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Big Ideas for Arkansas 2018

Readers and experts suggest ways to change Arkansas for the better.

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In what's become a near-annual tradition, the Arkansas Times recently solicited suggestions from readers and a variety of experts on how to improve life in Arkansas. We present those ideas here, along with others on a variety of topics. We hope you find them as inspirational as we do. If any especially strike a chord with you, help make them happen. Many are works in progress; those that aren't could be with the right collection of advocates.

Remove the incentive to build expensive power plants End student debt More quality, safe and affordable housing choices Eliminate at-large city board positions Align homeless services Embrace industrial hemp Rebuild trust with independent investigations of police Create a science boot camp for elected officials Create a not-for-profit Wi-Fi 'mesh' Incentivize teaching Move from solitary confinement to program-rich prisons Require four credits of journalism to earn a high school diploma Better school daycare and after-care Make space for caregivers Make it easier to rehabilitate historic properties Embrace nature preschool Open an all-ages DIY music venue Help foreign language speakers connect with each other Make electoral reform a priority in 2018

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Remove the incentive to build expensive power plants
By Glen Hooks

Power plants are expensive investments, often in the several billions of dollars. Investors at that level want to minimize risk, so it's a common practice for state public service commissions to guarantee a significant rate of return for those who build power plants that provide electricity to public consumers. Rates of 10 to 12 percent are not unheard of, and the return is guaranteed by the payment of our electric bills.

While this makes sense in some ways, it also creates an incentive for utilities to want to build the largest and most expensive power plants — a 10 percent rate of return on a $3 billion project is much more attractive than a 10 percent rate of return on a $1 billion project. That's perhaps the reason why you've seen boondoggle projects like the failed $7 billion coal plant project in Mississippi and proposed nuclear facilities in Georgia and South Carolina in which cost overruns have reached as high as $15 billion. Without pointing fingers at individual utilities or projects, it is undeniable that a financial incentive exists to build costly projects.

How about we stop guaranteeing big rates of return for utilities on their capital investments? This guarantee is going to become more and more important as clean energy technology continues to improve. What will a utility do in a situation where its investors make more money on a coal or gas plant, but it is cheaper and better for the state to invest in a solar or wind project that is less capital intensive? Clean energy projects are much less costly than fossil fuel projects, and have important ancillary benefits of zero fuel costs and zero pollution.

I know that our Public Service Commission goes to great lengths to protect ratepayers, and I respect the job it does when PSC vet proposed utility projects. However, we'd all be better off if the incentive to build the costliest of projects was removed entirely.

Let's instead incentivize utilities to build projects that benefit our state in other meaningful ways. I'm all for paying incentives to utilities that prioritize public and environmental health, that don't foul our air and water and don't rely on mining that destroys communities. Utilities are starting to lead on clean energy here in Arkansas, and I'd welcome a mindset that continued to encourage that practice over building the most expensive plant possible.

In short: Let's not make our utilities want to spend billions to pollute us, when we can encourage spending less to keep our environment and citizens healthy.

Glen Hooks is executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

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End student debt
By Billy Fleming

$31,217. That's how much the average Arkansan owes after graduating from college. As a result, millennials have seen their odds of living the American Dream diminished by the burden of student debt — a dream their parents and grandparents realized at the expense of their children and grandchildren.

But we don't have to live like this. All across the country, at universities large and small, public and private, a simple idea is erasing student debt and unlocking new pathways to prosperity for young Americans: the no-loan policy.

In practice, most no-loan policies apply a form of means-testing to tuition and the cost of attendance. It means that you pay what you can — no more, no less. At Harvard, for instance, where the sticker price of attendance is nearly $70,000 a year, students from low- and middle-income families pay little or nothing if they garner admission. There, a student whose parents earn $60,000 or less pays less than $5,000 to attend Harvard — all of which is covered through a guaranteed work-study program administered by the university. It's not a free ride.

The University of Virginia, U. Pennsylvania, U. Texas, U. North Carolina, U. Florida and U. Louisville each have comparable programs. All of them are aimed at making college — and the wage premiums it bestows upon graduates — accessible to communities long-underserved by higher education in this country, especially working-class families in the rural South.

So, how would this all work? Well, it looks slightly different at every university. At large, private institutions like Harvard, Penn and Yale, huge endowments allow each university to waive tuition for most undergraduate students. Penn, for examples, is tuition-free for any student whose parents make less than $100,000 per year. At public universities like Texas, Virginia and North Carolina, the program works by setting a very high on-paper rate for tuition, one that's only charged to the wealthiest students on campus. Everyone else pays a prorated amount, from full tuition to none, based on his or her families' financial circumstances.

It's important to note here that I'm saying no-loan policy, not free college as some unthinking conservatives on Twitter might utter in response to such an idea. Every existing no-loan policy in the United States still requires the students who benefit from it to pay for a portion of their education through work-study programs, paid summer internships and other forms of part-time employment. Even if they didn't, their families have already paid into the system of higher education through state and local taxes. They all have skin in the game.

At the University of Arkansas, roughly half of all undergraduate students come from families making $150,000 or more per year — many of whom hail from Texas, Oklahoma or other neighboring states that haven't contributed, through taxes, to our university systems. There's no reason why — with a few years to study, design and implement a plan that's customized to their various campuses — the UA System cannot make a similar commitment to the working-class families of Arkansas by instituting a no-loan policy. Figuring out how high to set the sticker price of tuition is a relatively simple math problem — the university just has to decide it's worthy of its time.

In the second-poorest state with the second-fewest number of university graduates, surely making college — and the social and economic opportunity it provides — more affordable for the folks who need it most would meet that standard. Moreover, redirecting the $1.2 trillion in currently held American student debt toward new home purchases and retirement investments could supercharge the nation's economy and unleash a period of shared economic growth not seen since the 1950s.

Congressional Republicans — Arkansas's delegation included — just spent $1.4 trillion on tax cuts that went overwhelmingly toward the wealthiest individuals and corporations in this country. For $200 billion less, they could have erased the entire student debt burden in this country and unlocked trillions in new, consumer-driven growth.

The great promise of this country is that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you're from, you deserve to have a fair shot at building the life you want. But too often, a person's future is defined by their past. In this case, we know that the single most powerful predictor of your wealth at retirement age is your parents' wealth at their retirement age. It doesn't have to be that way. We can open new doors to opportunity, grow the economy, and fight poverty all at once if we erase the burden of student debt once and for all. We just have to decide to do it.

Billy Fleming is the research director of the Ian McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a Ph.D. in city and regional planning. He is a co-author of the "Indivisible Guide," a co-founder of Data Refuge and a former Associated Student Government president at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

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More quality, safe and affordable housing choices
By Rachael Borné

The federal Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program gives recipients the option to pay subsidized rent on any house or apartment in our community, so long as the monthly rent does not exceed the fair market rate, the property passes a housing quality standard inspection, and the landlord agrees to participate. Rental payments are prorated based on household income, usually requiring the tenant to pay 30 percent of his or her income, with agencies like Metropolitan Housing Alliance (MHA) using HUD funding to pick up the slack.

I work as a program manager at Our House, a social service campus for low-income and homeless people. Permanent housing vouchers like Section 8 create opportunity and stability in the lives of many of the families we serve. For folks like Cynthia Huff, who works at a Little Rock hotel and bears the burden of a seasonal industry, Section 8 helps her and her granddaughter make ends meet. Without housing assistance during the off season, she explained, "I would have been on the streets, with my granddaughter, homeless for the first time in my whole life." Instead, her monthly rental payment expectation was adjusted from $300 to $221, a $79 difference that allowed Cynthia to stay stably housed and keep the lights on in her apartment.

When the Section 8 waitlist opened up in Little Rock, Our House case managers cued up every computer in the Career Center to the MHA application portal, ready to refresh until we got clients through to the form. The page went live at 10 a.m., and within seconds froze up with an error message: No more spots available. That was on Aug. 25, 2015. The waitlist has been closed ever since.

Like the rest of the nation, Little Rock faces a crisis of access to safe and affordable housing. According to MHA's 2018 Annual Plan, 5,085 individuals are waiting on subsidized housing in Little Rock. Of those, 97 percent have an annual income of less than $14,000 and 80 percent are families with children.

In Matthew Desmond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Evicted," he pushes for a really big idea, one that would have a monumental impact in Little Rock: a universal voucher system akin to other benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, where everyone under an income threshold automatically receives a housing subsidy. Vouchers can be easily scaled up. Piloting such a groundbreaking program in Little Rock could serve as a national model. A back-of-the napkin estimate of the cost of housing every single person on the Section 8 waitlist for a year is about $40 million. Expensive, yes, but not impossible.

The gains are immeasurable — evictions would be rare and slumlords rarer, tenants would gain the right they deserve to safe living conditions, neighborhood blight would plummet, low-income people would visit hospitals less, children would suffer fewer disruptive school transfers, homelessness and hunger would drop drastically, and households would have more time and energy to invest in employment and education. Desmond describes housing as "a human-capital investment, just like job programs or education, one that would strengthen and steady the American workforce."

It's a pie-in-the sky idea, but I think it would be a worthy investment, a substantial way to truly #LoveLittleRock. Until we can achieve that ideal, I hope our local business owners and representatives will consider these more affordable ideas to creatively increase access to good-quality and stable housing for our low-income neighbors:

*Require developments of a certain size to dedicate 20 percent of units to low-income tenants. Think about the construction boom in downtown Little Rock, where manufactured apartment buildings, parking lots and garages pepper the landscape. The Little Rock Planning and Development Commission could play a pivotal role in demanding mixed-income development in rapidly gentrifying areas. This is not a new idea; the federal 80/20 Program allows tax-exempt bonds to finance the construction of developments comprising at least 20 percent affordable units. This model could exist outside of HUD funding, but requires buy-in from for-profit developers who value corporate responsibility.

*Establish a slanted rent ceiling for Section 8 properties based on ZIP codes. To qualify for Section 8 payments, a property's monthly rent cannot surpass the Fair Market Rent value determined by HUD. In Little Rock, this means $676 for one-bedroom housing or up to $1,289 for four-bedroom housing. In Little Rock's most resource-rich, affluent neighborhoods, you'd be hard-pressed to find a landlord who charges within that range. Localized rent caps in neighborhoods with more grocery stores, higher performing schools, more parks and libraries, better access to public transportation, and lower crime rates promote mixed-income communities and decrease concentrated poverty and residential segregation.

*Encourage Section 8 property owners to recruit more landlords for the program. For the lucky few who are able to get on Section 8, it is tough to find a landlord willing to take the voucher, no matter what neighborhood you want to live in. Cynthia Huff discovered this when she was first looking for an apartment and had to settle for an area she didn't feel is safe: "It's in the 'hood," she said of the housing available to her. "The only places that aren't in the 'hood are probably rural, and that's too far out for me. I don't think it's fair." Landlords choose not to participate in Section 8 for reasons ranging from concerns about the required inspections to conscious or unconscious bias against the people who receive assistance.

Landlords willing to promote their positive experience with voucher-holders might help eradicate ignorant stereotypes and expand the geographical reach of Section 8 properties. One of the landlords who rents to Our House families has had a great Section 8 tenant for seven years. She said she likes the dependable payments each month, the yearlong lease agreements and the annual inspections that keep her properties safe and up to city code. Participating landlords could give feedback to MHA on ways to streamline the enrollment process and share resources for tax incentives to prospective landlords.

At the end of "Evicted," Desmond writes, "Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: Without stable shelter, everything falls apart."

That's not just a big idea. It's a fundamental truth.

Rachael Borné is a program manager at Our House.

Eliminate at-large city board positions
By Samantha Toro

Little Rock's current system of electing both ward-based and at-large city directors helps ensure a majority white City Board in a city that is not majority white. Regardless of what the system was designed to do, it produces inequitable results. We can correct this by eliminating the at-large board positions and moving to ward-based City Board elections.

At-large positions may seem fair on the surface, but empirical evidence and national trends suggest that at-large board positions do not accurately represent residents of large, diverse cities such as Little Rock.

A 2015 Hendrix College study of elections since 1957 showed that Little Rock's successful at-large candidates tend to run vastly more expensive campaigns: At-large candidates raised an average of $50,227 compared to the $8,767 raised by ward candidates. The percentage of elections resulting in white at-large candidates was 87.6 percent, compared to 59 percent in ward elections. At-large elections produced white male winners 80.9 percent of the time and ward elections produced white male winners 46.2 percent of the time.

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The high financial barrier to entry for at-large elections limits the pool of potential candidates to well-heeled and well-connected individuals. Given Little Rock's documented history of housing discrimination and intentional segregation, it is unsurprising that successful at-large candidates are more likely to be white and come from the northwest part of the city.

Figures like the $95,000 spent on at-large Director Gene Fortson's 2012 campaign can seem discouraging to potential candidates from poorer neighborhoods in the southeast part of town, who may earn a third of that amount per year.

When elections are only drawing at-large candidates from white neighborhoods, Little Rock's growing low-income and minority groups often find that the policies passed are failing to address their needs.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed complaints in several Southern cities alleging that their at-large council elections have been used as a tool to dilute minority-voting power. A federal court in 2013 struck down the at-large system for electing the board of commissioners in Fayette County, Ga.

Whether or not the dilution of minority votes in Little Rock is intentional, the data points to a skewed balance of power. In a city that is 48 percent white, 42 percent black, 6 percent Latino and 4 percent other, Little Rock's current board is 70 percent white and 30 percent black. If the three at-large directors aren't counted, the breakdown is 57 percent white and 43 percent black — much closer to the actual demographics of the city.

According to the National League of Cities, at-large elections tend to be more practical for smaller (fewer than 70,000 people) and more racially and economically homogeneous cities. Nearly all major U.S. cities, including Little Rock's regional neighbors of Dallas and Memphis, have completely eliminated at-large positions on their city councils.

Empirical data, first-hand experience and national trends all indicate that Little Rock is too geographically, ethnically and economically diverse for the at-large system. The city needs to eliminate the at-large positions, take advantage of its diversity, and tap into the vast potential that lies in the substantial black, Latino and low-income population.

