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Surprise award

The Institute is extremely proud that Program Officer Samantha Evans was honored with the Arkansas Community Development Society’s New Professional Award. Samantha has been actively involved in community development, especially in Arkansas, for most of her professional years.

This past Friday, two representatives from the Society - including Whitney Horton, pictured above on the left with Sam on the right - came to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute to surprise Sam with the award. Sam was very touched, as you can see on our Facebook page.

Sam comes from five years at Main Street Arkansas serving as its assistant director. In this position, she worked with numerous small- and medium-sized communities throughout the state of Arkansas where she worked to help interested citizens revitalize their downtown.

Sam served both on the board and as peer-elected chair of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of Little Rock. Under her leadership as the board chair, Little Rock was selected to host the annual Young Nonprofit Professional National Conference. It was a very successful event highlighting Change Through Head, Heart and Hands. The Change Through Head, Heart and Hands was a national nonprofit leadership conference that in August 2015 brought 150 young, emerging leaders from throughout the nation to Little Rock. Sam played a strong role in promoting central Arkansas tourism for attendees, further deepening the investment and experience attendees had while expanding the event’s economic impact.

She created the monthly speaker series “Coffee with an Expert,” which brings executive directors across various sectors together to speak with YNPN members.  She also developed a fundraising plan to increase membership and sponsorship for the local organization.

Before working for Main Street Arkansas, Sam was the planning technician for the city of North Little Rock for two years. Originally from Perry County, Sam, now of Conway, worked with her home community to help save the Rosenwald School in Bigelow, once listed as one of Arkansas’ Most Endangered Places. She’s written articles on a variety of issues concerning community development and planning including this one.

Sam holds a Professional Community and Economic Developer Certification from the Community Development Council. She has a master’s degree from the Humphry School of Public Affairs in City/Urban Planning with an emphasis in Community and Regional Planning.

She was selected as a Krusell Community Development Fellow and MacArthur Fellow in 2007 as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. During her fellowships she worked with Model Cities CDC, a community-based development organization, and CommonBond, a large affordable housing development and management organization. Her placement experiences included: assisting with funding applications for tax credits; marketing research; data management and analysis; predevelopment planning and funding applications; assistance with façade improvement program; help with real estate closings. 

Sam is a regular speaker at conferences and events, including for the Community Development Institute, the National Main Streets Conference and innumerable local community sessions.

She received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. In a nice Rockefeller connection, Spelman College, which was founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, later changed in honor of Laura Spelman, John D. Rockefeller’s wife, and her parents, who were longtime activists in the anti-slavery movement. 

I had the privilege of working with Sam at a previous job, and I was thrilled when we got to be colleagues again here at the Institute. We’re very proud of her and look forward to seeing how her talent moves our programs forward in the future.

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'Together we can become worthy of the moment'

Working at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and living atop Petit Jean Mountain, I am blessed with easy access to some of the prettiest scenic views in Arkansas. I can’t help but think that the picturesque vistas looking westward off of Petit Jean’s broad plateau is part of what kept Winthrop Rockefeller in Arkansas.

But Rockefeller’s view of Arkansas went well beyond his recognition of its natural beauty. From his farm, home and office on Petit Jean, he could see not just the physical attributes of the Arkansas River Valley, he cast a vision for the future of a state that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, was hanging in the balance.

That vision led him into politics, and 50 years ago today, he was sworn in as the 37th governor of the state of Arkansas.

A lot has changed in Arkansas in 50 years, and much of the positive change that has happened here can be traced back to the two terms that Winthrop Rockefeller served as governor.

Today I was privileged to sit in the gallery as Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered his State of the State address to a joint assembly of the Arkansas Legislature. At the suggestion of our director of programs, Janet Harris, we reached out to the governor’s office to remind them that the State of the State address happened to fall on the monumental anniversary of Winthrop Rockefeller’s inauguration.

Gov. Hutchinson opened his address with a quote from Rockefeller’s inaugural speech:

“It is true that you have been allotted an unusual moment in the history of Arkansas, as have I … a moment subject to special scrutiny … laden with special challenges … and rich with special opportunities. I believe that together we can become worthy of the moment.”

Hutchinson followed that quote with a charge to the Legislature: “Today, we have our own moment in history, and we can only be worthy of this moment if we work together.”

Commitment to a collaborative approach to problem-solving was a hallmark of not just Winthrop Rockefeller’s administration, but his entire life. I was proud to hear that sentiment echoed 50 years from the time he first took office.

I was also struck by some of the parallels between the two governors’ priorities. Hutchinson today spoke of the need for more efficiency in government. This was also a priority of Rockefeller, who dramatically reduced the total number of state agencies during his tenure as governor.

