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Poised to lead Arkansas into a new era of innovation, Winrock International and Innovation Hub join forces

“Our challenge in the years ahead will be to adapt our agriculture, our government services, our health care system and our industry to our changing world without forsaking our values. In other words, let’s embrace the energy of change and all the opportunity it brings without forsaking our foundation. … My top priority is to grow the economy of this state, to create jobs, and for Arkansas to enter a time of sustained economic power and influence.” — Gov. Asa Hutchinson, during his Inaugural Address, January 13, 2015

When Gov. Hutchinson summarizes his vision for Arkansas, time and time again, he comes back to economic development and innovation. While our state as a whole is arguably playing catchup in these areas, two Arkansas-born nonprofits have recently joined forces to create a dynamic model of innovation that is poised to have statewide — as well as national and global — impact.

In June, Winrock International, an international development organization that traces its roots to a charitable endeavor established by Winthrop Rockefeller, and the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub announced they were combining. Warwick Sabin, executive director of the Innovation Hub, was named senior director of U.S. Programs at Winrock.

“Gov. Rockefeller wanted Arkansas to be a place where innovative solutions are developed and tested for the rest of the country and the world,” Sabin told me recently. “This is in line with that vision.

“Winrock is well established as an innovator in international development. The Hub has created new models of innovation that overlap and align with what Winrock is already doing.”

Sabin tells me that, as far as he knows, there is nothing exactly like the Innovation Hub anywhere. He said he traveled around the country to observe and learn from a variety of entrepreneur and maker spaces. For one, from the very beginning, the Innovation Hub has included programs not only for adults, but also young people, which is imperative from a talent-development perspective. But that’s not the only difference that stands out.

“The Innovation Hub is unique in that it combines maker, entrepreneur, art and design spaces … all in one place,” Sabin said. Additionally, “most of these (spaces around the country) are in the largest urban areas. We’re trying to bring this model into rural areas (in Arkansas).”

In fact, Sabin said he is excited about a project that Winrock will be unveiling soon in the Arkansas Delta. The venture, which has yet to be announced, will be one of the first opportunities to establish an example of how all the components of the Innovation Hub can be integrated into a set of solutions for rural communities. The effort, Sabin told me, is expected to “pilot new strategies for economic, workforce and rural development in the Delta.”

But the impact has the potential to resonate globally as part of Winrock’s international solutions. “Much of the work (of the Innovation Hub) is applicable to developing countries,” Sabin said, where there is a growing need “to do more with less.”

Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks at the Winrock International/Innovation Hub merger announcement.

The growing potential of this new collaboration has already generated excitement. Gov. Hutchinson spoke at the press conference in June when Winrock announced it was combining with the Innovation Hub. Here’s what Hutchinson had to say that day:

“This will spur real economic and community growth in our state and signals that Arkansas’ impact on the world will continue to grow. I’m especially intrigued by what this could mean in terms of workforce training, manufacturing, agriculture and, especially, the Arkansas knowledge industry.”

Already the Innovation Hub can point to the success of HubX Life Sciences, the state’s first privately funded health care accelerator program. The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub partnered with Baptist Health, Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and The Iron Yard to attract seven innovative health care start-ups. The benefits, however, stretch far beyond the health care sector.

“We’re creating new models (that can benefit multiple sectors),” Sabin told me. “If successful, we’re going to change the face of community development and economic development in a huge part of our state.”

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Becoming baby-friendly

In an effort to improve mother/infant bonding, a handful of hospitals in Arkansas are adopting the Baby-Friendly hospital initiative.

You might be thinking, “Well, isn’t it a given that all hospitals would be baby friendly?”

I had that thought as well until I learned the meaning behind the effort. And it’s a touching one.

First, it’s important to understand the Healthy Active Arkansas initiative, of which the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute is a partner. The collaborative includes many leaders across the state to promote wellness and help fight obesity in the state, explains Juli McWhorter, chief nursing officer at Northwest Medical Center-Willow Creek Women’s Hospital.

“Promotion of breastfeeding is one of the major initiatives,” she says. “It is a very big deal for this collaborative, and they are so excited for us and the state of Arkansas.”

Willow Creek was the first hospital in the state to achieve national accolades for this breastfeeding initiative.

