By Fred Mann
The Wichita Eagle
Drawing inspiration from the suffragette movement of the early 1900s, a group of women is encouraging women around the state to change the leadership in Topeka.
Women for Kansas, founded in Wichita, calls itself a grassroots effort that crosses political, racial, cultural and economic lines. Its goal is to stop what members say is the downward path of Kansas under the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback, then continue to encourage women to stay involved in issues important to them.
"Women's voices seem to be getting lost in the discourse, especially in Kansas," said Laura Dungan, one of the group's core members. "I think we're really going backward in many ways."
The group is organizing a "Taking Back Kansas Convention" for the Labor Day weekend Aug. 29-31 at the Drury Plaza Broadview Hotel in Wichita. The event will include a public rally and a banquet. Speakers and celebrities are being lined up.
"I think this opportunity with this convention is to move forward with new faces of women who've never been activated before," said Dungan, a community organizer for 23 years. "We're hoping in this process women will be able to step forward and get engaged with what's going on in the world."
The initial goal is to defeat Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach at the polls this fall. The group supports Democrats Paul Davis and Jean Schodorf to replace them.
Women for Kansas is unhappy about a host of issues under Brownback and the Kansas Legislature. Members cite budget cuts that have hurt seniors, new health care policies, adverse effects of Brownback's tax policy on the middle class, concerns about funding for public schools as well as new policies that they say hurt teachers and what they perceive as attempts to endanger the checks-and-balances relationship between the courts and political leaders.
They don't like Kobach's changes to voter registration laws. An emphasis at the Labor Day convention will be teaching women how to get out the vote when they return home, organizers said.
Brownback's campaign manager, Mark Dugan, responded by saying, "Kansas under Sam Brownback's leadership has the 12th-lowest unemployment rate in the country and has created 50,000 private-sector jobs. Gov. Brownback recently signed a bill that provides millions more dollars to Kansas classrooms, millions of dollars in property tax relief and important reforms that return control to local school boards. We look forward to sharing that message with Kansas."
Kobach said in an e-mail to The Eagle that, "according to polling data, 87 percent of Kansas women favor a proof-of-citizenship requirement for those registering to vote. That's even higher than the 82 percent of Kansas men who are in favor. Consequently, I believe that Kansas women strongly support the reforms that I have introduced."
Women for Kansas organizers held a statewide retreat in January, which spawned efforts to meet with women in different communities around the state.
They have held meetings in Salina, Johnson County, Topeka, Sublette and Manhattan so far, organizers said. Some of the meetings were small living-room gatherings, others drew 50 to 100 women. The group hopes to bring about 1,000 women to the convention in Wichita.
"What we're finding out in this process is that women around the state really have more in common that we might have thought before," Dungan said.
They asked women which issues they'd most want to spend a year working on.
"We finally determined that for women in Kansas, changing the administration would be the thing that we'd be willing to devote a year of our lives to working on," said Lynn Stephan, former Wichita ad executive and one of the organization's founders.
Wakeelah Martinez, another member, said the gatherings have shown how important it is for women who haven't said much during the Brownback administration to express themselves.
"The message is basically the same: A lot of loss has happened," said Martinez, a founding partner and CEO of Wakee Wornum International, an international consulting firm in Wichita, and administrator for the African American Council of Elders-Wichita. "To finally give women a place and time to have that voice and really express themselves in a multitude of ways is one of the processes we hope to have happen during the convention.
"When you have a room full of people who have similar issues," she said, "you end up with 100 ways to actually attack that and do something about it. And you have people walking away thinking, 'There's so many possibilities.' "
Women for Kansas, which has filed as a for-profit organization, includes Republicans, Democrats and independent voters, Stephan said. But party affiliation seldom comes up during meetings.
"This is not about politics anymore. This is a moral issue," Martinez said. "We've got to show up and make that very clear, that people can no longer treat each other inhumanely."
"We are in a state of crisis," said Emira Palacios, another member. "We all feel excluded. We all feel we're losing our voice, and we all feel there's an urgent need to do something."
Palacios, a facilitator at Seed House-Casa de la Semilla in Wichita, said Latino women in the state haven't spoken out about their concerns and that the convention will be a good place to do that.
Janet Wright, former head of Wichita Festivals Inc. and another member of Women for Kansas, said the group's goal doesn't have to be about winning one election.
"Our goal really should be to make sure that we pull together women who want to continue our values and continue that agenda so it doesn't just stop. That's what we saw with suffragettes," she said
Women for Kansas is raising money to host the Labor Day convention. It hopes to provide financial support for young women and other women who can't afford the trip. Some women in Wichita will open their homes to those who can't afford a hotel room, Stephan said.
Men will be welcomed at the public rally to be held the night of Aug. 29 at A. Price Woodard Park. They also will be able to attend the Aug. 30 banquet, unless it is sold out.
But the convention is for women, they said.
"It's really women talking to women," said Lisa Callahan, another member and a former public relations director for the Kansas Turnpike Authority.
"I really anticipate this convention will be a catalyst for a lot of new energy and activity we haven't seen before," Dungan said.
(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle