Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Donna Davis said she suspects the majority of leadership in Northwest Arkansas doesn't reflect the ethnic and racial immigrant makeup of its communities.
A new class at the University of Arkansas aims to increase diversity among those in leadership roles, said Davis, research and evaluation specialist for the Cisneros Center for New Americans. She is also a research specialist in the university's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice and is co-teaching the class.
To learn more about EngageNWA, go to engagenwa.com.
The class, Multi-Cultural Community Research: Engaging in Northwest Arkansas Through Service Learning, enrolls seven undergraduate students. It was created to gather research that can be used by EngageNWA to increase diversity in leadership in the region.
The UA and the Cisneros Center are partners in the project and EngageNWA, Davis said. EngageNWA is a coalition of more than 40 organizations and has three focuses: immigrant integration, retaining young professionals who move to Northwest Arkansas and retaining graduates from the university.
Students will survey leaders in Benton and Washington counties who are part of municipal, county and nonprofit councils, boards, committees and commissions, Davis said. They will do this in person or over the phone.
The surveys will be developed during the class, Davis said. A few questions they would like to ask are about the demographics of each board, if there are vacancies and if the boards are interested in becoming more diverse.
The gathered data will either prove or disprove Davis' hypothesis the boards are less diverse than the population, she said.
There are unique needs in different immigrant and ethnic groups, Davis said. Without a voice in leadership, they often aren't noticed and are not factored into decision making. More diversity in leadership also provides an opportunity for upward mobility.
"Leadership needs to reflect the demographic makeup of the community," she said.
If boards are representative of the communities, that can help bridge gaps between ethnic communities, said Bill Schwab, a professor in the university's Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Schwab is co-teaching the class with Davis.
Benton and Washington counties have similar breakdowns in racial and ethnic makeup, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In Benton County, the population of 242,321 was 75 percent were white, 16 percent Hispanic or Latino and 3 percent Asian. In Washington County, the population of 220,792 was 72 percent white; 16 percent Hispanic or Latino and 3.5 percent black or African American. Other races or ethnicities in both counties made up less than 3 percent of the population.
In one example, the Springdale City Council is comprised of seven white men and one white woman. The Springdale Planning Commission is comprised of six white men, one white woman and one black man.
When asked if this is similar to other cities in Northwest Arkansas, Davis said she can't speak to that until the surveys are completed.
Rey Hernandez was appointed to the District 2 seat on the Benton County Quorum Court, serving almost two years during 2013 and 2014. He said he will be running to again serve as a justice of the peace in November. A Democrat, Hernandez will face the winner of the Republican primary contest between Joshua P. Bryant and Susan Shadlow, the incumbent.
Hernandez said he thinks of himself as Latino, Hispanic and Mexican American. His parents were born in Mexico, and he was born in the U.S.
Being a minority in a leadership position allowed him to offer cultural perspective of how policies and laws will affect people of a certain culture, he said.
Students plan to find councils, committees, commissions and boards that are interested in becoming more diverse and help match them with people from minority groups who are interested in leadership roles, Schwab said. He said they are going to act as "matchmakers."
Training would also be involved for those interested in leadership roles, Davis said. Some of this work may have to be done through EngageNWA after the class ends.
The students' final project in May will be to present their findings as a group to EngageNWA.
A decision has not yet been made on whether the class will be continued next year, Davis said. Schwab, however, said he intends for this class to continue and thinks he will be involved.
One member of the class is Jill Niemeier, 22, a senior majoring in sociology.
"I signed up for this service learning course because I believe that service learning courses are a great way to get hands-on experience and connect what I've learned in the classroom to real life, practical situations," she wrote in an email.
Madeline Shumate, 21, said that she recently changed her major to sociology and wanted to find out how sociology research differs from social work research.
The class is appealing because students will be doing work in Northwest Arkansas outside the classroom, Shumate wrote in an email.
"I am excited for the opportunity to learn more about the immigrant community in NWA," she wrote. "I sincerely hope the work we are beginning will make a positive impact on the members of the greater NWA community."
Students are now doing preparatory work, Schwab said. They spoke Wednesday about how the Cisneros Center was created and the organization's relationship with EngageNWA.
Schwab said he hopes for the students to learn interviewing skills, how to attain information in an efficient way, understanding how social change takes place, knowledge of nonprofit groups, how Engage NWA works, how the project works and how to present themselves as professionals. The class will help the students build their networks.
The class will also expose students to opportunities to work in the field of immigrant integration, Davis said.
Niemeier explained she isn't originally from Northwest Arkansas and didn't realize the area was attracting greater numbers of minority residents. She wrote that she has so far learned about the immigrant population in the region and the lack of leadership positions immigrants hold in the region.
"I think that it is very important to diversify our community's leadership so that this large part of our community, the immigrant population, is able to have a voice," she wrote. "This is their community, too."
NW News on 02/08/2016