Hutchinson touted recent economic development efforts throughout the state, citing Sig Sauer in Jacksonville, Sun Paper in Arkadelphia, Metova in Conway, Mars Petcare in Fort Smith, FMH Conveyors in Jonesboro and J.B. Hunt in Rogers. Before running for governor, Rockefeller served as the chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, a precursor to today’s Economic Development Commission. He helped usher in more than 600 new industries in Arkansas, resulting in more than $250 million in added salaries.

I’d like to think that if Gov. Rockefeller could have heard today’s State of the State address, he would be proud to hear how far we’ve come as a state. But he would also roll up his sleeves and prepare for the work yet to be done.

A mentor once told me that if I wanted to truly make a difference in my life, I needed to become a part of something that would outlive me. He also suggested that if we hope to see our work completed, we simply have not asked big enough questions. Winthrop Rockefeller personified this philosophy and dared to ask big questions. He took on challenges that he knew he would not live to see conquered.

As I reflect on the work of the Institute and on the indelible legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller on this important anniversary, I am inspired by his accomplishments, but also by his heart and his approach—which was to engage and empower others and to encourage them to aim high toward answering the big questions.

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Fair play

A trip to the playground — hurtling down the rocket slide, soaring on the swing set, making yourself dizzy on the merry-go-round. For children in America, it’s a quintessential part of childhood, right? Right up there with refusing to eat your peas. The experience builds social bonds, encourages creativity and, of course, provides an exhilarating outlet for fun.

I’ll bet there is a good chance just reading those words conjured up one of your own playground memories — maybe a recent trip with your children or a recollection from your own childhood.

Some children, however, face challenges — through no fault of their own or of their parents — that make a traditionally designed playground something much less than a pursuit of unbridled enthusiasm. For example, children with disabilities or mobility impairments may be excluded because of accessibility or equipment issues. Or, perhaps, they have a parent or guardian who is confined to a wheelchair. These children not only lose the fun and social experiences that playgrounds bring, they miss the physical and mental health benefits that an active lifestyle provides.

The city of Bryant is hoping to remove those barriers, so that all of its citizens will be able to use the playground and take their children to the playground. In 2017, they plan to commence construction of a new universally designed, fully inclusive playground at Wilbur D. Mills Park — an 80-acre city park originally built in the early 1970s. The current equipment will be replaced with inclusive equipment that will allow all children to play and interact together (the current equipment, incidentally, will be repurposed in another park that doesn’t have a playground).

Renderings of new playground equipment at Mills Park

“Mills Park is a very important and historical park for Bryant,” Mayor Jill Dabbs said. “It’s filled with people every day and functions the way you want a park to function. So, it is already a healthy, active park … and it makes sense to invest in it and put this playground there.”

The project is far more than adding wheelchair access points to an existing playground. So, you may ask, how does a playground that is universally inclusive differ from a playground that is accessible? Well, Inspiring Play magazine describes it thusly: “An inclusive playground takes into account not just the physical equipment and tactics … it embraces the philosophy that children and adults of ALL abilities benefit immensely from being able to play and interact together. These types of playgrounds take into account children with physical disabilities as well as special needs or developmental disabilities.”

For example, the inclusive playground at Mills Park will be broken into three stations organized by age group. At each station, there will be playground equipment with ramps that allow access to everyone — including children, or their guardians, in wheelchairs.

“What that means is, (anyone) that is bound to a wheelchair will have the ability to enter and exit the playground equipment without ever having to leave that chair, unless they want to (to use the slide for example),” said Spencer McCorkel, assistant director of parks for the City of Bryant. “And that’s the point. This playground will accommodate any person from start to finish.”

Bryant’s commitment to providing a public space for all children to be active also coincides with the objectives of Healthy Active Arkansas (HAA). The statewide, 10-year framework – which Dabbs helped shape through her participation in planning summits put on by the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute – launched in 2015 and was designed to improve nutrition, reduce obesity and other health issues, and broadly encourage and enable healthier lifestyles in Arkansas. Specifically, one of the nine priority areas that make up the HAA framework, Physical and Built Environment, urges stakeholders “to create livable places that improve mobility, availability and access within the community where they live, work and play.”

Casey Covington of Metroplan is the team lead for HAA’s Physical and Built Environment priority area. He recently praised Bryant’s commitment to this inclusive playground.

“We want to make sure that all our kids, including those with disabilities, have a place where they can be physically active while also reaping the social benefits that public spaces offer,” he said. “If someone is active at an early age, then their chances of maintaining an active lifestyle is significantly better.”

