Legislation raises concerns for Arkansas’ image on diversity, equity and inclusion

by Anna Beth Gorman and Dr. Chris Jones ([email protected]) 2,420 views 

We lead non-profit organizations, each with its own unique history, mission, and vision, but with shared values on engaging in the work of equity. As leaders working towards an equitable Arkansas, we are concerned over recent activity in the 2021 legislative session that could measurably impede progress towards equity, bring divisiveness, and halt philanthropic and private investment in our state.

Equity recognizes the disadvantages—historic and otherwise—which certain groups, classes, and communities of people face. History informs us that our country and state have allowed certain communities to thrive at the expense of others; sometimes unintentionally and sometimes through the intentions and actions of those long past. Arkansans know the opportunity our state has to offer, but recently introduced legislation – HB 1218 and HB 1231 – risks furthering the narrative of a state still not ready to invest in a 21st-century economy that values diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Legislators seeking to bring new investment, ideas, individuals, and resources to our state should focus on policies that address inequity within the state. Policies like the Americans with Disabilities Act sought to make our country a better place to live for everyone. This legislation allowed disabled Americans to access resources previously inaccessible to them—enabling them to not only survive with dignity but also thrive. When we address systemic inequities, we make our communities stronger and ensure individuals have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

The work of equity has brought significant revenue to our state through both public and private investments. Our organizations have benefited by addressing inequity—in partnership with Gov. Hutchinson’s administration—in both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and the workforce. Arkansas is now seen as a leader nationally in computer science education because Gov. Hutchinson and organizations like ours recognized the opportunity of equity in this space. Women, Black, and Brown populations are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. The result is that as our state adapts to a STEM-based economy, we have huge gaps in our labor market’s potential. As such, we knew our efforts to build the STEM workforce needed to be intentional about the barriers women and people of color face in pursuing STEM education and careers.

We, along with partners in the private and public sectors, know our state’s potential and work every day to ensure these communities’ voices are heard as we build a more equitable Arkansas. To further our missions, we seek funding from individuals, business partners, and philanthropic entities, providing investment in not just our work, but the entire state. Our work requires us to constantly stretch limited financial resources. With willing partners and the support of state and local agencies, we often succeed in our efforts; however, the language, tone, and intent of recent legislation threaten our success and that of all businesses, non-profits, and individuals who hope to advance equity and attract talent, investment, and innovation to our state.

Many organizations, businesses, and even government entities are already doing the work of equity. We are two non-profits in a community of many organizations, businesses, and individuals engaging in the work of advocating for marginalized communities because we know it is the only way to make Arkansas a more competitive place to live, do business, and thrive.

Only when we acknowledge the wounds of our past and work to heal them in the present can we develop the solutions our state needs to succeed socially and economically. No legislation can remove the history that lies within our state. From Central High where nine Black students faced angry mobs for daring to pursue an equal education to Phillips County where hundreds of Black Arkansans lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre, racial injustice will always be a part of our state’s past. We must work together to ensure it is not a part of our future.

We must invest in our human capital and advance the status of our marginalized communities. We must acknowledge our history. And we must address the barriers erected by our past and remove them for the future.

We urge our elected officials to consider the implications of laws that stall growth for Arkansas and to lean into intentional efforts to address and bridge what divides us. The result will be an enriched Arkansas, capable of competing nationally and internationally.

Editor’s note: Women’s Foundation of Arkansas Executive Director Anna Beth Gorman and Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub Executive Director Dr. Chris Jones are the co-authors of this commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the authors. Gorman can be reached by email at [email protected] and Jones can be reached at [email protected].