“We have always been ‘Baby-Friendly,’” says Sharif Omar, CEO of Northwest Health. “This designation simply affirms our commitment to the safest and highest quality care for our newborns and moms at both of the Northwest Health hospitals since Willow Creek was the first to receive this recognition a few months ago. We were thrilled when Willow Creek was the first hospital in Arkansas and are even more elated now that our second facility, Northwest Medical Center – Bentonville, is the second in the state.”

Baby-Friendly USA, Inc. is the U.S. authority for the implementation of the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (“BFHI”), a global program sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), according to a news release. The initiative encourages and recognizes hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for breastfeeding mothers and their babies. Based on the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, this prestigious international award recognizes birth facilities that offer breastfeeding mothers the information, confidence and skills needed to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies.

The Northwest Medical Center news release points out that there are more than 20,000 designated Baby-Friendly hospitals worldwide and only 364 active Baby-Friendly centers in the United States.

The BFHI assists hospitals in giving all mothers the information, confidence and skills necessary to successfully initiate and continue breastfeeding their babies or feeding formula safely, and gives special recognition to hospitals that have done so.

The designation is given after a rigorous on-site survey is completed. It is maintained by continuing to practice the Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding.

From a nurse’s standpoint, McWhorter says this effort helps improve mother-infant bonding by initiating the practice skin-to-skin contact.

“The World Health Organization recommends newborns spend the first hour of life in a skin-to-skin contact,” she says.

Benefits of this practice include better thermoregulation in the infant, decreased respiratory rate, blood glucose control, greater infant comfort and less infant crying. This practice also improves breastfeeding outcomes, McWhorter notes.

In turn, the relationship between health provider and patient or new mothers is improved as well.

“We’re promoting patient/family-centered care by allowing mothers and infants to remain together immediately after birth regardless of type of delivery,” McWhorter says.

“This helps support the mother in establishing breastfeeding through education and we’re offering breastfeeding support after discharge through outpatient visits and breastfeeding support groups.”

Overall, “we hope to improve mother and infant bonding and to improve patient outcomes by educating mothers of the benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and her newborn.”

Baptist Health is another hospital that is going baby-friendly. Jessiaca Donahue is an RN IBCLC Certified Lactation consultant at the Little Rock medical center. She is also the breastfeeding team lead for Healthy Active Arkansas. She explains that mothers who deliver their baby in a baby-friendly facility can be assured that all policies and procedures in place will support their feeding choice and that all staff is on board to help her be successful. 

“Becoming a baby-friendly facility is a comprehensive, detailed and thorough journey toward excellence in providing evidence-based maternity care with the goal of achieving optimal infant feeding outcomes and mother/baby bonding,” Donahue says.

“It compels facilities to examine, challenge and modify longstanding policies and procedures. It requires training and skill building among all levels of staff. It entails implementing audit processes to assure quality in all aspects of maternity care operations. The journey is exciting, challenging and worth it. It creates opportunities to develop high performance work teams and build leadership skills among staff, promotes employee pride, enhances patient satisfaction and improves health outcomes.”

At Baptist, there is Baby Friendly Committee in place, Donahue adds. It is on track to be awarded the Baby-Friendly certification by next year. Feedback, ideas and comments are welcome, she says. Contact her at 501.202.7378 or Jessica.donahue@baptist-health.org for more information. You can also keep up with Baptist Health on Facebook for the latest developments.

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Cuba's contradictions

Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Executive Director Dr. Marta Loyd and Director of Programs Janet Harris traveled to Havana in late June as part of an educational and trade mission organized by the Arkansas World Trade Center. Their purpose in visiting Cuba was to learn more about educational partnerships with the Cuban people as the U.S. continues to normalize relations with the island country. This is one of a series of articles reflecting on their visit. 

The plane ride from Miami to Havana only takes 45 minutes. In fact, Cuba’s capital city is a mere 106 miles from Key West, making it one of our closest neighbors. Yet Cuba remains a mystery to most Americans who have been restricted from regular travel to the island for more than 50 years. What we imagined we knew came mostly from books, movies and legend.

Antique cars like this one were the rule, not the exception, in Havana

Stepping onto Cuban soil for the first time, legend comes to life. Antique cars, men in straw fedoras, Che Guevara iconography, salsa music and buildings neglected since the revolution confirm popular stereotypes of a country “frozen in time.” But Cuba’s challenges and obstacles have prepared the country to leapfrog into the 21st century in ways we never expected, and there is much more to their story than stereotype.

