EDITOR'S NOTE: We hope this piece explores Wichita's issues of inclusion in a way that spurs an open dialogue and urges readers to examine their own actions and notions. We know this only covers a fraction of Wichita's spectrum of diversity. It's not intended to be a comprehensive portrait of all communities, but an entry point into the conversation of inclusion. Ultimately, in order for Wichita to succeed, the people who live here — in all of its diverse neighborhoods and cultures — must have a voice. And we all must listen.
WHO FEELS WELCOMED IN WICHITA? MORE IMPORTANTLY, WHO DOESN'T?
Wichita was born of rugged individualism, which brought people from far and wide, brave enough to start a new life in a growing city. Michael McKenzie, a marriage and family therapist and owner of McKenzie & Associates, says he loves the Wild West heritage of Wichita. It's one of the things that attracted him to the oldest commercial building in the city on the corner of 2nd and Main.
But this tradition has also fostered tribalism, or a strong loyalty and preference for one's own social group, and geographical segregation that make crossing cultures and welcoming those outside the majority more difficult than in other cities. Serving as a crossroads for these tribes and demographics is another reason McKenzie located downtown.
"In our waiting room, at any given time, you have people of all races, cultures, creeds and socio-economic backgrounds," he says. "We try to exhibit that all are welcome, and mental health, for instance, doesn’t know race, sexual orientation or gender."
McKenzie feels confident that he has a finger on the pulse of what makes life difficult for some Wichitans, but he's cautious to speak too much on the behalf of these groups.
"I am a white, heterosexual, cis-male under 40 who has all of the privilege afforded to me," he says. "That being said, as the therapist to such a diverse group, I do hear some of the struggles I think they have in this community."
Wichita stops just short. Basically, we're polite, but not necessarily engaging.Stephanie Byers
Lori Haas is also a marriage and family therapist who owns Peace Love & Therapy. While she sees a diverse group of patients, she primarily focuses on members of the LGBTQ+ community. She and her wife, Stephanie Byers, who is transgender and teaches band and orchestra at Wichita North High, work to educate other therapists and organizations about LGBTQ+ issues.
Haas, who grew up in Oklahoma, says she's noticed a pronounced tribalism in Wichita, as well.
"People have their tribes, and they’re comfortable in that circle, but some of those tribes don’t intersect very much," she says.
Reach Advisors analyst James Chung says Wichita is known as a friendly city, but that friendliness may not extend in an authentic way to people who don't look like us, talk like us or live in the same neighborhoods as us. This issue particularly affects ethnic minorities, people in the LGBTQ+ community, working mothers and young professionals.
Making someone feel welcomed is more than being polite — Byers says Wichita does pretty well with that. It's about showing genuine care for someone.
"Wichita stops just short," she says. "Basically, we’re polite, but not necessarily engaging."
That's a problem.
A CITY OF TRIBES
Wichita is a divided city — in more ways than one. This refers to the tribalism noticed by Haas and McKenzie, but also the city's geographical segregation.
"We are a fairly segregated city," McKenzie says. "We geographically cut each other off. We say, 'this is for us and this is for them.' What happens if you don’t belong to one of those groups?"
We've created arbitrary rules based on geography that denote certain neighborhoods as African American, Hispanic or white. We also create stereotypes based on east, west and south of Kellogg.
Wichita is a dynamic and diverse city, but our melting pot is more like a mix of oil and water.
"You’ll have a shooting on one side of town and people will talk about how, ‘I’m glad I don’t live there,'" McKenzie says. "The fact is, you can get anywhere in Wichita in 15 minutes. … But we act like we live on the dark side of the moon."
Danielle Johnson works as the assistant director at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Wichita State University. Her husband Brandon Johnson was also recently elected to Wichita City Council. She compares the geographical makeup of Wichita to the hip-hop rivalry of East Coast and West Coast.
"It's like 'I'm Tupac, you're Biggie,'" she says. "But it only takes 15-20 minutes to get anywhere in Wichita. This is not Houston; this is not L.A. The only traffic you're going to run into is on Kellogg, but we're very siloed."
Haas and Byers say there's a similar phenomenon in the LGBTQ+ community. Other cities are finding less of a need for gay bars and social clubs because of the mixing between the LGBTQ+ and straight social scene, but Wichita still has them.
"There are gay bars in town, but a lot of people don’t realize that those places are very open for anybody who is not gay," Byers says. "We don’t realize that, so we’re still like, 'This is their place, this is our place.' We forget that we can now intersect, and very few people are going to stand up and say, 'Don’t do that!'"
You’ll have a shooting on one side of town and people will talk about how, ‘I’m glad I don’t live there.' The fact is, you can get anywhere in Wichita in 15 minutes. … But we act like we live on the dark side of the moon.Michael McKenzie
This tribe mentality has also fueled an 'us versus them' mentality, McKenzie says.
