The journey of a commission charged with addressing issues related to systemic racism began back in July 2020, a mere 60-some days after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

In the months since Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly introduced members of the 15-member Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, the group has convened nearly three dozen meetings and published three substantial reports totaling more than 250 pages in length.

The first, which came out in December 2020, dealt with policing and law enforcement. Two reports in 2021, one in July and one in December, dealt with the social determinants of health. With that last document, the commission’s work as a body formally ended.

But in many ways, the group’s leadership challenge was only beginning.

Since the summer of 2020, conversations about race have become increasingly polarized, with controversies erupting over programs to promote racial and social justice, especially in schools. One factor helping drive the flare-ups has been deep divisions, especially along partisan lines, over whether racism is a problem that mostly lies in the hearts of a few individuals or a societal challenge that requires changes in policy and culture.   

The commission was mentioned this fall in a campaign advertisement attacking Kelly for “appointing a woke commission that pushed for anti-policing laws.”

Amid these upheavals, members of the commission have, in recent months, contributed to highly visible efforts to advance a slate of recommendations for actions that Kelly, the Legislature, local governments, law enforcement and other agencies and organizations could take to improve the criminal justice system and increase economic, educational, health, mental health and housing opportunities.

Through its efforts, the commission staked out a middle ground of sorts with legislative recommendations often designed to foster systemic change while transcending the most hot-button topics.

And this past session, despite a contentious political climate, they saw several bills with components related to their recommendations signed into law. A $16 billion budget that Kelly, a Democrat, approved April 20 included a provision extending KanCare’s postpartum coverage from 60 days to one year, a change federal officials eventually signed off on.

Other bills related to the commission’s recommendations didn’t become law but the Legislature discussed them, which gave them attention and started a dialogue, including state policies involving COVID-19, says Dr. Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, who chaired the commission with Dr. Shannon Portillo, then a Douglas County commissioner, recently an associate dean of academic affairs in the University of Kansas School of Professional Studies at KU’s Edwards campus in Overland Park and a professor in the public affairs school on KU’s Lawrence campus.

The challenge of engagement

Portillo, who left Lawrence for a position at Arizona State University this fall, says engaging the Legislature has been one of the commission’s “big challenges … to make sure the recommendations we put in front of them that have to do with racial equity make a meaningful difference in communities across the state. This work will be ongoing for years.”

But commissioners also view their engagement work more broadly, looking for ways to connect with more Kansans, including “those who don’t see themselves as criminal justice activists, to step up and play a role and ask how they can address behavioral health problems,” says David Jordan, a commission member and president and CEO of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, based in Hutchinson.

That includes people who may not know a lot about the issues, which requires commissioners to build support by working through others, whether they are stakeholder groups or individuals such as faith leaders, community influencers and business owners.

“If we’re able to address some of these long-standing inequities, we’ll be able to be living in a more just and prosperous state,” he says.

Man smiling while speaking on camera.
David Jordan, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, sees work of the Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice as more than just reporting to the Legislature but also connecting with a swath of Kansans. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Subtle but significant changes

The legislation that has passed so far might not grab the headlines. But the support for the measures has been nearly unanimous, suggesting there is at least some space for common ground on topics that can be highly charged.

Still, not all stakeholders are excited to talk about even those areas that have produced consensus. Despite multiple attempts, efforts to reach Republican legislative leaders about areas of agreement on the subject of racial justice and equity were unsuccessful.

In a news release from the governor’s office, State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, lauded the expansion of postpartum coverage under Medicaid in July. But none of those quoted connected the policy change to racial equity.

“As a mother, I know how important the first year is and this enhanced period of care for Kansas mothers is vital for their mental health, their baby’s health and their families,” Landwehr said. “I am grateful to our state for taking this monumental step to improve maternal health across the state.”

But that doesn’t mean the impact won’t be significant.

