An article about the likely founding of a south-side Lord's Diner (Dec. 4 Eagle) left me pondering the words of a profound speaker, and worrying about a grandmother left out in the cold last year when a similar proposal for inner-city Wichita failed.
Roz Lasker, a physician internationally known for her work on public participation in community planning and policy development for the Clinton administration, visited the Kansas Leadership Center this month. She discussed "engaging unusual voices" and "building a trustworthy process" — ideas central to civic progress.
Lasker's words exhumed my bitterness regarding last year's proposal for a Lord's Diner at 21st and Grove, and left me hoping that unusual voices have their say in a trustworthy process for this new effort.
In 2009, I learned of a woman raising her grandchildren near 21st and Grove. Friends who championed that Lord's Diner proposal described her plaintive and desperate calls. There must have been many other grandmothers who didn't have the profile or the pulpit to promote their interests.
I ached for my old newspaper column platform to speak for them. But speaking for them, Lasker said, could have proved troubling, too.
Why? Marginalized people deserve their own voice but rarely get to speak, because our society worships credentials, authority and influence.
Experts, however, lack information only the marginalized possess. Marginalized people inhabit the realities the rest of us debate in the aesthetic and in the abstract. But their ideas are dismissed, misinterpreted or ignored.
A process without unusual voices isn't trustworthy, Lasker said.
If emergency-preparedness officials, for example, had consulted poor people before the New Orleans flooding disaster, she said, they would not have tragically assumed everyone could flee the city in an SUV and secure a hotel room with a credit card.
The lack of marginalized voices in the process deepened the deadly 5-year-old disaster.
Using a relay-race analogy, Lasker said that once the marginalized have spoken, others with influence must endeavor to carry their idea baton — unfiltered and unedited — into the discussion and across the finish line of civic debates.
Hungry people will benefit from a south-side diner, but they will benefit more by participating in the planning. The process must allow them to speak for themselves and prevent their words and wishes from evaporating in the heat of debate.
We missed that opportunity last year.
A lot of people I respect spoke loudly in opposition to the 21st Street proposal. But I'm not sure how many of them battled hunger daily, raised grandchildren on fixed incomes or lived close enough to the site to have the authentic standing to oppose it.
I hope that 2009 experience informs this new south-side effort about the importance of engaging unusual voices and building a trustworthy process.
Some key stakeholders here have expertise and humanity we shouldn't marginalize, even in our zeal to help.