Why Arkansas?

by Cassie Schwerner, Senior Vice President of National Partnerships and Ellen Meltzer, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

Bill Kopsky, Executive Director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, speaks to assembled participants.

Why Arkansas? Four years ago, in February 2012, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) first posed that invitation as a question to fellow funders from across the country. In response, WRF hosted a statewide tour demonstrating to participants Arkansas’ readiness for education reform and investment.

The tour moved funders and advocates, including the Schott Foundation for Pubic Education, to create a full-fledged campaign. Initiated in 2012, the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn (AR OTL) Campaign unites disparate and distinct education advocacy organizations and grassroots groups. They all share a common goal: achieving education policy reforms that benefit all Arkansas students.

It's no surprise then that in February 2016 when AR OTL campaign partners invited us to Little Rock to participate in an all-day retreat to build consensus on goals and plan for the Campaign’s next phase we eagerly accepted, along with our colleague Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy. Edgar and Cassie were asked to facilitate the retreat.

"Supporting efforts like the AR OTL Campaign exemplifies Schott’s intimate strategic resourcing strategy as a funding partner," Edgar said. "Our support extends beyond grantmaking to offer network building, policy analysis and strategic communication support. It is this combination of financial and advocacy supports that produce the well-resourced campaigns needed to win policy reform."

Grassroots parent leaders from some of this country’s poorest counties were in the room. Joining the parents were veteran organizers including: Lavina Grandon of Rural Community Alliance and Bernadette Devone from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel; researchers from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; leaders of the Arkansas Education Association; Laveta Wills-Hale of Arkansas Out of School Network; members of Arkansas's pre-K coalition Good to Great; community activists from the South Arkansas Regional Education Coalition and the Arkansas Citizens First Congress; as well as Angela Duran of Arkansas's Grade-Level Reading Campaign.

The retreat began by sharing the Campaigns’ achievements, while also agreeing that “now we need to connect the dots and be proactive, identify barriers and break them down, and keep from getting bogged down in the details.”

Next, participants were eager to discuss the challenges coalitions like AR OTL, made up of groups with varying degrees of influence and power, often confront. We at the Schott Foundation have learned, from our work with the AR OTL Campaign and many of the others we support, that this can be a make or break challenge.

The day culminated with identifying two shared policy goals for public education, achieving 1) healthy school climates and 2) fiscal equity. Retreat participants made plans to regroup on a regular schedule and explore how best to mobilize their people, fundraise, and establish the necessary communications platforms to move this policy agenda forward.

The day was a success, in large part because participants had the resolve—and the courage—to acknowledge that a power gap exists in the AR OTL Campaign between the Little Rock-based, better-resourced statewide advocacy groups working at the state level and the local grassroots leaders from places like Dumas, Gould, Camden, and Marvel, communities who are building a base of power to advocate for equitable policy change.

An unequal power dynamic is common in coalitions that engage both labor and the community. Labor often enjoys additional resources to support their work, their mobilization, and their message. Meanwhile, community groups, especially those comprised of low-income underfunded parents and students of color, often do not have same resources.

In Little Rock, we witnessed something unique: a group of people committed to making sure that they could challenge this power imbalance.

How? Through the hard work of sustained relationship-building and the knowledge that they are much stronger together than they are apart. We saw a diverse set of Arkansas education organizations, as well diversity in geography, race, ethnicity, age, class and gender. These are serious folks, and they are serious about change. They know that to meet the challenge of attaining educational equity all of them must be at the table.

The dedication of this diverse, passionate group of people inspired us that day. We remain inspired by their commitment to building a comprehensive system of supports that ensures excellence and educational equity for all Arkansas’ students.

We'd also like to share a very special video expressing the unity and inspiration we felt that day in Little Rock, a one-time only impromptu performance of the AR OTL gospel choir, including our Edgar Villanueva who enjoyed reconnecting with his Southern roots!

Like what you've read?

Then don't miss a thing. Join the thousands of students, parents, educators, and activists who already receive our latest updates and resources!