While some buildings in Cuba have white-washed facades, many show decades of wear and repair

Partly, Cuba is defined by its contradictions. There’s the island nation neighbor to the south, and the communist country that might as well be on the other side of the world, separated by years of political distrust and broken promises. There’s a whitewashed façade that welcomes tourists, and there’s the broken buildings and machines that Cubans are forced to repair over and over in ingenious ways because they can’t buy anything new. There is the Cuba Fidel Castro dreamed of, and the stark reality that has emerged after 57 years of communist rule. There’s the Cuba we can help, and the one from which we can learn.

Cuba’s energy sector is a good example. We visited the Cuban Ministry of Energy and Mines to learn how they planned to meet the island’s rapidly increasing energy demands. Cuba currently burns crude oil and disperses energy through a system of generators. Through its trading relationship with Russia and more recently, Venezuela, oil has been an abundant and cheap energy source for many years.

Ministry officials recognize that their oil-powered generation system is dirty and inefficient. It also makes Cuba dangerously dependent on its trading partners, as Venezuela’s recent collapse proves.  

So the government’s energy plan calls for a 20 percent increase in renewable energy sources by 2030. Ministry officials are promoting opportunities for foreign investment in wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, keenly aware that its wise use of natural resources is key to the country’s energy security. Combined with an increased focus on natural gas production, Cuba is paving the way for a cleaner and more efficient system of energy production. Because it is not forced to wean itself from coal, the country is leapfrogging from crude oil to clean energy.

Increasing power plant efficiency, whatever the energy source, will be a priority for the ministry in coming years, a potential opportunity for schools like the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope offering a degree program in power plant technology.

The Cuban agriculture sector is prepared to leapfrog, too, albeit accidentally. The vast majority of Cuba’s farmland is still state-run, but farming cooperatives are on the rise.  Since the Soviet collapse of the 1990s, Cuban farmers have had no access to modern equipment, fertilizers or pesticides. The organic movement in the United States represented a return to natural farming practices by choice. In Cuba, organic farming was born out of necessity. 

Now Cuba’s plant scientists are embracing the organic movement, looking for ways to continue sustainable farming practices and increase yield. If they are successful in improving mechanization, Cuban farmers could be in a position to export organic food to the U.S., provided trade barriers are removed.

For now, though, Cuba faces immediate challenges in feeding its own people. The country’s infrastructure cannot adequately handle transportation of fruits, vegetables and frozen foods. Government farmland lies fallow in many places in the country, farmers lack the facilities and means to grow chickens, and Cubans must import most of their food. 

“Our people do not have enough animal protein in their diet,” said Dr. Yordan Martinez Aguilar of the University of Granma, who is working on a plant extract that could potentially replace antibiotics in poultry production. His hope is to provide a way to grow healthy broilers on the island without the use of antibiotics.

His work is significant and potentially groundbreaking. People like Yordan represent the best of all contradictions in Cuba. Cuban researchers are renowned in fields of medicine, animal science and biotechnology, and we can learn from them. Education is a public benefit free to all of its citizens, and the Cubans we met were very grateful for their educational opportunities and success. 

Still, the country’s challenges and limitations make the Cuban people somewhat isolated.

“We would like it very much if you would lift the blockade,” Yordan quietly remarked in one of our conversations, a stark reminder about his reality and the obstacles we face in engaging with one another. They are obstacles we must overcome if we are to know the Cuban people. They are worth knowing, worth helping and worth learning from.

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Fresh2You brings healthy produce to urban food deserts

From health care to personal services, the world becomes increasingly more mobile every day. Food is no exception. With the rise of farmers markets and the push to provide healthy options for everyone despite income level, many key players have joined forces in Little Rock to bring farm fresh produce to those in need.

And talk about putting an old city bus to good use. Once relegated to public transportation, a Little Rock municipal bus has been turned into a mobile farmers market. The “Fresh2You” bus can hardly be missed with its vibrant wrap of produce images.

The bus was parked at 19th and Arch streets in downtown Little Rock last week as a trial run before the initiative officially kicks off on Tuesday. Parked by Parris Towers – a public housing community – the bus was filled with produce provided by Raising Arkansas, a minority farmers collective.

The daily specials included sweet corn, three for a $1; sweet potatoes, $.50 per pound; tomatoes, $1 per pound; and blueberries, $2 per pound.

