Eth­nic, racial di­ver­sity grows

Re­gion’s em­ploy­ers lead to in­creases across de­mo­graphic groups

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BRENDA BERNET AND DAN HOLT­MEYER

North­west Arkansas is home to more and more peo­ple of dif­fer­ent skin col­ors, eth­nic back­grounds and lan­guages, the lat­est cen­sus data show.

From the last cen­sus in 2010 through July 2016, Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties added nearly 62,000 res­i­dents who pri­mar­ily moved to the re­gion be­cause of job op­por­tu­ni­ties. They came from dif­fer­ent parts of Arkansas, from out of state and from other coun­tries.

Most of the ad­di­tional peo­ple were non-His­panic and white, but mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions are catch­ing up and out­paced the larger group in terms of per­cent­age growth. His­panic peo­ple, whose fam­i­lies orig­i­nally hail from Span­ish-speak­ing coun­tries and who can be any race, led the way among mi­nori­ties, in­creas­ing by around 14,000.

The num­bers reaf­firm more than a decade of de­mo­graphic change in North­west Arkansas that has helped make this cor­ner of the state its fastest-grow­ing metropoli­tan area, fu­eled by an in­creas­ingly di­verse economy and cul­ture.

“The job op­por­tu­ni­ties are up there,” said Gre­gory Hamil­ton, se­nior re­search econ­o­mist for the In­sti­tute For Eco­nomic Ad­vance­ment at the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock. “Peo­ple are mov­ing up there in search of work.”

The change also has height­ened the need for mul­ti­lin­gual peo­ple in health care, law en­force­ment and

other fields and drawn more re­sources to­ward bridg­ing new­com­ers and other res­i­dents at work and in school, res­i­dents and ex­perts say. The metropoli­tan area was home to more than 70,000 peo­ple who speak lan­guages other than English, or 1 in 7 res­i­dents, in 2015, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus es­ti­mates.

Terry Bankston moved here from Cincin­nati in 2010 for his for­mer job with Wal­Mart Stores Inc., fo­cus­ing on man­ag­ing di­ver­sity and re­cruit­ing pro­grams for the com­pany and con­nect­ing with non­profit groups around the coun­try.

Bankston plugged into the com­mu­nity by coach­ing youth basketball with the Boys & Girls Club in Ben­ton County, but he saw a need to help other peo­ple feel less like a guest in their new home, he said. In 2016 he be­came ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of En­gageNWA, which or­ga­nized a se­ries of fo­rums last year to help new­com­ers and long­time res­i­dents talk and learn more about each other’s dif­fer­ences and com­mon in­ter­ests and con­cerns.

“Now you know who’s sit­ting next to you in your of­fice,” he said, adding more fo­rums are com­ing in Au­gust and Septem­ber. “We’re ad­vo­cat­ing for peo­ple to know a lit­tle bit of some­thing about a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­body.”


From 2010 to 2016, the state pop­u­la­tion grew by 2.5 per­cent to a pop­u­la­tion of 2.99 mil­lion. Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton county res­i­dents made up 16.3 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion in 2016, com­pared with 14.6 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion in 2010.

Much of the state’s growth oc­curred in Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties dur­ing that time pe­riod.

From the 2010 Cen­sus through July 2016, the pop­u­la­tion in Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties has re­mained about three-quar­ters non-His­panic white, though the pro­por­tion dropped three per­cent­age points.

Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties stand out from the rest of the state in their His­panic and black pop­u­la­tions. His­panic res­i­dents com­prised 16 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of the two North­west Arkansas coun­ties, com­pared to the state’s over­all pop­u­la­tion that’s just 7 per­cent His­panic. It’s the second-largest eth­nic­ity in the area.

Con­versely, black res­i­dents made up 2 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties, but 15 per­cent of the state’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the more agrar­ian south­east.

Charles Robin­son, vice chan­cel­lor for stu­dent af­fairs and his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Arkansas, said the gap goes back to the days of slav­ery, which wasn’t spread evenly through­out Arkansas.

“Slav­ery ex­isted here, but it was a re­ally small part of the eco­nomic re­al­ity of this part of the state,” he said.

Robin­son, who is black, said young African-Amer­i­cans have often felt the north­west wasn’t for them, partly be­cause of the sim­ple fact that there are fewer of them around. Black stu­dents’ per­cep­tion of dan­ger or un­friend­li­ness here has faded in the 18 years he’s worked here, he said.

“The ques­tion then be­comes, can I find other peo­ple like me,” Robin­son said. “There’s still con­cern about whether the cul­ture is in­clu­sive enough to where they can find real ac­cep­tance and sup­port and op­por­tu­nity for con­nect­ing.”

