Making diversity work is an exchange, not a welcome mat, say panelists


Reaping the full benefits of Northwest Arkansas’ diverse population requires newcomers to reach out to the community to welcome them, speakers said at a panel Friday hosted by the Northwest Arkansas Council. Arkansas.

For example, people think the Asian Business Association of Arkansas is for Asians operating businesses in Arkansas, said group founder and president Yang Luo-Branch. The group is open to anyone in Arkansas doing business or wanting to do business in Asia, she said Friday. Similarly, Marshallese-American chef Judy Tatios wants to introduce everyone to Marshallese culture by using food as a gateway, not just catering to the area’s Marshallese community, she said.

“Commitment starts with us,” said Luo-Branch, an immigrant from China.

Luo-Branch, Tatios and Francisco Herrero, chairman of bilingual banking institution Banco Si, discussed the council’s newly released report on diversity during a panel discussion Friday, offered by the Onward Ozarks Speaker Series. They were joined by series host Randy Wilburn and Margo Lemaster, executive director of pro-diversity group EngageNWA. The council is a not-for-profit group of regional businesses and community leaders.

The board released its diversity report on Wednesday. The population of Benton and Washington counties was 95.4% white in 1990, according to the study. This proportion fell to 70.9% last year and will be 67.9% by 2026, while the overall population growth rate will remain high, according to the study.

The proportion of racial and ethnic minorities in the region might be underestimated, Lemaster told the roundtable.

“The census said nationally that there are undercounts,” Lemaster said of the 2020 U.S. census. The census is among the sources used by the council’s study.

The Federal Census Bureau announced earlier this year that there was a statistically significant undercount of black, Hispanic and Native American populations. Residents of northwest Arkansas can safely assume that these undercounts affected estimates for minorities in northwest Arkansas, Lemaster said Friday. The Marshallese in particular have been an underestimated group in previous censuses, she said.

By far, the largest ethnic segment of Northwest Arkansas’ minority population is the Hispanic segment, according to the council’s study. Hispanic residents made up more than 17% of the region’s population in 2021, according to the study.

Signature Bank launched its Banco Si division to serve the growing Spanish-speaking community by offering services in English and Spanish, Herrero said Friday.

“Language is one barrier but not the only one” for Hispanics in obtaining financial services, he said.

“If you’re here from another country, you don’t have a history in the United States that translates into a credit history,” Herrero said. Credit history is the basis for obtaining almost any type of financing, he said.

Banco Si will not only provide basic banking services, but will offer help in creating and building a credit history, he said.

All panelists described Northwest Arkansas as a welcoming community with many opportunities.

“I was born in California,” Tatios said. Northwest Arkansas reminds her of what California was like when it was booming, she said.

“It really is the land of opportunity,” she said, echoing one of the state’s nicknames.

One of the hurdles Tatios faces in sharing Marshallese culture through food is getting the staples of Marshallese cuisine, she said. For example, many Marshallese dishes include coconut crab — a land crab that can get “as big as a dumpster,” she said. These crabs can weigh up to 9 pounds, according to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

“The Marshallese don’t use spices,” Tatios said. Authentic ingredients are therefore essential to achieve the right blend of flavors. Getting those indigenous ingredients is a challenge here, she said.

As welcoming as northwest Arkansas is, “it’s very hard to be a marshal in the United States,” Tatios said. “Our cultures are very different.” Marshallese are much more “laid back” than others, she said.


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