- BELIEVES IN WRITING: Jennifer Davis
It seems sometimes that every generation since Hemingway has been given up by their parents for lost. While old Papa’s gang was going to swirl away in a torrent of gin and jazz, the label often pinned on most young people today can be summed up in one word: Apathetic. The world, we hear on a daily basis, is rapidly heading down the tubes, be it from terrorism, bad politics, shrinking oil reserves, growing poverty, greenhouse gas, the chicken flu or just plain old meanness. Who could blame young people for being uninterested in the future, that thinking goes. Who can blame them for just putting the idea of Social Security bankruptcy and melting ice caps out of their minds in favor of a relaxing game of “Kill ’Em All Slowly 3” on the Xbox?
Luckily for us, the stereotypical image of hordes of doomed young losers is no more real now than it was when “The Great Gatsby” was a bestseller. Young people do have hope. To prove it, we’ve rounded up a sample of young people — all under 35 — who are doing extraordinary things, right here in Arkansas. Whatever you think of their pursuits, the one quality they all have in common is: They’re not waiting around for the future to catch up to them.
DR. WEST ALLEN
What he cares about: Rural health
As Dr. West Allen of Brinkley knows well, sometimes you find your calling; other times, your calling finds you.
Born and raised in Little Rock, Allen was a student at UAMS when he heard about the Community Match Scholarship. Staring down the barrel of med school tuition, it looked like a good deal at the time: Find a small, medically underserved community and get them to agree to pay for half your tuition, and the state would pay for the other half. The catch was, it would mean several years serving as a doctor in the community that footed the bills — a small town that would be, by rights, in one of the poorest and more isolated parts of the state.
From the start, Allen admits that the idea of helping the needy in a rural area appealed to him. “The whole point of being a doctor is to improve your surroundings by teaching people to be healthier and helping them with the disease process,” he said. “I could have stayed in Little Rock — there’s plenty of choices for a doctor there — but I wanted to go somewhere that they don’t have a doctor and they really need one.”
Once Allen decided the how, the where was what he called a “no-brainer.”
“My father and grandfather were from Brinkley,” he said. “My grandfather was the postmaster. My father graduated from high school there.”
Since signing on a little over a year ago with the White River Rural Health Center in Brinkley — one of 20 low- to no-cost clinics across the state under the WRRH umbrella — Allen says he has come to love country doctoring. For one thing, he says, he gets to fulfill his goal of helping those who need his skills the most. Too, he said, the poverty and general lack of knowledge about how to stay healthy makes sure his days are never boring.
“When you’re in the Delta, you see the most pathology, just the sickest people, so that keeps my mind going,” he said. “I don’t see the same old same old every day.”
As head of the diabetes education center at the clinic, Allen said that a significant part of his job is trying to teach his patients how to eat healthy in “fried fish and fried chicken country.”
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “Because it’s mainly an education problem. People just don’t know what it means to be healthy. It’s hard to get the word out sometimes when there’s not that many clinics in the area in the first place.”
While his job can be trying at times — watching patients who are living paycheck to paycheck decide between basic necessities or their medicines, for instance — young Dr. Allen has also had his triumphs. He has caught a few breast cancers early, he said, and helped other patients get their weight and diabetes under control. Those little victories have helped him decide: he wants to devote his life to a career as a rural doctor.
“At first, I had an open mind,” he said. “I didn’t want to say I was 100 percent going to stay, or that I was 100 percent going to leave. After being here for a year in Brinkley, I’m definitely here for the long haul.”
What they care about: Urban art and literacy.
Growing up in the inner city, Jennifer Davis and Heidi Williams say, there were times when all they had was a piece of paper and a pen. They don’t mean they lacked other diversions — there were plenty of those, and not many of them positive. They’re talking about “all” in a spiritual sense; as in a rare saving grace for kids used to tasting the grit of life.
“I wouldn’t be the person that I am today had it not been for my art,” Williams said. “I’m just being frank, but I could have very well been a crackhead, or selling myself on the street. There are just so many avenues that art can open for you, ones that even privileged people don’t have.”
