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Retention & Recruitment: Ideas for the Future of Arkansas

Tis the season for partisan rhetoric. “The other side is to blame for all that ails us” is as common a mantra in headlines, social media posts and sound bytes as mosquitoes in south Arkansas.

And while every unique political viewpoint will claim to have cornered the markets of progress and stability, a group here in Arkansas has given form to a perspective not entrenched with partisan loyalties.

The Under 40 Forum, held in early April here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, provided time, space and structure for many of the Natural State’s up-and-coming leaders to share their views on a topic that is pivotal to Arkansas’ future: How do we attract and retain younger talent?

The two-day summit was filled with, as Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller would put it, “a search for solutions.” Our participants, 30 in number and representative of the 40 Under 40 lists of both Arkansas Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, represented the spectrum of American politics. We had Republicans, Democrats, Independents and probably some third- (or fourth-) party supporters in the room. And while they didn’t check their political leanings at the door, they did check their political egos.

What resulted is a 23-page report, which you can view and download here, in which these Under 40 Leaders identify key opportunities and obstacles to Arkansas’ economic and civic success in the 21st century.

To the highlights!

Some pros:

  • Arkansas is actually a great place to live, with relatively low cost of living and friendly residents.
  • This is a state where motivated people can have a tremendous impact on their community, and they don’t necessarily have to have lived here all their lives to do so.
  • We have good people, as evidenced by the quality of the Under 40 Leaders. Arkansas has both a long and recent history of producing people who show great ingenuity in business, industry, education and philanthropy.

Some cons:

  • We have a habit of getting in our own way. Regardless of political affiliation, our Under 40 Leaders agreed that we have to move beyond a national perception that Arkansas is a place where discriminatory attitudes prevail. Beyond just a political debate, it has real effects on a business’s ability to recruit talent from out of state, especially millennials.
  • “My hometown didn’t retain me” was something we heard from one Under 40 Leader and echoed by many more. The concept of small-town “brain drain” isn’t new, nor is it unique to Arkansas, but there may be new and innovative ways to address the problem, and Arkansas could be a leader in this area.
  • Arkansas has to invest in more widespread broadband access. Without it, we’re missing out on a lot of economic opportunities, especially in, but not limited to, rural areas.

Some recommendations:

  • We need universal pre-K options. We were a little surprised that this was one of the first topics the group jumped on. But they were almost all passionate about it. Younger talent equates to younger families, and younger families will generally only relocate somewhere with strong schools. That starts with offering pre-K opportunities.
  • Parks & Tourism and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission should be closer allies. That’s not to imply they don’t get along now, but the group of Under 40 Leaders believe there could be more and better collaboration between Parks & Tourism, which handles relocation package development, and AEDC, which is responsible for bringing in more business to the state.
  • Regionalism beyond northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Council was praised by our group for its good work in developing and branding NWAR. The Under 40 Leaders said similar or other regional councils could and should be established in other parts of the state. To accomplish this will require the engagement and motivation of business and other leaders in those regions.

There’s plenty more that’s covered in the report, so I encourage you to view the full document.

Suffice it to say, we’re rather proud of this project. Gov. Rockefeller was known for bringing the best and brightest in the state to Petit Jean Mountain to, again, “search for solutions.” That’s the core of our mission as an organization, and it seems this Under 40 Forum and the resulting report are exactly the kind of thing that would make Winthrop Rockefeller proud.

It also represents a great collaboration with the Clinton School of Public Service. The idea for the Under 40 Forum came directly from Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford, who shared his vision of an “80 Under 40” meeting last year.

The report is being distributed to political and business leaders throughout the state. If you have a question about the report or about the Under 40 Forum in general (next year’s Forum, which will engage the 2016 40 Under 40 lists, has been scheduled for March 2-3), contact Program Officer Cary Tyson at ctyson@uawri.org.

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The better state of Yell

You’ve heard of the CCC? The Civilian Conservation Corps was a public work relief program that operated from 1933-1942. The CCC was one of the most popular New Deal programs. It worked to improve the physical condition, heightened morale and increased employability of its members.

