Black excellence: The Reform Alliance brings speakers, music for Little Rock town hall event celebrating Black History Month

Take entertainment, mash it up with education and you get “edutainment.”

That’s what Tashan O’Neal, community engagement specialist with The Reform Alliance, says people can expect at Saturday’s Black History Month Town Hall at Southwest Little Rock Community Center.

“We want people to be educated and entertained at the same time,” says O’Neal in a bright conference room in the building that houses the Alliance’s offices near the state Capitol.

The Alliance is a Little Rock-based nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring every K-12 student in Arkansas has equal access to a world-class education,” as stated on its website. The mission of the Alliance: “to create a network of parent and community leaders so every policy decision and every conversation about education starts and ends with how it impacts our kids.”

The organization was founded in 2015 by Laurie Lee, whose daughter struggled in a traditional school setting. Lee wanted to share the resources she found in her experiences with other Arkansas parents.

“Most parents don’t understand what options there are available beyond the normal districts they are assigned to,” says DeAnn Thomas, communications director for the Alliance. “It was founded to be an advocacy organization to teach parents how to find options.”

The group administers the Succeed Scholarship and the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids program. The scholarship provides funding for students with learning disabilities or in foster care to be able to attend private schools; this year, students from military families can also apply. The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids program gives students who could not afford it the opportunity to attend a private school.

O’Neal describes the town hall as “a celebration.”

“It’s an opportunity for parents to have some fun and talk about their experiences,” she says.

Featured speakers will be:

◼️ Edmond Davis, history professor at Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock and director of the school’s Derek Olivier Research Institute for the Prevention of Gun Violence

◼️ Little Rock native and activist Tim Campbell, who serves on the Pulaski County Criminal Justice Commission and Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission for the city of Little Rock

◼️ Denisha Merriweather of Jacksonville, Fla., the founder of Black Minds Matter and director of public relations and content marketing at the American Federation for Children.

“They are all passionate about education equality,” Thomas says. “And that’s really what we want, making sure that … minorities and those from low-income backgrounds have access to the appropriate educational options.”

TRANSPLANTED SOUTHERNER

Davis, 45, is originally from Philadelphia, but after coming South for school — Grambling State University in Grambling, La., for his undergraduate degree and Louisiana Tech University for his master’s degree in history — he’s a happily “transplanted Southerner.”

“I’ve been down here for more than 25 years and it’s grown on me,” he says in his office in the DORI building at Arkansas Baptist College. He came to Little Rock in 2003 and has taught at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; Pulaski Technical College (now the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Tech); and the University of Phoenix. He started at Arkansas Baptist in 2008.

Davis is the author of “Pioneering African American Aviators Featuring the Tuskegee Airmen of Arkansas,” the group of primarily Black military pilots and airmen who fought in World War II, and has what is believed to be the largest collection of Arkansas Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia in the country. His interest in the airmen was inspired by his friendship with the late Milton Crenchaw, a Little Rock native and one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

The Derek Olivier Research Institute for the Prevention of Gun Violence, which opened in 2020, is named for the Arkansas Baptist College student athlete who was killed by gunfire near the campus in September 2012 while helping a friend change a flat tire. A portrait of Olivier hangs on the wall of Davis’ office.

“We collect, analyze and track data trends in violence, particularly homicides, in Black males,” Davis says. “We are a research institute and we give recommendations to communities, neighborhoods, schools on what they may need from the data we collect.” Last year, Davis became host and producer of Arkansas Baptist’s online radio show “Keeping It 100 With DORI,” which airs at 6 p.m. Thursdays.

His talk at Saturday’s Town Hall will focus on Black Wall Streets, areas in cities around the U.S. — such as Ninth Street in Little Rock — that were havens of Black business and economy.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there were nearly 100 Black Wall Streets [all over the country],” he says. “Like [historically Black colleges and universities], they were started by African Americans who were successful entrepreneurs and were flourishing.”

