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Walton Family Foundation’s Robert Burns No Stranger to Home Region

3 min read
As director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region ProgramRobert Burns leads the foundation’s work in northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.
Burns has more than 25 years of experience in workforce housing, philanthropy, community development and governmental affairs. He promoted financial inclusion and economic empowerment as senior vice president of Citi. He also worked to build inclusive cities, managed a Community Development Financial Institution and directed nonprofit solutions for an affordable housing organization.
Burns has a master’s in public administration from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s in political science from Appalachian State University.

Can you make a business case for the importance of building “diverse, inclusive and equitable communities”?

The efforts in northwest Arkansas are driven by a vision to help the region become one of the most vibrant and inclusive communities in the nation. A key success measure will be inclusive growth, where everyone who calls northwest Arkansas home benefits from the opportunities the region has to offer.

Economic vibrancy and inclusive growth are intrinsically connected. People want to be part of communities and economies where every student is prepared for high-quality jobs through college and career prep programs, where residents can upskill or reskill to enter high-potential fields, and where every worker can afford housing in neighborhoods with diverse transportation options.

Similarly, this year, our work in the Delta focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of how the foundation can support local partnerships that ensure every resident can access resources to learn, build wealth and lead their community. Prosperous communities give every resident equal access to economic opportunity.

In announcing your appointment, Tom Walton said, “Over the next five years, the Walton Family Foundation will work steadily and boldly toward long-term change that unlocks opportunity for every person in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta.” Can you elaborate on that?

Long-term change can take decades, and for it to endure, change must be creative, inclusive and led by those closest to the challenges that need solutions. This means the voices and needs of the communities where we work will be essential in guiding our 2025 Strategy. Inclusion must also be a priority for community-driven change. Bringing people with different ideas and backgrounds to the table results in more sustainable, innovative solutions, and it creates real partnership.

We also understand we can’t tackle big challenges on our own. Philanthropy has the ability, and responsibility, to convene people and ignite new partnerships. We intend to collaborate with government, local leaders and the private sector to bring people, resources and ideas together.

What would you like to see done to promote affordable housing in the state?

Recognizing there are no one-size-fits-all housing solutions, the team at the foundation studied how other communities in the heartland are addressing these problems and how those lessons can be applied locally.

In northwest Arkansas, it will be essential to focus on housing solutions that are affordable, well-designed, connected to transit options and in proximity to workforce centers and amenities. Achieving those solutions will require a regional approach that balances housing and transportation; engaging partners from the public, private and nonprofit sectors; educating the public about the scale of the challenge to build support for housing solutions; and examining local codes to encourage the development of workforce housing.

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