Meet the YCCC. The Yell County Community Coalition. YCCC is the new name of the (once) steering committee of the Yell County Uncommon Communities group. It has subgroups in many of the Yell County cities such as Mission: Dardanelle, which works to make positive differences in the lives of citizens by encouraging beautification, [community] marketing and branding, education, and economics through civic-minded volunteers. There’s something fitting about this new name and acronym given the history of Yell County and the CCC. Yell County is home to Mount Nebo State Park’s CCC camp, Company 1780-V. Led by Capt. H.L. Eagan, CCC Company 1780-V brought 20 tons of equipment and 186 veteran enrollees 1,350 feet up the mountain from Dardanelle train station. These men were often 20 years older than the average CCC recruit.

This Mission: Impossible of the CCC during its day was completed successfully despite many people surely thinking such a laborious task was a hopeless (and potentially fruitless) endeavor. However, the CCC cabins and other structures remain the pride of the park to this day. They continue to pay dividends to the state and the visitor.

Proving that wise investment has long-term dividends, the YCCC group, too, has many ambitious plans. Efforts to provide entrepreneurial training are underway. There’s a group working on enhancing tourism, particularly nature tourism including hiking and biking. Improving community communication efforts are a big focus. This is a challenge in a rural area with limited broadband, but YCCC is committed to being creative. YCCC has received a series of grants to develop a community garden and improve access to healthy, local foods. Partnering with ARVAC, the regional community action agency is helping a variety of community development efforts ranging from nutrition to housing and beyond.

Partnering with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, as well as the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and its Breakthrough Solutions group resulted in a downtown riverfront masterplan. Ed Levy of Cromwell Architects is in the midst of developing a plan that will be unveiled in the near future. The entire county is excited about the possibilities.

“Nothing I like to do pays well,” wrote Charles Portis in his novel True Grit, partially set in Yell County. None of these people are getting paid for doing this work. They’re doing it because they want to make their home a better place. He also wrote “If you want anything done right, you will have to see to it yourself every time”. That’s exactly what the YCCC is doing.

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There’s more than meets the eye in Fairfield Bay

You might think of Fairfield Bay as just a retirement village. You’d be way wrong.

While the city of just under 2,300 people is home to a number of retirees, these folks are far from retired – at least in the traditional sense. You don’t find too many retirees building community recycle centers and filling shifts to keep such a facility open on a full-time basis.

A “hands-on” recycling center, the HIPPE Center is a place for education as well as a conservation undertaking.

“The most popular place for residents to bring their grandkids and other children is our recycling center,” says Mayor Paul Wellenberger, who is rightfully proud of the work being done in his community.

Began in 1985 by Harold and Sigrid Hippe, the Center now has nearly 50 volunteers who work more than 2,000 hours annually. They take in an average of 10 tractor-trailer loads of recycling each year. Unlike many good-sized cities, glass is recycled in Fairfield Bay via a partnership with Little Rock Air Force Base.

Most people are aware of the extraordinary amount of activity that is available for anyone in the Bay, as it’s called by locals. There’s golf, tennis, swimming, disc golf, hiking the new and growing trail system, water sports at the marina, bowling, a history museum hosted in a log cabin, and all sorts of other options. These are available for both the resident, guest and visitor. Speaking of guests, more than 14,000 visitors were recorded at the Fairfield Bay Conference Center last year. Turns out, Fairfield Bay is quite the spot for conferences and events.

“We think we could have come close to doubling that if we had a hotel in the Bay” the mayor says. “We are working on that.”

So many people visit the Bay that there’s a weekly welcome breakfast for visitors every Monday. Visitors hear about the numerous activities available and are greeted by the mayor. When’s the last time the mayor of the city you visited greeted you? All part of the charm of the Bay.

One of the many advantages of participation in the Uncommon Communities initiative are the relationships built at the trainings and in between sessions at working meetings. The nature of these gatherings give citizens from the cities of Clinton and Fairfield Bay a reason to be in the same room, focused on similar projects.

“We’re working together closer than ever,” Jackie Sikes of the Dirty Farmers’ Market Café in Clinton told me.

When we work together, great things can happen and great things are what make your community uncommon.

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Arts on the Mountain: a look back

This May we were honored to host a watercolor course from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Eleven art students lived and learned here at the Institute arriving on May 22 and leaving a week later, having spent every day learning new techniques and putting them to practice at several locations at the Institute and Petit Jean State Park.

I caught up with Sarah Spencer, one of the students, and got her impressions about the experience. Spencer explained, “This was not your typical university class experience. The week-long course at one of Arkansas’ most beautiful mountain retreats blended outstanding instruction and resources, serious study, and free time for walks, fishing, reading and reflecting.”

