UACES Facebook Celebrating Complexity: Changing the Connotation
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Celebrating Complexity: Changing the Connotation

by Chelsea Boozer, MPA - August 28, 2023

LeadAR Class 20 participated in a virtual seminar on August 25. Chelsea Boozer, Government Affairs Manager at Central Arkansas Water, reflects on the session. 

Complexity. The word often comes with a negative connotation. We receive it as meaning too hard, too complicated, difficult, and undesirable. But really, complexity is a beautiful thing. It’s stimulating, unique, and breeds learning and exploration. There was a beautiful irony around complexity that struck me as my LeadAR Cohort participated in our virtual seminar this August led by Dr. Jay Barth titled “The Complexity of Arkansas’ Social and Political Context.”

As my cohort of 21 conversed in the chat and aloud, sharing questions, perspectives, and experiences, it donned on me: We, too, are complex. And that’s a beautiful thing. Our interactions were stimulating, unique, and will surely continue to breed learning and exploration on this two-year journey together as Class 20.

Barth, holds many titles. Among them are the director of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and the Ima Graves Peace Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Politics at Hendrix College. Barth also happens to be chair of the Board of Commissioners of Central Arkansas Water, where I work. Because I’ve witnessed his thought-provoking questions during board meetings and had a peek into his advocacy for equitable policy and social justice, I was excited to have him as this month’s speaker.

The Complexity of Arkansas’ Regions

Is anyone like me in that they get frustrated when they travel within the U.S. and tell someone they are from Arkansas then that person has one of two responses: either they know nothing about the state, or they drift into comments around negative stereotypes of low class or backwards politics?

Those of us who live here understand how underrated Arkansas is as a state. And it’s the social and political complexity that likely contributes to both our understanding of our greatness and promise, as well as the rest of the country’s viewpoint of us as mediocre or less than. (I’ll point out that most of those who have encountered that viewpoint haven’t actually witnessed nor experienced Arkansas’ natural beauty and great quality of life.)

Regional state map of Arkansas

Regarding complexity, take the juxtaposition of the Arkansas Delta and northwest Arkansas. From flat farmland to the Ozark mountains, from some of the poorest families in the nation to the richest family in the world, from lack of investment and population decline to so much investment communities are struggling to keep up with the unintended consequences of that economic boom.

Poverty, food scarcity, population decline, and racial divide are just some of the challenges Delta leaders seek to overcome. Barth told us about political scientist Daniel Elazar, who writes about “political cultures.” Barth said that the traditionalistic political culture has described the Delta mindset for many years.

This is when “there is this inherent wealth or value seen in the status quo, in holding on to things the way they are … [partly] because if economic change happens, the families that have controlled the economy begin to lose their position of influence and the social house of cards begins to fall apart,” Barth said.

Any of us who are from the Delta know instantly what he means. We were raised in small towns run by the same family surname for decades. They were the courthouse judge, the schoolhouse teacher, cousin to the police chief, and the main local business owner.

My peers reflected on some core examples of seeing that change in northeast Arkansas, even if ever so slightly. Earle, Arkansas just elected the youngest mayor in the United States, Jaylen Smith, age 18, who has brought record attention to the small, disadvantaged city of 1,785 people. Smith won the election with just 235 votes. Only 420 people voted in the mayoral election in 2022. Think about that when you wonder if a small group can bring about big change.

West Memphis, Arkansas is another good example. Mayor Marco McClendon is the youngest and first Black elected mayor in the city that sits across the Mississippi River from the much-larger, much-more-developed Memphis, Tennessee. McClendon won his re-election in a landslide. His administration has focused on economic investment and led with a leadership message during the uncertain time of COVID, setting citywide curfews and even proclaiming in an official city message to: “Stay your ass home.” His perhaps unconventional, more colloquial dialogue and his energetic agenda to better the town with a focus on change and rejecting the status quo is appealing to the younger and next generation of residents.

McClendon also collaborates with leaders in Memphis and capitalizes on how they can be a regional force and attraction, such as development and promotion of the Big River Crossing.

The collaboration strategy is like a page taken from northwest Arkansas, an area we have grown to think of as a region, not just any one city or town. Barth pointed out that the leaders there have been intentional about this regional collaboration, one example being the Northwest Arkansas Council. From regional water supply to regional economic development campaigns, the area has mostly worked together in their growth. Of course, the Walton investment in northwest Arkansas is a major catalyst that is hard to duplicate anywhere else without that level of monetary investment.

Still, northwest has some hidden challenges. Poverty remains in some counties right next to the wealthiest counties. There’s also some of the worst broadband connection in the state in the lower portion of northwest Arkansas in Newton and Franklin counties. And while the eastern portion of the northern area (Baxter and Marion counties) boasts a large retiree population, there’s not a lot of investment in healthcare. In the population boom areas of Benton and Washington counties, there is a dire housing crisis and difficulty keeping affordable places for the working class.

Arkasas map indicating poverty statusWhen you shift focus to central Arkansas, this is an area where politics and social context have always been at the forefront of defining the community: From the 1957 Little Rock School Crisis that was fought through litigation for decades to the construction of Interstate 630 that served as both a physical and psychological divide of Little Rock’s white and black populations.

Little Rock’s local leadership has often been a blue dot in a red state, but the intricacies of more hyperlocal politics when you look at how each ward votes in local elections is even more interesting, and you can see the Interstate’s divide even in income levels, poverty rates, and city votes on sales taxes and local power.


2012 Per Capita Income in ArkansasThen if you look at the yellow parts of the state in the first map showed at the beginning of this blog post – roughly a diagonal line from the southwest to the northeast part of the state, skipping counties already designated as central, delta, and northwest – you’ll find other common distinguishable traits. Primarily Protestant, these areas are culturally conservative, represented by dry counties and the acceptance of violence in life (see the paddling in schools chart below. This particular chart shocked me! We still allow school leaders to physically hit our kids? Several of my cohort peers told me it’s very common and not seen as that big of a deal. While paddling occurred in my northeast Arkansas grade school, I somehow had imagined that would never happen today.)

Arkansas map of dry and wet counties

Arkansas map of school paddlingsBarth explained that these areas of the state have historically decided elections in Arkansas. Before 2014, state politics were pretty starkly separate from national politics. The polarization following President Obama and President Trump have quickly changed that.

It was at this point in the conversation that our cohort chat began using words like “extremism,” “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” and “conservative” in our group chat. Class member Sylvia Brown, director of strategic operations at Education Fund and someone whose knowledge and perspective I’ve particularly valued and learned so much from, brought up an important point: What is the definition of those words?

When we don’t share the same definitions of terminology, we are often not having the same conversation with one another, and instead are talking past each other without full understanding of what our conversation partner is saying, Brown said.

It's this intention within our cohort to learn from each other’s perspectives and experiences that I have valued the most. From small business owners to farmers to academics to political and government affairs to lawyers to private business leaders to public servants, my cohort is a wonderful display of complexity in all its intricacy, stimulation, and promotion of learning and exploration.

Up next is our seven-day tour of our nation’s capitol in September and we can’t wait for what’s in store!

LeadAR is a program designed to help Arkansans broaden their understanding of issues and opportunities facing our state and strengthen their ability to make a difference. For more information about LeadAR, visit the website or contact Robinson,, or Lisa Davis,