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OPINION | TOM WALTON: Come together

Take focus off what divides us by TOM WALTON SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | June 14, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Arkansas is known for its natural assets, its people and its way of life. I grew up here and now call Arkansas home. I've been fortunate not only to witness many of our cities and towns transform into vibrant communities but have also had the privilege to work alongside mayors, business leaders and community organizers to improve our state.

Yet, through that journey, I've also seen firsthand that not everyone has equal access to the opportunities Arkansas offers. And this year, it's become quite clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Arkansans will face new barriers and challenges.

This past Thursday, my wife Olivia and I, along with my aunt Alice, announced a $1 million commitment to a new statewide fund to improve the quality of life of LGBTQ Arkansans. A grant selection committee with leadership and representation from the LGBTQ community will help identify organizations the fund can support to amplify their efforts in health, education, legal and advocacy services, and other high-demand needs for this community.

As Arkansas celebrates Pride Month, we feel compelled to send a message of acceptance to the state's LGBTQ community, who now live their lives under new policies that discriminate against them. These efforts hurt our communities, our economy and the many LGBTQ Arkansans who are our colleagues, neighbors, friends and family. It also sends the wrong message to those willing to invest in or visit our state.

This is a moment of reflection for Arkansas, where we must recognize polarizing movements damage our state's reputation, divide our communities and distract from the actual work that needs to happen.

Right now is not the time for distractions; it's time to move our state forward. The pandemic claimed the lives of more than 5,800 Arkansans and forever altered the lives of many more. Thousands in our state lost their jobs. Businesses closed. And students lost significant learning. These are the issues that demand the talent and bandwidth of our leaders.

It's time to focus on what brings us together, not what divides us.

Discrimination is the wrong message to those who want to invest in or visit Arkansas. State leaders, including the General Assembly, once designated Arkansas the Land of Opportunity. It was an effort in post-World War II America to make known that Arkansas is a place where business, industry and agriculture could thrive. State leaders added tourism to this list of economic drivers and, in the 1980s, adopted the nickname of The Natural State. More than 30 million visitors come to experience our rivers, mountains and culture every year, while others relocate here for professional opportunity and a desirable lifestyle.

Yet, despite a step forward in creating class protections, we took a big step back with some of the nation's most extreme policies targeting LGBTQ people. These actions could overshadow all the assets that make our state great. At a time when we need economic recovery, discrimination sends people, capital and tourism dollars to more welcoming states.

This is not who we are. In my hometown of Bentonville, a 78-foot-wide and 25-foot-tall neon sign hangs on a former cheese factory that is now home to contemporary visual and performing arts. It says boldly, "You belong here."

I frequently talk to people from across the country and world who visit or move to Arkansas. Among the many positive comments I hear, one repeatedly stands out: Arkansans are friendly and hospitable. The recent discriminatory actions are alarming. It saddens me to think of friends and colleagues who now not only question whether they belong here but whether they are even safe.

People bound together by faith, kindness and hard work define Arkansas. I think of my grandparents, who, after losing their first retail venture, were able to start over in this state. Friends, church and community welcomed them and supported them. In similar ways, Arkansas nurtured industry leaders in retail, transportation, oil and food production, along with many renowned writers, musicians and artists. Today, the state is an emerging hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in the Heartland.

People with the humblest beginnings have found opportunity in Arkansas and achieved the extraordinary. These success stories and our state's many assets are too often lost amid stereotypes. Now they are threatened by a very real perception of a state that is hostile to LGBTQ people.

It's time to stop pursuing harmful distractions and focus on the real challenges to the health and livelihoods of Arkansans. It's time we say to everyone, "You belong here."


Tom Walton is the chair of the Home Region Program Committee at the Walton Family Foundation and co-founder of Runway Group.

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