Both poets and students at UALR — they met while performing in Little Rock’s underground poetry scene — Davis and Williams believe in the power of words to change kids’ lives. About a year ago, they started The Underground Railroad Neighborhood Project, or T.U.R.N. Focused on education, tutoring and the power of self-expression, the group has since grown into a troupe of singers, dancers, poets and writers. In addition to putting on stage plays, their most important work takes them to Little Rock’s classrooms, where they seek to show children how poetry can change their lives, improve their communication and reading skills and raise their grades.
As a substitute teacher in Little Rock elementary schools, Davis said the idea for the T.U.R.N. Project came from constantly seeing kids who had never learned to express themselves in positive ways. For teachers, she said, art can be a way to connect with their students. “If they can’t relate to a student, they can’t get to them, they can’t teach them,” Davis said. “But if you listen to their art, you can. I’ve been in a third-grade class where kids might not know how to read, but they can get up and recite rap songs word for word. You just have to find something like that to reach them. They’ll tell you things through their art that they could never express otherwise.”
In addition to their weekly schedule of classroom presentations, in the last few months, Williams and Davis have been putting the finishing touches on a learning center, a rambling old house on West 15th Street donated to the cause by Davis’ father. It’s within walking distance of both Central High School and Stephens Elementary. Harking back to the idea of the Underground Railroad, Davis and Williams said they hope kids will see the house as a refuge — a place where they can come after school for tutoring, to take classes, and write and perform poetry.
As full-time students, both with young children, Davis and Williams admit that finding the time, energy and money to fit their free workshops into their lives can be daunting. The payoff, they say, is seeing kids with nothing else get excited about language. “There’s been plenty of days when it’s been hard on both of us,” Williams said. “We’re both trying to pursue other things in our personal lives. But it’s a passion, and I know that at the end of the day, if not a dollar was made and we touched 10 kids, then it was worth it. If there are a hundred people there and one kid comes up and says, ‘I want to start writing now,’ it’s worth it.”
What he cares about: The environment
Though turning 30 might be an occasion for most people to start pining after their lost youth, for Little Rock’s Rob Fisher, every birthday brings something like a little relief. In the environmental public policy circles he has found himself moving in since his mid-20s, youth isn’t necessarily considered a virtue. “That’s probably the first time I’ve ever answered that question honestly,” Fisher said when the Times inquired after his age. “In my field, I round up considerably. It gives you some street cred.”
While he’s still young, Fisher has accomplished more for the environment at 31 than most people do in their whole lives. The child of ecologically conscious parents, Fisher said he was “pretty much programmed” for life as a professional environmentalist. After earning a B.A. in biology, Fisher went on to a science of forestry master’s degree (“I was probably one in five in a graduate program of about 100 who wasn’t planning on cutting timber”) before heading to Washington to work for the enviro-group American Rivers. After that, Fisher made his way back to Little Rock, serving as the director of conservation for Audubon Arkansas for three-and-a-half years. A four-month stint with the National Wildlife Federation in Atlanta (and a severe case of bureaucracy burnout) brought Fisher back to the Natural State two years ago, when he and friend Daniel DeVun realized a long-term dream by starting their own environmental non-profit, Ecological Conservation Organization (ECO).
The goal of ECO, Fisher said, was to get away from the “larger scene” of massive environmental groups and do some hands-on work. “In this field, it’s really hard when you’ve got to leap hurdles with your own team in order to get things done,” he said. “ECO is more of an attempt to focus on the things that are really important and try to be more effective.”
To that end, ECO has plunged headlong into protecting the natural heritage of Arkansas — writing grants, helping shape policy and pioneering new methods of water sampling and stream reclamation. A sister organization (also started by Fisher and DeVun), the Arkansas Nature Alliance, has sued the Army Corps of Engineers six times over wetlands and conservation issues, the most recent being a pending suit over the proposed Bass Pro Shops in North Little Rock’s Dark Hollow, which Fisher said would drain and pave 80 acres of wetlands.
