Time to Welcome Diversity

Via the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 12-16-16

The long, hard-fought election of 2016 illustrated the wide range of ideas, ideologies and opinions that exists across the country and in our own community. Political campaigns, by their very nature, emphasize differences, and in doing so often create tensions and divisions among neighbors. There might be a time and a place for that in a healthy modern democracy, but at some point, if we're going to make progress and build a great community, we need to set those differences aside and work together toward the things we all want: Safe communities. Good schools. Ample opportunities for ourselves and our families. A successful economy that will adapt to future changes. All of those things that make Northwest Arkansas one of the best places to live in the world.

Over the past year, EngageNWA, a Northwest Arkansas partnership dedicated to enhancing the region's quality of life, has been working with several mayors in Northwest Arkansas toward our goal of becoming the nation's first "Welcoming Region." Our aim is to preserve what's made the area great, while ensuring we're preparing effectively for a changing world. The result of this work in conjunction with our national partners, Welcoming America and Partnership for a New American Economy, is "Global Talent: The Economic Engine of Northwest Arkansas" (http://www.renewoureconomy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/pnae_nwarkansas_v23.pdf). It's a substantial report, but an overriding conclusion is that our region has grown in a much healthier, more vibrant and profitable way than most others of its size, in no small part, due to the influx of diverse talent.

New Americans in Northwest Arkansas:

• Account for 42 percent of the region's population growth between 2009 and 2014.

• Added $3.1 billion to the metro area's gross domestic product in 2014 alone, and hold $1 billion in spending power.

• Contributed $131 million in state and local taxes in 2014.

• Paid $698.1 million to Social Security and $163.3 million to Medicare during the period from 2009 to 2014.

• Increased the total housing value across Northwest Arkansas by $759 million during 2000 to 2014

• International students attending institutions of higher education in the region support 522 local jobs and have contributed more than $46 million to the local economy in 2014.

And we're poised for more growth--if we make the right decisions. What got us to where we are today won't get us to where we want to be tomorrow.

If Northwest Arkansas is going to continue to flourish, it will be due to a combination of thriving existing businesses and institutions, which have carried us to where we are today, and successful startups that compete with the best across the globe. All of those depend on a local talent pool that will, by necessity, be augmented by talent from other areas. To appeal to that outside talent, and grow those businesses, we'll need to work together to build communities that are not only attractive, but also consistently welcoming.

As a part of our broader mission to help create an officially designated Welcoming Region, EngageNWA recently became the recipient of a Walmart Foundation grant that allows us, and our partner organizations, to focus on the work of community cohesion in Northwest Arkansas.

In November, we hosted two public forums aimed at eliciting the most pressing issues around welcoming and inclusion in Northwest Arkansas, from both our local and diverse populations. The forum outcomes have provided us with unique insights about the needs of our communities as we all prepare for the future. The findings were presented and further deliberated at a third public forum on December 1, which included participation from community leaders, including Mayor Doug Sprouse from Springdale, Mayor Peter Christie from Bella Vista and Mayor Lioneld Jordan from Fayetteville.

While there were some excellent specific ideas, most of the recommendations from the forums fell into four distinct categories:

• Bringing people together via networks, building safe spaces for communication and creating information and cultural events.

• Improving communications by breaking down language barriers, expanding communications channels and creating systems for community feedback.

• Increasing engagement in community activities and expanding leadership opportunities.

• Building a welcoming infrastructure that includes affordable and accessible transportation and housing.

We believe that by working together with longtime Northwest Arkansas residents and with those newer to the area we can build on the momentum we've experienced in recent years.

Community leaders across the region are excited to partner with EngageNWA in working with civic leaders toward becoming a Welcoming Region. Now it's up to the rest of us to turn that promise into a reality. At EngageNWA, we invite you to join us, no matter who you are, where you came from, or what you believe. Lend your voice, your ideas, and your talent to a collaborative effort to keep Northwest Arkansas on a strong growth path well into the future.