If the at-large positions remain, they will ensure the City Board remains majority white despite Little Rock's growing diversity. Ensuring a plurality of voices are heard and represented will result in a stronger city more poised for equitable growth and innovation.

Samantha Toro is a member of Grassroots Arkansas, a group of concerned citizens based in Little Rock.

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Align homeless services
By Rev. Carter Ferguson

Homelessness is a significant issue in Little Rock. The topic and its effects pepper the news, conversations in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences board rooms, the Clinton School of Public Service capstone projects and practicums, social circles of all levels, local businesses, nonprofits and mission conversations in faith communities. It is a visible problem on our streets every day.

In 2016, the average homeless rate of medium to large metropolitan areas in the nation was 17.7 percent out of every 10,000 residents. Little Rock's was nearly triple that at 50.5 percent per every 10,000 residents. Our chronic homeless rate was double the national average; sadly, so was our veteran's homeless rate, and it's all on the rise. The point bears repeating: Homelessness is a significant issue in Little Rock.

The problem of homelessness, however, goes beyond the intimidation that you feel from the warmth of your car while sitting at a red light on the interstate off-ramp at Broadway or University Avenue. The problem is more than simply the business you have lost in your River Market operation or the irritation you feel when you "see it" in the woods near your collegiate preparatory school. The problem even goes beyond the indisputable call of Christ to care for the poor. Since money is the only thing that so many are willing to listen to, let me make it clear: Homelessness is an economic crisis that threatens virtually everyone in this city.

In 2017, a United State Interagency Council on Homelessness study showed the average homeless person in America costs a local economy around $40,448 per year. Multiply this by HUD's lowest estimate for the homeless population in the Little Rock metro area — 1,047 — and the financials of this crisis begin to come into perspective: It represents an economic drain of at least $42 million a year. What's more frightening is that this is, again, based on HUD's very narrow definition of a homeless person, meaning the dollar amount could be double that.

So how do we solve this issue and save ourselves some money in the process? More services? Better services? No. Little Rock already has the brilliance and the heart to fix the problem. These services simply need to be more tightly coordinated and collaborative.

You see, the service industry — and not just in Little Rock — functions like a network. They see a client and then send them to someone else in their network. Unfortunately, networks have holes in them, and those chronically on the street are by and large the ones that the network cannot or will not catch for many reasons.

So, instead of a network, what if we created a bucket to catch and save these beautiful people that our society so ignores, while also saving ourselves a little bit — or a lot — of money?

That's exactly what my church, Canvas Community, and a very small and tight-knit group of advocates for the homeless and leading minds in various areas of service are creating. We're calling it The Hub.

The Hub is a co-working space to be located in the historic Seventh Street corridor that, rather than attempting to re-invent and duplicate brilliant services and efforts that already exist, offers a space to work collaboratively to solve chronic homelessness, all while cost-sharing utilities, rent, renovations, software costs, overhead and much more, to for-profit and nonprofit businesses; city, state, and federal agencies; individual contract workers; and any other organization.

The Hub, designed by Jeremiah Russell at Rogue Architecture, will provide a centralized location where a homeless individual can see the brilliant doctors at ARCare, a federally qualified health center; enroll in DHS benefits; see a psychologist or psychiatrist from Chenal Family Therapy; attend addiction recovery classes; work with a life coach or social worker; apply for rapid rehousing; visit a parole officer; work off community service hours; register to vote; receive mail; work on their GED; learn about healthy cooking; meditate; connect to employers willing to hire former felons; enter into a formerly incarcerated person's recovery program; and even receive pastoral care at their request (we don't force anything on anyone, ever). If we cannot solve the problem here, then we'll also have a working van that can immediately take people to places like the city's day resource center, Jericho Way, and other locations to solve the issue.

Homelessness is an economic crisis that affects us all, so it's a problem that we should all work together to address. The reason Little Rock's problem is so bad is in no small part due to the inability of us to work together. Our big idea for 2018 is to remedy that.

Carter Ferguson is the lead pastor of Canvas Community Church.

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Embrace industrial hemp
By Nicholas Dial

We live in a world that is run by fossil fuels — plants that grew millions of years ago that are now in a pool of carbon deep below the Earth's surface. Much of this fossil fuel usage occurs in plain sight, such as burning gasoline in our automobiles. Other instances are more cryptic, such as the composition of the hundreds of plastic items we come in contact with every day.

We also live in a world of accelerated deforestation. According to the World Wildlife Fund, we are losing 18.7 million acres of forests each year, or the equivalent of 27 soccer fields each minute. Much of this timber is used to make products such as paper and packaging materials.

Many of the things surrounding us every day are toxic, from the volatile organic compounds seeping out of the carpets on our floors and the paints on our walls to the insulation used to keep our homes warm. What if there was one plant that could be made into over 25,000 products, clean up the environment and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?

There is. And it's coming to Arkansas in 2018.

Industrial hemp farming has been prohibited for over 80 years, thanks to its confused association with marijuana. Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp contains miniscule amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound that is intoxicating. Industrial hemp isn't grown to be smoked. It's grown to produce building materials, cosmetics, cordage, textiles, paper, biofuel, clothing and food.

Several companies around the world are making concrete-like materials out of hemp, known as hempcrete. This material is seven times lighter than regular concrete, resistant to mold, highly insulative and stores more carbon than is used in its production.

The nutrient-rich oil produced in hemp seeds can be made into thousands of beauty care products, such as shampoos, lip balms, soaps and lotions. The compounds in hemp seed oil act as a UV protectant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial agent.

Planting hemp on contaminated soils helps improve the soil quality by pulling the toxins out and adding organic matter, which helps the growth of other crops in the future.

The Arkansas Industrial Hemp Act was passed in 2017 and establishes a research pilot program. The purpose of the program is to experiment with different ways of using hemp so that Arkansas can move to the forefront of industrial hemp commercialization in the future.

Here's a big idea: Start planting hemp for a greener future!

Nicholas Dial is the president of the Arkansas Hemp Association.

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Rebuild trust with independent investigations of police
By Charles Blake

I was born and raised in the south end of Little Rock in the 1980s and '90s. Now, I serve and represent this same area as a state representative for District 36. As a Little Rock native, I am fully aware that crime in our communities is a problem, but the distrust that communities have with their local police departments is an epidemic.

The distrust is fueled by a lack of transparency and accountability within police departments. The lack of transparency continues to feed the narrative that "police officers are above the laws" that they are sworn to protect. This narrative is one of the foundations of the belief that there is a failure in the justice system.

My big idea is to mandate independent investigations into police-involved deaths. This will re-establish the community's trust and belief in their local police department. Whenever there is a police-involved shooting, the public's distrust is on display. In these situations, communities are forced to swallow the fact that co-workers of the officers involved in the death are expected to investigate their colleagues with unbiased eyes.

How can we expect co-workers and colleagues to objectively and fairly investigate each other? The close working relationships between officers, detectives and prosecutors cause doubt in the process. There is a perception of a conflict of interest. And because perception is reality, the reality is that the community lacks trust in their police department.

