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NetworQ Member Chairs the Lawrence Alliance

City group renews focus on diversity

After two-year hiatus, committee works to stop discrimination

Lawrence Journal World Online Newspaper

August 21, 2005

Even bigots can be subtle.

But subtle doesn’t make discrimination any more tolerable, said members of a reborn city advisory group dedicated to fostering the city’s diversity.

“What we hear is that sometimes discrimination is not blatant,” said Deb Taylor, chairwoman of the Lawrence Alliance. “We want to work on the issues that are not getting noticed or that are not getting talked about. We want to become the resource for people who want to talk about these issues.”

It is a different direction for the 11-member city advisory board. For the past two years, the board basically has had no direction and very little activity.

Taylor said she began thinking about the need for the group to become active again after the downtown beating of Jeffrey Medis, a gay man, in December 2002. She said the discussion about whether the beating was a hate crime was a good opportunity for the community to engage in a larger discussion – had there been a group there to lead it.

Lawrence resident Deb Taylor is the chairwoman of the reborn Lawrence Alliance, a city advisory board that focuses on promoting diversity, tolerance and community in Lawrence.

Lawrence resident Deb Taylor is the chairwoman of the reborn Lawrence Alliance, a city advisory board that focuses on promoting diversity, tolerance and community in Lawrence.

“What we want to do is bring people together, share resources and begin a dialogue,” Taylor said.

But Taylor said the group would not just focus on high-profile incidents like Medis’. She said there’s plenty of work to be done on “under the radar” types of discrimination. For example, perhaps some stores consistently follow around shoppers of a particular ethnicity. Or maybe Muslim individuals don’t feel comfortable wearing their traditional garments in the community.

Taylor said she’s not sure what examples of covert discrimination may exist in the community. That’s why the alliance is inviting leaders from existing organizations and religions to speak to the committee over the next several months.

The next step will be to have a town-hall style meeting where community members will be asked to tell their stories about discrimination, intolerance or ignorance. Taylor said a date for the forum hasn’t been set, but she said it could come before the end of the year.

Debbie Van Saun, assistant city manager and staff liaison for the alliance, said she thought the community would appreciate having a group whose focus is on diversity.

“From what I can tell about the pulse of the community, diversity is a trait that we really value,” Van Saun said. “But I think we recognize that you have to do more than pay lip service to it. You have to have opportunities for education, enlightenment and resources available if there are concerns.”

The members

The City Commission-appointed Lawrence Alliance committee members:
Deb Taylor, chairwoman, NetworQ
Barbara Bonnekessen, University of Missouri-Kansas City
Tiffany Hessler-Droge, Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services
Sara Taliaferro, Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods
Ed Brunt, Lawrence Police Department
Peter Luckey, Plymouth Congregational Church
Ralph Reed, Haskell Indian Nations University
Bruce Ney, NetworQ
Sarah Terwelp, Women’s Transitional Care Services
Hilda Enoch, Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice
Anne Burgess, Kansas University

Van Saun said she thought the alliance had previously had a difficult time sustaining any momentum because it had not carved out a niche for itself. She said the group at times was viewed as overlapping other services – such as the city’s Human Relations Commission, which deals with housing and other common discrimination complaints.

The new focus on addressing the next layer of discrimination should give the group a needed direction, Van Saun said. She also said there were opportunities for the alliance to be a clearinghouse of information related to services for people who feel they have been victims of discrimination.

“Having one Web site where a person in Lawrence can go to find out what help exists, instead of going to all the different agencies and organizations’ Web sites could be a real benefit,” Van Saun said.

The alliance formed in 1991, shortly after Lawrence police officers shot and killed Gregory Sevier, a 22-year-old Native American.

Lawrence Mayor Boog Highberger, who has appointed several of the members of the revamped alliance, said he was glad the group was being proactive instead of waiting for a crisis to motivate a new round of action.

“I think it is always important for us to pay attention to these issues,” Highberger said. “I know we talk a lot about diversity and tolerance, but I don’t think we have ever really fully lived up to our ideals.”

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