Alex Handfinger and Maggie Peach

Next to the bus was a tent featuring Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance’s Cooking Matters program. Representatives Alex Handfinger and Maggie Peach happily offered cantaloupe samples to passersby.

“We’re all working together to help people access healthy food,” said Tomiko Townley with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. She helps people throughout the state realize their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. “Food stamps” is the former term for SNAP.

The Fresh2You initiative accepts SNAP dollars, Townley said.

Increasing access to healthy foods is a key priority of both the Alliance and Healthy Active Arkansas, a statewide initiative endorsed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson that is designed to improve the health of all Arkansans. The initiative is divided into nine priority areas, each having two-, five- and 10-year goals.

Alliance Executive Director Kathy Webb serves as the co-team lead for one of Healthy Active Arkansas’ priority areas: Access to Healthy Foods.

“The Fresh2You mobile farmers market helps us meet four of our goals within the Access to Healthy Foods priority area,” Webb said.

The Fresh2You bus represents a partnership between the Alliance, the City of Little Rock, Raising Arkansas, Mosaic Church, the Blue and You Foundation and Rock Region Metro.

“It’s a great public/private partnership,” Webb said.

Johnny Pettis

Inside the bus last week was Johnny Pitts, founder of Raising Arkansas.

“Our goal is to help local growers and build them up,” he said.

The organization operates a year-round farm in Sheridan and works all over the state to reach out to farmers, Pitts said.

“We’re working on establishing a new food chain and getting farmers to work together.”

Pitts is more than ready to continue working with this initiative. The plan is to park the bus on given days to provide produce and help promote the hunger alliance’s Cooking Matters program.

The six-week course is free and held at different locations in partnership with different organizations, said Lynne Phillips, development director for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.

“We’re teaching people how to shop and cook healthily on a budget,” she said, pointing to the featured menu cards.

The Fresh2You bus will be parked at Parris Towers every Tuesday and at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center on Saturdays. A hope is to one day serve the housing authority downtown, Townley said.

A press conference will be held at 9 a.m. Tuesday to officially launch the mobile farmers market, followed by the market opening at 10.

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Retention & Recruitment: Ideas for the Future of Arkansas

Tis the season for partisan rhetoric. “The other side is to blame for all that ails us” is as common a mantra in headlines, social media posts and sound bytes as mosquitoes in south Arkansas.

And while every unique political viewpoint will claim to have cornered the markets of progress and stability, a group here in Arkansas has given form to a perspective not entrenched with partisan loyalties.

The Under 40 Forum, held in early April here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, provided time, space and structure for many of the Natural State’s up-and-coming leaders to share their views on a topic that is pivotal to Arkansas’ future: How do we attract and retain younger talent?

The two-day summit was filled with, as Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller would put it, “a search for solutions.” Our participants, 30 in number and representative of the 40 Under 40 lists of both Arkansas Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, represented the spectrum of American politics. We had Republicans, Democrats, Independents and probably some third- (or fourth-) party supporters in the room. And while they didn’t check their political leanings at the door, they did check their political egos.

What resulted is a 23-page report, which you can view and download here, in which these Under 40 Leaders identify key opportunities and obstacles to Arkansas’ economic and civic success in the 21st century.

To the highlights!

Some pros:

  • Arkansas is actually a great place to live, with relatively low cost of living and friendly residents.
  • This is a state where motivated people can have a tremendous impact on their community, and they don’t necessarily have to have lived here all their lives to do so.
  • We have good people, as evidenced by the quality of the Under 40 Leaders. Arkansas has both a long and recent history of producing people who show great ingenuity in business, industry, education and philanthropy.

Some cons:

  • We have a habit of getting in our own way. Regardless of political affiliation, our Under 40 Leaders agreed that we have to move beyond a national perception that Arkansas is a place where discriminatory attitudes prevail. Beyond just a political debate, it has real effects on a business’s ability to recruit talent from out of state, especially millennials.
  • “My hometown didn’t retain me” was something we heard from one Under 40 Leader and echoed by many more. The concept of small-town “brain drain” isn’t new, nor is it unique to Arkansas, but there may be new and innovative ways to address the problem, and Arkansas could be a leader in this area.
  • Arkansas has to invest in more widespread broadband access. Without it, we’re missing out on a lot of economic opportunities, especially in, but not limited to, rural areas.

