In my elementary-school years, Kansas Day represented a specific set of craft projects. The sunflower. The meadowlark. The cottonwood tree. The buffalo. As we advanced, we learned the meaning of our state motto: “Ad astra per aspera” — that is, “To the stars through difficulties.”
Yet we heard little mention of Kansas’ most stellar historical aspects. Its 1861 entrance to the U.S. as a free state tipped the balance for a nation marred by slavery. High ideals didn’t stop there. Women had an eight-year head start at the polls in the Sunflower State, while national politicians dithered about giving women the vote. Kansas led the way for workers’ rights, establishing the workman’s compensation system, the city-council system designed to eliminate mafia control and graft, and, perhaps most famously, the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to desegregation of schools.
Our state, as the young folks would say, is badass.
At the same time, we have somehow managed to retain the wholesome kindheartedness that I ached for during my five years in Chicago. I missed the circular horizon. I missed the stars. I missed being able to take people at face value, a social navigation method that actually works in my home state.
The welcoming nature of Kansans is well-known in points far from the geographical center of North America — yep, that’s another Kansas claim to fame. One of our international student alumni at SCCC, a student from Japan, based her decision to study abroad on an advisor’s advice to “go to Kansas, or maybe Nebraska. People there are friendly and kind.” Sachie Shibachev liked it so well she stayed, married, had a child, and has made a home in Meade, where she fulfills her original goal of working as a nurse.
In Liberal, famously named for the generosity of early homesteader Seymour Rogers and his wayside water well, we continue to live out this ethic of open arms for the weary soul. In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded the population of foreign-born individuals in Seward County as 23%, the highest rate for all counties in the nation. With residents from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, Somalia, Burma, Vietnam, Sudan, Laos, Thailand, and a smattering of European nations, thanks in part to our robust international student population, it is truly possible to meet the world right here at home.
SCCC will celebrate all of this — the history of forward thinking, the concern for those left on the margins, the opportunity to ascend through hard work and a neighborly welcome — at a potluck birthday party for our state on January 29. From 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., tables in the SCCC Library will be laden with delicious dishes that reflect our state.
We’ll serve homemade chicken and noodles over mashed potatoes, chili with cinnamon rolls, and bierocks — all familiar favorites of Kansas natives. Authentic Mexican food, from fried tacos to flautas, and even tamales if we’re lucky will provide a taste of the good things we enjoy from across our southern border. International and vegetarian options will round out the options, including Indian samosas, Greek Baklava, Thai and Filipino foods, real Chinese, and more.
The venture reminds me of another core “welcome to Liberal” moment I experienced after moving here in 1993. Halfway across the world, the African nation of Somalia had collapsed, and families fled with next to nothing. Somehow, a large group of Somali young people ended up in Liberal to work at the packing plant. These were men and women barely out of their teens, well-educated, with expectations of becoming engineers or surgeons — but thanks to politics, they had to start over.
Through a friendship forged at the gym, my husband wrangled an invitation for himself and his reporter wife to an Eid feast at a rental home on the northeast side of Liberal. We arrived 30 minutes late because I couldn’t decide whether or not to wear a scarf over my hair to show respect to our hosts, as well as communicating my own respectability. We needn’t have worried. The men had just finished slaughtering the goat as we stepped into the living room, where a table cloth on the floor served as a dining table, and the women proffered cups of hot cardamom tea and bananas.
Hours later, we sat cross-legged on the floor to share a feast as promised. At one point in the evening, our hosts had paused to pray on mats facing Mecca. The feeling in the room was one of dutiful respect for tradition, the same way visiting relatives will attend Sunday morning church with aging parents, even if their own belief system has shifted.
I don’t remember the goat stew itself, though I marveled at the repurposing of Mexican tortillas as bread for this African fare, and the Somali fondness for super-sweet orange soda. What stands out most is the laughter as we ate together. The willingness to share stories that painted a vivid picture of lives not unlike ours — family living arrangements, school days, the difficulties of meeting parental expectations, worry about grandparents’ health.
Decades later, I often wonder what became of our young Somali neighbors. After a year or two of bone-wearying work and communal living, most had moved on to enroll in college and resume their expected life trajectory. Our nation and state have weathered terror attacks, a second Gulf War and ongoing military struggles. The TSA now exists. And on our southern border and in coffee shops across town, tempers frequently flare as Kansans debate the current state of immigration.
We grapple with difficulties, indeed. The stars, though, are still there. Every night, in our small spot on the vast High Plains, we are free to look up and see the same lights shining that showed the way for the original Kanza people, the settlers and migrants that followed, and glimmer across continents.
In the meantime, let’s break bread together. Let’s sit down at the Kansas table for a meal that nourishes our bodies and offers company that can feed our minds as well. To love your neighbor, to share what you have, to smile at a stranger — that’s the Kansas way.
Rachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusivity & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.