Lots of people have heard of the Central High Crisis, and the Women’s Emergency Committee was the group that was really focused on reopening the schools in Little Rock after they were shut down. And in 1963, they were reopened and a lot of the women in the Women’s Emergency Committee were justifiably tired and ready to be done with it. It had been a long and pretty bruising campaign for them. But some of the women felt like there were maybe some other issues in other schools across the state having to do with race and diversity and cultural acceptance. And so they formed the Panel of American Women, and they were panels – literal panels – of moms of school-aged kids and they’d have an African-American, a White, a Catholic, Protestant, a Jew and sometimes an Asian-American when she was available. And they would go hold panel discussions all over the state with PTAs or Kiwanis Club or anybody who would visit with them. They had a philosophy of telling their own stories about what it was like to grow up with their particular cultural background and why diversity was important to them and kind of avoided the political, this preaching to you about why your beliefs are wrong or anything like that. But they just told their stories and really believed in developing relationships and listening to communities. And they’d take questions from the audience, and in 1963 in Arkansas, it was really okay to be openly racist or xenophobic or whatever. So they’d get questions like, “Lady, I don’t have a problem with you, but what’s Dr. King doing in the street with all those niggers?”
Or, “Do Jews really do blood sacrifices?”
We have some-- The women, our founders, have done some great video storytelling of what that was like.
They always put a tablecloth over the table and held hands under the table so that they could support one another and not react angrily. And they would take those questions honestly and they’d tell them what Dr. King was doing or what the facts are about the Jewish faith or Protestant faith or Catholics. People forget in the 60s, we were as religiously segregated as we still are, sadly, racially today.
That was their work and they did that all over the state. And that eventually led into them helping the state develop the first multicultural curriculum used in the public schools. At one point in time, we had 50 teachers working for us implementing diversity programs across the state in schools. In the 70s, they became more interested in other policy, the women’s movement was happening, other stuff was happening, particularly working on economic policy for women and working on welfare reform way before it was cool. They noticed that the state was doing a really poor job of job training for single moms, and they thought they could do better using some adult education theory instead of treating these adult, single moms like they were eight years old, treat them like they’re adults learning. So they ran a program and their theory was, well if we just run a program and show the state it could be done more effectively, the state will throw their arms open, embrace it and replicate the model. And their model program was very successful, but the state didn’t quite have the same reaction they expected. They met with a lot of resistance and that got them more interested in policy. By the 70s, there were enough men involved that were feeling insecure about the name that we changed the name to the Arkansas Public Policy Panel -- in 1972 when I was two years old.