A participant in the watercolor workshop paints underneath a large rock face on Petit Jean Mountain.

Leading them through their week-long course was UALR visiting professor and artist in residence, Heidi Hogden. Hogden, whose work is currently in the Annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, taught classroom lessons out of the Institute’s Petit Jean I classroom, which was set up as the class’s studio for the week. More hands-on learning, however, took place outside of the class’s studio.

Students spent time painting beside the fields along the Institute’s drive, at the Studio, in Petit Jean State Park at locations like Davies Bridge and at the Arkansas Archeological Survey Station here at the Institute. Spencer explained, “For art students, the location on Petit Jean Mountain provided access to some of the state’s most stunning scenery, easily available by foot or by the staff-driven van that efficiently transported the group to unique locations for plein air painting.”

The visits made for a memorable week, Spencer said, noting that one of her favorite memories was the afternoon spent at the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Larry Porter, the archeological assistant for the survey station here, gave the students a tour of the station and selected several artifacts to be used as models for the class.

Students were inspired by the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain

“Following his tour of the facility, our class was invited to set up at the survey’s site for an afternoon of painting images of several rare objects from the collection,” Spencer said. “One of the artifacts was estimated to be over 1,000 years old – not your typical still life model!”

Reflecting on the mood of the class, Spencer said, “It was as much fun as going to camp – but a camp with a few more amenities. Spacious private cottages and meals provided three times a day by one of the state’s finest culinary programs.” 

Spencer’s overall recommendation? “I would say to any student (in any discipline) that an experience such as this is one you owe yourself. The ability to be removed from the ‘busyness’ of daily life and to learn new things in such a remarkable setting along with fellow students with shared interests is truly a gift. Note this as one priceless opportunity and take it.”

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The space between

The Cuba Consortium Agriculture and Food Roundtable was full of great moments.

The two-day event, held here at the Institute back in March, represented a partnership between the Institute, the Howard Baker Forum and Winrock International. It provided an opportunity for key leaders in the national conversation about normalizing relations with Cuba to share ideas, identify opportunities and map out the next steps that are needed to responsibly examine the issue of normalization.

The greatest moments didn’t come when Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened the meeting with a welcome address, in which he shared some of the things he learned about Cuba during his trip to the island nation last fall – though that certainly was a great moment.

They didn’t come when Minister Counselor Ruben Ramos Arrieta (pictured in the center above), a representative from the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., gave an impassioned, impromptu speech about the importance of understanding all sides of this issue and not simply assuming that the Cuban people have everything to learn and nothing to teach – though that was a particularly powerful moment.

They didn’t come when expert after expert illuminated the unique nuances of the issue so that all who attended left with a much better understanding – though those were important moments.

The greatest moments came in between sessions, when panelists mingled with attendees, when scholars, policymakers, farmers and government officials all shared their common interest in building a future that was good for Americans (particularly Arkansans) and Cubans alike.

And we’re beginning to see the fruits of those great moments.

Since attending the Cuba Consortium meeting, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward has been named to the consortium’s board. Ward will accompany our very own Dr. Marta Loyd and Janet Harris on a trip to Cuba next week. The trip, sponsored by the Arkansas World Trade Center, is designed to explore opportunities in agriculture, biotechnology and economic development.

In one of those side conversations at the consortium meeting, Arrieta had the opportunity to meet with an official from the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. UACC-Hope has the premier program in power plant management in the South, and since the March meeting, the school has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Cuban officials about possibilities for partnering on education programs related to energy. It’s still to be determined what will come of these conversations, but the seeds have been planted.

So while it was a truly remarkable experience to hear people like Gov. Hutchinson, former Sen. Tom Daschle and a slew of trade and agriculture experts give their thoughts on the bright future we might have with our neighbors to the southeast, it was even more remarkable to see in action the power of convening the right people with a common purpose.

Stay tuned, because this assuredly won’t be the last time we report about our work on this issue.

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The trees that stick in our memories

Growing up in Arkansas, it is easy to take trees for granted. No matter where you are in the state, chances are you aren’t too far from a towering pine, a sprawling magnolia or shady oak. And yet, few of us stop to see the trees for the forest. That’s a trait Linda Palmer invites you to change with a series of detailed colored pencil renderings of the Champion Trees of Arkansas.

