Public forum can serve as foundation for action, Love says
Try. Try to combat inequality, try to show compassion for others, try to build our community in order to serve all more equally.
That was the challenge Dr. Ken Trzaska issued to City of Liberal officials at a community forum on racism and inequality Aug. 18. The event, hosted by the city and facilitated by Trzaska, the outgoing president of Seward County Community College, drew a crowd of nearly 100 people to the Mahuron Park building. Liberal resident, veteran, and founder of Adolescent Support Services Ivanhoe Love Jr. assisted Trzaska in steering conversation from complaints to a blueprint for action.
“We’re here to discuss issues brought up at recent city commission meetings, and answer questions,” said City of Liberal Manager Calvin Burke. Commissioners Connie Seigrist, Chris Linenbroker, and Ronnie Warren, Liberal Police Chief William Cutshall, deputy chief Brian Way, Love, and SCCC’s Trzaska made up the panel.
“This is important work that centers on everyone uniting to drive systematic and structural changes in policy and procedures that guide our community’s progress and growth,” said Trzaska. “This must happen at a city level, which prompts my challenge to the city to try.”
Community members brought several concrete questions to the panel relating to struggles faced by the immigrant population of Liberal, many of whom do not possess documentation of their status as workers and U.S. residents. Among the issues were:
- Requirements for connection to city water services. “This is a question submitted by an undocumented worker who is renting a place to live and was told that their passport and ITIF (federal income tax I.D.) number were not acceptable identification to get water turned on,” said a forum participant.
- Excessive rent charged to undocumented residents, far higher than rent charged to other tenants. “There are laws about fair housing already in place in this country,” said Liberal resident Elizabeth Irby. When new arrivals are charged disproportionate rents that violate housing anti-discrimination laws, “who are they supposed to turn to?”
- Employers who withhold wages owed to undocumented workers, a situation often encountered by high school students who also work full-time to pay for living expenses. “This is unjust, and employers get away with it because the workers are afraid to go to the police for help,” Irby said.
- Racist comments and actions encountered by students in elementary and middle school, often from their own teachers, according to student testimonials read by LHS graduate and SCCC student Jernell Martinez. “These students have grown up experiencing all of this, and I have to wonder why, as a community, we are hurling this at children and allowing this bullying to be done?”
- Racist mascots at Eisenhower Middle School and Liberal High School. Liberal resident and LHS graduate Preston Whisenant, who has repeatedly requested USD 480 school board consider renaming the “Apache” and “Redskin” mascots, reiterated his plea, saying, “I know we’re better than that.”
Way, who is newly arrived at the Liberal Police Department, revisited issues raised by Irby, noting that “in the conversation, I don’t want those questions to go unanswered.” He noted that police officers are primarily focused on enforcing criminal law statutes. Issues relating to housing and employment fall in the civil law category.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything,” he said. Describing a police force that focuses on guardianship and protection rather than punishment and war, Way expressed a desire to build relationships with all community members.
“When a young man was stranded in Liberal recently and had his identification stolen, we stepped in to help once we were aware of the situation,” he said. “It’s not about arresting vagrants and punishing people, it’s about helping our community members, especially when they encounter hardship.”
Trzaska praised the new approach.
“It’s refreshing, and an inspiring model for what is possible,” he said.
City officials Burke and Warren referred frequently to the limits of city government and the wish that local residents with complaints would bring “actionable items” to the commission.
“I may be naive and need to be enlightened, but I’m not aware of racism in the community,” said Warren. Burke, who stated at a previous forum that “Liberal does not have a problem with racism like I saw in the Deep South,” said that community residents should form a nonprofit organization to address concerns.
Local pastors Dr. Persefoni Fuller and Lawrence Johnson also emphasized a self-help approach to challenges. Fuller, a Georgia transplant to Liberal, noted that she has not experienced racism during her two years of residency. She maintained that “we can set the temperature” in the community by working hard and not taking offense easily. Johnson affirmed the need to organize and find a single spokesperson to bring concerns to governing bodies.
Love, who had kicked off the meeting with a personal account of decades-long racism he encountered and overcame, only to be met once more with hatred at the funeral of a long-time “battle buddy” from his service in the military, presented a nuanced approach. The struggle, he said, has continued for decades, “but the Hispanic community of Liberal is a sleeping giant,” and by organizing, running for office, and getting involved, he hopes the new generation of voices for change will prevail.
Trzaska underlined that point in his exhortation to “just try.”
“Maybe there is a limit to what the city commission can do, but it’s worthwhile to try,” he said. “Look for ways to make a difference. Communicate that our community can do better.” Trzaska pointed to the SCCC Inclusiveness and Civility team as an example of people coming together to do good.
“Not everyone on that college team has the same political opinion but we all agree that we care about our students and our Seward family,” Trzaska said. “I have no doubt that I&C can help move the needle on some of these issues, and be a voice for good in Liberal.”
The two-hour forum, Love said, “should be more than a conversation where everyone says how they feel and then goes home angry.” Although Trzaska will soon move on to a new position, Love said he is willing to continue efforts to promote positive change in the community and address specific issues. A good first step, he said, would be the “actionable suggestion made to the city mayor by Dr. T that the city government issue a proclamation denouncing racism.”
“We have a good start and some very passionate, committed young people in Liberal,” Love continued. “I would love to see them continue their efforts and stay involved over the long term.”