Some recommendations:

  • We need universal pre-K options. We were a little surprised that this was one of the first topics the group jumped on. But they were almost all passionate about it. Younger talent equates to younger families, and younger families will generally only relocate somewhere with strong schools. That starts with offering pre-K opportunities.
  • Parks & Tourism and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission should be closer allies. That’s not to imply they don’t get along now, but the group of Under 40 Leaders believe there could be more and better collaboration between Parks & Tourism, which handles relocation package development, and AEDC, which is responsible for bringing in more business to the state.
  • Regionalism beyond northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Council was praised by our group for its good work in developing and branding NWAR. The Under 40 Leaders said similar or other regional councils could and should be established in other parts of the state. To accomplish this will require the engagement and motivation of business and other leaders in those regions.

There’s plenty more that’s covered in the report, so I encourage you to view the full document.

Suffice it to say, we’re rather proud of this project. Gov. Rockefeller was known for bringing the best and brightest in the state to Petit Jean Mountain to, again, “search for solutions.” That’s the core of our mission as an organization, and it seems this Under 40 Forum and the resulting report are exactly the kind of thing that would make Winthrop Rockefeller proud.

It also represents a great collaboration with the Clinton School of Public Service. The idea for the Under 40 Forum came directly from Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford, who shared his vision of an “80 Under 40” meeting last year.

The report is being distributed to political and business leaders throughout the state. If you have a question about the report or about the Under 40 Forum in general (next year’s Forum, which will engage the 2016 40 Under 40 lists, has been scheduled for March 2-3), contact Program Officer Cary Tyson at ctyson@uawri.org.

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The better state of Yell

You’ve heard of the CCC? The Civilian Conservation Corps was a public work relief program that operated from 1933-1942. The CCC was one of the most popular New Deal programs. It worked to improve the physical condition, heightened morale and increased employability of its members.

Meet the YCCC. The Yell County Community Coalition. YCCC is the new name of the (once) steering committee of the Yell County Uncommon Communities group. It has subgroups in many of the Yell County cities such as Mission: Dardanelle, which works to make positive differences in the lives of citizens by encouraging beautification, [community] marketing and branding, education, and economics through civic-minded volunteers. There’s something fitting about this new name and acronym given the history of Yell County and the CCC. Yell County is home to Mount Nebo State Park’s CCC camp, Company 1780-V. Led by Capt. H.L. Eagan, CCC Company 1780-V brought 20 tons of equipment and 186 veteran enrollees 1,350 feet up the mountain from Dardanelle train station. These men were often 20 years older than the average CCC recruit.

This Mission: Impossible of the CCC during its day was completed successfully despite many people surely thinking such a laborious task was a hopeless (and potentially fruitless) endeavor. However, the CCC cabins and other structures remain the pride of the park to this day. They continue to pay dividends to the state and the visitor.

Proving that wise investment has long-term dividends, the YCCC group, too, has many ambitious plans. Efforts to provide entrepreneurial training are underway. There’s a group working on enhancing tourism, particularly nature tourism including hiking and biking. Improving community communication efforts are a big focus. This is a challenge in a rural area with limited broadband, but YCCC is committed to being creative. YCCC has received a series of grants to develop a community garden and improve access to healthy, local foods. Partnering with ARVAC, the regional community action agency is helping a variety of community development efforts ranging from nutrition to housing and beyond.

Partnering with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, as well as the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service and its Breakthrough Solutions group resulted in a downtown riverfront masterplan. Ed Levy of Cromwell Architects is in the midst of developing a plan that will be unveiled in the near future. The entire county is excited about the possibilities.

“Nothing I like to do pays well,” wrote Charles Portis in his novel True Grit, partially set in Yell County. None of these people are getting paid for doing this work. They’re doing it because they want to make their home a better place. He also wrote “If you want anything done right, you will have to see to it yourself every time”. That’s exactly what the YCCC is doing.

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There’s more than meets the eye in Fairfield Bay

You might think of Fairfield Bay as just a retirement village. You’d be way wrong.

While the city of just under 2,300 people is home to a number of retirees, these folks are far from retired – at least in the traditional sense. You don’t find too many retirees building community recycle centers and filling shifts to keep such a facility open on a full-time basis.

A “hands-on” recycling center, the HIPPE Center is a place for education as well as a conservation undertaking.

