All posts by Rachel Coleman

Talking or listening, stories lead to change

Invite someone to join you in a conversation about diversity, and prepare to hear “no, thanks.”

Offer to tell a story, and you will probably find folks gathering round to listen.

There’s something about stories that breaks down barriers and creates a sense of warmth and connection. Some of my personal favorites carry important cultural truths about my own heritage — the time my Mennonite Grandma Schultz observed the congregants in her husband’s church services and noticed that the “German sermons only” members laughed at the English-language jokes. “You can stop preaching two sermons a week, Abe,” she told Grandpa. “Everybody speaks English.”

Or the Harry-Potter-like accounts my Anglo-Indian father shares about his annual journey to Sherwood College boarding school in the Himalayas in the 1940s. The three-day train trip led to nine months of adventure and learning in Naini Tal, where the boys hiked in the “hills” (unless a panther alert had been issued), endured brutal classroom discipline, and eagerly welcomed the itinerant cake man, who brought his wares in a tin box and set up shop to sell crullers and eclairs.

Or my husband’s tales, alternately sidesplitting and heartbreaking. One of 13 children born to Mississippi Delta African Americans who’d left the South to swap picking cotton for more promising pursuits, he attended segregated schools until junior high. Along the way, he learned to drive a trash truck at age 8,  witnessed real-life Black Panther activists in action, and escaped death more than once. His accounts of his expansive, enterprising family never fail to amaze me.

Diversity really means the panoply of human experience — always colorful, always surprising, always better on the inside than the outside (also known as stereotyping). As children we learn that it’s good to try new things — broccoli, for instance, or swimming, or flying a kite. As adults, we tend to narrow down our daily lives to what’s comfortable and unthreatening.

Growth is necessary for a life well lived. Some personal-development trainers like to declare, “Grow or die!” but it’s really more like, “Grow or be bored,” or “Grow or be left behind.” Better yet, how about “Grow and be happy!”

The I&C team at SCCC aims to offer opportunities this year to savor the stories that help us grow. Along the way, we hope to foster a sense of connection, kindness, and community. Two state and national initiatives provide a great starting point for personal world expansion.

One Small Step, a joint project from Story Corps and High Plains Public Radio, provides a chance to swap stories. You can click on the video at the right of our main I&C webpage to learn more about one such encounter between a Trump supporter and an observant Muslim: they became, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances.   

“No matter their political leanings, a majority of Americans agree that divisiveness is a major problem impacting our ability to deal with the pandemic and serious challenges facing our country. There is hope: A majority of Americans also say they are optimistic that our country can overcome political divisiveness in the years ahead. At a moment like this, aren’t we called to try to find a better way forward — together? One Small Step is an effort to reconnect Americans, one conversation at a time.”

Check out the program at the HPPR website, and sign up to participate in a conversation.

If you are more in the mood to listen than to talk, the Kansas Humanities Hotline offers an array of short stories about the Kansas experience — culture, history, and more. The hotline is accessible by phone or through Soundcloud on any computer. We will be highlighting several favorites during Hispanic Heritage Month.




Honoring the legacy of John Lewis

John Lewis, who participated in the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s until his death July 17, is celebrated as a key figure in the struggle of the United States to reconcile its history with slavery, racial inequality, and the dream to make America, as poet Langston Hughes put it, “that great strong land of love.”

Though Lewis grew up in the American South and spent his career as an activist and Washington legislator, far from Southwest Kansas, we at Seward County Community College are thankful for his life. 

His work to ensure voting access and integrity is just as important today as the years he petitioned for Black Americans to go to the polls without fear of intimidation. His insistence on the ways of nonviolent protest continue to serve as a model for our deeply divided country.

Perhaps most important is Lewis’ affinity for optimism. As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker’s July 27 edition, “it was probably his most salient characteristic that he always refused despair; with open eyes, he acknowledged the darkest chapters of American history yet insisted that change was always possible.”

Shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer, Remnick noted, Lewis commented on the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“The protesters, he said, will ‘redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.’”

