James Chung’s recent visit to Wichita, to report on what he has concluded from examining the city’s current trends, is easily his most important yet.
The summary of his conclusions? That Wichita has two major economic problems, and one overriding cultural one. First, our city fails to hold on to many able workers, particularly women and minorities. Second, our city’s donor and professional class is terribly cheap, consistently choosing not to invest in local arts and commerce. Culturally, both of those economic obstacles are tied together: city leaders too often simply says “no” to proposals that would make Wichita more cosmopolitan, or to projects which would require significant capital investment.
How to respond to these mutually re-enforcing problems? Chung is right that there is no “silver bullet;” re-igniting Wichita’s economy, and re-envisioning its culture, will require doing lots of small things differently, not just one large thing.
That said, there is one large thing which Chung — perhaps wisely — never mentioned: getting political. When Chung talked about the “wiring” that generates negativity in Wichita, he wasn’t explicitly pointing at our often conservative, insular, individualistic political culture — but the system-wide incentives which that culture creates certainly contribute to it.
The Wichita Community Foundation made a set of “Truth and Dare” cards to accompany Chung’s presentation Monday, each one highlighting a challenging fact about Wichita and inviting those reading to respond. The Dares included in these cards are thoughtful, touching on transportation, literacy, non-profit organizations, worship services, parks, and much more here. But only two directly mention politics, and those two are pretty mild: attend city council meetings! Remember to vote!
If I may, allow me to take Chung’s conclusions directly into the realm of political action, and suggest a few, more demanding, Truth and Dare cards of my own.
There are city and county leaders who consistently oppose resolutions and projects which would demonstrate greater openness to the concerns of non-whites, non-home-owners, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals. This discourages many workers from remaining in our city. So find out who these leaders are, contact them, push them to change their positions, and if they won’t, run against them in the next election, or support someone who will.
There are city and county leaders who consistently support developments which expand the city’s suburban footprint, disconnecting our human and financial resources into an often alienating sprawl. This discourages many donors from attempting to address Wichita’s needs in a comprehensive, unifying way. So fight those developments, protest them, and run against those who support them, or get involved in electing someone who will.
There are people serving as our representatives on the state and national level who pay no attention to the fact that there are Wichitans, like other urban populations across the country, who are organizing to affect change regarding wages, police policies, civil rights, environmental sustainability, and more. Instead, they lean on the same national partisan talking points, assuming that Wichita’s voters are a defensive, unimaginative bunch, and thus will re-elect them. Get informed, organize, volunteer, door knock, make phone calls, donate, and prove them wrong.
No, a political upheaval among our leadership class won’t automatically fix the systemic, bad economic and cultural habits which Chung has laid before us. But if we refuse to challenge reigning political assumptions entirely, then the incentives those habits reward will continue to make Wichita’s tendency to say “no” seem reasonable. True, a “yes” mentality probably won’t emerge with any one election. But we’ll never know unless we try. What do you say? I dare you.
Dr. Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.