SPECIAL REPORT: Northwest Arkansas then and now


In the '90s, minorities made up less than five percent of the population in Northwest Arkansas. Fast forward to 2017— and they account for over 25 percent.

NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KFTA) — The 2020 census is months away.

As the population of Northwest Arkansas is growing, so are the demographics.

In the 90’s, 95 percent of NWA was white.

Now, things look much different and that brings hope to many in the minority community.

“I was a new mom and I’m trying to go to school full time, trying to find support for my child,” said Melisa Laelan, the CEO and founder of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.

Laelan came from the Marshall Islands to Northwest Arkansas.

A new place with a new child— her early years weren’t easy.

“I could remember being a student and felt like I didn’t have a way out,” she said. “I honestly, truly felt that.”

But now, she said things have changed.

“Now we’re seeing a change in narrative. People are more supportive, people are more welcoming,” said Lealan.

In the ’90s, minorities made up less than five percent of the population in Northwest Arkansas.

Fast forward to 2017— and they account for over 25 percent.

Drive through a city like Springdale, and you can see vibrant Latino and marshallese influences.

She said, “People are able to lend their hand and uplift this particular community.”

But, this harmony didn’t come without conflict.

“In those early years there wasn’t much diversity and what people led with was stereotypes,” said Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United.

Melisa Laelan created the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese with the goal of improving the lives of people from the Marshall Islands.

From 2010 to 2022, the number of Pacific Islanders is projected to double.

But even with a larger population, she said the group is often misunderstood.

“The biggest misconception is that we have better access to a lot of things more than anyone else but that’s really not true,” said Laelan.

Laelan said Marshallese people have a unique, “non-immigrant” status, but it’s not restriction free.

“In the state of Arkansas, the Marshallese cannot access medicaid, the adults,” she said. “Up until 2018, children weren’t able to access that program as well.”

She said sometimes those false ideas can lead to overt racism.

“She blatantly said something like, ‘all these immigrants come here and take all the jobs from us’ yeah that was not nice,” said Laelan.

Hers isn’t the only group battling misconceptions.

Mireya Reith with Arkansas United works toward better inclusivity for the Latino community.

“This idea that we’re all in competition for our slice of the pie. We need to start looking at our society and economy as an elastic band that grows when each of us reach our potential,” she said.

The struggle continues.

Reith said Arkansas Act 1076, put into effect last summer, aims to make life more difficult for immigrants.

The act prohibits cities from adopting sanctuary policies.

“They even equated us at one point to cattle and to animals,” Reith said. “That really said to us, that there is and continues to be work that needs to be done.”

Springdale has the most Hispanics and Pacific Islanders.

According to the Northwest Arkansas Council, non-Hispanics make up less than 50 percent of its population.

“Springdale has obviously had to adapt dramatically over the past 20 years to that,” said Rick Shaeffer, the communication director for Springdale schools.

He said 48 percent of their students are Hispanic and 13 percent are Marshallese.

“Our Hispanic community is pretty well incorporated in. We’re still doing things that we can to help our Marshallese students thrive as our Hispanic students are,” Shaeffer said.

He said around half the district’s teachers speak English as a second language, but sometimes it’s still a struggle to communicate with parents.

“It’s a little more difficult to get Marshallese translators,” he said.

But, his team works to ensure all kids get the same opportunity to flourish.

He said, “Once the Marshallese kids get here, we want them to be just as receptive as anybody, Caucasian, Hispanic, anybody to the opportunities they have to be successful.”

Reith said, “When every single student achieves their potential, we all achieve their potential.”

Springdale schools even allow non-English speaking parents to learn alongside their kids through a family literacy program.

“It helps them one, to incorporate in the community to better themselves but also to understand the needs of their child as far as education is concerned,” Shaeffer said.

As NWA continues to grow, in both population and diversity, many hope to see more inclusivity across the board.

Shaeffer said, “10-15 years from now I think you’ll see Springdale being maybe the leading community in the entire state of Arkansas.”

Laelan said, “In order for us to be successful as one community, we need to work together and we need to set aside our differences and accept each other.”

Reith said, “It’s actual people. They’re neighbors, they’re kids in school, and I think it’s getting down to that basic level of humanity that gives me hope about where Northwest Arkansas is going for the future.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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