Each of the Champion Trees are the largest of their species in Arkansas, cataloged by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. Of the 123 currently identified Champions, Palmer captured 18 for her first exhibit, traveling to each tree personally to take countless reference photos and get a feel for each tree’s unique traits and personality.

Palmer then takes her reference photos and experience back to her studio, where she begins the process of drawing each tree with colored pencils. Colored pencils were chosen as the medium for the work as they allow her to impart very precise details into each drawing. Palmer also tries to frame each tree in a way that conveys what stuck with her most about each tree she visited, such as the looming height and bark pattern of the former Champion shortleaf pine (which has unfortunately fallen in a storm since) or the many knees of the Champion cypress. The end results are masterfully detailed works that represent living pieces of history.

Each tree in the exhibit also tells a story, from a tree that has been part of a graveyard for decades to a tree that has grown with one family through the generations. Palmer traveled more than 7,000 miles across Arkansas to visit the trees and hear the stories surrounding them. Some trees are located in a family’s front yard or in the center of a town, while others are tucked away in the middle of some of Arkansas’ biggest forests, but all of the trees have a special meaning to someone.

Palmer’s journey even inspired an Arkansas Educational Television Network documentary titled Champion Trees.  The documentary tells about the exhibition, explores the landowner history for the champion trees and includes the perspective of the Arkansas Forestry Department. There’s even an accompanying educator’s guide full of classroom activities that encourage engagement with and study of the trees in the students’ lives.

At its heart, the Champion Trees Exhibit is an invitation to lose yourself in contemplation, both of the trees featured in the exhibit and the trees from your past. Just as the Champion Trees have countless decades of memories invested in them, I know I have personal memories of trees that I grew up with. And even if you don’t have memorable trees in your own life, there’s no better time to visit us on the mountain to see the exhibit in person. And if you can, come for the exhibit’s opening reception at 2 p.m. Friday, June 3. Palmer herself will be here to talk about the exhibit, as will State Forester Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The reception is free to attend, but we ask that you register in advance.

After your visit you can spend some time on our grounds and in Petit Jean State Park and make all new tree memories.

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Perry County – an uncommon undertaking

If you’ve driven through Perry County lately, you know how serene and beautiful it is. Nestled between the rapid growth of west Little Rock on one side and the continually developing Morrilton on the other, if you travel Highway 10, you might be surprised at the amount of activity in the county of slightly more than 10,000 people.

Perry County prides itself on its quality of life. Where some people might see the location as too far from the amenities of urban America, residents see it as just right. This mindset is what helped them develop their county tagline: A World Away, Right Next Door. Knowing that communities that sit on their laurels have their destiny decided for them, leaders in Perry County thought it wise to begin the strategic planning process. They reached out to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and Uncommon Communities partner Dr. Mark Peterson and his Breakthrough Solutions program at the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture Extension. Mark was working with us in planning Uncommon Communities, and Perry County was the perfect fit for our curriculum.

Since formally beginning participation in the Institute’s Uncommon Communities Initiative Perry County in late August 2015, the committed citizens of Perry County have not gotten much rest. They began with developing a logo to work with their tagline. Replacing a landmark tree at the “5-Way” in Perryville was an important task for a storied spot, and while it took longer than originally thought, its planting is celebrated. A $1,000 Blue & You grant kicked off the Farmers' Market. Improvements have been made to the Rosenwald Community Center, the local Methodist Church and the Hollis Community Center. A downtown mural has been painted. The local tennis courts have been refurbished via a grant received by an Uncommon Communities participant. A local event, Saturdays on the Square, is now well underway. The park in the City of Perry will soon see improvement thanks to an Uncommon Communities partnership with the Civic Improvement Association. Plans for a splash pad continue to evolve – and there is a budget for its implementation! Local ball field improvements are happening. There is a Yard of the Month prize being awarded. The Perryville Big Star now features a “Wall of Fame” highlighting good works of teachers and students. A local teacher is featured in a weekly newspaper column, cementing a new partnership with education professionals. Outreach and coursework is occurring to enhance local businesses’ online presence via Google Business, Yelp, Trip Advisor and other sources. There is a monthly community cleanup, which began in the Ouachita National Forest. A 3-on-3 basketball tournament is being planned. And there’s planning to participate in the national “One Question Campaign.”