On Dec. 9, 2010, Little Rock Police Officer Donna Lesher, an off-duty officer working security, shot and killed unarmed 67-year-old Eugene Ellison from outside his apartment. Lesher had scuffled with Ellison after he objected to entry into his apartment through an open door without permission.

As expected, many questioned the fairness of the investigations following the shooting. Lesher was married to the sergeant of the detective division, which handles the criminal investigations of officer involved-shootings for the LRPD. As is its protocol, the Little Rock Police Department started an investigation. About a week later, it requested the Arkansas State Police to join the investigation. However, too much time had passed for the State Police to ensure a quality, evenhanded investigation.

Lesher remained on the police force, was cleared of any rules violations, and the prosecutor's office found the shooting justified. No charges were filed. Due to many factors — including a civil lawsuit filed against the city of Little Rock — Lesher, the city and other defendants eventually settled with the Ellison family for around $1 million.

Independent investigations into all police-involved deaths would be a step to dismantle the perception that the bad actors won't be held accountable. It would also show communities that police departments are taking steps toward the community to build much-needed trust.

Police departments and city and county officials can advocate for and implement a written policy that requires all officer-involved deaths to be investigated by an independent agency. These independent investigations could install a system that is transparent and objective. Bad actors would be expected to be punished. Conversely, those whose actions were found to be justified would be validated and vindicated. Hopefully, a little faith in the justice system would be restored.

I acknowledge that it relies on us, those in public service, to take that first step to build trust. To be clear, I accept this challenge and responsibility. We have to make a good-faith effort to improve our relationship with those that we serve. The LRPD and other police departments in this state should recognize the issue and demonstrate that they are serious about taking action to dispel the perceptions of conflict of interest and distrust.

Without re-establishing trust, any proactive actions by police officers will be undermined. For example, we can say and promote "community policing" until we are blue in the face, but if there is no trust between the police and the community, then it's just another ambiguous, generic phrase that misses the mark. Law enforcement can start building that trust, by taking an uncomfortable step toward the community and joining the call for independent investigations of police-involved shootings.

State Rep. Charles Blake of Little Rock represents District 36.

Create a science boot camp for elected officials
By Steve Barger

Let's face it: The people we most commonly elect to public office come from a background of education and experience that emphasizes social studies, humanities and financial acumen to the near-complete exclusion of science. As someone who has come to find the scientific lens a useful one through which to gauge all aspects of reality, I see this as a failure of society on a more fundamental level. The fact is, citizens of this nation can easily matriculate through 17 years of formal education, perhaps even tack on three to four more years of graduate or professional school in law or business or humanities, without exposure to any science more sophisticated than 10th-grade biology. I still remember vividly the disappointment of my college philosophy professor when I told him that four years of interdisciplinary study at Hendrix had boiled down to the conclusion that science had demonstrated its supremacy, as a reliable informer of my worldview, over the contemplative musings of Plato and Santayana. It would be a complete betrayal of that liberal arts alma mater if I argued scientific deliberation as the only valid — or even the most useful — way to make every decision. However, anyone who has obtained medical relief from a pharmaceutical or relied upon motorized conveyance for transportation would be just as foolish to deny that science is an extremely pragmatic way to understand and improve our world. It's hard to sit idly by and watch failings in the arena of public policy without feeling that governance could benefit from a more empirical approach.

Climate science is one of the most obvious examples. Biology teaches that the very concept of race has no genetic underpinnings. In the social sciences, economic models prove that the rich get rich — and richer still — by dumb luck (so do we really need to help them with corporate-friendly policies and an election system that's sold to the highest bidder?). Advances in neuroimaging have revealed that few if any of our decisions are made consciously, much less through rational deliberation. Indeed, psychology has driven home the point again and again that we are but animals, prone to emotional reactions barely more impressive than a fish seeking sustenance from a shiny, hook-laden spoon.

So, perhaps the greatest lesson of science is not in facts, but in the process of epistemology itself. We gain much more than humility when science convinces us that we are guided by feelings and misperceptions (many of which were shaped by conditions of evolution far different from those under which we currently attempt to cope). We also come to see the quantum-mechanical gray — the truth that nothing is black and white and that any tendency or phenomenon is tweaked, quantitatively, up and down by forces tipping the scale, even if slightly. How often have you heard a gun-rights advocate argue that even the complete abolition of guns would fail to stop a committed murderer wielding a knife? Of course not; that can't be the goal. Because science teaches that scarcely any phenomenon can be stopped qualitatively. But who wouldn't celebrate the quantitative reduction of fatal violence that would certainly result from even the slightest efforts to restrict possession or use of firearms?

Can we make remedial science education mandatory for elected officials? Sadly, I suppose it would be necessarily voluntary; even if we could compel our newly elected leaders to attend, we could never force the ideas to stick. As I was considering this essay and discussing it with others, I mused about the relative value of a boot camp for science vs. one for civics. Surely, the need to understand the essential elements of democratic heritage and the mechanics of government would be more urgent for the typically naive elected official than would be the luxury of learning a few facts about fruit fly genetics or the particle/wave dualism of light. In debating the relative utility, it occurred to me that a call to schooling in civics would be met by resentment from those who had been elected on the very basis of their perceived talent for civic leadership. But as I think harder and deeper about the willingness of elected officials to accept a primer on science, I realize that those who could benefit most will feel a knee-jerk resistance to this subject as much as they would to a civics class. Because science has become politicized by those who reject its inductive premise. Because there is a type of person who is locked into deductive reasoning, capable of working only from a priori assumptions and accepting only the arguments that support those fundaments. We all do this to some extent; experiments in human psychology have made this clear. But many of us can read about those experiments and gain a modicum of objective perspective. It is essentially a chicken-and-egg conundrum: If you are intuitively opposed to scientific thought, you turn a blind eye to evidence that science can succeed where intuition fails. Still, if an open-minded progressive gets elected in this state — ever again — she might appreciate a structured program aimed at remediating the deficiencies of the educational system she seeks to reform.

Steve Barger is a biology researcher and educator in Central Arkansas.

MESH MEETING: LINC planners (from left) Rick Lee, Lori Tankersly, Jeremy Culbreath, Lissa Culbreath and Leif Hassell meet Fridays at Vino's to discuss the not-for-profit Wi-Fi idea.
  • MESH MEETING: LINC planners (from left) Rick Lee, Lori Tankersly, Jeremy Culbreath, Lissa Culbreath and Leif Hassell meet Fridays at Vino's to discuss the not-for-profit Wi-Fi idea.

Create a not-for-profit Wi-Fi 'mesh'

Imagine a Wi-Fi network that unhampered by the FCC's recent undoing of net neutrality, one in which content is not blocked, and one that is affordable. That's what Leif Hassell and members of the Little Rock Local Independent Networking Cooperative are imagining. They want to cover the city of Little Rock and North Little Rock with a wireless "mesh" network, and operate it as a not-for-profit to keep costs down and access broad.

