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Growth and enterprise in northwest Arkansas

by KAREN MINKEL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | December 13, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

What does the word vibrant mean to you? It’s an adjective, but it’s also a feeling one gets in the presence of a place and people where possibility is palpable.

Northwest Arkansas is a place where young entrepreneurs pitch their visions to community members under the lights of a downtown festival; where after a day on world-class trails, mountain bikers can peel into the local high school for a tune-up by students learning engineering-by-doing; where murals from cutting-edge Native American artists splash across historic buildings and impromptu outdoor performances turn an evening walk into a night of musical wonder. Our community is vibrant.

Our sense of community lies at the heart of the Walton Family Foundation’s mission in northwest Arkansas: to build upon what has always made our home region special and work closely with the community to help it evolve into one of the nation’s best places to live for everyone, no matter their age, income or background.

At the foundation, we plan our work in five-year chapters. Since embarking on our current strategic plan five years ago, we have awarded 352 grants totaling $256,079,144 to myriad organizations, each contributing in its own way toward creating and sustaining a better quality of life in our community.

One result of this effort is that northwest Arkansas is staking its claim as a global destination for the arts, one that celebrates our region’s diverse voices. By showcasing Marshallese fashion designers, supporting the Latinx Theatre Project and introducing ambitious projects like the Momentary, we expand understanding of what great art can be and who can access it.

The region also leverages its natural assets, creating infrastructure developed with intentionality. To maximize access to active, healthy transportation and to preserve thousands of acres of green space, the foundation worked with local organizations to build what is now a network of nearly 500 miles of trails, including projects like the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve and Kessler Mountain.

Opportunity begins with a strong education. The foundation is expanding access to a growing number of nationally ranked schools with distinct educational models, including Arkansas Arts Academy, Ignite Professional Studies at Bentonville Public Schools, Rogers Honors Academy at Rogers Public Schools, and Thaden School.

We are also supporting

more equitable access to these institutions, working with community-led organizations to help families whose students may be the first to attend college, navigate the application process and pursue future opportunities.

And just as a generation of entrepreneurs lived their own American success story here, we are doubling down on northwest Arkansas as an emerging hub for entrepreneurship in the heartland, with resources that startups can use to harness innovation and scale great ideas into growth enterprises.

As we conclude our current strategy, the foundation is looking ahead to the next chapter at a time when our nation is in the midst of a powerful social reckoning and facing deep uncertainty related to our economy and health. Our work must be flexible in its approach and responsive to the moment while also anticipating the region’s future needs.

In addition to looking at what has gone well over the past five years, we also ask: What have we learned? What do we need to do better?

As northwest Arkansas works through challenging times, how do we ensure the region is a vibrant, opportunity-filled place to all who call it home? From the disparate impact of covid-19 among communities of color to educational achievement gaps by income, the data tells us we have work to do.

To cultivate a truly vibrant northwest Arkansas, we will need to listen to and amplify diverse voices, as well as create more equitable access to economic and educational opportunity.

Across the foundation’s work, we believe those closest to the challenge offer the most creative, workable solutions. We can’t predict what comes next, but we can move with a renewed sense of urgency to ensure our region’s growth is inclusive, enabling everyone to shape the region’s future and benefit from our quality of life.

Karen Minkel is director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Program,wheresheworkswithgrantees on quality of life initiatives in northwest Arkansas and Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. She previously served as director of strategic planning for the City of Fayetteville, in public sector consulting in London, and as a Teach for America corps member in Harlem.

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