Culturas Corner highlights individuals who make their community a better place through their work, business, volunteering or activism. Over the next few weeks, Culturas will feature newly-elected leadership in Los Angeles and across the nation. Next up is Rep. Stephanie Byers, who was recently elected to represent the Kansas House of Representatives, District 86.
You were a teacher for 29 years. What skills did you gain during your career as an educator that will be beneficial as a legislator?
Learning to pick your battles. How to compromise. How to think on your feet. Research, research, research.
Did you have a specific moment that inspired your decision to run for office? What was it like making that decision?
On the last Sunday of September 2019, we were staging for the Wichita Pride Parade (I was the communications director for Pride that year) and my parents had come in from Arizona to help. My mom went through the parade participants and handed each a bottle of water and simply said,”Hi, I’m Steph’s mom,” and would go on to the next person. When she got to me I asked her why she was doing this and she said she was campaigning for me. I told her that I wasn’t running for office and she said:”well… you never know.” During the parade, I was the driver for the convertible that Kansas Lieutenant Governor Lynn Rogers and his wife, Kris, rode in. They had heard what my mom had said and began brainstorming offices that were open and they thought I’d be a good fit for. At the end of that day, the Pride Board met to debrief and I recounted the story. Our president informed me that the Kansas House district I lived in was an open seat and asked me to let him know how he could help me if I chose to run. A little over a week later and I was speaking at the ACLU’s “Don’t Roll Back Our Rights” rally on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building. With all these thoughts percolating around in my head, the U.S. Supreme Court Building behind me and the dome of the U. S. Capitol building clearly visible in front of me, I realized I was being handed an opportunity that I had to seize and try to truly make a difference.
You said Wichita is viewed as conservative, but it’s actually more open and engaging than people think. Can you tell us more about your community and what you love about it?
Before the pandemic, a lot was being written nationally about how Wichita was a well-kept secret – a really hip place! Two rivers flow through the city, it has a tremendous number of parks and green spaces, three universities, nightlife, live music, art galleries, museums, a botanical garden, a symphony, live theaters, a grand opera, etc… A lot of reasons to love it. We tend to think of Kansas in general as being conservative, but Wichita has elected quite a few democrats to represent its interests in the State House of Representatives, My district has voted Democrat for the past three decades.
What specific actions are your top priorities in office?
Adequate funding for public education must be protected. Kansas is the only state in this part of the country that hasn’t expanded Medicaid and the current pandemic has highlighted how big of a need that really is, so Medicaid expansion is also a top priority. Kansas taxes food at a high level and for many people, removing sales tax from food purchases will help in tremendous ways. Finally we need to codify the Kansas Act Against Discrimination so that gender identity and sexual orientation are explicitly added to that law.
What is your favorite cultural memory?
I am Chickasaw. For me it’s more genetic than cultural. My father’s father is where my Chickasaw comes from, unfortunately he was killed in a car accident when my dad was only 18 months old. Our cultural ties were somewhat fragmented then. In spite of that, my dad made it a point of making sure that we knew of our Native American heritage. We may not have a family recipe for pashofa, but we know our family land allotment was near Newcastle, Oklahoma. We know some family stories, as told by my father’s uncles, about how they and my grandfather grew up only speaking English, but their grandmother (my great, great grandmother) only spoke Chickasaw and lived with the family. Their mother (my great grandmother) had to be home to translate so that my grandfather and his siblings could talk with their grandmother. In our day and age, we sometimes forget how cultural elements as important as language can disappear in just a couple of generations.
As an educator who spent most of her career at an extremely diverse public high school, I’ve witnessed families trying to maintain their respective ethnic cultures while adding new cultural experiences for their children. Many parent/teacher conferences, as families sat at the table across from me, the children would translate for their parents. At one conference, I had a student translate for his father in Swahili. A few families later, students translated for their families in Spanish. A few more families and it was in Vietnamese, then Korean, then Mandarin. As the evening wore on, the final translation of the night was in Tagalog.
This rich ethnic diversity surrounded me daily and for that I will forever be grateful.