Celebrating Jonesboro’s Cultural Diversity

Brittney Osborn


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Celebrating Jonesboro’s Cultural Diversity

By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Audrey Poff

Later this month, Research Solutions Inc. will debut Jonesboro’s inaugural NEA Cultural Expo, a celebration of the many countries and cultures that are represented in the city’s increasingly diverse population.  

The expo, which will take place on May 18 in Downtown Jonesboro, is the culmination of years of planning under the leadership of Lisa Perry, PhD, the board chair and executive director of Research Solutions Inc. Research Solutions is a nonprofit organization that was established to conduct research and provide services in the realms of humanities, social sciences, public health and safety, and in areas of interconnectivity between these realms.

“We have a number of community organizations involved in our programs,” said Perry. “Sometimes it helps to have a hub and establish a formal collaboration. We can help direct resources to areas of need in the community; it’s something that we help to facilitate – everybody coming together.

“At the macro level, we are national in scope, and we have individual projects that are directed by our funding or our board members, which include Dr.  Cherisse Jones-Branch, the graduate school dean of Arkansas State University, Board Treasurer Robert Clark, the engineering and CIM manager of Roach Conveyors, Board Secretary Olivia Bennett, the DFC coordinator of Izard County, and me. If we see a need, we will try to do that wherever that is.”

The nonprofit’s programs include: the CommUNITY Resource Center, which works to reduce overdose and stigma associated with treatment and recovery for those with substance misuse disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders; the Arkansas HOPE Coalition, a coalition of community organizations, faith communities, nonprofits, student groups, businesses, volunteers and others working in collaboration to address the needs of at-risk and high-poverty youth and young adults; and specials projects regarding substance abuse, like being the Regional Prevention Provider for substance misuse prevention, addressing stigma and the COAP/COSSAP Special Project.

With the same overall goal of bettering the community and uniting different organizations and businesses, Perry and her team are launching a Cultural Expo that will feature food, arts and crafts, and entertainment from across the nation and around the world. Vendors will be selling traditional art, crafts and other items representing their cultures, and educational booths will be ready to share information about their culture. There will also be performances and live music.

“I used to live in Columbus, Indiana, and they’ve had a festival similar to this for decades,” said Perry. “The place where I worked, we had people from 20 different countries just on the floor I worked on. That festival was a way for people to learn about other cultures, try other foods, and see other types of music, dance, arts and crafts that are representative of cultures in the area. When I moved here, I noticed we have just as much diversity here and there didn’t seem to be much interaction. It can be so enriching and beneficial to learn about other cultures.”

So far, several different booths representing a multitude of cultures have signed on for the first-time expo.

Kiara Riojas, one of the owners of KO Treats: Taste of the Valley in Jonesboro, will have a booth full of Mexican chamoy-covered candies. Chamoy is a distinctive sauce made from fruit such as apricots, plums and hibiscus mixed with chili peppers, lime and a blend of spices, and when applied to various types of sweets, creates a distinct flavor profile.

“We decided to participate in the NEA Multicultural Festival to showcase the rich and vibrant flavors of the Mexico-American border, celebrating our heritage and introducing the colorful variety of our traditional sweets to a wider audience,” said Riojas. “Participation in this festival serves as a fantastic opportunity to bridge cultural gaps, allowing attendees to experience the unique tastes of the Rio Grande Valley through our candies. It’s also a chance for us to connect with other cultures, learn from them, and foster a sense of community and mutual appreciation for diversity through the universal language of food.”

Lilia Rowley, owner of Filipino Chow food trailer, which is located near Searcy, will be representing Asian-Filipino culture with their food booth.

“Filipino food is not spicy; it has simple ingredients but is flavorful,” said Rowley.

Popular menu items include Halo Halo, a shaved ice dessert with Filipino fruit on the bottom, covered with shaved ice and sweet milk and topped with ice cream, and Turon, a banana rolled in a special seasoning before being wrapped in an egg roll wrapper, deep fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Fried rice, fried noodles, egg rolls and plate lunches are also on the menu.

Another booth, compliments of Ninmah Askia Wallace, will be offering personal styling to help women and men discover their unique personal look through SheMadeYaLook. Wallace is also the owner of Graceful Threads, an extension of SheMadeYaLook, which offers faith-based and inspirational quality apparel for adults, youth and children.

“I think the festival is something that Jonesboro needs to develop insight and open-mindedness about the background of other cultures,” said Wallace. “These types of celebrations should unite and foster respect for everyone. We should all learn to understand other’s perspectives as well as celebrating our differences. In today’s world, this is needed, for sure.”

Business owner Shae Seals will have a booth for Simply The Main Squeeze, which will be selling freshly squeezed lemonade.

“I love to participate with different cultures and accommodate my customers,” said Seals. “I (will try to) represent every culture. It will bring the community together (at) a good cost to learn different cultures.”

One of the informational booths will be manned by licensed social worker Megan Brown, co-founder and executive director of Hope Found of Northeast Arkansas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending human trafficking.

“Our booth will feature informational materials on human trafficking in various languages, online safety coloring pages and our new virtual reality (VR) educational tool called Trapped,” said Brown. “This fully immersive and interactive virtual reality experience teaches how anyone could be tricked and coerced into being trafficked. During the 15-minute experience, they ‘become’ Lisa, an at-risk teenager who, like many others, met a boy online that took advantage of her when she was vulnerable. Learn how Lisa became trapped through trauma bonding with a ‘Romeo Pimp,’ and how it affects everything she does and thinks. When they complete the training, they will understand this can happen to anyone.

“Human Trafficking is a crime that can happen to anyone regardless of their gender, age, race or ethnicity. We want to be able to reach and educate the diverse cultures in NEA so they can be aware and know how to protect themselves and their most loved ones.”

The Cultural Expo, sponsored by KAIT, Ritter Communications, Arkansas State University, NYIT and Omar’s Uptown, is free to attend. It will begin at 10 a.m. and will run until 7 p.m., so community members are encouraged to drop by the Rotary Club of Jonesboro Centennial Plaza, across from The Forum Theater.

“We have a lot of festivals here, but there is nothing with a deliberate purpose of increasing awareness of who we are here in NEA,” said Perry. “When I’m talking about culture, I mean not only international community, but diversity in American regional cultures and religions represented here, and race and ethnicity. We have a lot of different types of cultures in the area; nothing that really focuses on that. Often, we all get together for food, but this deliberately is seeking to highlight cultures and diversity, and that is the star of the show. The food and arts and crafts are all representative of that.”

For more information about Research Solutions Inc. or the NEA Cultural Expo, visit researchsolutionsinc.org.

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Celebrating Jonesboro’s Cultural Diversity