Bright Minds: Local up-and-coming attorneys broaden career paths amid COVID-19, civil unrest

Bright Minds: Local up-and-coming attorneys broaden career paths amid COVID-19, civil unrest

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — Feb. 21, 2021 – Little Rock attorneys KenDrell Collins and Maximillan (Max) Sprinkle are two of the city’s brightest up-and-coming legal minds. Although on divergent career paths in the legal profession, the civil unrest that swept the nation this summer has brought their legal work, community activism and social justice crusading directly into the spotlight.

The two enterprising Black attorneys, one a federal defender and the other choosing to run his one-person law firm, were the special guests on the Feb. 19 weekly BCN Headlines news show on KABF FM, 88.3, hosted by BCN Chief Creative Officer and co-producer Angel Burt.

During the hour long show, Collins and Sprinkle talked poignantly and passionately about the events that occurred in the wake of the George Floyd protests and the ongoing response to Black life in Arkansas and America in the middle of a pandemic. Both business-oriented attorneys began the one-hour discussion of how the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest have exacerbated the health- and wealth-gap and racial inequities in America, particularly in communities of color.

In response to a question from Burt about the recent influx of financial commitments from corporate America toward addressing long-held social and economic inequities in Black communities, both offered similar views of how those dollars can be deployed.

“When I look at the just facts of where we are right now economically as it relates to Black people in America, you look at the racial wealth gap, and you look at where we are, and it is going to take a lot of (financial commitment). I don’t think there are any single solutions because the problems are so multifaceted. We’ve got to have solutions that match that,” said Collins, who earned a degree in economics from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock before attending law school at Arkansas’ flagship and namesake university in Fayetteville.

Collins, 27, added that supporting such enterprises at the local level is just as important as the supposed hundreds of billions of dollars in financial commitments from Wall Street, noting that COVID-19 has decimated Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.

“I definitely think that we need to support those small business owners, particularly Black women and Black men at the local level …,” said Collins, a 2020 fellow for New Leaders Council (NLC), a millennial-focused think tank and nationally recognized leadership training program. “If you are going to have a strong middle class, a strong Black community and a strong Black middle class, in particular, then you have to have that base of (Black) business owners and begin to accumulate wealth. They will then be able to hire other people and be employers, and then you start feeding other families, and that’s a good place to start.”

Sprinkle agreed, adding that he was a Black entrepreneur before he entered law practice. The Pine Bluff native said he has participated in local discussions with Black business support groups seeking to aid established companies, “mom-and-pop” shops, startups, and entrepreneurs impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, he noted many Black business owners have not been able to access nearly over $650 billion in forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal bailout program aimed at rescuing small business owners from financial ruin.

“I think there are lots of ways that money can be given to Black entrepreneurs,” Sprinkle said of corporate commitments and COVID-19 government assistance programs. “I specifically believe that microenterprises are where you can make a lot of change, targeting young people’s businesses and even teenagers where you can do a lot of good in helping them start a business.”

“I am not saying that everybody should start a business, but everybody who thought that they wanted to start a business can try at an early age when you have room to fail when the businesses don’t cost that much,” said the 43-year old Sprinkle.

He added that Corporate America might have experienced a possible “social reawakening” concerning their recent efforts to address racial and economic inequities following the George Floyd protests this summer, but only time will tell.

Later in the interview, the two change-minded attorneys also talked about a swath of right-wing, Pro-Trump, cookie-cooker bills circulating in various legislative committees of the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly, now coming out of a snow-blown recess at the Arkansas State Capitol.

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In the trenches

Little Rock attorneys KenDrell Collins (left) and Max Sprinkle

Among several, there is a new version of the Travon Martin-linked Stand Your Ground bill, proposals to ban Project 1619 curriculum, and other Black-centric and anti-Black educational courses. There is also a gaggle of anti-democratic measures to make it more difficult for underserved communities and people of color to vote.

On the other end of the scale, there is strong GOP opposition for Arkansas to Senate Bill 3 (SB3), a new hate crime legislation supported by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state’s business community that would increase sentences and fines for crimes motivated by hate by 20%. According to the NAACP national office, Arkansas is one of the few states without hate crime legislation.

Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, a nephew of Gov. Hutchinson, is the Senate sponsor of SB3. He left the Republican Party over the weekend, saying the GOP majority in the Arkansas House and Senate has become too radicalized and hate-filled during the Trump presidency.

For Collins, who Gov. Asa Hutchinson selected to serve on the state’s Law Enforcement Review Task Force following statewide protests this summer, he got a seat at the table to recommend and possibly enact new criminal justice and police reform laws in Arkansas.

The trial attorney at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock called that experience sobering and eye-opening. He noted that the governor’s task force included an explosive mix of law enforcement officials, reform-minded community activists, elected officials, and others with different opinions on how to assess the state of law enforcement in Arkansas following the George Floyd protests.

“Obviously, when you have these people coming with these different worldviews and perspectives, we ran into a lot of moments of tension and a lot of moments of misunderstanding, and sometimes I think there was an unwillingness to try and understand different (issues),” said Collins. “But as the months and weeks progress, you started to see those barriers start to come down, and we kind of came to an agreement on some of the solutions, (but) a lot of the solutions that other people and I proposed didn’t make it to the final written recommendations.”

On Jan. 17, Gov. Hutchinson received the final report from the 24-person task force and subsequently shared recommendations that he intended to support during the 93rd General Assembly.

“I created the law enforcement task force in the midst of the civil unrest and violence that arose across the country after the death of George Floyd,” said Hutchinson during his State-of-the-State address on Jan. 12. “That national crisis led us to assess the state of law enforcement in Arkansas. We want to ensure that we are providing our agencies with the equipment, guidance and training, support, and compensation that will allow them to perform their jobs at the highest level. The law-enforcement officers, elected officials and community activists on the task force surveyed a broad base of citizens and produced a report that is filled with substantive proposals.”

According to Collins, the final report included 27 recommendations to increase accountability, training, and raise pay to a more competitive level. Fred Weatherspoon, deputy director of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, chaired the committee that included such members as Mayor Shirley Washington of Pine Bluff and Fayetteville Police Department Chief Mike Reynolds. To view the highlights of the report, click here. To see the full 175-page report, go here.

“This is not a silver bullet,” said Collins, jokingly noting the irony of his remark. “It is not going to solve all the problems, but when you look at the requirements for training of law enforcement officers in Arkansas right now, as it relates to racial competency and things of that (nature), out of the (27) recommendations, there are only two that are mandatory.”

Collins said he hopes the Arkansas legislature will implement several of the task force’s recommendations into law, including a requirement that all law enforcement in Arkansas wear body cameras.

In Sprinkle’s case, his local law practice also puts him on the frontline of Arkansas’ social justice movement. In his role as a public defender, he said he sees all sides of the judicial system that processes young Black men who look like him and Collins assembly-line style every day.

Sprinkle specifically called attention to the impact COVID-19 has had on the juvenile justice system. He said there is a notable effort by the courts to slow the prison pipeline and incarceration of youth during the pandemic. However, he said the dynamics of holding court hearings, depositions, and other meetings virtually over Zoom and other video-conference methods have created good and bad outcomes.

“There are people who would have been arrested and detained in 2019 who were not in 2020, so I think that is the positive flip side to that,” said Sprinkle, who runs a criminal justice system reform-minded nonprofit called “Break Free From Captivity – PreEntry.”

“I also think initially that judges were reluctant to do virtual, and courts kind of halted for a second because everybody was used to coming into the courtroom and having this big showing,” continued Sprinkle. “There are judges who demanded to see the defendant in a criminal defense case, for example, every time there is a court hearing, and it was like that was a big thing, and now it just doesn’t happen.”

Both Sprinkle and Collins, both members of the W. Harold Flowers Law Society, told that technology will continue to impact the justice system after the pandemic, allowing attorneys to be more efficient and make better use of their time. They later discussed their community work and hobbies and shared some personal anecdotes and stories about their other activities in Little Rock. To hear the full BCN Headlines interview broadcast on KABF FM, 88.3 on Feb. 19, go to Daily Roundup page or the BCN podcast here.

(This story was edited by BCN Managing Editor Victoria Mays.)


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