Jordan said in a news release that the extended coverage would help 9,000 Kansas mothers a year by “reducing maternal mortality, improving health outcomes and reducing disparities.” KanCare covers 31% of Kansas births, and 29 organizations signed a letter supporting postpartum coverage expansion, which the federal government allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The policy itself has nothing do with race or ethnicity. But it could have profound implications for racial equity nonetheless. Kansas has stark racial disparities when it comes to maternal and child health, according to the commission’s first report.

Black, non-Hispanic women have pregnancy-related mortality rates more than three times higher than those for white women. And infants born to Black women are more than twice as likely to die as infants born to white women.

Another new law, HB 2008, allows the state’s attorney general to coordinate training regarding missing and murdered indigenous persons among law enforcement agencies throughout Kansas in consultation with Native American Indian Tribes, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center and other appropriate state agencies. The effort is seen as a way to address the high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls nationwide.

Other statutory changes included SB 127, which addressed driver’s license suspensions while HB 2026 created a drug treatment program for people on diversion.

Anderson sees both short-term and long-term actions that can lead to progress on many of the commission’s recommendations.

These include creating rural opportunity zones, expanding the types of businesses eligible for state tax credits, and providing affordable child care assistance. But she adds that changes requiring governments to spend more money, such as expanding Medicaid, have a fraught history, even though expansion would reduce spending from the state’s general fund on law enforcement and behavioral health.

The commission’s recommendations include data collection and analysis, partly done by the governor’s Office of Administration, Portillo says. Engagement of minority organizations such as the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and the Kansas Hispanic and Latino Affairs Commission also is important for reaching the commission’s goals.

“We can see some of this work spread out for the state,” Portillo says. 

She says stakeholders are increasing public awareness of the commission’s goals using methods including social media, live-streamed informational presentations, community agency announcements, listening sessions with community groups, newspaper opinion pieces and editorials, making the commission’s reports available on government websites, learning sessions with law enforcement officials who are people of color, and conducting webinars on the commission’s recommendations “intended to inform and engage the public so they’re empowered to take the next step.”

Leadership opportunities and challenges

Floyd’s death, and the earlier deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, prompted nationwide demands for racial equity reforms in the criminal justice system. But the road to creating substantial change can be long and difficult.

The commission’s strength and its opportunity to provide leadership grow from the diversity of its members’ expertise and their ability to share its goals with the people they serve to get them involved in the process, Anderson says. 

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, superintendent, talks with a student
On a visit to the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers, 14-year-old Morgan Barrett got a chance to meet and visit with Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Topeka USD 501.The center, created through business partnerships, provides real work experiences through profession-based learning. Photosby Jeff Tuttle

An important part of the commission’s recommendations addresses “training and mindsets, transformational practices,” including anti-bias training, Anderson says. Unchallenged and unchanged mindsets “create barriers to transformation occurring.”

“I think that’s the largest barrier in any system,” she says. “It’s how you think.”

Anderson focused her doctorate on new school principals’ effective leadership styles. She says leadership can occur regardless of title and formal authority, which is foundational to the commission’s efforts to involve all Kansans
in working toward its goals. 

Portillo says the broad range of topics the commission studied and made recommendations for is both exciting and one of the biggest challenges because of how many areas they address. Approaching the problems from the commissioners’ multiple disciplinary perspectives required them to ensure they were “speaking the same language” in making their recommendations.

Leadership opportunities to implement the commission’s recommendations, because they seek to address a wide range of long-standing, systemic and interwoven inequities, require “hard work, determination, focus and multiple partners and stakeholders,” Jordan says. 

“The leadership challenge is facilitative to empower partners across the state to take leadership on these issues that resonate with them, that align with their interests and that they have talents and skills to address, and it’s also adaptive in nature,” he says. “The challenges are not technical or simple. They need collaborations to address emerging needs.”

Jordan says it is worth analyzing the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas’ executive committee, which oversees the state’s distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funding, with a race and equity lens. This lens can also be applied to all statewide policies.