The univer­sity is work­ing to at­tract un­der-rep­re­sented groups and make each of them feel wel­come and em­pow­ered, he added, such as by en­cour­ag­ing them to take stu­dent lead­er­ship roles or invit­ing mu­sic per­form­ers from a va­ri­ety of gen­res and back­grounds.

The white pop­u­la­tion in the two North­west Arkansas coun­ties is also di­verg­ing from the rest of the state by grow­ing in­stead of shrink­ing. Arkansas saw a de­cline of al­most 33,000 non-His­panic white res­i­dents from 2010 to 2016. Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties to­gether, on the other hand, added about 35,000.

Wash­ing­ton and Ben­ton coun­ties are home to the bulk of the state’s Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, most of them in fam­i­lies from the Mar­shall Is­lands. But the com­mu­nity is spread­ing to other parts of the state, with the share out­side of North­west Arkansas climb­ing from 14 per­cent to 18 per­cent.

Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties, how­ever, gained more res­i­dents who are Amer­i­can In­dian, Asian, black, and of two or more races.


Amy Rik­lon, a Mar­shallese mother of five, de­cided a year ago to forgo a full-time cler­i­cal job at an Arkansas De­part­ment of Health clinic to take on a big­ger role in health care. She’s now study­ing at North­west Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege to be­come a reg­is­tered nurse.

Jug­gling work, stud­ies and fam­ily is a chal­lenge, she told Mar­shallese high school stu­dents last month. But she has seen how a lan­guage bar­rier can lead pa­tients to go on with­out un­der­stand­ing their med­i­cal is­sues or med­i­ca­tions or oth­er­wise not hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence they should.

“I feel like I need to give my voice,” she said.

The in­flux of speak­ers of other lan­guages has led to a surge in in­ter­est in bilin­gual em­ploy­ees like Rik­lon in mul­ti­ple pro­fes­sions.

Schools for nurses and other health pro­fes­sions, for ex­am­ple, re­port al­most all grad­u­ates are snapped up by em­ploy­ers, and those who can speak Span­ish or Mar­shallese are in even higher de­mand. Dr. Shel­don Rik­lon, who’s re­lated to Amy Rik­lon through mar­riage, joined the Univer­sity of Arkansas for Med­i­cal Sciences a year ago specif­i­cally to help treat the area’s Mar­shallese com­mu­nity and en­cour­age oth­ers to en­ter the field.

Qual­i­fied bilin­gual ap­pli­cants also are im­por­tant in law en­force­ment, of­fi­cials have said. Rogers Po­lice, for ex­am­ple, made an of­fi­cer a part-time His­panic com­mu­nity li­ai­son in 2015. A de­part­ment spokesman didn’t re­turn a mes­sage re­quest­ing com­ment Fri­day.

There aren’t cham­bers of com­merce for, say, African-Amer­i­can or His­panic busi­ness own­ers. But city cham­bers have of­fered pro­grams for en­trepreneurs and busi­ness own­ers in Span­ish or geared to­ward mi­nori­ties in re­cent years.

Peo­ple in mi­nori­ties owned or had equal stake in al­most 6,000 firms in North­west Arkansas in con­struc­tion, food, re­tail and other in­dus­tries, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est cen­sus Sur­vey of Busi­ness Own­ers in 2012. The num­ber was up al­most 2,000 from the sur­vey five years be­fore.

Pro­grams teach­ing English and other cul­tural skills for new­com­ers have also sprung up.

Many of the Tyson Foods plants in North­west Arkansas em­ploy team mem­bers who are pre­dom­i­nantly His­panic and Mar­shallese, said Kevin Scherer, a com­pany chap­lain who is now the com­pany’s se­nior man­ager for em­ployer so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity. He helped cre­ate the com­pany’s Up­ward Academy to help bring more sta­bil­ity to their lives and make them more suc­cess­ful em­ploy­ees, he said.

Up­ward Academy pro­vides English, GED and cit­i­zen­ship classes. The com­pany has worked with the state to pro­vide driver’s li­cense tests and test prepa­ra­tion in Mar­shallese as well.

Irma Gon­za­lez, a grand­mother who works at a Spring­dale Tyson plant, dropped out of school in Mex­ico as a young child af­ter her par­ents died, she said in an in­ter­view ear­lier this year. She spent most of her life un­able to read Span­ish, much less English.

She can now make doc­tor ap­point­ments, greet co-work­ers and un­der­stand more dis­cus­sions in English af­ter a year in the academy, which she said makes work and daily life around town much less stress­ful.