“The most popular place for residents to bring their grandkids and other children is our recycling center,” says Mayor Paul Wellenberger, who is rightfully proud of the work being done in his community.

Began in 1985 by Harold and Sigrid Hippe, the Center now has nearly 50 volunteers who work more than 2,000 hours annually. They take in an average of 10 tractor-trailer loads of recycling each year. Unlike many good-sized cities, glass is recycled in Fairfield Bay via a partnership with Little Rock Air Force Base.

Most people are aware of the extraordinary amount of activity that is available for anyone in the Bay, as it’s called by locals. There’s golf, tennis, swimming, disc golf, hiking the new and growing trail system, water sports at the marina, bowling, a history museum hosted in a log cabin, and all sorts of other options. These are available for both the resident, guest and visitor. Speaking of guests, more than 14,000 visitors were recorded at the Fairfield Bay Conference Center last year. Turns out, Fairfield Bay is quite the spot for conferences and events.

“We think we could have come close to doubling that if we had a hotel in the Bay” the mayor says. “We are working on that.”

So many people visit the Bay that there’s a weekly welcome breakfast for visitors every Monday. Visitors hear about the numerous activities available and are greeted by the mayor. When’s the last time the mayor of the city you visited greeted you? All part of the charm of the Bay.

One of the many advantages of participation in the Uncommon Communities initiative are the relationships built at the trainings and in between sessions at working meetings. The nature of these gatherings give citizens from the cities of Clinton and Fairfield Bay a reason to be in the same room, focused on similar projects.

“We’re working together closer than ever,” Jackie Sikes of the Dirty Farmers’ Market Café in Clinton told me.

When we work together, great things can happen and great things are what make your community uncommon.

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Arts on the Mountain: a look back

This May we were honored to host a watercolor course from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Eleven art students lived and learned here at the Institute arriving on May 22 and leaving a week later, having spent every day learning new techniques and putting them to practice at several locations at the Institute and Petit Jean State Park.

I caught up with Sarah Spencer, one of the students, and got her impressions about the experience. Spencer explained, “This was not your typical university class experience. The week-long course at one of Arkansas’ most beautiful mountain retreats blended outstanding instruction and resources, serious study, and free time for walks, fishing, reading and reflecting.”

A participant in the watercolor workshop paints underneath a large rock face on Petit Jean Mountain.

Leading them through their week-long course was UALR visiting professor and artist in residence, Heidi Hogden. Hogden, whose work is currently in the Annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, taught classroom lessons out of the Institute’s Petit Jean I classroom, which was set up as the class’s studio for the week. More hands-on learning, however, took place outside of the class’s studio.

Students spent time painting beside the fields along the Institute’s drive, at the Studio, in Petit Jean State Park at locations like Davies Bridge and at the Arkansas Archeological Survey Station here at the Institute. Spencer explained, “For art students, the location on Petit Jean Mountain provided access to some of the state’s most stunning scenery, easily available by foot or by the staff-driven van that efficiently transported the group to unique locations for plein air painting.”

The visits made for a memorable week, Spencer said, noting that one of her favorite memories was the afternoon spent at the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Larry Porter, the archeological assistant for the survey station here, gave the students a tour of the station and selected several artifacts to be used as models for the class.

Students were inspired by the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain

“Following his tour of the facility, our class was invited to set up at the survey’s site for an afternoon of painting images of several rare objects from the collection,” Spencer said. “One of the artifacts was estimated to be over 1,000 years old – not your typical still life model!”

Reflecting on the mood of the class, Spencer said, “It was as much fun as going to camp – but a camp with a few more amenities. Spacious private cottages and meals provided three times a day by one of the state’s finest culinary programs.” 

Spencer’s overall recommendation? “I would say to any student (in any discipline) that an experience such as this is one you owe yourself. The ability to be removed from the ‘busyness’ of daily life and to learn new things in such a remarkable setting along with fellow students with shared interests is truly a gift. Note this as one priceless opportunity and take it.”

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The space between

The Cuba Consortium Agriculture and Food Roundtable was full of great moments.

The two-day event, held here at the Institute back in March, represented a partnership between the Institute, the Howard Baker Forum and Winrock International. It provided an opportunity for key leaders in the national conversation about normalizing relations with Cuba to share ideas, identify opportunities and map out the next steps that are needed to responsibly examine the issue of normalization.

