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story.lead_photo.caption Adena White stands in the hallway of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce. White, 34, is director of communications for the chamber. She also writes a blog, available at blackbeltvoices.com. White was inducted in January as the first black president of the Arkansas chapter of the Public Relations Society of America in its 55-year history. The woman who nominated her complimented White’s writing skills and said it was “about time” for a black president. - Photo by Tammy Keith

It wasn’t until a dinner she attended as the first black president in the 55-year history of the Arkansas chapter of the Public Relations Society of America that Adena White got emotional.

Becca Green of Little Rock, chairwoman of the nominating committee, started talking about White’s credentials and talents and that it was “about time” for a black person to lead, White said.

“I started crying because I think the weight of it hit me,” she said.

White, 34, director of communications at the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, also received a standing ovation when she was inducted at the January luncheon. She said that in addition to her family members, 16 of her co-workers showed up in support.

“Knowing they were there and seeing other people make a big deal out of it was like, ‘OK, I can be proud of this,’” White said.

Despite her success, White said, she suffers from “imposter syndrome.”

“I look up to something until I get it,” she said.

White earned her accreditation in public relations in December 2013, a goal she envied until she achieved it; then she immediately downplayed its importance.

However, White said, she looked around at a recent chapter meeting and realized it was an elite group with “some impressive leaders.”

“I left and felt elated,” she said.

Riva Brown, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, is a member of the Arkansas chapter of Public Relations Society of America communications committee. She represents the diversity and inclusion committee, of which she is co-chairwoman.

She’s also a fan of White’s.

“There is a great push just in the public relations industry nationwide for more diversity and inclusion, and that makes this very significant. You have many women in the public relations profession — about 70 percent are women — but when you get into African-Americans and African-American women, the numbers dwindle significantly, so this is very significant that she’s serving in a lead role.”

“As this county gets more diverse, we need diverse people” to craft messages and represent that reality, Brown said.

White said that of the 106 members of the Arkansas chapter, 15 are black.

White excels in other areas, too, Brown said.

“She’s just been a great leader, period,” Brown said. “She was an adjunct professor here at UCA in the School of Communication; she taught an Introduction to PR Class. She has served as a volunteer in my public-relations techniques class as a guest evaluator for my news-conference assignment. She’s just been tremendous; anything you ask her to do in this field, she can get it done.”

Green agreed. She called White “a natural leader.”

“Ever since she joined our chapter, Adena has been all in.” Green said. “Whether it was regularly attending meetings, volunteering for different committees, gaining her accreditation in public relations, submitting work samples for award recognition or answering the call of board service, Adena is a professional, dependable colleague with whom everyone enjoys working.”

Green said White brings “a fresh perspective and creativity to the role.”

White said her parents had expectations for her and her two sisters. The middle child, White grew up in Center Ridge, where her parents still live.

As a straight-A high school student, White said, she often changed her mind about potential careers — optometrist and teacher were two she considered.

Then she saw Carrie on Days of Our Lives, and the fictional character’s job intrigued her. White researched what a public-relations professional made.

“I said, ‘Oooh, they can make pretty good money,’” White said.

Plus, she was a reader and loved to write. She and her sister Katrina scoured the set of World Book Encyclopedia their parents had.

“We voluntarily wrote research papers on bees and spiders just for fun; nobody made us do it,” White said.

At Arkansas Tech, she majored in speech communications and journalism with a public-relations emphasis, and she was a member of the Public Relations Student Society of America.

“When people think public relations, they think more party planner. That’s not me,” she said.

White and her husband, Matthew, a junior high English teacher in the Greenbrier School District, were married two weeks after she graduated from Arkansas Tech. Through college, she worked as an unpaid intern at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, now CHI St. Vincent Morrilton — cue her fictional mentor, Carrie Brady. White got to know Kathy Edgerton, who was employed at the hospital for a time.

Edgerton later took a marketing position at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain and encouraged White to be a paid intern there.

White accepted and applied for a full-time job as a marketing associate at the institute soon afterward. White later asked for her position to be renamed public relations coordinator, and White said she was the first in that role.

“The institute was new back then, so it was neat to be in on the ground floor,” she said.

White said she is forever grateful that she was allowed to drive to Little Rock every third Friday to attend meetings of the Arkansas chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

In 2009, she went to graduate school at night while working at the institute and earned a master’s in applied communications studies from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

White said she had been “at a crossroads” for a while.

“When I feel I’m not learning, I feel stagnant. I kind of get antsy,” she said.

When the Conway Chamber position became available in 2011, White applied and was hired.

“I changed the title again,” she said, laughing. A couple of years later, she changed the title of the job from director of marketing to communications.

She sees public relations as “the whole moving-the-needle work.”

Her job at the chamber is heavy on writing. In addition to writing some press releases and other printed material, she manages the production of three publications through Conway Publications, a for-profit subsidiary of the chamber. Those are the annual college guide, the annual Conway Community Profile and Resource Guide and the monthly Business Journal. She also handles some of the chamber’s social media.

White’s goals as president of the public relations organization include starting an investment account, in hopes of achieving long-term goals, including a scholarship for students. She also wants to attract more sponsors.

White is passionate about social and racial equity, and she expresses her views in a blog she created called Blackbelt, available at blackbeltvoices.com.

As White explains on her blog, the Black Belt originally referred to the dark, fertile soil in Alabama. The term is now used to refer to the areas of the South with predominantly black populations, she said.

February is Black History Month, which White has addressed on her blog in a personal essay about a display she saw at a Conway big-box store that had products and books highlighting the month.

On her blog, she invites others to submit their stories, saying, “We want to share the stories of everyday black people making moves down South — from farmers and other entrepreneurs to clergy and corporate executives.”

Green said White’s blog gives people a taste of “her wit and passion.”

“I love that she brings energy, kindness and humor to all facets of her life, including our chapter leadership,” Green said.

White said she stays grounded in part through her faith. She and her family attend Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Center Ridge, the church she grew up in. Her parents and other relatives still attend church there, and White said she wants her son, 4-month-old Elijah, to experience that family atmosphere.

White said her uncle Eugene Hawkins, her mother’s brother, slipped her a handwritten note on a piece of paper during church, which had “First black woman president … Congratulations,” written on it. She carries it in her wallet.

White said as the first black president of the organization, she feels more pressure to succeed.

“You do carry this whole weight of your race on you,” she said.

“I know the board has my back,” she said.

The past presidents and other members have offered to help her do whatever she needs to help her succeed.

“I just happened to be the first,” she said. “I am optimistic that I won’t be the last person of color to serve as president.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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