Parks Director Chris Treat said that depending on the amount of funding available at the start of the project, the city is hoping to complete the project in one phase by the end of 2017 — although he said they are prepared to phase it in over time, if necessary.

The city is still in the planning and fundraising stages for the new playground equipment, with part of the funding coming from reissued bonds. Of the $4 million designated to the Parks Department, $300,000 has been earmarked for the renovations at Mills Park. The total cost of the renovation is projected at $786,000, with the remainder to be raised through fundraising efforts with the assistance of the nonprofit Friends for Inclusive Parks (Everett Buick GMC in Bryant, for example, has already pledged $10,000). The city is also hopeful they will receive an additional $250,000 in grant funding.

The project has been in the works for approximately two years since the city was approached by community members such as Erin Gildner with Friends for Inclusive Parks. Dabbs says she is not aware of another park of this scale anywhere in the central Arkansas area, but that’s not what she will be most proud of when this project comes to fruition.

“The reason this opportunity is available is not because the local government said this is important, but because the people said it’s important, and that is when you get the best projects,” she said. “This particular project just encourages more activity in an already-active place, and it will be a park that people from all over the state will come and visit — a place that parents can seek out to have that normal playground experience, regardless of their child’s abilities.

“I think when people — no matter what their abilities are — are given the opportunity to become their best person, it benefits them and their communities long term in every way.”

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Poised to lead Arkansas into a new era of innovation, Winrock International and Innovation Hub join forces

“Our challenge in the years ahead will be to adapt our agriculture, our government services, our health care system and our industry to our changing world without forsaking our values. In other words, let’s embrace the energy of change and all the opportunity it brings without forsaking our foundation. … My top priority is to grow the economy of this state, to create jobs, and for Arkansas to enter a time of sustained economic power and influence.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, during his Inaugural Address, January 13, 2015

When Gov. Hutchinson summarizes his vision for Arkansas, time and time again, he comes back to economic development and innovation. While our state as a whole is arguably playing catchup in these areas, two Arkansas-born nonprofits have recently joined forces to create a dynamic model of innovation that is poised to have statewide — as well as national and global — impact.

In June, Winrock International, an international development organization that traces its roots to a charitable endeavor established by Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced they were combining. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Innovation Hub, was named senior director of U.S. Programs at Winrock.

“Gov. Rockefeller wanted Arkansas to be a place where innovative solutions are developed and tested for the rest of the country and the world,” Sabin told me recently. “This is in line with that vision.

“Winrock is well established as an innovator in international development. The Hub has created new models of innovation that overlap and align with what Winrock is already doing.”

Sabin tells me that, as far as he knows, there is nothing exactly like the Innovation Hub anywhere. He said he traveled around the country to observe and learn from a variety of entrepreneur and maker spaces. For one, from the very beginning, the Innovation Hub has included programs not only for adults, but also young people, which is imperative from a talent-development perspective. But that’s not the only difference that stands out.

“The Innovation Hub is unique in that it combines maker, entrepreneur, art and design spaces … all in one place,” Sabin said. Additionally, “most of these (spaces around the country) are in the largest urban areas. We’re trying to bring this model into rural areas (in Arkansas).”

In fact, Sabin said he is excited about a project that Winrock will be unveiling soon in the Arkansas Delta. The venture, which has yet to be announced, will be one of the first opportunities to establish an example of how all the components of the Innovation Hub can be integrated into a set of solutions for rural communities. The effort, Sabin told me, is expected to “pilot new strategies for economic, workforce and rural development in the Delta.”

But the impact has the potential to resonate globally as part of Winrock’s international solutions. “Much of the work (of the Innovation Hub) is applicable to developing countries,” Sabin said, where there is a growing need “to do more with less.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Winrock International/Innovation Hub merger announcement.

The growing potential of this new collaboration has already generated excitement. Gov. Hutchinson spoke at the press conference in June when Winrock announced it was combining with the Innovation Hub. Here’s what Hutchinson had to say that day:

“This will spur real economic and community growth in our state and signals that Arkansas’ impact on the world will continue to grow. I’m especially intrigued by what this could mean in terms of workforce training, manufacturing, agriculture and, especially, the Arkansas knowledge industry.”

Already the Innovation Hub can point to the success of HubX Life Sciences, the state’s first privately funded health care accelerator program. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub partnered with Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and The Iron Yard to attract seven innovative health care start-ups. The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the health care sector.

“We’re creating new models (that can benefit multiple sectors),” Sabin told me. “If successful, we’re going to change the face of community development and economic development in a huge part of our state.”

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