You know, just a county of 10,000 doing what they can.

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Got a Photograph, Picture Of. Passion Project

Some things happen on a whim. With a bit of luck and a pinch of magic, you never know what you can achieve.

I’ve lived in central Arkansas 44 of my 45 years (I spent a year in Seattle, which I lovingly refer to as both my Gap Year and “the taking of the plaid”). I’ve long been familiar with and an admirer of the Arkansas School for the Deaf. Driving along Markham in Little Rock, I’ve seen their scoreboard noting “Arkansas School for the Deaf Leopards.” I’ve been a fan of the English rock band Def Leppard since my brother Craig received Pyromania on vinyl shortly after its release in 1983. I saw the band at Barton Coliseum every time they came through the state and always wondered if the connection between the two was ever made by someone who could put the two together.  

Fast forward a few decades. I hear about Def Leppard’s show at Verizon Arena and I think “somebody’s got to get these two groups together.” All those years and it hadn’t happened! Why? Well, nobody had taken the initiative to get the word out. I thought, “well … why don’t I do that?” Isn’t that what the Internet is for?

First thing was to post a picture of the scoreboard and the band on my Facebook page and make a comment about this needing to happen. Hundreds of “likes” and “shares” later, I thought … “OK. There’s something here.”

So, I decided I’d try a Change.org petition encouraging people to sign as well as tweet at the band, post on their Facebook page, etc. 1,500 signatures later, innumerable retweets, shares and posts, and this thing had gone viral. I just thought I’d try and connect a matched pair and hopefully bring some publicity to an organization I really admire as well as a band I love. 

I posted updates to the petition signers with some frequency encouraging them to share, tweet or otherwise get the word out. Working in conjunction with ASD’s director of public relations, Stacey Tatera, we doubled our outreach. She is an unparalleled champion of the school and the students.

The last 10 days before the show I really ramped up the outreach, posting daily. The Friday before the Wednesday show I heard from Verizon Arena’s PR staff. They’d heard me on a radio interview I did promoting the petition with 102.9 KARN. I can’t thank KARN enough for putting Verizon in touch with us. Verizon Arena staff worked with the band’s management and public relations to make this happen. We’d originally wanted the band to take a photo in front of the scoreboard. Schedules didn’t allow for such a trip, but the band really wanted to make the connection with the school. They invited us to bring a replica scoreboard to pose for a photo before the show.

Visiting the school before the event was a remarkable experience. The students were beyond excited. In talking with the faculty before the show, they reminded me how much the school and the students want to be a part of the community. The nature of the campus, physically beautiful but almost remote owing to the nature of the park that welcomes visitors – as well as the added layer of communication challenges with civilians – can make the faculty and students feel disconnected. Having the spotlight shown upon them and their good work really seemed to go a long way in helping bridge the gap.

Arkansas Deaf Leopards

The band was extraordinarily nice and took a good deal of time with the students. They told us they’d heard of the connection and were thrilled to be making it official. But better than that, to me, was the spirit of the community that helped bring this event together. We’ve met some wonderful and nice people along the way. This was in evidence last night as those students were the real rock stars of the evening. They took pictures with as many people as the band did last night. Every time they threw up the “I Love You” sign – which doubles as the standard heavy metal hand gesture.

Matched pairs, I tell you.

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Local theater is the way to go, Shakespeare actor says

Standing in front of a crowd and being the focus of hundreds of eyes and ears isn’t something most people are willing to do. Add singing and playing an instrument to the mix and you have the stuff of some people’s nightmares. Others, like Matt Duncan, can’t get enough.

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A native Arkansan, Duncan, 25, will take center stage this summer as Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, one of the four plays that are part of the 2016 Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre (AST) season.

AST is enjoying its 10th season this year, and Duncan has been with them for half that time, performing in various productions for the past five years.

“It’s a family,” Duncan said, “and it’s where I grew up professionally.”

Duncan explained that part of the joy of working with AST for so long is the chance to see it expand and grow.

“The audiences have grown every year and the community is more involved. AST belongs to central Arkansas now,” he said.  

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Though he might have grown up professionally with AST, Duncan’s been on stage all of his life. His first experience with theater was when he was 4 years old, performing children’s theater in Dardanelle, Ark.

