The Little Rock Congregations Study (LRCS) research team at UA Little Rock worked with a team of students from the UA-Clinton School of Public Service to host a series of community dialogue discussions during the spring semester to explore how congregations and nonprofits in Little Rock can come together to make an impact on important community issues.
The three community sessions focused on the issues selected as the most important from a survey of nearly 2,300 congregants from 35 places of worship across Little Rock who took part in the 2020 LRCS Survey. Their responses indicated a particular interest among the community on the issues of education, healthcare, and marriage and family.
The LRCS is led by UA Little Rock professors Rebecca Glazier, Gerald Driskill, and Kirk Leach, in consultation with the project’s Clergy Advisory Board, a group of eight clergy members in Little Rock who advise the Little Rock Congregations Study. The Clinton School of Public Service students who led the community dialogue sessions include Amanda Cady, Layne Coleman, David Lewis, Oluwaseun Olaniyi, and Essence Thomas.
More than 30 people attended the community dialogue sessions from congregations and nonprofit organizations. In each session, participants from a wide variety of backgrounds discussed their own experiences with each of these issues and the ways in which they hoped to collaborate for positive change in the community.
Through each session, participants identified barriers to collaboration between congregations and nonprofits, including time and money, religious and political differences, historic racial inequities, and resistance to change. They also discussed ways to overcome these barriers, including open communication, targeted efforts within congregations to raise awareness, and most importantly, building connections within the community. In small-group discussions, participants were able to meet community members with shared interest areas and discuss new and current initiatives in areas of education, healthcare, and marriage and family.
“We were excited for this opportunity to bring people together, despite the pandemic,” said Glazier, director of the Little Rock Congregations Study. “The research we have done over the past few years has shown that both congregations and nonprofits in our city really have a heart to serve. The more they can connect with one another and find areas of commonality, the more we can make progress on these important issues in our community.”
In the dialogue on education, participants discussed the history of Little Rock’s education system as well as numerous limitations to education, including racial inequity, poverty, and school funding. Barriers to collaboration were identified as race relations, time, and lack of economic resources.
Their collaboration ideas to address issues in education include engaging with different congregations through volunteer opportunities, volunteering in mentoring programs for local students, and having individual congregations partner with a local school.
In the healthcare session, participants discussed issues impacting healthcare in Little Rock, including equity and access to healthcare, rising costs, and differing priorities. One focus of the discussion included racial disparities in healthcare issues and access to healthcare. Participants were interested in finding ways to connect with organizations and congregations outside of their usual circles to learn about initiatives taking place across the city.
Their collaborative ideas to address healthcare issues include collaborating to arrange health screening and vaccine clinics, building conscious connections across community groups, and prioritizing empowerment and education around health issues and rights.
During the marriage and family session, participants from a wide variety of backgrounds found common ground in the stressors that marriages and families encounter and how to provide empathy and support to families in times of need. When families have a strong support system, they are able to persevere through challenges, which benefits family members and their community.
Participants also explored ideas for how congregations and nonprofits can collaborate to address issues in marriage and family. Their ideas included mentoring programs for families and couples, providing support for children in foster care and their families, and outreach programs to identify and address issues facing families.
“As Clinton School students, this dialogue series was a wonderful learning experience for us,” said Amanda Cady, a graduate student. “These dialogues allowed us to apply the academic skills we’ve learned in our program while connecting with the community. We learned that people in Little Rock truly care about their neighbors and want to work together to improve their community. As aspiring public service providers, this was a great way to learn from residents and give back to the city!”
A post-evaluation of the participants found that the dialogue series overwhelmingly helped them become more willing to work through barriers to collaboration between congregations and nonprofits. Across dialogues, data showed that most participants became more willing to collaborate across differences, including religious and political differences. Additionally, all participants reported that they would participate in a similar dialogue event again.