He says it's similar to an experiment conducted by Jane Elliott, a third-grade teacher and anti-racism activist in Iowa. She separated her class between blue-eyed students and brown-eyed students. The simple act of separating people in this arbitrary way gave way to people creating stereotypes and believing their group was better than the other.
"We live in a culture and climate now — especially political climate — where it’s OK to have an 'us and them.' It makes us feel safe," McKenzie says. "It’s the Mexicans, or it’s the Muslims, or it’s African-Americans, or non-Christians. It used to be the Catholics or the Chinese. And the psychology behind that is we’re afraid. And we don’t have to be afraid of everything; we can just be afraid of that."
"To some extent, you want to be amongst your culture and have those cultural norms," Johnson says. "I think that's fine, but it's when we get exclusive or try to assimilate people when they come into our groups — that's when it becomes problematic."
In reality, these groups we separate in our minds are not so different from each other. When you look at the west side versus the east side, they're almost identical — down to the types of stores and neighborhoods they house.
Everyone — regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation or geographical location — has the same motivations and the same hopes for their city.
"We’re much more alike than we know and we all want the same things," McKenzie says. "I just wish we could see the value in each other and in each other's differences. I am more than my gender; I am more than my sexual orientation; I am more than my race. Those all inform who I am, but I am more than that."
So if this is a problem, what can we do to solve it? And what are the consequences if we don't?
STARTING A CONVERSATION
It's an old cliché that the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have one. And this problem is particularly hard to acknowledge.
"Where a lot of people shy away or are afraid to have the conversation, I have the conversations every day," says Johnson, who facilitates conversations on diversity in her work at WSU. "We have to break out of the idea that this is a taboo topic. ... We need to be open to hard truths; we need to be open to true criticism. ... It's going to take hearing someone and believing them, even if it challenges your own ideology, your own values or your experiences."
Haas and Byers say that in their world, people often don't talk about differences due to fear and anxiety, not hate.
"I think people are afraid to either feel stupid or be judged or not get it right and offend someone," Haas says. "It requires a level of vulnerability. Be willing to just put yourself out there in a very kind way."
Walking around every day in a place that either feels very ignorant of whom you are or against it, creates deep depression, suicide attempts, isolation — it really has huge consequences. And people literally just jump off the planet because they can't do it anymore.Lori Haas
There are some major consequences to not having this discussion, including in some unfortunate cases, death. Haas says this reality is especially relevant in the transgender community, where 41 percent of transgender teens attempt to take their own lives.
"And if they see a [mental health or medical] provider that is not affirming, not understanding or not tolerating, that number goes up to about 60 percent," she says. "Walking around every day in a place that either feels very ignorant of whom you are or against it, creates deep depression, suicide attempts, isolation — it really has huge consequences. And people literally just jump off the planet because they can't do it anymore. That's really terrifying to me."
McKenzie warns that even a little bit of bigotry or 'us versus them' can create a domino effect that poisons entire neighborhoods.
"Bigotry bleeds over into racism, which bleeds into misogyny, which bleeds into homophobia and heterosexism," he says. "It’s a cancer that we have to cut out in our neighborhoods or it metastasizes and spreads."
Johnson says this leads to an exodus of diverse groups of people looking to find acceptance somewhere else. She says the burning down of Petra Café, the vandalism on the immigration mural in north Wichita and legislation against the LGBTQ+ community are prime examples of why some groups don't feel welcomed in Wichita, even if they don't represent the community as a whole.
"Those are prime examples of why folks would not want to stay here," she says. "My hope is that everyone would have had a strong response against that type of activity, but just look at the comment section on things that happen. That certainly shouldn't represent Wichita, but it's there."
Johnson says if we can't make these groups feel welcomed, they will leave. She says some of her friends have considered moving to cities like Atlanta, where they say they feel not only welcomed but celebrated.
"That's what's on the line — that's what's at stake," Johnson says. "Losing great, talented people who could feel warm and welcomed here and really put us back on the map."
Despite our problems, some progress is being made — especially in younger generations, which Haas says tend to be naturally curious and accepting of diverse cultures and people.
"If we can get those generations mixing, that will rub off on us older people," she says.
Johnson says anyone willing to hear and believe the perspectives of others should consider contacting WSU's ODI, where they would be able to have conversations and further their understanding of the diversity that exists in Wichita.
"If we're not open to those dialogues or understanding of different people's identities and perspectives, then we'll go nowhere," she says. "I think it's dangerous to be apathetic. It's important for us to look these things in the face and lean into discomfort."
The path forward is one of conversation and engagement rather than confrontation and argument. Wichita can't approach this issue with a divisive mentality, but only with an open sincerity that makes it clear that every Wichitan has a seat at the table.