Given his lifetime involvement with theater, it’s no wonder that Duncan also co-founded Paradise Explored Theatre Co., a theater company centered in Bentonville, Ark.

“We view it as a semi-pro halfway house for guerilla theatre,” he said. “We work in found spaces to bring texts to new light.”

Paradise Explored has performed at many unique venues in northwest Arkansas, including Fossil Cove Brewing Co., Backspace, and Two25 Gallery & Wine Bar. Duncan even recalls performing a radio play in a crowded condo for an enthusiastic audience in conjunction with Artinfusion at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

As Duncan explained, northwest Arkansas has several venues for community theater, children’s theater (like Trike Theatre), and even experimental theatre with the Artist Laboratory Theatre, but none that felt exactly right for him.

“We wanted to make an opportunity for people to learn and explore,” he said.  

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Duncan is not alone in his desire to create new opportunities for theatre.

“It is a very exciting time to be a part of theatre in Arkansas,” Duncan explained. “New opportunities are popping up everywhere, and everyone is committed to building.”

Even Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is planning to create a space that could be used for live theatre.

With all of the positive energy for theatre building in the northwest corner of the state, stepping out of that scene will be difficult. Duncan will spend three years taking part in Purdue University’s Professional Actor Training Program. But that doesn’t mean that he plans to leave his home state behind.

When speaking about last year’s AST performance of As You Like It here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, Duncan remarked, “The most rewarding work is work featured where there isn’t much like this going on, especially when you’ve grown up there. Performing is the most exciting when you get to provide that service to the community.” 

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Duncan hopes for a similar experience on June 25 when AST brings Twelfth Night to the Institute for a one-hour, family-friendly performance on the Institute’s front lawn.

“Performing these plays outdoors is always the best. They are planned to be outside.”

Duncan said the crowd is equally important.

“Last year there was a huge crowd that was extremely engaged. I remember a Shakespeare scholar in the audience mouthing along with the lines to Jacques’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech as I was giving it. … It’s a definite plus to have an involved audience.”

This year’s performance of Twelfth Night will feature actors singing original songs and playing instruments during the performance, something that is both entertaining and functional.

“Songs develop the story in Shakespeare plays, the same as in modern musical theater. They work magic on a character,” Duncan explained. 

We can’t wait to see it when we have Duncan and AST back on the mountain for another great performance this year. And if you want to follow in his footsteps and experience theatre firsthand, Duncan has some final words of advice: “Do it. Please. Take a class, audition for plays, get involved. Do it and stay local.”

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Small-town inspiration served up with a side of Swamp Gravy

You think you live in a small town? Colquitt, Ga., stands at 1,929 people and yet they maintain a vibrant downtown, an active events calendar and inspire people from across the country.

Facing the challenges that plagued the rural South throughout the 1980s and beyond, one person sought to find a creative solution. Did she ever.

Joy Jinks calls herself a community organizer. She’s also a serial entrepreneur (likely what we’d call a social entrepreneur these days), having founded everything from a nursing school to a daycare. It’s Swamp Gravy, however, that she’s known for all across the world. And she’s coming to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Friday, May 6, to speak about it and teach you how to reinvent your community.

As the one-time executive director of the Colquitt Miller Arts Council, Jinks help started five other theater projects or performances so that activities were offered year-round. She also helped start a learning center for children, a mini-mall downtown and recently a black box theater to expand performances.

“The economic factor is important but it’s what we’ve done to enliven the spirit that is most important. It’s the pride in spirit, pride in talent and being an inspiration to others that keeps us going,” Jinks told me.

They also host an annual conference that highlights the town & Swamp Gravy. The Building Creative Communities conference is entering its 10th year and brings in people from across the country.

When Clay County, Ky., was named The Hardest Place in the U.S. to Live, it was important to the citizens that they address what they felt were unfair criticisms. They turned to Swamp Gravy. Now Monkey Dumplings, Clay County and Eastern Kentucky’s version of Swamp Gravy, stands to answer those criticisms and has brought together a region and helped rebuild community pride. If the alleged “Hardest Place in the U.S. to Live” can address the challenges thrown at them by such weighty allegations, our towns in Arkansas can, too.

You don’t have to travel to Colquitt to get a taste of Swamp Gravy. We’re serving our version of it here when Joy speaks to our Uncommon Communities groups May 6 from 12:30-2:30. Free registration for our keynote session is available here.

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