Hassell, who is a computer networking/fire alarm/intercom technician, said he and his cohorts were "tired of the choices we had" for wireless internet service: Two companies, Comcast and AT&T, dominate the market. They also want more people to be able to afford access to the internet; they would subsidize low-income users of the internet by tier pricing; buyers at the top, getting high download speeds, would help the mesh pay for buyers at a barebones broadband speed. The low tier would pay around $30 to $40 a month.

It's still a dream, but it's one taking shape at the monthly meetings of Little Rock LINC (Local Independent Networking Cooperative, littlerocklinc.org). "We're coming to the problem at small angles," Hassell said, and would like to start the network in midtown Little Rock next year. "The nice thing about midtown, if the antenna is high enough, we can sell to people north of Interstate 630 at a higher speed and reach south of I-630 for people buying at lower [less costly] rates subsidized by the purchasers at higher rates," Hassell said. The not-for-profit setup would help Hassell "keep prices as low as possible."

New York City is a model: NYC Mesh is a community-owned network of Wi-Fi routers that connect directly to the internet "backbone," rather than an internet service provider. It describes itself as a "neutral network that does not block or discriminate content," nor does it store collect user data; it gets some of its connectivity donated.

Hassell would like Little Rock LINC to eventually serve users of the TOR browser that allows anonymous use of the internet. Other goals: to create a technology recycling program that would provide older laptops to schoolkids who can't afford new ones and push for tax breaks for high-end users, recognizing their costs as subsidies to low-end users.

LINC is in the fundraising stage: It needs $20,000 to $30,000 to start up, Hassell said. Its members are working on grants and putting together equipment and testing it. The mesh would be sustainable "once we got 20 to 30 households" hooked in, he said. Others working with Hassell include Todd Shapley, Jeremy Culbreath, Travis Bailey, Chris Kleinhofs, Timothy Lee and Rachel McCorkle.

— Leslie Newell Peacock

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Incentivize teaching
By Cathy Koehler

As baby-boomers begin to retire and more students enter our schools, Arkansas faces a serious dilemma: a shortage of teachers.

Unfortunately, we also face an effort to deprofessionalize education by privateers hoping to cash in on the public dollars currently going to our students.

Long-term solutions are needed to keep educators in the profession by improving working conditions, increasing preparation and mentoring, reducing over-burdensome paperwork, and providing adequate resources that will enable them to do their jobs.

Summed up in a word: respect.

We know having qualified educators in the classroom is the biggest factor in student achievement. We also know teachers become more effective as they spend more time in the classroom.

Unfortunately, across the state and nation we are seeing declining numbers of new people pursuing teaching degrees, as well as epidemic levels of teacher attrition.

Teacher turnover has serious implications on the quality and stability of the education profession and student success. When early career educators leave the profession, districts encounter tremendous economic turnover costs, and often resort to back-filling vacancies with out-of-field teachers or substitute teachers, canceling program offerings, or creating larger classes.

The state Bureau of Legislative Research found that the five-year teacher attrition rate was over 36 percent. That's more than one-third of new Arkansas teachers leaving the profession before they make it to the most effective years of their career.

As the teacher pipeline dries up, it is becoming harder and harder for schools to attract and retain qualified educators, especially in lower income areas.

The attrition rate is even higher in rural areas where districts can't afford to keep up buildings, let alone pay teachers the same salary as more populated areas with higher property tax collection.

In addition, teachers in these schools often face greater challenges associated with students living in poverty.

Arkansas is working to incentivize teaching in rural and high-poverty schools, but the current bonuses don't make up for the incredible difference in salaries you find in school districts across the state.

The people most likely to commit for the long term to these communities are those who grew up there and already know it as home.

Arkansas needs to develop a more comprehensive support network for new teachers, and we need to do a better job of encouraging students from underserved communities to become the next generation of teachers in their hometown.

This "grow your own" strategy should include increased scholarships or student loan forgiveness so there is no income barrier keeping these students from pursuing an education career. We also have an opportunity to ramp up the Arkansas Department of Education's Teacher Cadet program, created to recruit homegrown educators. This program is already working in dozens of schools across the state to attract our best and brightest high school students to the teaching profession.

We must bolster this increased access with better help for new hires. Arkansas should ask its longtime educators to coach their new colleagues. Engaging and supporting educators as early as possible will stem the tide of departures and create a strong and sustainable teaching force. This will give experienced educators the opportunity to share their incredible knowledge, while training the next generation of teacher leaders.

Finally, we need to understand this issue is bigger than school districts or even the state Department of Education. If we want more people to become educators, we need to make teaching an attractive and respected career again.

Everyone in the community, from local chambers to legislators, parents and other city leaders must come together to acknowledge these problems and work together to support their schools and the educators who fill them.

How much voice, how much say, do teachers have collectively in the schoolwide decisions that affect their jobs? Are teachers treated as professionals? Are we providing safe and comfortable working (and learning) environments for educators and their students?

Achieving affirmative answers to these questions depends on having strong educator leaders who will advocate for their profession and their students. It also depends on the rest of us to support their efforts and treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves.

Cathy Koehler is president of the Arkansas Education Association.

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Move from solitary confinement to program-rich prisons
By Morgan Leyenberger

Imagine sitting by yourself for an hour in a small room. Imagine not talking to anyone except a correctional officer who you must ask for food, not checking your cell phone, not being allowed to leave. Imagine 23 hours of this. Imagine days, weeks, months, years of isolation. In our contemporary world, we can hardly handle putting the phone down before bed. Humans are social creatures, and we typically have dozens or hundreds of social interactions each day — unless you're one of a few thousand people locked in an isolation cell in Arkansas's prisons.

The Arkansas Department of Correction uses these isolation cells as a form of punishment — and in some cases protection — to separate inmates from the general population. After our state prisons experienced an uptick in violence and riots in 2017, the Department of Correction announced its intention to build 400 new solitary confinement cells. An additional 400 beds will mean that on any given day, up to 16 percent of the state prison population can be confined to extreme lockdown and social isolation.

But the sensory deprivation and extreme isolation of solitary confinements fails to help inmates, correctional officers or the prison system at large. It usually just causes more harm.

This summer, prisoners in isolation at Tucker Maximum Prison and Varner broke out and held correctional officers hostage. They were apparently demanding better living conditions. The response to these incidents, in addition to more isolation, has been to shut down religious and educational programs — punishing the entire inmate population for a systemic failure.

Arkansas calls isolation cells "restrictive housing," and the act of isolating inmates "administrative segregation" or "punitive isolation." Regardless of what it's called, it's the same practice that many states are moving away from because they consider it to be potentially torturous. People with mental illness and drug dependency disorders, gang members and victims of violence and sexual assault are among the people overrepresented in solitary confinement nationally. Arkansas already employs high rates of solitary confinement. It has not stopped violence now and it will not in the future.

Instead of doubling down on solitary, we would be wise to learn from these mistakes and move forward with evidence-based alternatives.

Arkansas should entirely eliminate solitary confinement and instead build program-rich communities that support safe, healthy rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Inmates could earn privileges to participate in self-help groups, vocation training, exercise classes, family visits, religious or spiritual services and other enriching activities. Rather than tossing someone into isolation, these programs will increase prosocial behavior and provide people with the necessary skills to reintegrate into society when they are released. Each facility should have a team of licensed mental health providers to address underlying mental health conditions, drug and alcohol disorders and treat trauma that arises from incarceration, including inhumane isolation conditions.

