Doris Wright, in her 13 years on the city board of directors, has defined herself as a champion of life in West Central Little Rock. She has played a major role in bringing the Central Arkansas Library System’s Sidney S. McMath branch to Ward 6, and with her advocacy, the city built the $6.4 million West Central Community Center and the 25-acre West Central Sports Complex.
Wright, 59, said she originally became interested in improving Ward 6’s neighborhoods when she bought her first home in the John Barrow area in 1993. She began working with the neighborhood association because her home was on a “substandard street” and excess water runoff from the street was eroding her house’s foundation. Her work with the ward has continued since, with the 2005 establishment of the sports complex and the 2016 opening of the community center on the grounds of the complex, which also houses the KWCP — which stands for “West Central Pride” — radio station.
The Sports Complex and Community Center are the manifestation of a vision Wright said she’s had since she moved to the neighborhood. The project has taught her the importance of sports to all aspects of the community.
“Sports bring people together,” she said. “People get excited about sports. People will come out for sports. We have 100 percent parental participation in our sports programs. It’s key to get the parents involved with the kids and the kids’ activities.”
Wright hopes to see the Community Center expand with a separate Aquatic Center and a separate basketball facility with four more courts to accommodate the center’s many sports programs and teams. The Community Center and Sports Complex are also home to a host of after school and childcare programs, neighborhood sports leagues and fitness classes.
Wright said she wants the programming and the Center to make residents feel valued and safe. “I want my constituents, I want the young people, to understand I care about you,” she said. “I am concerned about your welfare. I’m concerned about what’s going on in the neighborhood. I can’t do anything about what’s going on in your house… but when you come out into the community, I want to make sure that you are safe, I want to make sure that you feel protected, I want to make sure you have activities in your own neighborhood. … You can come right to your community center.”
Wright said the Center also plans to launch a variety of “soft skills” training programs, where West Central residents can sign up to receive free customer service and hospitality training classes and other certifications, such as opportunities to take forklift classes, acquire Commercial Driver’s Licenses and become Certified Nursing Assistants.
Wright said these classes are an effort to bring more and better jobs to ward residents who need them, in turn creating positive change in the community.
In order to affect change citywide, Wright’s goals also include ways to raise city revenues and improve neighborhood blight. She supports the creation of a foreclosure registry, a program she said she learned about at a National League of Cities conference and brought before the board a few years ago. According to Wright, banks would be required to register all properties with the city and pay annual fees for foreclosed properties.
“That way you have a contact person [and] they’re required to keep property in a certain condition, so that decreases blight,” she said. “And out of that revenue accumulated from the foreclosure registry, paid by the banks, that’s what you use to pay code enforcement.”
Wright said fines imposed for parking in yards and other code violation infractions could also go towards higher salaries for code enforcement officers, and, like the housing department, “each individual [city] department needs to come up with ways to produce revenue from the things that they do.”
Raising the minimum salary of code enforcement officers to “at least” $32,000 a year is a related policy change that Wright views as crucial to addressing issues in the city’s neighborhoods.
“To me, [those positions] directly affect the quality of life, just like our police and our fire,” she said. “They’re out there on the front line, they’re knocking on doors. … We need to think about them in those terms.”
“Everybody says they want change,” Wright said. “Well, what does change look like? You can say you want opportunity, but how do you give the person an opportunity if I’ve dropped out of school, if I don’t know how to present myself, if I don’t feel like anybody cares about me? We’re trying to show and trying to put there a framework that’s doable, that’s reachable.”
Part of the change in Ward 6 is centered in the rebranding of the area as West Central Little Rock, a move Wright believes will bring the ward’s neighborhoods together so that “everybody can have their own identity, but everybody knows that we are a collective.” The name change arose from her work with UA Little Rock’s Arkansas Economic Development Institute — then called the Institute for Economic Advancement — and its former head, *Ashvin Vibakhar, which studied the area.
“With the advent of Chenal, we became more west central, according to [UA Little Rock],” she said. “You’ve got Southwest, you’ve got East End, you’ve got South End, you’ve got Midtown, why couldn’t we be West Central? We felt comfortable doing that brand because the city can’t go any further. Chenal bought up all of that land, so Chenal is always going to be Chenal. Our geographical location is not going to shift because there’s nowhere else they can go. So we were safe in that.”
This new name, according to Wright, has “changed the narrative” of the ward.
“West Central doesn’t have the connotation that John Barrow has,” she said. “I know the history of John Barrow, I know he was a legislator, I know that he and his wife Katherine platted that land, and that they sold to African Americans back during a time when people were being lynched. I know all of that, but all anybody else ever associated with that name was crime. Blight. Negative. West Central does not have that connotation, so that means that we have successfully taken back our narrative, and we are able to say who we are. This is what we do, this is why we do what we do.”
Armed with a new narrative, Wright said the ward’s most pressing needs lie in its crumbling infrastructure, specifically in the condition of its roads.
“I have over 420 streets in Ward 6,” Wright said. “They need to be upgraded. We have so many streets in John Barrow, and that’s the oldest [neighborhood] because the subdivisions around it were planned communities, so they have better infrastructure.”
But in order to improve streets, Wright said the city needs a more efficient system for getting funding for the upgrades.
“Then you have the major and minor arterial roads, like Bowman Road and Kanis Road,” she said. “Kanis is being addressed, but look how long it’s taken. We need a better, smoother, more aggressive policy when it comes down to funding our infrastructure so it doesn’t take that long to do Bowman road, to do those improvements.”
Wright’s goals for her ward and for Little Rock extend past tangible changes in the landscape.
“Some of the issues that I feel are the most pressing are so systemic, they can’t be taken care of right away,” she said. “The perception of how young black males feel and are treated — I don’t know how you change that overnight. There’s a responsibility on each side. I believe in personal responsibility. I believe you need to comport yourself in a way that you’re not going to cause yourself a problem … . I want people to be responsible for themselves, but I also want to make sure we have a fair process, a fair system. I don’t want people to feel that they are targeted. I don’t want people to feel that as a result of this targeting: ‘I’m singled out, and you’re going to treat me worse than you’re going to treat another person that doesn’t look like me.’ ”
After Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s historic win as the city’s first elected African-American mayor, Wright said she hopes to see the administration have a “real conversation about race relations.”
“I just want us to have a conversation where we understand that we are different,” she said. “There are different cultures. People are different. … People tend to attack you as a person if they disagree with you, and I don’t understand that. I grew up chopping cotton in Chicot County. I know what it means to work. I know what it means to get that little black bank book and take your money to the bank and put it in there. … How can you disrespect your elders? There’s no respect and there’s no honor.”
Wright said she supports Scott’s embrace of the strong mayor role and that it’s what the board of directors needed.
“We needed a person to make the tough call, that can state to us as board members, OK, this is how I want things to flow,” she said. “And as I expressed to him, ‘I know how to lead, I know how to follow, and I know how to get out of the way when it’s necessary.’ I’m not a person who’s going to be offended by him taking the leadership role. I may not always agree with the decision that he makes, but he was elected by the people to be able to make those decisions.”
Scott has spoken strongly about the need for a more transparent City Hall; Wright thinks transparency should extend to the city directors, whom she believes aren’t fully informed about decisions made by the administration.
“As an elected official, I don’t think the public knows that we [city directors] are considered outsiders here at City Hall,” she said. “You have to understand there’s a culture. There’s information I don’t have because we’re told, ‘Well, you are elected officials, and these [issues] are administrative or operational. You’re not supposed to get involved in that.’ My response to that is, ‘I’m sorry, I disagree. I’m going to ask questions, I’m going to come to your office, and I’m going to get involved because my constituents want answers. I can’t give them an answer when it takes you 30 days to get back to me in answer to my question.’ ”
She said she thinks Scott has taken the right step in forming teams to study the city’s form of government.
“What Mayor Scott is doing with these subcommittees, with giving people opportunities to serve and voice their opinion and coming up with a plan, that is the way to go,” she said. “That is a new era. All of this stuff that happened back here, all these old policies … that [have] been passed down through the years, this is a chance to change it. This is a chance to do a new land use plan, to set up a new structure in City Hall that’s not as antiquated, because what worked in 1993 is not going to work in 2019. This needed to happen.”
Wright also said the city needs to look at the “salary structure” at City Hall. She said some of the salaries for those in administrative positions are “top heavy,” as opposed to the salaries of employees such as code enforcement officers “out there where the work is being done.”
“I really think that needs to take place,” she said. “I don’t know how they’re going to right that ship, but to me, that needs to be looked at.”
Scott has also been vocal about restructuring the board’s at-large director positions. Wright said she believes the at-large directors “serve a purpose” because they prevent infighting and territorial behavior among ward directors. However, she said she would also support an all-ward system with 10 directors because she feels the current wards are too large.
“The programs that I’m involved with, the things that I’ve done in Ward 6, those would never have happened if I had not been the person spearheading that, because the needs of those people would have gotten lost within the needs or requests of everybody else,” she said. “You’ve got to have a champion, you’ve got to have somebody that’s spearheading that.”
While Wright said she is concerned with citywide issues as well as those within her ward, the residents of Ward 6 are her “charge to keep” and are those whom she serves. When she gets discouraged by the issues facing her constituents and their neighborhoods, she said she turns to prayer.
“When people don’t understand that, or [if] I didn’t do something the way you wanted me to do it, that’s your opinion,” she said. “You’re entitled to it, and I apologize if I’ve done anything that hurt anybody, because it was not my intention. I operate by faith because I never had any money, never have been rich. And never will be. I know that favor will take you further than money, and that’s what I operate on, favor. Favor of God. Faith. I believe. If I can see it, by faith, then I know I can have it. That’s who Doris Wright is.”
*Correction: A former version of this story incorrectly spelled Ashvin Vibakhar’s last name.