Symbolic acts of leadership can be powerful and provocative tools for fostering change. But they don’t always turn out as planned or lead to desired results. Stories from six Kansans bring clarity to the potential risks and rewards.
Peter Gogol of Prairie Village wrote one letter last August and got a 15,000-pound Confederate monument removed from a busy street in Kansas City, Missouri, although perhaps not for the reason he wanted.
Logan Waner painted a gay pride flag on his parking spot at Marion High School and watched as school leaders quickly ended the tradition of allowing seniors to decorate their parking spaces.
These vignettes show just two ways in which symbols and symbolic actions have been thrust into public debate in recent times – and the tricky, unknown consequences that can follow.
Symbolism can result in accomplishments that send powerful signals even if significant work lies ahead. Just days after he was sworn in, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer’s first executive order instituted policies to combat sexual harassment. Days later, he signed orders designed to increase openness and transparency in state government.
The orders dealt with two of the highest-profile issues that had emerged after legislators dispersed in 2017. While Colyer has the authority to force policy changes in the executive branch, his actions sent a message, even though the allegations that had surfaced related to the legislative branch.
“It is incumbent upon us, the leaders of this state, to attack this issue head-on,” Colyer said at a news conference on the sexual harassment order. “We now have the opportunity to look in the mirror and see whether we can do a better job of protecting state employees. This executive order is an important step toward ensuring Kansas employees are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
WHAT ARE SYMBOLIC ACTS OF LEADERSHIP?
There’s no precise definition as to what constitutes a symbolic act of leadership, but there are some clear parameters. They are often provocative, raising the heat in the service of mobilizing others to act or choose sides. They may advance tangible accomplishments on a small scale, but they also can advance something much more ambitious and difficult to achieve.
At the national level, 2017 almost seemed like the year of symbolic action, from professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem to thousands of women tweeting #MeToo over sexual harassment. But then again, symbolism has always played a role in politics, religion, entertainment, interpersonal relationships and other aspects of society.
Would Martin Luther’s 95 theses have shaken Christendom if he hadn’t (allegedly) nailed them to a church door? How much of Kansas’ historic identity is tied up in the radical abolitionist John Brown as depicted in the mural on display in the state Capitol?
People at all levels of society use symbols and symbolic acts. But from a leadership perspective, it’s interesting to note that symbols are a way for anybody to lead. That’s certainly how Guadalupe Magdaleno sees them. She is executive director of Sunflower Community Action, a Wichita-based nonprofit that regularly uses marches, demonstrations and other means to bring attention to issues. Magdaleno calls them some of the best ways for the powerless to make their voices heard.
“Normally, our community members are not invited to the table with decision makers,” she says.
Sunflower has held prayer vigils for victims of hate crimes, including the foreign-born owners of a Wichita restaurant that was burned and targeted with graffiti last year.
“I believe the prayer vigils are mainly symbolic,” Magdaleno says. “We do it in the hope of sending a message that we are a nation of faith. But it is symbolic because that’s not what’s going to actually create change.”
In January, Sunflower staged a prayer vigil near the county and city government buildings on Wichita’s Main Street over proposals to deport young immigrants who had been covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, implemented by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Although the deportation issue will not be decided at the local level, Sunflower organizers believe it was still important to raise awareness of the debate in the state’s biggest city. The organization has also lobbied on behalf of keeping in-state tuition at Kansas colleges available to undocumented immigrants.
The month before, Magdaleno traveled to Washington, D.C., to engage in a more provocative symbolic act – getting arrested in front of the U.S. Capitol. The arrests came after Magdaleno and others had a “very good meeting” with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, one of the Republican leaders on immigration. She then went outside and was arrested with about 200 other people for refusing to leave the steps of the Capitol.
“I hope that it influenced some of our Kansas representatives to more seriously consider the legislation they are debating, and put more value into the moral and the human side of the story, versus only looking at numbers and political views,” she says.
Sunflower’s vigils and protests regularly draw media coverage, as did Magdaleno’s arrest. How much they accomplish, she can’t say. As of this writing, none of Kansas’ all-Republican congressional delegation has embraced the immigration plan favored by Sunflower.
On the other hand, Kansas remains one of 14 states where in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants remains available, despite another effort to eliminate it in the opening weeks of the 2018 legislative session.
Waner, a senior at Marion, a county seat in central Kansas with about 2,000 residents, says his decision to paint the rainbow flag used by the LGBT movement on his parking spot was a symbolic act on behalf of gay residents of small towns. The flag he painted was originally created by a San Francisco artist, Gilbert Baker, who knew something about small-town Kansas life. Baker, who died last year, was born in Chanute and grew up in Parsons.
But Waner encountered what he calls a painful backlash against his act. Perhaps for that reason, when first asked about it, he said he simply “wanted to designate my spot so nobody would park there.”
After considering further, though, Waner says there “was some symbolism there, too. It was done to say, ‘Hey! I’m here! Gay people really
do exist in small towns, too!’”
Waner says he yearns for the day when homosexuality can be more accepted in places such as Marion. He believes painting the flag “is helping
to show people love and acceptance,” although he admits that’s not what actually happened. Vandals covered his flag with asphalt and nails, and another resident parked over it to keep it from being seen during homecoming. The Marion school board eventually ended the six-year tradition of seniors being allowed to decorate their parking spots.
Kelly McFall, a history professor at Newman University in Wichita, says symbolic acts can be a tool of leadership in a few ways, depending on intent.
“If the change you want to produce is one of attitude, I think symbolic actions can of themselves change people’s attitudes,” he says. “If you want to change behaviors, symbolic actions are often necessary but not sufficient.”
When symbolic acts do lead to change, McFall says, it’s usually due to context – “a complex interplay of the people who are involved and the political or social involvement of the country.
“I could go raise a communist flag and plant it on May 1 – not that I’d do that – and nobody would care because the social and political moment, the conditions are not right. But if you parade down the streets of St. Louis to protest police violence, because the country is ready to hear it, symbolic action can be effective.”
Certain movements reach a point of criticality, which McFall equates with “the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I think that’s what happened with Black Lives Matter, with the debate about the Confederate memorials, with the women’s movement, where the country was ready to hear that and ready to respond in ways that they might not otherwise,” he says.
Another element that seems to make symbolic acts effective – or at least attention-getting – is what might be called the surprise factor. “It’s when the symbolic actions … are not deeply embedded in our sense of who we are that they become controversial and really visible,” McFall says.
To some, a professional athlete’s decision not to stand during the national anthem constitutes an affront. To others, the fact that President Donald Trump would criticize that athlete is just as off-putting.
Even symbolic acts that don’t have an immediate effect, McFall adds, can make “incremental differences … that will lead down the road to actions that might not have happened” otherwise.
All parts of the political spectrum – left, right and center – make use of symbolic acts. One of the best-known protests in Kansas history took place during the summer of 1991, when some 2,600 anti-abortion activists were arrested while blocking entrances to three clinics in Wichita.
In 2008, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, instructed then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a fellow Catholic, not to receive communion because of her support for abortion rights. Naumann first discussed the matter privately with Sebelius, then wrote a column about it in a diocesan newspaper. Sebelius’ response was that she was obliged to uphold federal and state laws. Naumann said he “had asked her to show a similar sense of obligation to honor divine law and the laws, teaching and legitimate authority of the church.”
The exchange, of course, affected Sebelius, who described the order as “painful” in one news report. But there were symbolic effects, too, in the message directed at Catholic politicians more generally about how their positions would be viewed by the church.
Meanwhile, Naumann’s willingness to call out Catholic politicians – he was similarly critical in 2016 of vice presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine – has helped him command more attention in his fight against abortion. Last fall, Naumann was elected as head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, outpolling a cardinal with a more conciliatory approach, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
But symbolic acts need not be made by those with significant levels of authority to have an impact.
Gogol’s writing of a letter regarding the Confederate memorial to the “Loyal Women of the Old South” on Ward Parkway in Kansas City, Missouri, wasn’t symbolic in itself. Gogol – who lives nearby and frequently jogged by the monument – was asking the city’s parks board to take a symbolic action by removing it. After Gogol’s request was made public, but before the parks board could consider it, somebody vandalized the monument. The city then granted a request by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had donated the memorial in the first place, to remove it.
“I wish the city could have taken it down before some people damaged it,” Gogol says, adding that such a decision would have been more powerful than the response to vandalism.
Still, he’s glad he raised the issue. Gogol believes many other residents and their elected officials probably shared his feelings about the monument.
“A lot of times people may feel some way about a certain issue but think they’re alone,” he says. “Taking certain symbolic actions … can help people who feel that way not feel so alone.”
Gogol says the letter “took me 10 minutes to write. Look at what it did.”
Former University of Kansas professor Jake Dorman, on the other hand, is pretty sure that publicly tying his resignation to the Legislature’s decision to allow guns in college classrooms didn’t accomplish anything.
“I thought that by making a statement, I might actually be able to influence the public debate and that Kansans would appreciate an appeal to their own self interests,” he says. “I think I ended up being wrong. I don’t think it changed the public debate, just because of the way our debate has evolved into a nationwide mudslinging fest.”
Dorman says several other college professors in Kansas have resigned for the same reason, although he doesn’t take credit for their departures. And he noted that many of his colleagues “haven’t wanted to take a public stand, to avoid getting the treatment that I got.”
That treatment, Dorman says, includes becoming fodder for media and commentators who’ve never been to Kansas and aren’t really concerned about guns in its classrooms.
“For them, it’s kind of a culture war against universities, which they see as being the domain of liberals. Increasingly, that’s what I came to understand,” he says. “It’s not actually about public safety or anything like that.” In Dorman’s view, it’s “really about enforcing an abstract notion of the Second Amendment onto liberal domains for the purpose of making liberal professors uncomfortable.”
But symbolic acts can take a toll, too.
Magdaleno, too, says the reality of her arrest was a powerful part of her symbolic act.
She was fingerprinted, photographed and had to pay a $50 fine before being released.
“I have never been arrested in my life,” she says. “The whole process created a lot of anxiety when I didn’t really expect it. That’s how our community is affected.”
A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.