Stung by Chung, Wichita leaders look to turn talk into action

Carrie Philbrick, a software specialist with the Wichita School District, right, makes a point during a forum about pay inequity and other issues at a forum Thursday at Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church. (June 28, 2018)
Carrie Philbrick, a software specialist with the Wichita School District, right, makes a point during a forum about pay inequity and other issues at a forum Thursday at Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church. (June 28, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita is uncomfortable with itself. And it's about time, local officials say.

Wichita heard native son James Chung on June 11 say again that Wichita's economy continues to stagnate even as comparable Midwest cities thrive.

He has been delivering a similar message since he was commissioned in 2015 by the Wichita Community Foundation to analyze the city's economy.

"I've had people tell me it feels like a revival when James Chung comes around," said Thomas Stanley, director of business initiatives for the Kansas Leadership Center. "There's all this energy and pent-up emotion that gets released for a few days — and then it goes back to normal."

But something's different this time around, he said.

"I'm seeing more people engage, more people talk about it on the perimeter," Stanley said.. "It's reaching people who wouldn't normally be reached."

In the week after Chung's presentation, Stanley wrote in a column, "I’ve heard much more community-wide conversation around this visit than any of the past visits combined."

Talk is turning into action.

Business consultant Jill Miller convened "Conversations to Action," a panel discussion for Wichita women in business, in response to what she learned from Chung.

Miller said she thought perhaps 20 to 30 people would want to come, but 100 people signed up for the event at Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church on a Thursday night.

She said Chung's latest presentation was a wake-up call for the city, and it seems to be working.

"Since the Wichita flag has become such a big icon, I think a lot people thought that was changing things," MIller said. "I believe it is changing things, but not in the way people thought it was.

"We need to look at the economics and the reality of where things are."

At the gathering, speakers stressed the importance of people getting out of their comfort zones.

Co-host Britten Kuckelman, director of academic support and information services at WSU Tech, told those gathered to rise from where they were and sit with people they don't know.

"We've got to get out of our comfort zones a lot," said Tami Bradley of Bothner & Bradley, one of the panel speakers for the event.

The crowd broke into groups that brainstormed ways to address five issues: the wage gap women face; the talent drain of women leaving Wichita; and the issues women face in the workplace, in government and as entrepreneurs.

Wichita has half the number of college-educated women it should have for a city of its size, Kuckelman said. And while women earn an average of 80 percent of men nationally, in Wichita that number is 72 percent.

But the timing for whining and griping is gone, Miller and others said.

"This conversation is about action," Kuckelman said.

More calls to action are coming in July.

Wichita Urban Professionals is hosting "What If I Left Wichita?" on July 10 at the Kansas Leadership Center. It's billed as a discussion on diversity and inclusion.

Wichita ranks in the bottom 20 percent in the country in net domestic migration this decade, losing more than 18,000 people. The two largest groups leaving are college-educated women under 45 and minorities with an associate's degree or higher.

A week after the discussion on diversity and inclusion, the Douglas Design District is hosting a forum called "From Perception to Action."

Chung noted a significant turnaround in Wichita's perception of itself over the past two years: People are more optimistic about Wichita's future and more people want to stay in the city now than they did two years ago.

But perception is one thing and action is another, said Janelle King, president of the Douglas Design District.

"We get caught in the processes," King said of Wichita. "We’re always talking, we’re always talking" and, so often, little comes of all that talk.

It can't happen again, she said.

Chung made a point of not telling Wichita how to change in order to energize its future.

"I don't think an expert from the outside can really answer what it is about us that's getting in the way of actually addressing these problems," Stanley said.

Chung's message to Wichita was that it needs to change the way it does things. Officials say it will not be easy.

"What are the actual barriers to culture change?" Stanley asked. "Instead of trying to figure out how to get the next 10 initiatives pushed through, we should be looking at what is getting in the way of us changing the culture of 'no' into 'Hey, let's try something!'"

One way to do that, Miller said at the women's issues meeting, was to make use of the Wichita Truth and Dare cards that were introduced at the end of Chung's presentation.

The cards include a fact about Wichita and then a dare suggesting how people can start to change that truth.

The intent of the cards, foundation spokeswoman Courtney Bengtson said, is to give people the opportunity to start making changes immediately.

The foundation printed 400 sets of cards and they are all but gone, Bengtson said. The foundation has created a link so those interested can download the dares.

Suzy Finn said she's using the cards to help her reconnect to Wichita after being gone from her home town for eight years.

"Becoming active in the community in a variety of ways has been incredibly important to making friends and knowing about all the other opportunities available to make a difference," she said.

People need to be willing to engage with others they don't know — perhaps even disagree with — to change things for the better, said Christina Long, president of the Create Campaign, a nonprofit that provides services and support to minority entrepreneurs in Wichita and Kansas City.

Growth doesn't happen in comfort zones, she said.

"We have to be OK with being uncomfortable," Long said.

Upcoming forums

What if I Left Wichita?

6:30 p.m. July 10, Kansas Leadership Center, 325 E. Douglas

From Perception to Action

5:30 p.m July 16, Central Standard Brewing, 156 S. Greenwood

To download Wichita dares

Wichita Truth & Dare