Another landmark project for ECO was the restoration of a stretch of Swaggerty Creek near Arch Street. Previously, the creek had been confined to what Fisher describes as a “trapezoidal concrete ditch.” A two-year project by ECO, performed in conjunction with a city-financed restoration of nearby Swaggerty Park, brought a section of the creek back to its former glory, complete with rocks, fish, and plants.
“We pretty much begged and negotiated the whole project,” Fisher said. “We got seven bids just to rip out the concrete, ranging from $75,000 to $250,000.” The project, he laughs, had a total budget of only $90,000. “We took the owner of the [lowest bidding] company out there and talked him down.” Since completion last summer, the renewed stretch of Swaggerty Creek has become a model for urban stream restoration across the country, with city managers and engineers calling weekly for details on how it was done. These days, Fisher and ECO are soldiering on to new projects, including water monitoring of the state’s “impaired” streams and rivers, and field research on the effect of stream buffers and controlled burning.
Though Fisher admits that it’s hard to keep going sometimes, given the apathy he sees about the environment, he’s still in the fight for the environment for good. “I don’t even feel like I have a choice,” he said. “It’s the one thing that connects everything in life. It connects social issues, political issues, justice, racial issues, humanitarian causes. Across the board, it’s the one thing that everyone’s going to have to deal with at some point in their lives.”
What he cares about: Little Rock
In Little Rock these days, the name Rutherford casts a long shadow when it comes to civic pride and redevelopment. While we’re mostly talking about Skip Rutherford, the brains behind the Clinton Presidential Center, we can’t leave out another hopeful young man who bears that name, Blake Rutherford. One of a group of well-educated and highly motivated young turks who have put their shoulders to Little Rock’s civic wheel in recent years, Rutherford is well on his way to becoming a mover and shaker in his own right — all very quietly and behind the scenes, of course.
An attorney with the high-powered law firm Wright, Lindsey and Jennings since 2003, Rutherford said his love and commitment to Little Rock goes all the way back to his childhood, something he attributes to his parents’ strong sense of civic responsibility. His time away from the city while attending Vermont’s Middlebury College and then the University of Arkansas Law School gave him perspective on Little Rock, he said, and helped him see how great it could be if people would simply try to make it better — something he said was proven by the changes he saw downtown in just the few years he was away. Since then, he said, Little Rock has been his “thing.”
“It’s a city that’s really experiencing a lot of unique and interesting opportunities right now,” he said. “There’s been sort of an influx of young, bright people. There’s a lot of potential. … Whatever I can do to help make LR better is what I want to do. It’s what I spend a lot of my time thinking about.”
Part of that big thinking resulted in the popular Movies in the Park series, which drew throngs of filmgoers to the Riverfront Amphitheatre on summer nights last year to watch everything from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Ghostbusters.” The “deal-breaker” for Movies in the Park, Rutherford said, was that the event had to be free.
“Making it a free event was something that was critical for me,” he said. “One of the things, when I sat down and talked to the people from the Rivermarket and others about how to make this happen, was that it had to be free, and I was willing to find the people who had the money to make it free.” He did, and they came — an average of 485 people per showing. It was good, he said, to see so many people downtown on a weeknight — especially when only a few years before the area where the nearby Rivermarket stands was only a row of shabby buildings.
Already preparing for another season of Movies in the Park, Rutherford is also helping plan the city’s future for next year, including a spot on the board that is putting together the blueprint for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis. In short, Rutherford is committed to making sure that the family name is synonymous with community work in Little Rock for years to come, and to making sure the city holds onto and expands its newfound vibrancy.
“I think Little Rock can go as far as it wants,” he said. “Little Rock isn’t a small town, but it isn’t a big city either. It’s no more Memphis or Dallas than any other town in Arkansas. But it’s also not a city that should just sit idly by and let opportunities sort of float on past and down the river. Finding an equilibrium will help keep Little Rock being Little Rock.”
What he cares about: Kenya
As a local photographer, Dero Sanford is used to framing his world within the borders of a photograph. It was only when he crossed a few real borders, however, that he found his current passion: Helping bring food, water, shelter and education to some of the most remote villages of Kenya.
