POCAHONTAS, AR (KAIT) - The Opening Hearts and Minds Task Force has been working for nearly a year to prepare Clay, Lawrence and Randolph County residents for anticipated demographic changes.
When Peco Foods Inc., announced they would be opening a poultry processing plant in Pocahontas, the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority wanted to address the various changes that would come along with it.
"There were committees for education, for infrastructure, housing...all sorts of things that were going to be impacted in our community," Dr. Jan Ziegler said.
Dr. Ziegler said they also wanted to address impending demographic changes.
"This is a community that does not have a lot of diversity," Ziegler said. "While we don't know what the future will bring in terms of a workforce, in all likelihood, looking historically at what has occurred in other places where large poultry processing plants have gone in, we think that there may be newcomers who are non-native Arkansans, specifically Hispanics."
Ziegler serves as the chairperson for Opening Hearts and Minds, a task force sponsored by the Black River Technical College Office of Corporate and Community Education and the BRTC Foundation.
For the past year, she and others have held activities with area residents to spark conversation on immigration and the effects of it.
"There's so much information that's based on fear, paranoia, distrust of anything different," Dr. Ziegler said. "So we're trying little by little to replace that misunderstanding or misinformation with facts and truths and hopefully acceptance."
Dr. Jan Ziegler said the response has been primarily positive.
"We've had the occasional push back, which you would expect and which is all the more reason we need to be doing what we're doing," Dr. Ziegler.
Opening Hearts and Minds Team Leader Eric Moffett has spoken with groups, organizations and individuals the past few months about the issue.
"We can't ignore it," Moffett said. "We have to have this conversation."
Moffett said though they talk about economic impacts, he also tries to bring a human side to immigration to help open the hearts and minds of people in the area.
"All of us come with our preconceived notions about any issue and immigration is certainly one of those issues," Moffett said.
He said thankfully, through this task force, they've had the opportunity to have the conversation about immigration before the demographic change.
"Communities don't always have the opportunity before change, before growth to ask these types of questions," Moffett said. "What a historic opportunity to have that conversation now and to say we choose now to make Pocahontas the very best place for whoever comes so they can raise their family, invest here, in the same way that we have."
The culminating event of their yearlong series is a free public presentation from a Pulitzer Prize winning author.
On April 7, Sonia Nazario will speak at the BRTC Randolph County Development Center about immigration and her book Enrique's Journey.
Nazario will speak at 9:30 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Nazario's presentation, along with the events over the past year, are funded in part by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for Humanities.
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