With some imagination and creativity, existing correctional facilities can be reimagined to increase the amount of community space like classrooms, recreation areas and dining halls. Inmates could create flower and food gardens, offering important vocation training for a career in horticulture and much-needed time in nature for socializing and healing.

Each correctional facility should be entirely focused on encouraging diverse program offerings and providing positive incentives for good behavior. Punishing negative behavior should only be used in extreme cases of violence. After all, prison itself is the punishment, and further punishment is demoralizing and creates the conditions of violence and hopelessness. Placing someone in isolation should require an external council, and should have a time cap of one month, if used at all.

These suggestions are not groundbreaking, but they are working in states like Colorado, Washington and New York. Our next-door neighbor, Mississippi, reduced its prison violence by 70 percent two years after it relocated a significant portion of the supermax population into the general population. While it will take planning and investment in programming to pull off, ultimately alternatives to isolation are less expensive and far more effective than our current practices, not to mention significantly more humane and reasonable.

Morgan Leyenberger is a licensed master social worker and executive director of Compassion Works for All, a prison outreach organization in Little Rock. She is on the board of directors of the Ecumenical Buddhist Society and co-chairs the decARcerate campaign to end mass incarceration in Arkansas.

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Require four credits of journalism to earn a high school diploma
By Benjamin Hardy

It's not just the MAGA crowd: Everybody hates the media. From the radical left to the robotic center, from good woke liberals to good Christian conservatives, there is a visceral distrust of the motives and methods of news organizations everywhere. How many times have I heard Little Rock progressives dismiss the entire Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as propaganda based on its obnoxious op-eds?

Before I began working as a reporter about four years ago, I didn't really understand the division between a newspaper's opinion section and straight news. I didn't understand why readers should treat anonymous sources with skepticism, know how to weigh the relative credibility of different news outlets, or understand that a story written from a disagreeable perspective may still be valuable because the facts speak for themselves.

In short, I had to work as a journalist before I could become an informed consumer of news. Maybe if we want Americans to tell the difference between real reporting and rumor-mongering (or outright lies), we need to teach them how to report.

To that end, Arkansas public schools should mandate every student to study and practice journalism throughout high school as part of core graduation requirements. Not for a single semester, but every year from ninth to 12th grade, if not earlier. It could be a standalone class (at least for upperclassmen) or it could be incorporated into the curricula of existing classes — English and social studies, but also math and science.

Four years is excessive, you say? Listen to President Trump. Visit Infowars.com. Follow Louise Mensch on Twitter. Just scroll through your Facebook feed. Now tell me we're not in a state of epistemological crisis. We, as a society, have no definition for truthful reporting or maybe even truth.

Social media has eroded the line between consuming and producing news. Any Facebook user, potentially, can grab the megaphone now. That democratization isn't bad in itself, but it allows partisans, charlatans and maniacs to take advantage of an increasingly confused and exhausted public.

The problem isn't everyone being a journalist. It's everyone being an untrained journalist. Let's do us all a favor and teach ourselves to do it right. We need radical intervention, early and aggressive. We have to give kids the tools they need to navigate the brutal information free-for-all the internet has created.

Conservatives, get on board with me. If you want an American public that can call out the biased mainstream media, teach kids how to dissect a lazy article with a liberal slant (and believe me, there are plenty of those). Give students The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, even some Breitbart, just as long as you cultivate a sense of skepticism and analysis and teach them that facts exist.

But when I say teaching journalism, I don't just mean discussing news stories. I mean reporting. I mean talking to human beings, seeking out background information, verifying statements, and looking at numbers. I mean thinking about who wants what and why in a given situation.

I mean studying institutions. School administration is a good place to start, but also local businesses and nonprofits, colleges, city government, planning and zoning commissions, police and fire departments, courts, churches, civic organizations — whatever. Motivated students might even help fill the yawning gap left by the decline of daily newspapers, especially in smaller cities and towns.

Above all, I mean weighing competing arguments and claims. I mean disentangling facts from opinions while not losing sight of the bigger-picture questions. This may sound like an advanced skill, but it's really not. From the earliest age, kids weigh competing truth-claims: Mom vs. Dad, teacher vs. peers, television vs. everyday experience. It's a part of being a social organism. Journalism just broadens the scope of those judgements to take in the rest of society.

And finally, I don't just mean writing; I mean audio and video, too. Millions of American students reach high school without the gateway literacy skills needed to write a newspaper article. Those kids become voters, too. A lack of facility with standard written English shouldn't get in the way of learning how to think like a journalist. I love the written word, but our society can continue without everyone having the sharpest literacy skills. It can't continue without citizens being able to sift and sort rhetoric through an informed moral frame.

Benjamin Hardy is a freelance journalist based in Little Rock and a frequent contributor to the Arkansas Times.

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Better school daycare and after-care
By Margaret Strickland and Linda Brown

Our idea for a better Arkansas would be free or affordable daycare or after-school childcare. The Our House Shelter in Little Rock is a wonderful model. It is making a huge impact on the community surrounding its organization by offering daycare for preschool children and after-school for children K-12. Students are given assistance with homework and have access to a computer lab. They are given a snack, as well as wonderfully supervised playtime. Programs like the one at Our House would be game-changers for financially struggling families across the state. Quality childcare is often a large portion of a family's income. Not only would the parents realize the savings, but the children would benefit academically by having assistance with homework. Our House is changing lives. It would be amazing to see such a wonderful program be available statewide.

It would be a good idea to put daycare programs within high schools. Many high school students who have babies miss school if they can't get their children cared for during the school day. Little Rock used to have daycare in some of the high schools to help teach early childhood education and for teachers and students with young children. We should open them again.

Margaret Strickland is a former speech and language pathologist for the Little Rock School District. Linda Brown is retired from the Accademia dell'Arte

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Make space for caregivers
By Meredith Martin-Moats

Many people get involved in community work and community organizing because they believe in building a more just, more equitable world. Yet the planning spaces for this work — meetings, conferences, events, rallies, vigils, study groups — are seldom welcoming to young children or the people raising them. The same goes for people caring for special needs citizens or aging relatives. The premise of these gatherings is to build a world where everyone is treated fairly, where everyone has equal access, where equity and love and care are paramount. If these gatherings are unwelcoming or inaccessible to caregivers and children, is the work truly invested in building a different future?