For the past two years, Sanford has been the communications director of the non-profit group KenyaRelief.org. Based in part in North Little Rock, the charity is the brainchild of anesthesiologist Steve James, who started KenyaRelief in memory of his daughter, Brittney, who had kept in touch with a Kenyan pen pal.
Sanford signed on soon after hearing James’ stories of poverty and struggle in the rural villages of Africa. “I really fell in love with Steve and his whole mission,” Sanford said, “and I pretty much just said that I want to be a part of what’s going on.” Soon Sanford took on the duties of staff photographer and videographer, eventually earning a spot on the board of the charity and the position of communications director.
Sanford has since taken two trips to the small group of villages James and KenyaRelief.org have adopted. Ten hours by car from Nairobi, they’re as primitive as you might imagine. “I guess you could try and imagine a place where you don’t have a refrigerator,” Sanford said. “It’s mud huts, mostly. You don’t have electricity. You have inadequate water supply, if any. No health care system to speak of. It’s just a hard, hard life, where people live on an average of a dollar a day.”
During two- to three-week visits to the area, Dero and other volunteers help build schools and churches, dig wells and otherwise try to make existence easier in one of the harshest places on earth. While the surroundings are crude by American standards, Sanford said there is certain purity to life there.
“Once you get there, you realize just how happy these people truly are,” he said. “It’s a hard life over there, but there’s a certain kind of joy these people have that you just can’t explain.” (Some of that joy is captured in a series of poignant photos Sanford took in Africa, viewable at his website, thinkdero.com)
While Sanford said he expected to teach the Kenyans something, they ended up teaching him much more. Just giving something back has been its own reward. Sanford said he’ll never forget the look on the face of one of his colleagues as he helped hand out the 100 bicycles he had collected stateside.
“He was able to pass them out to each person,” Sanford said. “He was glowing. He was crying. I’ve never seen a man so happy in my life.”
That kind of happiness is rare in America, Sanford said, because we have tried to substitute material things for joy, when we should be trying to find joy in each other. It’s a feeling he hopes he’ll be able to get another taste of this summer, when he makes a third trip to Africa.
“The goal,” Sanford said, “is to try and bridge the gap between people here in the United States and the people elsewhere — to say: Look, there’s other people out there in the world that need your help. It makes both sides happy.”
What she cares about: Historic preservation
For Beth Wiedower, more often than not her office is her green import sedan, driving down some backroad in the Arkansas Delta. As field representative for the new Rural Heritage Development Initiative project — based in Helena but covering 15 East Arkansas counties, from the bootheel of Missouri to the Louisiana line — she’s on the road a lot. Still, she admits, she’s working at her dream job.
Sponsored by a Kellogg Grant and by the National Trust for Historic Places, the Rural Initiative is a new approach to bringing vibrancy back to some of the state’s most faded and historically significant Delta towns. A three-year experiment, the Rural Initiative is one of two pilot programs (the other is in the endangered knob region of Kentucky) aimed at utilizing the forces of commerce and the growing interest in “heritage tourism” to bring both visitor dollars and small business development to historic areas. The ultimate goal is to see waning historic structures restored for commercial use. Further partnered with the Main Street Arkansas program, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas and the Main Street programs of Blytheville, Osceola, West Memphis, Helena and Dumas, Wiedower laughs that it adds up to one woman with a lot of bosses.
While the details of just how it will all work are still a bit fluid (Wiedower just started last month), she said that in a nutshell, the Rural Initiative will serve as a connection between property owners, those interested in starting a business in the Delta, and the “arsenal of expertise and technical experience” that it takes to bring an old building back to life.
“If someone calls from Dumas or Dermott or Lake Village and wants to open a restaurant downtown, then the RHDI can provide resources and assistance,” Wiedower said. “Everything from funding to procedure, to tax credits to contacts in the local community and in the state of Arkansas and beyond who have the knowledge to facilitate the project.”
Wiedower says that it might be the perfect job for her — a civic-minded Arkansas native with a bent for history. She has always had a strong sense of social obligation, she said. After graduating from Hendrix College, she went on to work for a marketing firm in Washington. Word that the National Trust was starting a preservation program in the Delta, where she had previously worked with the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, lured her back home.