Asked how the fractured political climate would affect the commission’s work, Jordan says challenges also bring opportunities.

“Not all will engage with all issues in these reports, but there’s an opportunity to engage as nonpartisan,” he says. “We can all work together to move forward recommendations at the local level, which is sometimes easier than at the state or federal level.”

Portillo says none of the commission’s work is partisan, but implementing the recommendations requires working across partisan divides. For example, the idea of
having public defender offices in the state’s most populous counties is nonpartisan and would increase economic efficiency. She cited data showing public defenders cost the state less than having appointed counsel.

“But it’s a topic that as we talk about organized public defense, people see it as ideologically leaning one way or the other,” she says. “We’re arguing that this is better for equity outcomes and more economically efficient for the state.” 

Woman smiling and holding cup of coffee while talking with man.
Shannon Portillo, here conversing with KU Endowment’s Scott Zerger, says none of the commission’s work is partisan, but implementing its recommendations requires working across partisan political divides. Credit: Jeff Tuttle

Criminal justice

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree calls Kelly a visionary for creating the commission when “the criminal justice system as well as the community and state as a whole, and quite frankly, this country, needed it to happen.”

He says educating those in power is the key to a more equitable criminal justice system. The commission assembled experts in various fields, including criminal justice experts in law enforcement and the courts – “boots on the ground and those working with creating laws that would be more equitable for Black, brown and broke folks in the entire community, and then allow them to educate us.” Many of the 

commission’s recommendations grew from their learning about where systemic flaws are.

Dupree says the biggest obstacle to achieving the commission’s recommendations will be changing the minds of people who are removed from “where things are happening on the ground.”

“Though I’m law enforcement, there’s a difference in what I do and what officers do,” he says. “The disconnect that I had to deal with and humble myself and understand is that I may see things a little different from where I sit.”

Some legislators are “a tad bit removed from where a lot of those touchpoints are,” Dupree says. The task is to convince them less to accept the commission’s recommendations than to accept what the experts told the commission and then advance those recommendations.

Asked how to balance making the criminal justice system more equitable with the system’s responsibility to prosecute those who commit crimes, regardless of their race, Dupree says a holistic approach is needed.

“We historically haven’t had the whole picture in mind but only a case-by-case analysis, which is important to understand as a piece of the puzzle but not the entire puzzle,” he says. 

The commission’s goal of a more equitable approach in criminal justice matches “what we’ve always tried to do, which is pursue justice.” The difference, though, is pursuing justice by considering all factors that affect it, the “underlying issues that bring individuals into the criminal justice system as well as what happens to them once they get in there.”

Mental health is a good example of those factors, Dupree says. Going back 20 to 30 years, most people disregarded mental health as a criminal justice factor. That view has changed because “now we understand that the vast majority of cases that we deal with in our criminal justice system is predicated on someone being diagnosed with a mental illness.” That translates to 80% of county jail inmates throughout the country having been diagnosed with a mental illness, he says.

Lacking conversations about the effects of mental illness on the criminal justice system prevents having informed conversations about recidivism, Dupree says. The same is true for drug addiction and drug treatment. Some people need treatment but others “need prison. But to say, ‘Let’s throw them all in prison’ really does a disservice to the pursuit of justice.”

That also applies to equitable treatment in the courts. Without considering race and historical racial disparities, “we’re trying to pursue justice without the whole picture.”

“I tell people all the time that the criminal justice system in our country is the best 

criminal justice system in the world,” Dupree says. “However, in any system that’s run by people, since we are flawed, there will be flaws. And that’s OK as long as we’re willing to acknowledge those flaws, educate ourselves and then work to correct it and keep moving.”

That notion undergirds the commission’s recommendations, especially in their early stages of implementation but also long term. Anderson says the commission’s reports provide “a bridge between the divisions across the state … because it offers conversations on topics of concern to everyone.”

Fall Journal cover

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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