Throughout my work in both Little Rock and Dardanelle, I have worked alongside many others to push for greater access to organizing space and associated services for caregivers and their families. Through the Caregivers for Justice network and Little Rock Collective Liberation, I have helped to organize events where caregivers and children aren't just in attendance, but are the root of the work. At the McElroy House in Dardanelle we know that to be engaged in the community means every event we have must be welcoming to children and caregivers. If we want to create change, we must have women and caregivers and grandparents and teenagers at the table. Our coalitions must be filled with single mothers and low-income families. And any space that does not provide childcare is never going to be accessible to a low income family. Being able to hire a sitter is privilege of expendable income. But the problem goes much deeper than creating access. I've worked in both paid childcare and eldercare; I'm a mother of three young children and I served as my mother's caregiver when she was dying. As a child I grew up in an intergenerational home with my parents and grandmother. In short, I have seen caregiving from a lot of angles. It's only been in recent years that I have been able to name any of this as caregiving or think critically about it. It was just everyday life and it was what people did because we all needed each other. But the more I engage in organizing spaces — whether these be political organizing spaces or cultural ones — I am certain that far too often we operate from the premise the caregiving exists in a world somehow apart from real life. This is deeply classist and it dishonors our generations. It dishonors ourselves and who we have been and who we will be. It has ripple effects such as the immorally low rate of pay for CNAs, childcare workers and nursing home aids. Put another way: If we see holding a crying baby, or having a conversation with a curious toddler, or sitting next to a death bed to be a total diversion from our work in building more just communities, what exactly are we aiming for anyway?

I'm a white woman, and I have learned to honor caregiving — to examine my own history of caregiving and pull the threads of this experience into my current work — by listening to black women who have spent their whole lives in the fight for justice. And I say that here because it's essential information and must be named. So, Arkansas, what if we began to not only create spaces of caregiver accessibility, but what if we also began to fundamentally shift our views on caregiving? After all, we have all been babies. If we are lucky, we will all be elders. We all need each other.

Meredith Martin-Moats is the founder of the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and lives with her family in Yell County.

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Make it easier to rehabilitate historic properties
By Patricia Blick

The Quapaw Quarter Association's big idea is to make an important historic preservation incentive accessible to more homeowners in older neighborhoods around the state. By moving into and restoring historic homes, Arkansans breathe life into historic neighborhoods — enhancing quality of life and acting as economic magnets for retail and other businesses. But historic preservation is often seen as elitist or exclusionary. This perception needs to change, and one way to effect this change is a key modification to an Arkansas tax law.

In 2009, Arkansas passed the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Act. This program has been an excellent and well-used tool to incentivize the appropriate treatment of historic properties throughout the state. Our idea is to lower the threshold to qualify for tax credits under the Tax Credit Act for owner-occupied properties, thus increasing access to this important incentive to rehabilitate historic properties.

The program works as follows: First you must own a historic property, defined by law as one that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places or is a contributing resource of a historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The definition is a mouthful and sounds pretty limiting, but there actually are many such homes in and around Greater Little Rock and across the state at large. For example, Greater Little Rock has 15 National Register-listed residential historic districts with a total of 5,500 properties that are contributing resources. These districts include Argenta, Central High School Neighborhood Historic District, Capitol View and Stifft Station, Dunbar, Hangar Hill, Hillcrest, MacArthur Park, Park Hill, Marshall Square, Dunbar, Railroad Call, South Main Street Apartments, South Main Residential, South Scott Street and the neighborhood surrounding the Governor's Mansion.

Second, owners of historic homes must undertake rehabilitation expenses covered by the Tax Credit Act. Expenses are covered if they meet standards that encourage repair over replacement, and any necessary replacements are "in kind" — the same or similar type or appearance. New construction does not qualify for tax credits.

Under state law today, an owner who occupies a historic home can receive a 25 percent state tax credit on up to $100,000 of approved rehabilitation expenses. That's up to $25,000 of tax credits, which can be sold to another party or applied to reduce state taxes for up to five years. But to take advantage of the program, you must spend a minimum of $25,000 — a high threshold. What if the statutory minimum was lowered from $25,000 to $5,000 for owner-occupied properties, thus significantly enhancing the access for smaller projects to qualifying properties?

All homes require upkeep and maintenance, and maintaining an historic home can be costlier than maintaining a new one due to unique materials or the cost of craftsmen to make repairs. But not every repair costs $25,000 or more.

We believe that this change will assist historic homeowners with basic repair and maintenance projects, like roof repair or replacement, upgrading their electric, even repair or replacement of their HVAC systems; necessary property maintenance whose costs simply do not rise to the current minimum level for the tax credits. By taking advantage of the tax credits and following the treatment standards, there is an assurance that the work will not diminish the historic integrity of the property or historic district.

The QQA is not suggesting increasing either the per-project or the overall cap for the program, so this change should not have a fiscal impact on the state budget.

We have communicated our proposal to several public officeholders and officials, and thus far the idea has been well received. The QQA is laying the groundwork and has secured sponsors to introduce a bill at the next regular legislative session.

Not only will this benefit Greater Little Rock, which is the focus of QQA's mission, but every historic district in Arkansas. We envision this budget-neutral change not only spreading the benefits of Arkansas's Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Act to more people, but also incentivizing the rehabilitation and upkeep of historic properties in every corner of the state.

Patricia Blick is executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association.

Mural festival
By Diane Page Harper

Take a torn-up area or an alleyway downtown and invite artists to paint murals. Then have a festival each year to view the new murals. Then call it Freak Alley Southern Fried. There's a Freak Alley in Boise and it's hugely popular and brings in the visitors to local restaurants and businesses. It's a win-win.

Diane Page Harper is an artist in Little Rock.

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Embrace nature preschool
By Rachel Parker

Children learn best by using all of their senses. They learn best when they are given room to ask questions, try out new ideas and form their own conclusions. Children learn best when they are able to follow their interests and PLAY! With what we know about how children learn, it only makes sense that the perfect environment for them to learn in, isn't "in" at all, but "out" — outdoors.

Nature provides children with unending possibilities for exploration, especially for young children. Nature also provides an opportunity to build confidence, problem solve and develop perseverance. In a state where mental health issues and childhood obesity are serious concerns, we, the parents and caretakers of the next generation of Arkansans, should focus on preventing these problems in early childhood. Nature Preschool, or Forest Kindergarten as it is sometimes called, is a great way to combat both of these issues. And, as an added bonus, when children spend time outdoors and witness the changes taking place and learn about the plants and animals that share our environment, they will naturally develop a responsibility to care for it.

So how do we work together as Arkansans to get more kids connected to the natural world? Here are some quick ideas: First, ask your childcare center about ways they work to connect children to nature and about opportunities in their programs for children to be immersed in a natural, outdoor environment. Next, consider offering or requesting Forest Days in your early childhood program or elementary school. This is a program offered at Ferncliff, and perhaps other outdoor programs, in which local early childhood educators receive training to take their children out to explore the outdoors. Third, to inspire new programs throughout the state, Ferncliff staff would be glad to work with others on how to start a nature preschool program. We'd love to see 10-plus new programs in Arkansas over the next two years.

The benefits that can come from young children learning in a natural environment paired with the natural resources available in our state should make our decision to promote nature-based learning in Arkansas an easy choice. We at the Ferncliff Nature School are making it our mission to get young children connected to nature. We think the Natural State has a great opportunity to be a leader in nature-based learning for young children, and as a result develop happy, confident kids that care for creation.

Rachel Parker is the director of Ferncliff Nature School.

