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Power Lift

She’s an advocate for Arkansas landowners

In what ways—large and small—can we each have a positive impact on the world around us? Karama Neal ’93 is devoted to answering this question, and to helping others make positive changes in their communities.

Neal serves as president of Southern Bancorp Community Partners, an organization that economically empowers communities in rural Arkansas and Mississippi through public policy, development lending, and financial services. She is also the founder of Heirs of Arkansas, an advocacy group that collaborates with attorneys, development organizations, and government agencies to help families retain the land and properties they have inherited. From 2004 to 2010, she authored the popular blog So What Can I Do?, which promoted “ethics in action” by offering information and resources on service opportunities locally and globally.

By helping people “generate funding for a rural library, start a small business, purchase their first home, or achieve a savings goal” through Southern Bancorp’s development lending, Neal encourages others to lift themselves up by looking for opportunities to invest in their communities.

Neal came to Swarthmore with a passion for research in genetics and soon “became intrigued by the connections between science and society, and how each influences the other.” Through her studies in biology, she found herself drawn to scholars who “put their research in the context of their social positions in American society.”

That the work of science could be entwined with the work of social justice was eye-opening, she recalls: “It revealed new ways of thinking for me.”

This insight eventually led her to a Ph.D. in genetics and molecular biology from Emory University, more than two decades “in and around biology labs,” and “many years of volunteering with humanitarian, community, and child development organizations.”

It also led to an eventual career change—away from the lab and toward more immediate work in her community. Neal founded Heirs of Arkansas in 2013, in response to a challenge faced by her family and her community.

Growing up, Neal remembers her grandmother discussing her own formerly enslaved grandfather, Griffin Henry Belk, who purchased the land in Arkansas where multiple generations of Neal’s family were born and raised. Although the land is still collectively owned by her family, Neal says, “because it has been informally passed down for multiple generations, it has a legal status known as ‘heir property.’”

Heir property, Neal says, “can be a very unstable form of real property ownership, often associated with unintentional, predatory land loss.” Low-income communities and communities of color are particularly vulnerable to losing such inherited assets, she notes, “because of a lack of access to trusted legal services and estate planning.”

Thanks in part to the work of Heirs of Arkansas, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act was successfully passed in 2015, helping families maintain land ownership, and ensuring that property that is sold is done so at a fair market rate so that family wealth isn’t lost.

As she inspires others to apply their skills to a common good, Neal sees “a direct line” from her Swarthmore experiences to her current work.

“I learned how to identify and transfer skills across disciplines, refined my ability to ask and answer questions independently, and demonstrated how academic and related work could (and often should) be rooted in social justice,” she says. “I expect whatever is next for me will again be connected to my formative experiences at Swarthmore.”