Leaders provide views on diversity in Northwest Arkansas

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,610 views 

In a recent webinar, regional leaders highlighted the importance of equity and inclusion to improve the quality of life of Northwest Arkansas residents as the region continues to become more diverse.

The Onward Ozarks webinar Friday (July 29) included a panel discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Onward Ozarks is a speaker series presented by Springdale-based nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council, which released a report on area population diversity this week.

“Engage the Future” looks at population diversity in Northwest Arkansas and includes breakdowns by area cities and school districts. It also provides projections for how diverse the population will be in 2026.

For a PDF of the report, click here.

The report shows Northwest Arkansas’ population is expected to grow by 10% to 611,193 in 2026, from 555,481 in 2021. Over that period, the region’s racially and ethnically diverse populations are projected to rise to over 32% of the population, from 29%. Hispanic residents are expected to account for 19% of the population by 2026, up from 17% in 2021.

“Northwest Arkansas is changing rapidly, and the council will redouble its efforts to promote diverse voices across the region to allow all NWA residents a chance to prosper,” said Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of Northwest Arkansas Council. “This is the right thing to do, and Northwest Arkansas will gain economically and culturally for it.”

According to the report, the council commissioned a study to understand the impact of its work in the region, particularly related to diversity, equity and inclusion. The study has identified ways to improve, and the council plans to adopt them as part of a new DEI strategy to be released later this year. Following are some of the ways:

  • Increase diversity within the council’s membership
  • Provide DEI-focused training and learning opportunities internally and for the community
  • Establish a DEI-focused advisory committee
  • Develop and implement equitable hiring and retention policies.

In the webinar, panelists discussed ways to engage with and support the diverse communities in the area, including through events, sports, music and food.

Yang Luo-Branch, founder and president of the Arkansas Association of Asian Business, said engagement starts with her. Luo-Branch, originally from China, moved to Northwest Arkansas three years ago.

“It takes me to introduce myself to the world, to the community,” Luo-Branch said. “We need to come forward and say, ‘Hello,’ to other people. They may not reach out to you. It’s OK. I can reach out to others.”

She said the Arkansas Association of Asian Business works to connect Arkansas and Asian businesses, and the organization is for anyone interested in Arkansas and Asia.

Francisco Herrera, president of Banco Si, explained the importance of offering similar opportunities to everyone and that the region won’t grow without this. Banco Si, a division of Signature Bank of Arkansas, will officially open in September in downtown Rogers and provides banking services to those who speak Spanish and English.

Chef Judy Tatios, the owner of Marshallese food truck Street Lakwe Eulala, discussed the importance of food and events to engage with the community. Tatios, a Marshallese American, has lived in Northwest Arkansas for six years and moved here from California.

“The diversity out here is changing, and it’s growing,” said Tatios, noting Springdale’s large Marshallese population. “I wanted to bring my perspective as a chef and share the culture through food.”

She said one of the challenges of cooking Marshallese food here is access to ingredients. They must be flown from the Marshall Islands to Hawaii and the continental United States. She said Marshallese have no spices. The food is cooked using what’s found growing naturally in the Marshall Islands.

Asked about the DEI outlook in Northwest Arkansas in 10 to 20 years, Luo-Branch hopes the area will become even more nurturing and continue to be a vibrant business hub.

Herrera said area businesses and organizations need to “ensure that we support all of them to have equal opportunity to grow, equal access to services and that everybody grows and moves in the same direction, so again, we elevate the quality of life for everybody in the area.”

Margot Lemaster, executive director of EngageNWA, said the Northwest Arkansas Council’s new report is similar report it completed a few years ago. EngageNWA is the council’s DEI arm.

Lemaster said something that stood out to her in the new report is the diversity in schools. Small area communities also are seeing a rise in diversity.

“We want this report to be a tool for all of you,” Lemaster said. “We want it to help our community better understand how our region is changing, help inform decision making and really inspire leaders to increase efforts to create more welcoming and inclusive organizations and to impact our broader region as a whole.”

Lemaster also discussed the undercounting of area diverse populations in the 2020 Census. She added that the Marshallese population is about 10,000 in Northwest Arkansas but might be closer to 15,000 to 20,000 people.