New Just Communities of Arkansas Executive Director Donald Wood continues to champion for equality and inclusion as well as the transformative legacy that Ruth Shepherd established.
By Jillian McGehee | Photography by Sara Reeves
As a new year begins, Ruth D. Shepherd passes the torch of justice to Donald Wood. With decades of nonprofit leadership experience, Donald succeeds Ruth as executive director of Just Communities of Arkansas. Ruth, who served in that capacity for more than 16 years, says JCA has a bright future under Donald’s leadership.
Just Communities of Arkansas works to builds stronger, more united communities – through education, celebration and advocacy – where every person is valued, every voice is heard and everyone has the opportunity to prosper. Programming and services include school-based and college workshops, workplace and organizational training workshops and community conversations regarding diversity issues.
As he begins his new role, Donald says he’s looking forward to listening and learning from everyone who wants to be heard. “And they deserve to be heard. I can’t wait to find out how Just Communities of Arkansas can better serve our communities through collective and collaborative solutions to what in the past may have seemed like unsolvable social problems in Arkansas.”
In an ideal world there would be no discrimination or barriers, Donald notes. He was initially impressed by JCA’s potential to revolutionize an inequitable system. “In reality, so many people start at different spots or face unavoidable setbacks that put them behind, often leading to a vicious cycle of poverty and hopelessness. Just Communities of Arkansas has the power to transform this system into a truly fair and inclusive one where all people have the opportunities and support they need to live healthy, dignified and successful lives.”
During his tenure with Arkansas Hospice – he served as vice president of development and executive director of the foundation – Donald gained invaluable experience, both personally and professionally. “The most life-changing takeaway is the lesson I learned about compassion,” he recalls. “I saw how our staff and volunteers treated our patients and their loved ones with unbridled compassion.”
Donald’s graceful composure could be credited to his training as a ballet dancer. His mother established the Western Arkansas Ballet company in Fort Smith. “I had the great fortune to perform in The Nutcracker through my senior year of high school. I may have physical scars from playing football, but it’s dance that’s in my blood and dance that I consider my proudest athletic achievement.”
Since her first day at JCA in April of 2000, Ruth’s time at JCA was a perfect fit, she says. During her college days at Oklahoma State University in the 1960s, Ruth developed a passion for championing inclusion. “Our nation first truly recognized systemic inequality, particularly surrounding race and gender, when we were in the midst of the war in Vietnam. For years I didn’t know how I might do anything to promote fairness and equal access. When this job became available, it looked like that opportunity.”
Before JCA, Ruth worked for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre and Heart of Arkansas United Way. What she enjoyed most about her work at JCA, she notes, was facilitating programs. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve led some of our favorite workshop activities, but the experience never gets old. I know that the programming changes people. I am continually validated by how participants react to what they learn.”
Ruth’s dedication and devotion during her leadership of JCA has established a remarkable organization with proven mission fulfillment work in our community, but she insists the challenges continue. “Because of what I’ve learned about systemic racism and implicit bias, I know for sure that our work is not done. And I know for sure that every person can make a difference. So, I’m going to keep working. This diversity stuff is not rocket science; it’s harder.”