The Index as Opportunity in South Central Arkansas•
It had been another successful event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Camden, Arkansas. The weekend had seen families come together to share in the history and values of the Civil Rights Movement, the recognition of community leaders who had embraced in service the values of Dr. King, and an opportunity for children of all ages to learn a little something about his dream.
The third annual MLK Day Collage of Services celebration, held on January 16th, 2012, was produced by the Ouachita-Calhoun County Literacy Council in partnership with the African American Historical Commission of Camden, Zion Hill Baptist Church, and Webster Enterprises.
The event commemorates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the president’s call for a national day of service by giving back to the community through volunteerism and service. It is another example of the efforts we make as Americans to engage with our history and communities in big cities and small towns across the country on this national holiday.
The theme this year was “Celebrate Service and Promote Economic Opportunity,” one embodied by Linda Nelson, Executive Director of the OCCLC. With Arkansas State Representatives David Fielding and Garry Smith in attendance, as well as State Senator Gene Jeffress, Ms. Nelson decided to present to her community the Opportunity Index for the state of Arkansas and Ouachita County (www.opportunityindex.org).
The Opportunity Index is a key component of Opportunity Nation’s campaign to advance social mobility, economic opportunity, and the American Dream. The site aggregates critical information that reveals current access to opportunity throughout each county in the US in ways that more commonly cited statistics, like GDP and unemployment, simply cannot.
The Ouachita-Calhoun County Literacy Council empowers adults in its community to grow their potential and take advantage of their opportunities. By providing free tutoring in reading, writing, math, and ESL, the OCCLC aims to make adults in its community more self-sufficient, employable, and prepared for continued education. Organizations like this are on the front lines of the efforts to expand mobility and access to opportunity in our nation.
Arkansas is ranked 48th amongst the states according to the Opportunity Index, and is facing 7.7% unemployment while nearly 18% of its citizens live below the poverty level. South Central Arkansas in particular is struggling due to a lack of a skilled work force and with it, a lack of avenues for advancement.
Nelson saw the Index as a chance to confront her community with the challenges and realities that they face: “I saw that the index scores needed to be presented in a way that will get the community’s leader’s and citizens thinking about current conditions and involved with making changes in our community.” The Index revealed a tough peculiarity in Ouachita County; despite a higher than the state average education score, the county lagged in economic opportunity. Nelson suggests that they “are still falling short in providing basic skills, workforce training basics, and community opportunities that will create a transition to employment…that will drive economic opportunity.”
Our communities may be down but they are certainly not out. Nelson knows that there is a path forward, and her presentation of the Opportunity Index was but one step down that road. “I used the MLK Day Collage of Services as an ‘ice breaker,’” she says, “and presented an open discussion forum for youth, grades 5-6, to talk about their views on opportunity in not only America, but at home in our local community. By listening to the hopes and dreams of our youth, who, in the next 5-6 years, will need opportunities available and accessible so they can realize their goals, the adult audience would be receptive to suggestions for change.”
And indeed they were. The local state representatives in attendance agreed “to join local and civic and community leaders in an upcoming forum to further discuss the findings of the Opportunity Index, and receive suggestions from local citizens for enacting changes,” according to Nelson. “It is going to take the whole community working together in order to change the face of opportunity in South Central Arkansas.” And with information as leverage for empowerment, the community is beginning to equip itself to do so.
“One of the biggest challenges to realizing this vision is breaking through barriers of individual hopelessness within the community,” she says. But with people like Linda Nelson leading the charge for empowerment and opportunity, I think we can agree that there is still hope out there.