Opportunity by Design: Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘Relentless Pursuit of Equity’

Winthrop Rockefeller had a vision for a fair and just Arkansas, an ambition that now serves as the guiding purpose of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. 

In 1976, the foundation received $15 million from Rockefeller’s estate, the equivalent of $94 million today. The WRF’s current endowment stands at $132 million, and according to foundation president and CEO Sherece West-Scantlebury, the nonprofit is taking strides every day to make the famed former Arkansas governor’s dream a reality.

“Gov. Rockefeller envisioned a thriving, prosperous Arkansas that would benefit all Arkansans,” West-Scantlebury says. “Equitability aims to dismantle barriers and disrupt systems through policy solutions that work for everyone in Arkansas. Along with our founder, we envision an equitable Arkansas where all Arkansans can earn a livable wage, get a quality education and have the chance to build generational wealth.” 

WRF grants are used in a few key ways: to strengthen access to capital for micro and small businesses and provide business development services in low-wealth communities; increase access to capital by acting as a guarantor for a line of credit for affordable housing development; build the nonprofit ecosystem to advance equity and systemic change; and grow public will and change infrastructure to support ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) families.

The foundation focuses most of its efforts in the areas of economic equity, educational equity and social, ethnic and racial equity. Through grants and partnerships, it funds organizations that seek to expand power and access for marginalized communities.

“General operating support grants are flexible and allow funds to be used when and where they are needed most,” West-Scantlebury says. “[These are] especially important for organizations led by and serving people of color who tend to receive less grant money with more strings attached than their white counterparts.” 

Economic Equity

Teaming up with grant partners is a critical part of the foundation’s approach to supporting Arkansas’ ALICE families. Close to 50% of households in Arkansas fit into this category, and Arkansas ranks fourth nationally for highest percentage of ALICE households.

West-Scantlebury points out these are individuals we interact with daily who are just above the Federal Poverty Level and trying to make ends meet.

“The cashiers, waitpersons, delivery drivers, janitors and home health care workers who serve us every day go home and struggle to pay the next electric bill because their child needs medicine or they can’t make it to work because they had to sell their car to keep from losing their home.” 

She says WRF awards general operating support to grassroots, community-based organizations that are creating opportunities for people to organize, advocate and speak up for policies that affect the day-to-day lives of these ALICE families.

Partners like the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas United, El Centro Hispano and the Foundation for Social Impact are banding together to tackle hardships facing this group.  

“They are organizing rural Arkansans, people of color and immigrants from across the state to advocate for statewide, regional and local initiatives that have the power to improve rural infrastructure, increase broadband access, reduce voter suppression and create new policies that support Arkansas’ ALICE families,” West-Scantlebury says.

She notes that addressing these disparities is not only the right thing to do, but would also benefit Arkansas’ long-term growth.

“When nearly half of all households in Arkansas are ALICE, our potential for broad prosperity is severely constrained,” West-Scantlebury says. “When wide disparities in health, earnings, wealth, homeownership, incarceration and other life outcomes remain starkly uneven — determined by factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and zip code — we all experience restrictions on our freedoms and opportunities to prosper.” 

The current ALICE survival budget for a family of four is $46,000. According to West-Scantlebury, if Arkansas households earned at least that amount, the state would benefit from roughly a $2.2 billion net gain for the state budget. Total annual income in the state would be $8.7 billion higher, and by 2050, the state’s GDP would be $23 billion higher annually. The state budget would gain $2.5 billion annually through increased tax revenues, and Arkansas businesses would be supported by $6.6 billion more in annual consumer spending power. 

“By choosing policies and practices that remove barriers to progress for every Arkansan, we will create a higher standard of living for us all,” West-Scantlebury says. “Equity is the path to unlocking Arkansas’ potential. It’s a boom for businesses, it’s the responsibility of government and it’s a win for Arkansas.” 

Educational Equity

Excel by Eight and Forward Arkansas are WRF’s flagship education equity initiatives.

“Educational and health equity are the priorities of Excel by Eight, which is a campaign to build a reliable resource grid to ensure all Arkansas families and communities have what they need to thrive,” West-Scantlebury says. “Attendance is critical to academic success. Children who attend school regularly in kindergarten and first grade are more likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade and are less prone to drop out of high school.” 

Unfortunately, more than one in 10 Arkansas kindergarteners and first graders are chronically absent, and students from low-income families are twice as likely to be chronically absent.

In 2013, Excel by Eight, also known as Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, partnered with Attendance Works to launch “Make Every Day Count.” This program aims to help schools, districts and communities track chronic absences and implement plans to keep kids in the classroom. After working with more than 40 school districts, the Arkansas Department of Education included chronic absences into its Every Student Succeeds Act plan and provides ongoing support to schools and districts through its education renewal zone directors. 

“The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation has been a long-term supporter of Excel by Eight, which believes that all children in Arkansas should have a strong start to reach their full potential,” Excel by Eight Executive Director Angela Duran says. “A strong start means education and health outcomes are not determined by barriers related to age, disability, gender, income, race/ethnicity, geography or community resources.”   

Forward Arkansas was established in 2015 by the Walton Family Foundation and WRF to improve student outcomes through policy and system changes. Its goal is to ensure every Arkansas student has access to and is prepared for opportunities that come up personally and professionally. 

Credit: Jason Masters

West-Scantlebury says the group has achieved some recent equity-specific policy wins, including successful advocacy in 2017 for an increased $3 million in funding for pre-K programs, the Arkansas Concurrent Challenge Scholarship elevating student employability as a learning outcome and suggested spending models and teacher salary changes being recommended by the House and Senate education committees.