Open an all-ages DIY music venue
By Bradley Caviness

I would love to see a free — or nearly free — public space teens and young adults can use to book, promote and perform their own music. There are fewer spaces available in town for underage musicians to play and develop their talent than at any point in the last two decades, which is a shame, because these kinds of do-it-yourself micro venues are remarkable incubators for producing the musicians and artists who will form the next generation of cultural life in a city. Back in the mid-1990s, when the River Market district was more of an idea than the bustling entertainment quarter it is today, a bunch of teenagers and college students took advantage of the Belvedere in Riverfront Park to host DIY rock concerts for local and touring bands that played for donations from the crowd. It helped at the time that the park was well away from residential neighbors, and the shops and restaurants popping up weren't all open after dark. The kids would sometimes have to break a lock to get access to the electrical outlets to plug in their amps and what rudimentary PA they brought with them, but the police turned a mostly blind eye to the practice for a while, so long as the kids stayed peaceful (as much as punk rock shows are peaceful), sober and they didn't leave a mess or cause any permanent damage. Enforcement got much stricter as bars and clubs moved in on President Clinton Avenue, and an underage crowd hanging out in the park became inconvenient. After that, DIY shows moved indoors, to house shows or bookings at regular bars. House shows are intimate, but not always conducive to building a scene. Shows at bars aren't often open to those under the legal drinking age. We lost a lot when kids lost a venue where they could hastily and cheaply develop their craft while building a vibrant and original music scene. Several of the musicians who frequently played at the Belvedere two decades ago have gone on to win enormous success and acclaim as musicians, as writers, as artists and thinkers in every field. Our youth and community as a whole would see similar benefits, I think, if it would designate a small space where teens today can show up, plug up their guitars and play for their friends or anyone else who happens by.

Bradley Caviness is the music programmer for "Shoog Radio" on KABF-FM 88.3.

Help foreign language speakers connect with each other
By Guy Lancaster

My Swedish skills are not the best, but they are much better now than they were back in 2016, before I had the good luck to meet, through friends of friends, two people in Central Arkansas who speak the language. One was a native Swede who had the good sense to marry an Arkansas woman, while the other was an American who had lived and worked in Sweden for a few years. Two years later, our ranks have grown — some have just moved to the area and reached out through social media, while others have lived here for years, rarely meeting other Swedish speakers. If you look around, you'll see that we have a variety of languages spoken here in Central Arkansas. Some of these groups are large enough to have their own institutions — churches, groceries, cultural centers — while others do not. A local library system, university, or other engaged organization could easily provide a means by which various language speakers could network with each other and thereby maintain or develop their skills. But would this be of benefit to more than just the individual speakers? I think so. As Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote in the Harvard Business Review back in 2016, cosmopolitanism "is a fragile personal attitude" that "strives to humanize the different" and "celebrates curiosity." The word literally means "citizen of the world," which is the very opposite of the ideological and rhetorical "bubble" environments in which so many dwell today. In fact, a cosmopolitan runs counter even to the aims of the so-called "globalist elites," who see the world's hinterlands (like Arkansas) as sites only for exploitation, not exploration and appreciation. Becoming a better citizen of the world entails becoming a better citizen of where you live right now, for it means holding your town or city or state up to the fashionable districts of Paris or the highest mountains of Nepal and saying, a la Ernest Hemingway, "Arkansas is a fine place and worth fighting for." Language skills constitute an important part of developing that cosmopolitan outlook, of seeing the world through a stranger's eyes, and thus seeing, with renewed fascination and appreciation, your own home, and we should work to cultivate world languages here in Central Arkansas as a first step toward building a real cosmopolitan spirit.

Guy Lancaster is the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a project of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System.

Make electoral reform a priority in 2018
By Tyler Pearson

Late last year, I was having a conversation with a friend who is an occasional voter. Something she said struck me to the core. While discussing the need for passing legislation that would improve public education, she said, "That all sounds nice, but I just don't believe anything will ever get done." Today, this sentiment seems to ring louder than ever and is supported by polling that shows trust in government is at historic lows. The 2016 presidential election clearly spoke to this. People just don't believe in the system anymore and feel as if their voices are not being heard. Creating positive change at the pace the future demands will require a well-informed citizenry whose voices are not only heard but heeded. Unfortunately, special interest groups are drowning out the expressed needs of everyday people. Anyone passionate about improving renters' rights, protecting loved ones in nursing homes, or ensuring children's access to quality education and wanting to make a difference quickly will find a well-financed and organized special interest group standing in his or her way.

Fortunately, there are several things we can do to help restore confidence in our democracy and substantially improve the odds in favor of the people. They all revolve around the subject of electoral reform.

Let's start by implementing automatic and same-day voter registration policies in Arkansas to make it easier for people to access the ballot box. Arkansas consistently ranks among the states with the lowest voter turnout in the nation. In 2012 we were the third lowest and in 2016 we were the fifth. The six states with the highest turnout in 2016 all offered same-day voter registration and as a result achieved turnouts over 10 percentage points higher than Arkansas, which is huge. Additionally, state Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) unsuccessfully championed a bill in 2017 that would have changed the state's "motor-voter" registration at DMVs across the state from an opt-out to an opt-in system. This would have streamlined the process and made it dramatically easier for people to vote on Election Day as well. In today's political climate however, without significant support from the public, this bill and others like it will continue to fail long before ever even reaching the floor of the state House or Senate.

Next, and perhaps most pressing, is the need for an independent redistricting commission. After the up-coming census in 2020, elected officials will have the final say on how the new state legislative and congressional districts are drawn. We have all heard of the term "gerrymandering," and this is when it will happen next. Voters should choose their representatives and not the other way around. Independent redistricting commissions exist in several other states and have shown to significantly increase competition and fairness in elections. This issue has broad bipartisan support even in conservative states such as Arizona, where the issue became law via a statewide referendum with broad public support. Let's do that here in Arkansas.

Bringing additional transparency and accountability to our electoral process will also require serious action toward curbing the effect that special interest money has on the current system. People have a right to know who is behind political messaging, and state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) has twice filed a bill that, by forcing their backers to identify themselves, would have shone a light on the so called "dark money" advertisements that have been corrupting our elections. Tucker's bill has failed each time and needs broad public support for another chance at passage.

Additionally, we should ban political contributions from Political Action Committees (PACs) directly to candidates. This is a very bold move that would set Arkansas apart from the rest of the nation. State Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) filed a bill to do this in 2017 and it was immediately crushed by special interest groups who saw it as a threat to their influence and power. Every election, these groups blatantly abuse this system and dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign war chests of incumbent politicians, which makes it very difficult for challengers to defeat them. In return, they receive favor from and leverage over the politicians. Banning direct contributions to candidates from PACs would effectively stop this corrupt practice in its tracks, give constituents greater influence, and still allow PACs to take actions in other significant ways such as advocacy and awareness campaigns.

Finally, if our elected officials in the state aren't doing their jobs effectively and break their campaign promises, we should be able to fire them with recall elections. Some 20 other states have such provisions and the issue appeals to both conservatives and liberals alike.

Let's channel our frustrations in a positive direction and make 2018 yet another referendum on the status quo by making electoral reform a top priority.

Tyler Pearson is a sustainable development professional and political activist in Faulkner County.


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