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Several Walton Arts Center board members resign after Pride event statement

The resignations come after drag performances where minors are permitted would no longer be allowed in its facilities during NWA Pride Week.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Several members of the Walton Arts Center (WAC) Council have resigned from the WAC Board of Directors. 

As of Tuesday, May 23, nine members of the board have resigned, according to WAC Public Relations Director Jennifer Wilson.

The resigning board members are reportedly:

  • Casey Hamaker, Secretary / Treasurer & DEIB Committee member
  • Anne O'Leary-Kelly, former board chair, vice chair, & DEIB Committee member
  • Jody Dilday, DEIB committee member
  • Mervin Jebaraj
  • Cal Rose, DEIB committee member
  • Lia Uribe, DEIB Committee co-chair
  • Shabana Kauser
  • Shelley Simmons
  • Elicia Smith 

According to Casey Hamaker and Mervin Jebaraj —both resigning members— several of the 22 members of the Walton Arts Center (WAC) Council had resigned on Friday, May 19 from the WAC Board of Directors, stating that "After careful consideration, we are compelled by our consciences to make this decision."

Shelley Simmons and Elicia Smith both submitted their resignations on May 22 and May 23 respectively, after the initial statement from Hamaker and Jebaraj. 

Many of the resigning members served on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) Committee.

Jebaraj released a statement following his resignation, stating that he "cannot in good conscience remain affiliated with an institution which refuses to acknowledge the harm it has caused to members of our community... this decision sent a clear message that the voices, lived experiences, and identities of the LGBTQ individuals are not valued," and that "The CEO failed to seek advice from either the board or staff DEIB committees, and undermined the organization's commitment."

The Walton Arts Center stated that they are "deeply saddened and disappointed to confirm that seven members of our board have resigned today. We respect these board members and the decision that they have made, and we wish them well."

These statements come a week after Northwest Arkansas Equality's was reportedly informed by the WAC that drag performances where minors are permitted would no longer be allowed in its facilities during Northwest Arkansas Pride Week.

Instead, NWA Pride Youth Zone will take place at the Fayetteville Town Center during NWA Pride Weekend, where the Experience Fayetteville Vice President of Marketing and Communications Sarah King says that "We are pleased to host them as we have many times in the past. We look forward to making sure they have a successful event, just as we do with each organization that rents the facility."

In another statement, WAC spoke about their commitment to the safe operation of their spaces and representing the diverse groups in NWA community. They also note that drag performances will still continue to happen on their stages.

The statement from WAC explains that "Due to the charged nationwide political conversations around drag and minors that many times results in divisive and dangerous rhetoric, we asked if there was any way we could help NWA Pride reach its intended goals for the Youth Zone without drag performances for minors. When that was not possible, we requested that those activities be moved to another venue and offered financial support and assistance in securing another location."

"Our concern was not simply around the physical safety surrounding these events, but the policy to not allow parents, guardians, and caregivers into the Youth Zone," the WAC said.

Simmons stated in her letter of resignation that the decision to deny NWA Equity "feels like the WAC is suddenly choosing to vilify both transgendered bodies and the performance of drag."

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