“WRF invests in bold, disruptive change in education to provide every Arkansas student with the opportunities in career and life they deserve,” Forward Arkansas Executive Director Ben Kutylo says. “To achieve education equity, they recognized that every student in the state must have access to high-quality, diverse educators — which is not the reality today. The investments they have made in transforming Arkansas educator preparation will be foundational to producing better outcomes for all Arkansas kids.”

Social, Ethnic & Racial Equity

The nonprofit DecARcerate is one of the programs that uses its WRF general support grants to address issues of racial inequity. 

“DecARcerate uses its grants to challenge structural racism in the justice system,” West-Scantlebury says. “It amplifies the voices of those impacted by excessive fines and fees that keep them perpetually indebted to the justice system.” 

DecARcerate also advocates for eliminating automatic driver’s license suspensions for non-driving-related offenses. 

“Arkansas is one of four states that continue this practice that disproportionately affects ALICE workers and people of color,” West-Scantlebury says. 

WRF Board Chair Cedric Williams has seen the foundation’s work firsthand through the Arkansas Black Mayors Association.

“Being a former mayor, I understand the challenges of applying for needed federal funding, especially for mayors of smaller rural towns,” Williams says. “WRF’s investment (approximately $200,000) has resulted in historic federal funding of more than $97 million for much needed water infrastructure projects being funneled to these rural towns. This has given confidence — and more importantly capacity — to the ABMA to apply for federal funding to help with other important matters.” 

“During the early months of COVID, federal resources, particularly the PPP program, left out many small businesses and sole proprietorships that are the lifeblood of Arkansas’ rural communities,” WRF Chief Operating and Financial Officer Andrea Dobson says. “They were structured for large businesses with lots of employees, and that’s not our reality. 

“The Delta Owned initiative combined two trusted [Community Development Financial Institutions Fund] partners with community leaders to help rural Delta businesses access desperately needed resources. The CDFI partners, along with others, were able to change the requirement on future rounds of funding through their advocacy. And the Small Business Administration is piloting their own initiative based on the success of Delta Owned. Our work got their attention, and they recognized that often they had policies in place that excluded the businesses they were designed to help.”  

Another focus of WRF is to help Arkansas women make progress in the business sector. According to the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, also a WRF grant partner, Arkansas women entrepreneurs face systemic barriers to accessing capital that prevent them from developing and growing wealth-building businesses.

“WRF funds nonprofit organizations that help black and brown entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs have equitable access to funding, training and the support they need,” West-Scantlebury says.  

Conexión de Negocios Latinos uses its general support grant to create a network connecting Latino entrepreneurs to capital sources, while Venture Noire is a small business incubator that mainly works with minority business owners. Venture Noire plans to open a manufacturing facility to provide space for Arkansas-based companies and technical assistance to connect companies to the supply chain needs of large businesses in northwest Arkansas. 

In central Arkansas, a grant will allow the Brandon House Cultural & Performing Arts Center to establish the Creative Entrepreneurship Academy that will give creative professionals the resources necessary to develop, sustain and scale a profitable business.

“Through this general support grant, we will gain valuable knowledge that further informs and disrupts the current systems that hinder the growth of creative enterprises by limiting access to capital,” West-Scantlebury says.

The Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center is piloting a program that is a collaboration between WRF, community development financial institutions, community banks, technical assistance providers and community navigators to create a $500,000 pool of early-stage capital for minority- and women-owned small businesses that traditional banks typically don’t invest in. 

According to West-Scantlebury, business owners participating in the pilot will have access to low-interest capital, loan guarantee tools outside of traditional personal and business collateral and other business development resources, with the end goal being “a newly co-designed model to increase access to capital for BIPOC and women business owners.” 

“The equity work of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is important because most Arkansans still struggle with knowing the difference between equity and equality,” says Charlotte Williams, professor and director of the Clinton School Center on Philanthropy. “While both concepts matter, it is the advancement of social, economic, education and particularly racial equity that will make the biggest improvements in the lives of the people of this state.”

Last summer, WRF teamed up with Reimagine Arkansas to host the inaugural Starshine Narrative Summit in efforts to spread this message. 

The free, one-day summit invited Arkansans to hear nationally recognized speakers talk about the promise and potential of a more just and equitable Arkansas. The summit, its name inspired by Lucille Clifton’s poem “Won’t You Celebrate With Me,” plans to be a yearly event where Arkansans can come together and imagine a brighter future. A date for the 2024 summit has yet to be announced. 

For Arkansas Public Policy Panel Executive Director Bill Kopsky, the strength of its partnership boils down to WRF “believing that the people who know best about how to make Arkansas better are grassroots community members across the state, especially those who live in underserved and under-resourced parts of our state.” 

“Arkansas will only realize our immense potential when everyone has a seat at the table,” Kopsky says. “Without the efforts of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and their grantees and partners, business as usual would continue without addressing the underlying challenges of poverty and inequity that plague our state, and too many communities would remain unheard and unseen in discussions about our state’s future.”

West-Scantlebury says the road to equity is a long one, but knows WRF will lead the way.

“The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is a catalyst and champion for creating just and fair systems that will give every Arkansas resident access to a living wage, the support of an excellent educational system and the opportunity for their family to thrive and prosper,” she says. “We will be in the relentless pursuit of equity.”

Learn more at wrfoundation.org.





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