of the forum’s presenting partners, said the divides are found between urban and rural areas, “haves and have-nots” and traditional and non-traditional forms of education, among other areas.

“Those types of issues that fracture the state … are not necessarily geographically based, regionally based,” Rutherford said.

“A lot of us felt that the things that divide us can also bring us closer together and no matter what we all have the same issues,” said forum participant Markita Tyler, 38, a Little Rock resident who commutes to her job as vice president of finance at Pine Bluff-based Central Maloney, Inc.

Harris said forum participants who had moved from small towns to the bigger population centers in central and northwest Arkansas were acutely aware of the urban-rural divide and what that means to residents of the rural areas they had left behind. Reflecting this shift, the report presented Tuesday notes that Arkansas is expected to see more counties lose than gain population when the 2020 Census is counted.

“They were very intentional about their discussion, that this is what we know to be a problem and is doubly so in our small communities that have fewer resources and fewer people and so forth,” Harris said.

Harris said that alternative education, for example, grows in importance if considered alongside the ups and downs of the economy and a job market that is affected by new technologies, among other things. In the report, education was cited as the issue that most fired up the passions of the forum participants.

“Kids are in school right now training for jobs that won’t exist when they graduate and we have to be constantly thinking about it,” Harris said. 

Nontraditional education opportunities in the form of mentorships and apprenticeships become more important in rural areas with fewer resources for job training or employment education. 

“They recognize that if you’re from a small area of the state you need exposure to those things to compete in the economy,” Harris said.

“There’s only so much we can do but we still have to plan for the future and education is going to be that foundation,” said Tyler, who holds three masters among her five degrees.

“Education is a big deal to me.”

Rather than zero in on the northwest-central Arkansas divide, forum participants turned their attention to areas of concern to all citizens, regardless of where in the state they live.

The four areas of focus for change presented in the report were: healing cultural divides, educational structure and policy shifts, access to nontraditional education opportunities and focusing on industries of the future versus industries of the past.

“It’s a really good time to look at how do we prepare for the future,” Rutherford said. “Because we’ve certainly seen swings the other way. Even though Arkansas hasn’t suffered as much as some states we’ve certainly had our economic swings.”

Recommendations in each area of focus sometimes overlapped — increasing opportunities and embracing technology came up frequently — while the very existence of the forum and report were also seen as positive steps to solving problems.

Rutherford said it was hoped the attendees will return to their communities and continue to use their leadership positions to influence change and progress where they can while also staying in touch and bridging the divides they discussed.

“You hope the young leaders who participated in this endeavor will continue to champion the issues every day that they championed at the conference,” Rutherford said.

Tyler said she felt inspired to explore mentorships and other opportunities to give to the community.

“I feel a sense of urgency that I need to get out and do more, especially when we’re talking about cultural differences, education,” Tyler said. “I need to get out and do more for our youth.”

Harris said an open dialogue between young professionals and the state’s top elected official was in itself a positive development in light of the adversarial climate affecting politics today.

“It was a good conversation,” she said, “and it was so inspiring to be an observer as we were, those of us who sponsored the forum and put it together, and see the governor come in and so willingly sit down and open the conversation to these young leaders: ‘Tell me what you think.’ “

Arkansas Business will unveil its latest “40 Under 40” class in Monday’s print edition.

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