Festival of Cultures, later this month, biggest step to address report that Lawrence’s cultural awareness could be improved

South Park event

The Lawrence Alliance and other partners are playing host to the Lawrence Festival of Cultures from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27, at South Park, 11th and Massachusetts streets.

The event will feature booths from about 50 different racial and ethnic organizations.

How race and ethnicity in Lawrence compare to other Kansas communities

White: 86.1 percent
Black: 5 percent
American Indian: 2.6 percent
Asian: 4.8 percent
Hispanic: 4.2 percent

White: 87.5 percent
Black: 5.9 percent
American Indian: 0.9 percent
Asian: 2.2 percent
Hispanic: 8.5 percent

White: 78.6 percent
Black: 12 percent
American Indian: 1.2 percent
Asian: 1.6 percent
Hispanic: 11 percent

Kansas City, Kan.
White: 57 percent
Black: 29.8 percent
American Indian: 0.7 percent
Asian: 1.9 percent
Hispanic: 23.2 percent

Overland Park
White: 89 percent
Black: 3.4 percent
American Indian: 0.2 percent
Asian: 5.6 percent
Hispanic: 4.8 percent

Dodge City
White: 77.4 percent
Black: 1.5 percent
American Indian: 0.8 percent
Asian: 2.2 percent
Hispanic: 53.6 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey

It was supposed to be an exercise to really get to know the community.

But when the American Institute of Architects sent a panel to study Lawrence, the group left wondering whether it really had seen all of Lawrence.

“We have not seen the breadth of inclusion that we thought we might have seen,” one of the panelists concluded.

In short, the panel of community planners left Lawrence with a big question: Where’s all this diversity that you talk about?

The group wrote in its final report that there is a “paucity of celebration and nurturing of diversity” in Lawrence, and what cultural assets the community does have are “disconnected.”

That was in late 2006. Now, nearly three years later, the city advisory board tasked with promoting racial and ethnic openness is taking its biggest step yet to address the issue.

“When we heard those comments, we took it as a real challenge to make something happen, to do something to create a connection between these groups of people and the larger community,” said Deb Taylor, chairwoman of the city-appointed Lawrence Alliance.

The results of the group’s efforts will be on display later this month. The Lawrence Alliance and other partners are hosting the Lawrence Festival of Cultures from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday Sept. 27 at South Park, 11th and Massachusetts streets.

The event will feature booths from about 50 different racial and ethnic organizations. In addition to providing information about the various organizations and cultures, the event will feature ethnic food and entertainment.

But what organizers really hope it provides is a chance to talk.

“A big issue in the community is we don’t always get together and communicate,” said Robbie Derritt, a member of the Lawrence Alliance and the president of the local unit of the NAACP.

It is an issue that has gone both ways, leaders said. Sometimes the community hasn’t done enough to encourage communication with minorities.

“I don’t think the city is excluding people,” Taylor said. “I just don’t think the city always is doing enough to reach out.”

But sometimes minority groups haven’t done enough to make their voices heard.

“I think one of the issues has been that there are different cultures that you really don’t see out and about,” Derritt said. “They are not really showing their true numbers. It is a problem when you have people staying indoors and not getting out in the community.”

Members of the Lawrence Alliance are hoping that the Festival of Cultures becomes a first step in making the city’s minority groups more visible and more understood.

“We’re always looking for ways to help people make that human connection,” said Lydia Leon, director of the Lawrence-based Centro Hispano Resource Center, which is also sponsoring the festival. “When people are able to make that human connection, they are able to overcome a lot of stereotypes and misperceptions.”

Some leaders also are hoping that the festival plants some seeds for future involvement by minority groups.

“I would like to see more representation from these diverse groups in leadership positions in the city,” Taylor said. “Some groups have been good — like the gay and lesbian community has been pretty active — but other groups haven’t. There are some groups that don’t seem comfortable dialoguing with the city.”

For example, in the city’s 152-year history, there has never been a black mayor, based on photos of all the Lawrence mayors kept at City Hall. Rarely have minority candidates even sought a seat on the City Commission.

“I’m not sure why that is, but I think it is a wonderful question to explore,” Leon said. “Lawrence definitely still is a place where minorities are still the minority as far as numbers go, and I’ve seen that be the case in terms of leadership positions, too.”

Derritt said he also wasn’t sure what it would take to get more minorities running for leadership positions in the city. But he thinks the time might be ripe for improvements. After all, the country has its first black president, and Kansas University has its first black chancellor.

“I think the biggest key now is through the school system,” Derritt said. “Sometimes I hear disturbing comments coming from students who are minorities. A lot of times I hear negative things about how they can’t achieve this or that. I ask them why they feel that way, and they say it is just our society.

“But I tell them our society is changing. It really is.”