In Southwest Kansas, we know the challenges and opportunities presented by communities in flux. Our towns and industries have long reflected the mixed bag of the American Dream, with immigrant workers who arrive from Southeast Asia, Africa, Mexico and Latin America, and, on the campus of SCCC, nearly 30 foreign countries. We live in a geographic area that demands grit and collaboration — after all, the city of Liberal is named for a tradition of generosity, a willingness to serve the wider community, and to wish a fellow traveler well.

“We can all learn much from his example, which prevailed for more than 50 years of steady, unflinching yet nonviolent work to make America its best,” said SCCC President Dr. Ken Trzaska.

The local traditions and characteristics of Southwest Kansas line up neatly with Lewis’ own legacy, one of engaged citizenship that views conflict as a puzzle to unlock and differences as worth ironing out. Trzaska pointed out partnerships like the joint effort to provide COVID-19 social distancing resources for National Beef Packing employees, and the company’s subsequent donation to the College and many other entities.

“Our work with the Liberal Area Coalition for Families has also enabled us to cross barriers and provide healthy living options for our wider community, with walking paths, events on campus, healthy dining choices, and a smoke-free environment,” he said. “All these elements work to create a more holistic and equitable community.”

Local government bodies have taken new steps to open lines of communication between law enforcement and various interest groups in Liberal. The SCCC inclusiveness & civility group continues to sponsor events and training for all college team members. Casual events like the Saturday “splash and dash” fitness runs, the weekly Farmer’s Market and Liberal Memorial Library children’s and adult offerings, from crafts to free coffee, all serve to build bridges between various groups in the wider community.

Lewis would likely approve. In his later years, he urged subsequent generations to approach diversity with a kind of fearless curiosity.

“Never ever be afraid to make some noise, and get in trouble, necessary trouble,“ Lewis was known to say. He called it “good trouble.”

The Inclusiveness & Civility Mover team has compiled some resources about Lewis for further reading:

Interested in learning more about Lewis’ life? USA Today has created a brief biographical film and article that recaps the highlights of Lewis’ life and work.

Read comments from President Trump, former Presidents Obama, Bush, and Carter, as well as various justice advocates who knew and admired Lewis.

Check out this tribute by David Remnick, introducing a series of articles scheduled to appear in the New Yorker, which observes that “Dissent is an essential component of the American story and the American future. In that spirit, next week’s issue of The New Yorker will feature Profiles, reporting, essays, fiction, and poetry from the archives on this theme.” The planned subjects include Dr. KingMargaret Fuller, and Cesar Chavez, who set out to battle the established order of racism, misogyny, and exploitation. Artists, like Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison, who provide the vision and the language to understand our predicament and, perhaps, to help transform it. The magazine will also feature people “like the scientist James Hansen, whose bravery is to insist on the validity of fact, when willful ignorance can lead to the catastrophic warming of the planet—or to the spread of a deadly virus.”

Lewis lobbied for decades for the creation and funding of a national museum to record the history of Black Americans. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the culmination of that work. A remembrance by the Smithsonian Institution, including a personal interview with Lewis, can be viewed here.

Learning to be an American, one generation at a time

It’s been more than 20 years since my daughter weathered an early identity crisis after I broke the news to her: we are Americans. 

“I am not!” she said indignantly. My three-year-old did not understand exactly what an American was, but she didn’t care for the sound of it — perhaps because it sounded a bit like hurricane or captain, as in “pirate captain.”

“Oh, but you are,” I said. “You were born right here in Liberal, and that is in Kansas, and Kansas is in the United States of America. That’s the name of our country: America. So, you are an American. And your little brother is, too.”

“No, no, no, no, no,” muttered the almost-two-year-old.  He wasn’t going to go quietly into this strange-sounding category of “American.” A modified session on U.S. history was in order. We started with simple things: colors, stars, a map. A demonstration of the Pledge of Allegiance was a big hit. 

A few days later, my children had reconciled themselves to their nationality and were, in fact, excited about celebrating its birthday. It helped that celebrations include cake and ice cream, balloons, all the basic ingredients needed for preschoolers to have fun.

This would be a minor, somewhat amusing anecdote, end of story — unless you stop to remember my grandparents. 