Sev­eral plants are pi­lot­ing a new dig­i­tal lit­er­acy course, Scherer said. The pro­gram started be­cause of the needs in North­west Arkansas, but it will be im­ple­mented in all of the com­pany’s plants in Arkansas by the end of the year and in plants in other states in 2018.

North­west Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute’s Adult Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter pro­vides Up­ward Academy in­struc­tors for two of Tyson Foods’ plants in Spring­dale, said Kath­leen Dorn, di­rec­tor of the cen­ter and vice pres­i­dent of in­struc­tion for diploma pro­grams. The academy will give work­ers in those plants op­por­tu­ni­ties to ap­ply for higher-pay­ing jobs, she said.

Some of the His­panic and Mar­shallese stu­dents tak­ing classes through the cen­ter have ad­vanced de­grees from their home coun­tries but don’t know how to trans­fer their li­cense or how to en­roll in col­lege, Dorn said. In other cases, stu­dents lack skills in math, read­ing and writ­ing in their own lan­guage.

“You have to start from the very be­gin­ning,” she said. “We show them how to write a re­sume, how to dress, what to be pre­pared for.”


Schools have adapted to and have been changed by a more di­verse pop­u­la­tion in much the same ways as the busi­ness world.

Roughly half of stu­dents in Rogers’ and Spring­dale’s dis­tricts are His­panic, and both dis­tricts of­fer out­reach pro­grams to help par­ents learn about and get in­volved in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

Rogers of­fers a Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion-sup­ported re­ten­tion bonus for His­panic teach­ers who stay at least five years. Roger Hill, as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent for hu­man re­sources, said the pro­gram has

helped hire about three dozen teach­ers, in­clud­ing four for the com­ing year.

Brig Cald­well, who works as a com­mu­nity li­ai­son at Her­itage High School, said last year His­panic fam­i­lies and the district are grad­u­ally com­mu­ni­cat­ing more and more, though there’s al­ways room for im­prove­ment. Cald­well is a cit­i­zen who was adopted as a child from Costa Rica.

“We’re con­tin­u­ally strug­gling with try­ing to make sure that our staff, our fac­ulty is in tune cul­tur­ally with what some of our im­mi­grant fam­i­lies ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said.

The NTI cen­ter pro­vides in­struc­tors for the Fam­ily Lit­er­acy Pro­gram that helps par­ents learn English in 14 Spring­dale schools, Dorn said. The par­ents also spend time learn­ing along­side their chil­dren in their class­rooms.

The cen­ter serves more than 2,100 Spring­dale stu­dents, Dorn said, and that num­ber is ex­pected to grow to 2,300 this year. About 80 per­cent are adults who do not speak English.

Stu­dents in Spring­dale School District speak 46 lan­guages other than English, and the district had more than 10,000 stu­dents re­ceiv­ing ser­vices for learn­ing English at the be­gin­ning of last school year. In Fe­bru­ary, 941 English learn­ers grad­u­ated from the pro­grams.

“That’s a very di­verse pop­u­la­tion,” Spring­dale Su­per­in­ten­dent Jim Rollins said.

Teach­ers, prin­ci­pals, com­mu­nity mem­bers and par­ents work to­gether to meet the in­di­vid­ual needs of stu­dents, Rollins said. Some of the district’s top stu­dents are im­mi­grant chil­dren, he said.

“When they find them­selves in a school set­ting, they be­gin to un­der­stand the great po­ten­tial and prom­ise they have, they re­ally do well,” Rollins said. “Some are fur­ther along than oth­ers … . We know we’ve got to con­tinue to work very hard.”

North­west Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute also has out­reach pro­grams tar­get­ing mi­nor­ity high school stu­dents and any­one un­fa­mil­iar with English or the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, said Shay Las­tra, the pro­grams’ co­or­di­na­tor. Las­tra meets with stu­dents and their par­ents in an of­fice at the in­sti­tute, but she also goes to area high schools to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about fi­nan­cial aid, the in­sti­tute’s pro­grams and pro­grams at other col­leges.

“It’s a joy for me,” she said. “This is where I get my en­ergy. I feed off the kids.”

Las­tra said the area still needs in­ter­preters, and she en­cour­aged lo­cal of­fi­cials to con­sider of­fer­ing ser­vices to help mi­nori­ties nav­i­gate com­mu­nity re­sources.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

Res­i­dents walk Satur­day while en­joy­ing the Fayet­teville Farm­ers’ Mar­ket on the city’s down­town square. Be­tween 2010 and July 2016, Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties saw an in­crease in white res­i­dents which off­set a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of white res­i­dents in the state’s 73 other coun­ties.

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