    “It’s important that our youth understand the position they play in change,” says Tim Campbell, who serves on the Pulaski County Criminal Justice Commission and Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission for the city of Little Rock. Campbell will speak during The Reform Alliance’s Black History Town Hall on Saturday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)  ‘I WANTED TO HELP PEOPLE’

When he was in the second grade, Campbell remembers announcing during a career day program at Word of Outreach Christian Academy that when he grew up he wanted to be a Crip — a member of one of the nation’s most notorious street gangs.

“I said it loudly and proudly. And then I felt a big arm sweep me off the stage,” he says while laughing at the memory.

Campbell, 29, grew up on Wolfe Street in the Wright Avenue neighborhood of Little Rock.

“My story starts right in the middle of the gang-banging in Little Rock era,” he says. “I was only reflecting what I had seen.”

He did not grow up to be a Crip. He graduated from Little Rock Central High School, where he played running back on the football team. He earned a degree in health sciences from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (becoming the first in his family to graduate from college) and served two years with the Peace Corps in The Gambia.

“I knew after graduating from UAPB that I wanted to help people,” he says during an interview at Nexus Coffee and Creative in Little Rock’s River Market District. “Not just, ‘Can I take your order’ kind of help. I told my adviser that I wanted to help people in remarkable ways.”

Campbell is in the graduate program at the Clinton School for Public Service with an emphasis on community development and inner city and urban area development, and works as the campus recruiter at Shorter College in North Little Rock.

In 2020, after helping lead protests in Little Rock in re- sponse to the killing of George Floyd, Campbell was among the activists appointed to a task force assembled by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to review Arkansas’ standards for police training and operations, com- munity policing and the dis- ciplinary process for officers who violate protocol.

“It started with a movement here in Little Rock to help ignite young minds and healthy spaces,” he says. “I knew how I felt after George Floyd. I remember seeing the global outcry on TV, people rioting and looting. I knew something had to happen in Little Rock.”

On Saturday he will talk about the role of young people in causing change.

“It’s important that our youth understand the position they play in change. Everything they see today, the George Floyds, the Breonna Taylors, the tension of these trials … it’s important to incite social responsibility in our youth and let them know they are not just passive observers in this fight for global change.”

    Black Minds Matter founder Denisha Merriweather of Jacksonville, Fla., went from failing third grade twice to being the first in her family to finish high school, earning two college degrees, and working with a former U.S. Education secretary. Merriweather will speak Saturday at The Reform Alliance’s Black History Town Hall. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/The Reform Alliance)  BLACK MINDS MATTER

Merriweather, a former school choice and youth liaison to former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was here last year for a Juneteenth event held by The Reform Alliance. She started Black Minds Matter about 18 months ago.

The nonprofit seeks to “celebrate Black minds, support excellence, and promote the development of high-quality school options for Black students.” It also started the first online directory of Black-owned schools.

“We have charter schools, home schools, online schools, private schools and virtual schools founded by Black individuals to provide education options for students,” Merriweather says. “It’s cool because it’s a niche within a niche and supports the academic development of Black students.”

Merriweather will share her personal experience and how she became involved in education reform.

“I went to my local schools from K through fifth grades,” she says. “I failed the third grade twice because I couldn’t read and I thought I was stupid. The teachers would sigh when I came through the door. It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to go to a small private school in Jacksonville [Fla.] that my life changed. It sounds cliched, but it really did. I come from a long family history of people who dropped out of school and I thought that was going to be my outcome, but it didn’t happen that way.”

Not only was she the first in her family to graduate from high school, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science and a master’s degree in social work.

“Organizations like The Reform Alliance are critical, because now parents have access to a plethora of options and now they need to know which one to choose,” she says. “It’s a great problem to have. Before, parents were spoon-fed one option, but now they have the opportunity to pick and choose.”

Black History Month Town Hall

◼️ presented by The Reform Alliance1-3 p.m. Saturday, Southwest Little Rock Community Center, 6401 Baseline Road, Little RockSpeakers: Edmond Davis, Tim Campbell and Denisha MerriweatherMusic: The Rodney Block CollectiveAdmission: FreeInformation: thereformalliance.org

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