They, too, were Americans. For them, however, the designation required more than birth and childhood explanations. They earned the name the old-fashioned way, by homing in on a goal that required courage for the duration.

Grandpa and Grandma Seth emigrated to this country from India in the mid-1950s. They left a prosperous home near Calcutta, complete with house servants and the special privileges and status of English colonial life, to live simply in Peoria, Ill., in a walk-up apartment that boasted no luxuries.

My grandfather, the CEO of a steam train rail car plant, took up hourly-wage work at a department store warehouse. My grandmother, who’d whiled away the hot Indian days with knitting, mah-jongg and charity work, learned to make club sandwiches in the store cafeteria. 

One memorable day in late summer, Grandma and her twin sons (one of them my father) made an anxious trip to the federal courthouse in Peoria. Dad, a teenager at the time, recalls wearing a bow tie and sport coat, both specially purchased for the occasion. My grandmother had even parted with the dollars for a rare new dress. They’d lived in the U.S. for five years, and were ready to become citizens.

Grandma was nervous. Her sons had drilled her on American history facts at the kitchen table, and she had carefully followed all the rules to keep their family paperwork in order. Still, the prospect of failing the exam was frightening.

I never knew my grandmother, yet I am affected deeply at the thought of her worries after she had already traveled so far. When she boarded an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic, she had no solid picture of what lay on the other shore. She stretched herself far past the points of comfort to reach for something not visible  All of this, she did for the sake of her childrens’ futures. 

She placed her hopes in the destination she had selected. America, she knew, was the place where people had a fair chance to make their lives better. It was the home of freedom and democracy, capitalism, honest government. (Anyone who’s lived in a place like India, where you have to bribe the postal workers to mail your letters, knows the value of that.) Surely, her hopes would not be in vain, her courage would not be wasted.

No one took pictures that day, nor was there a big celebration when Eileen Viola Seth, Robert Paul Thomas Seth and Richard Peter Trevor Seth became citizens of the United States. In one sense, that long-ago day passed inconsequentially, just one more set of hours that holds the life-happenings of millions of people. 

My grandparents are dead now, passed away from a life much humbler than their beginnings. You can’t say that’s the end of the story, though, because my life and my brother’s life and our cousins’ lives and the lives of our children, and, someday, their children’s too, are a testament to the rightness of my grandmother’s choice. 

Our ability to live in a house with air conditioning, to live in a town with paved streets and a police force; our freedom to worship, think and speak as we choose; the good meals we enjoy thanks to the hard work we perform; the ease to have fun, to feel amusement as we instruct our offspring about the meaning of the word “American;” all of it, we owe to her and my grandfather and their courage to leave the old life for something best described as a challenge. Certainly, it was no cakewalk.

Yet my grandmother’s fears on citizenship exam day were misplaced: she had learned American history, she had worked hard, and she loved this country. The judge shook her hand and welcomed her in.

It was, after all, hers: the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Two-decade postscript:

When I wrote this newspaper column as a young mother, I could not have imagined the roiling sense of upheaval that marks Independence Day 2020. The two children I indoctrinated with classic immigrant patriotism were soon joined by a little sister. And those three young biracial Black Americans have navigated complications that far exceeded the simplicity of the stories they grew up hearing. In the United States of 1998, we had just begun to grasp the technological transformation that was soon to come. We (mostly) trusted our government, and while ideological and political differences were marked, the young mother I was felt certain her children would continue to ascend in a changing, improving society. After all, the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, before my own birth.

Fast-forward to a 21st-century summer marred by COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd, the caging of small children whose parents hoped only to replicate an American story like my own family’s, and uneasiness about a Presidential election that might or might not be decided by foreign agents. As I woke on July 4 and realized that yes, it really is Independence Day, I thought of my Seth grandparents as I always do on the nation’s  birthday. And I asked myself the question: Is this column still true?

Certainly, the origin story is true. My grandparents’ optimistic beliefs about the new country they would come to call home were, perhaps, a bit on the rosy side. It was, after all, 1954, the height of the Eisenhower/J.Edgar Hoover propaganda push to frame Americans’ sense of self and purpose in the world. Our family fortune changed dramatically when India gained independence. The Anglo-Indian (sometimes called “Eurasian”) Diaspora was unavoidable, and I’m thankful the Seths chose the United States.

When we reconcile the present with history, and our own evolving understanding of historic events, some things remain unchanged. Love and courage, thankfully, are two of the strongest.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  


Clothe yourself in Social Courage

October, the month when I begin to listen for wild geese migrating, brings an echo of loss. Low grey skies create a sounding bell for the calls of birds fleeing blizzards; they also reflect an inevitable gloom, the descending specter of less sunlight and darker moods.

Autumn is when we feel the steady tick of time passing. Summer is over, winter is on its way, and growing season has come to a close. There’s no tricking a hard freeze.

It’s time to pull on an extra sweater, take a deep breath, and be brave.

Brave, because this time of year is when we reckon with mortality. We can’t avoid it. The trees offer testimony of bare-bones truth. Why would we assume that humans, whose lives are shorter than the average oak, are granted immunity from the forces that erode mountains?

How people handle loss is tied to how we connect with others. It is peculiar and treacherous territory. On the one hand, it’s as ordinary as dirt: everybody carries private grief. Making too much of yours can cloy. When I yearn for the dog I just relinquished to new owners or lament the mostly empty nest at my house, I can almost hear Auntie Sergeant in my head, issuing a crisp corrective: “Some people don’t have homes. Some people don’t have children to send to college! Toughen up, buttercup!” My sensible alter-ego is right — sorrow is nothing special.

But as Tolstoy observed in his novel Anna Karenina (whose title character is the all-time champion of melancholy) while all happy families are pretty much the same, every unhappy family finds its own unique way to explore misery. Can a person whose geriatric parent just died identify with the pain of a 25-year-old whose mother fought cancer and lost? If you say you’re upset about a favorite chair claimed by dry rot, do I trump your tale of woe with a story about termites?

In the face of such quandaries, professionals offer tips. Maybe it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder — the wintertime blues — that has us down. Or perhaps we ought to talk about National Suicide Awareness Month? Be aware, feelings of discouragement are not the same as clinical depression. Instructors at the community college where I work take the halfway mark of the semester as a cue to issue warnings about “staying on top of your studies.” Young adult students, whose brains are still in the final stages of development, might not be sure why they feel downhearted.

The big box stores see the start of autumn as a gold rush: Halloween, hunting season, Thanksgiving, football, and Christmas shopping all provide profits galore. The retailers are not wrong, if what counts is dollars. We all know, however, down in the roots of our being, that money is not what matters when that cold and lonely wind blows.

For me, October is a grab bag of emotion. It is the time of year I met my next-door neighbor, who became my husband 26 years ago. It’s also the time of year when my oldest child died. This year, the month has already brought gain and loss, gold and grit. I want to photograph every bright red leaf I notice turning in the wind. I want to curl up beneath the softest blanket in the house, and go to sleep. I’m pretty sure I am not alone in this back-and-forth response to the arrival of autumn.

At work, the month brings what I think of as “Judgement Day,” our accreditation visit from the Higher Learning Commission. Being evaluated is never comfortable, even when you know you have done your level best. The stress is counterbalanced by the excitement about our new buildings on campus — the Colvin Family Center for Allied Health on the northwest side of Circle Drive, and the Sharp Family Champions Center on the southeast. Both are nearly complete, and the altered silhouette kind of takes my breath away when I approach campus.

That’s the thing about seasons. They change. And even though we might find familiar themes, be those in the form of pumpkins or plaid, no two years are exactly the same.

What memories mark this season for you? What do you savor? When does sadness gust into the corners of your heart, like wind scattering dry leaves?

As SCCC’s inclusiveness & civility mover team launches another year of work, we’re interested in those moments, when loss collides with forward motion, calling for courage and grace. More than the distinctions that divide us, all people share common experiences as we move through life. Let’s keep good company with one another along the way.

rachel colemanRachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.  


To the stars … one spoonful at a time

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.

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 2.19.34 PM.pngWe’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 colemanRachel 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 This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.