The greatest moments didn’t come when Gov. Asa Hutchinson opened the meeting with a welcome address, in which he shared some of the things he learned about Cuba during his trip to the island nation last fall – though that certainly was a great moment.

They didn’t come when Minister Counselor Ruben Ramos Arrieta (pictured in the center above), a representative from the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., gave an impassioned, impromptu speech about the importance of understanding all sides of this issue and not simply assuming that the Cuban people have everything to learn and nothing to teach – though that was a particularly powerful moment.

They didn’t come when expert after expert illuminated the unique nuances of the issue so that all who attended left with a much better understanding – though those were important moments.

The greatest moments came in between sessions, when panelists mingled with attendees, when scholars, policymakers, farmers and government officials all shared their common interest in building a future that was good for Americans (particularly Arkansans) and Cubans alike.

And we’re beginning to see the fruits of those great moments.

Since attending the Cuba Consortium meeting, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward has been named to the consortium’s board. Ward will accompany our very own Dr. Marta Loyd and Janet Harris on a trip to Cuba next week. The trip, sponsored by the Arkansas World Trade Center, is designed to explore opportunities in agriculture, biotechnology and economic development.

In one of those side conversations at the consortium meeting, Arrieta had the opportunity to meet with an official from the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. UACC-Hope has the premier program in power plant management in the South, and since the March meeting, the school has engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Cuban officials about possibilities for partnering on education programs related to energy. It’s still to be determined what will come of these conversations, but the seeds have been planted.

So while it was a truly remarkable experience to hear people like Gov. Hutchinson, former Sen. Tom Daschle and a slew of trade and agriculture experts give their thoughts on the bright future we might have with our neighbors to the southeast, it was even more remarkable to see in action the power of convening the right people with a common purpose.

Stay tuned, because this assuredly won’t be the last time we report about our work on this issue.

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The trees that stick in our memories

Growing up in Arkansas, it is easy to take trees for granted. No matter where you are in the state, chances are you aren’t too far from a towering pine, a sprawling magnolia or shady oak. And yet, few of us stop to see the trees for the forest. That’s a trait Linda Palmer invites you to change with a series of detailed colored pencil renderings of the Champion Trees of Arkansas.

Each of the Champion Trees are the largest of their species in Arkansas, cataloged by the Arkansas Forestry Commission. Of the 123 currently identified Champions, Palmer captured 18 for her first exhibit, traveling to each tree personally to take countless reference photos and get a feel for each tree’s unique traits and personality.

Palmer then takes her reference photos and experience back to her studio, where she begins the process of drawing each tree with colored pencils. Colored pencils were chosen as the medium for the work as they allow her to impart very precise details into each drawing. Palmer also tries to frame each tree in a way that conveys what stuck with her most about each tree she visited, such as the looming height and bark pattern of the former Champion shortleaf pine (which has unfortunately fallen in a storm since) or the many knees of the Champion cypress. The end results are masterfully detailed works that represent living pieces of history.

Each tree in the exhibit also tells a story, from a tree that has been part of a graveyard for decades to a tree that has grown with one family through the generations. Palmer traveled more than 7,000 miles across Arkansas to visit the trees and hear the stories surrounding them. Some trees are located in a family’s front yard or in the center of a town, while others are tucked away in the middle of some of Arkansas’ biggest forests, but all of the trees have a special meaning to someone.

Palmer’s journey even inspired an Arkansas Educational Television Network documentary titled Champion Trees.  The documentary tells about the exhibition, explores the landowner history for the champion trees and includes the perspective of the Arkansas Forestry Department. There’s even an accompanying educator’s guide full of classroom activities that encourage engagement with and study of the trees in the students’ lives.

At its heart, the Champion Trees Exhibit is an invitation to lose yourself in contemplation, both of the trees featured in the exhibit and the trees from your past. Just as the Champion Trees have countless decades of memories invested in them, I know I have personal memories of trees that I grew up with. And even if you don’t have memorable trees in your own life, there’s no better time to visit us on the mountain to see the exhibit in person. And if you can, come for the exhibit’s opening reception at 2 p.m. Friday, June 3. Palmer herself will be here to talk about the exhibit, as will State Forester Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. The reception is free to attend, but we ask that you register in advance.

After your visit you can spend some time on our grounds and in Petit Jean State Park and make all new tree memories.

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