Photography by Sarah Oden
The Arkansas Department of Education believes that every Arkansan should be equitably prepared, supported and inspired to succeed in school, career, community and life. Under the leadership of Secretary Johnny Key, this ambitious objective inspires the curriculum for schools across the state. It’s a vision that the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission – a division of the Arkansas Department of Education – shares in its mission fulfillment work. The two organizations have a partnership that places education as the catalyst for building better communities.
Johnny’s tenure as a public servant spans more than two decades including election to the Arkansas House of Representatives and the Arkansas Senate. But his commitment to knowledge is part of his family’s long history in The Natural State. “My roots are deep in South Arkansas,” he begins. “I was raised knowing the importance of education and experiencing the demands and rewards of education. I watched my mother overcome many obstacles to get her degree and become a teacher. I remember attending adult education classes with my grandma. She was so proud when she completed the program, she bought herself a senior ring to celebrate!”
Johnny was initially introduced to the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission when Executive Director DuShun Scarbrough organized a youth nonviolence summit and invited local business and civic leaders to participate. “My senate district included Harrison and I was very aware of the dark history of race relations in the area,” Johnny recalls. “I eagerly joined this community effort to acknowledge past mistakes and work for a better future that welcomes all races to one of the most beautiful regions in Arkansas.” The Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission provides strategic programming that promotes the steadfast progression of human rights and the transformative power of knowledge for positive change. DuShun explains that since its inception in 1993, a statewide presence in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Education remains paramount to the organization’s success. “We serve all four congressional districts and the Arkansas Department of Education helps coordinate our efforts to our most important demographic – the youth and future of Arkansas. Secretary Key understands education is the key component and supports our work throughout the state.”
During the pandemic, the Department of Education quickly shifted to support the essential continuation + access to education and related services through nontraditional outlets including a collaboration with ArkansasPBS. “It was simply unacceptable to allow children of the state to go an extended period of time without the benefits of the public school system,” Johnny elaborates. “At one point last spring, almost all of Arkansas school districts were providing some level of school meal service, while the national average was less than half. I am extremely proud of the response from our educators, support staff and our communities.”
In the face of adversity, communities are brought together with a unique opportunity to flourish in unprecedented ways. Johnny realizes Dr. King’s dream is a progression of positive change + human equity that future generations must embrace. “Dr. King knew we could be better as a nation and we can do that through service to others, not through violence.” Johnny continues, “The Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission shows us how to do that and reminds us we must meet the needs of all Arkansas students.”