“I’m very results oriented,” she said. “It’s important for me to have a tangible result. Preservation lets me combine the two. It lets me do something that I’m passionate about, and lets me give back to society and help communities in my little world.”
Though she’s visibly excited about the next three years, given that she’s 50 percent of a pilot program — the continuation and national expansion of which rests on how successful she is in Arkansas — Wiedower admits to feeling a certain amount of pressure. At the same time, she’s optimistic. She sees a new energy in the Delta region. “There’s an incredible amount of interest and excitement in the Delta right now, and there’s a willingness to try. I think that’s something that hasn’t been present in the past when programs have tried to come in and revitalize.”
Before any bricks are laid, Wiedower said the first thing the Rural Initiative must seek to rebuild is a sense of pride in Delta people and their communities.
“We have a hump to get over, and that’s the wariness of the residents of the Delta,” she said. “There’s a lot of: ‘Why would anyone want to come here? Why would a tourist come here? Why should we save this building?’ ” she said. “So we’re on two parallel marketing tracks. One is really selling the Delta to outsiders. The other is developing and recreating a sense of worth and pride in the Delta for the residents.”
What she cares about: The family farm
Where were you at age 23? Unless you’re a lot more ambitious than we were at that age, chances are you weren’t doing anything anywhere near as gutsy as Jessica Willems. Only three years into her 20s, Willems has taken on sole proprietorship of her family’s 1,300-acre cattle, soybean, wheat and corn farm near the small town of Paris in Logan County. Though she said there are hurdles for a woman farmer, especially one so young, when it gets down to the dirt level, it’s something she’s been doing all her life.
“I get a lot of raised eyebrows,” she said. “From the people around here that know me, I get positive comments. From the people that don’t, you get kind of rude comments. There’s some farmers around here that are positive, and there are others who don’t think I can do it. I’ve done it all my life. I don’t see what the big change is.”
Like good crops, it’s all in the roots. A third-generation Logan County farmer, Willems was in her junior year of pursuing a degree in crop management at the University of Arkansas when her father grew ill and eventually died. Unwilling to see the family farm go to someone else, she put off her education (she hopes to finish her final 12 hours online) and she and her brother took over J&P Willems Farms three years ago. Last year, her brother decided to move on, and this spring, Willems will be kicking clods solo. She won’t be a behind-a-desk farmer either. She grew up in the seat of a tractor, she said, and — with the help of three hired hands — does every job on the place.
Though most of the people who know her have been supportive, Willems admits that she still runs into the good ol’ boy side of farming. Buying fertilizer and seed, she said, she still gets asked, “Are you sure about that?” a lot. While buying supplies is one thing, the bigger problem is that the purse strings are still held by men as well, many of whom cast a skeptical eye at the chances of a woman making it in the rough and tumble world of farming.
“People don’t want to loan the amount of money you need to a 23-year-old female to farm,” she said. “They don’t know the family again, and if they were here they might think differently, but the people on the loan board are from South Arkansas, and they don’t know me.”
While she admits that convincing the powers that be that she can do it has been a problem, she has all her finances squared away now and is ready to go. This month, she’ll start planting corn. Having grown up in farming, she knows that it’s all a big gamble. You get too much rain, or not enough. A million things can go wrong. The legacy of the place keeps her going, and helps keep the naysayers out of her mind.
“I don’t second guess myself at all,” she said. “It’s one of those things that I look at like, I wouldn’t want anyone else to take what Dad and Grandpa got for me. I would have a real hard time letting go. I think I’d be real mad at myself for letting go.”
In the end, Willems is very convincing when she says it’s just another year for her, one in which she’s sure she’ll get the last laugh.
“Some people say, ‘Your dad would be proud,’ ” she said. “But the negative people, they say things like ‘Are you sure you’re going to be able to handle it? It’s a lot of work. Are you sure?’ That makes me so mad. Basically they’re saying ‘We don’t think you can do it.’ That’s fine. I’ll show them.”