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Doing Racial Justice in the Heartland

Topeka JUMP supporters gathered for a "Nehemiah Action Assembly" to press for racial justice.

Rev. Pat Jackson, Interwoven Congregations Quarterly (ICQ): Anton Ahrens and Jason Maymon, thank you for joining us for this interview about how congregations are DOING racial justice in Topeka, Kansas. How and why did Topeka Jump get started?

Anton Ahrens (Topeka JUMP and Trinity Presbyterian Church): I was here 10 years ago when the first organizer from DART (Direct Action and Resource Training Center), Shanae’ Calhoun, came to Topeka. She had meetings with clergy and lay people in faith communities around Shawnee county and found that there was interest in doing justice through the DART process. Then we had a planning meeting where we looked at the call to do biblical justice with people from 10 or 11 faith communities. Now we've grown to about 28 churches.

ICQ: What’s DART’s approach?

Jason Maymon (Topeka JUMP): DART’s approach is to bring congregations of various faiths in a community together to identify what community problems need to be addressed. Those problems are identified through stories we collect from members of the community. After problems are identified, the community votes on what issue they want to focus on. Then they'll conduct research with policymakers and community partners to identify the best viable solution. They then present that solution to the appropriate decision maker in what we call Nehemiah Action Assemblies, which are big assemblies with a large chunk of the population of the community. So listen for problems, research the problem, organize to prompt action, and then follow-up.

ICQ: What were the problems lifted up in Topeka?

Anton: Most every year for the past ten years we've lifted up a new campaign from that listening process. Our first campaign was to ask the public schools to make sure kids had access to services like food after school and on weekends and materials for schools. There were about 750 people in attendance at our Nehemiah meeting to watch that exchange with the superintendent of schools here in Topeka. We've also had campaigns to increase the stock of affordable housing, support mental health, anti-violence, and a transportation campaign to help people get to living wage jobs by providing door-to-door service from home to work and back for a minimal charge.

ICQ: How did that campaign work out?

Anton: The Joint Economic Development Organization of Shawnee County and Topeka receives $5 million annually to give incentives to big employers. And we said: “Can we have a little slice of that pie? We could finance this transportation program with $100,000 a year.” That was approved and over the course of three years people took 45,000 rides to work or back home, door to door, for $5 one way. But then the county said “We don't have money in our budget next year for this pilot” and it was cancelled. These are the ups and downs in this work. But since then, the city has stood up a new program that's very much like our ride-to-work program where in a segment of southeast Topeka you can ride anywhere, door-to-door, for two bucks. I think Topeka JUMP’s action moved this community to reimagine what transportation can be. I doubt otherwise whether that would have happened.

ICQ: That's impressive. I'm struck that every year there's an opportunity to identify a new issue. Do you set aside the project from the previous year or is there follow-up?

Topeka JUMP members advocating for affordable housing.

Jason: Once we pick up a campaign, even if we vote on a new one the next year, we don't drop one until we get what we're looking for. For example, we've been working on that affordable housing campaign for eight years.

ICQ: How can congregations engage with DART to become an affiliate like Topeka JUMP?

Jason: A group of clergy can invite DART’s national staff to come and assist them in building an organization, and that assistance usually comes with grants. People can go on the DART website and email our executive director, John Aeschbury. The only restriction is that DART tries to not plant an affiliate where there's already another interfaith organization doing this kind of work.

ICQ: What’s the structure of Topeka JUMP? And Jason, are you a Topeka JUMP or a DART employee?

Jason: I'm an organizer with Topeka JUMP and DART is the national affiliate that we rely on for training. There are three organizers working for Topeka JUMP today.

Anton: I’m one of the two co-chairs of Topeka JUMP. Then every participating faith community has a number of leaders whose job is to recruit what we call “network members” who agree to bring at least three other people to the Nehemia meeting. That’s key because that's what builds our people power, having a lot of people listening when we ask the public official to take an action on one of our campaigns.

Topeka JUMP supporters rallying for affordable housing.

ICQ: What’s the budget for Topeka Jump this year and what are your fund sources?

Anton: It's about $250,000. About 35% comes from congregations, 25% from companies, and the remainder comes from grants. We didn’t have nearly the budget when we started up with one organizer.

ICQ: How many congregational members take part in the DART training?

Anton: I think we've gotten about 100 congregational leaders over the years to go to at least one training. I've been to seven myself. The trainings cover how to do investment meetings with companies when we ask for support, and research meetings with public officials where we’re seeking their agreement to come to the Nehemiah Assembly. Then we’re trained on how you negotiate with the public officials during the Nehemiah Assembly. One Topeka JUMP leader is on the stage with the public official, asking the question: “Will you provide a program to get people more housing in Topeka by putting money into the affordable housing trust fund?” You just stop and let them answer and then you negotiate. Dart provides training to do that in front of thousands of people which, as you can imagine, is kind of stressful.

ICQ: That sounds intimidating.

Anton: I’ve done it twice. It is intimidating, but it's also freeing because even though you're just an individual on the stage asking the question, you've got these masses of people in front of you who the public official also feels, which makes a difference in how they respond.

ICQ: Have you ever had a Nehemiah Assembly where the public official says, “I'll get back to you on that.”

Anton: Of course! We call them “the Ds” -- Divert, Delay. So during the Nehemiah Assembly, we acknowledge the official’s response and then bridge back to our ask, while trying to engage that public official’s self-interest. “Don't you think that housing in Topeka is in a critical state and we need more?” Let them decide if they're going to answer that, yes or no. It's not rocket science, but it's very effective.

ICQ: So some years the official on stage says “Yes, I'll do it” and other years they don’t make a commitment. Is that a failure, or a time for follow up?

Anton: It’s all in the follow-up. Even if they say yes, that yes might not be yes! So we have to be clear about what they've said yes for. Our housing campaign is the best example. In 2015, we asked the official on stage, “Will you start an affordable housing trust fund for Topeka?” And they said “Yes.” But then it took two years just to get an ordinance written so the city could create an account. That was 2018. And here we are in 2023, and they have only put $500,000 in that fund when their own housing study concluded that they need $50 million to make a dent in our housing shortage. We continue to have conversations back and forth. For me it’s a good illustration of the peaks and valleys because you get that “yes” and you think “Oh great,” but then you do the work — and that takes a while.

ICQ: What have been the biggest accomplishments and challenges for Topeka JUMP?

Anton: We've provided justice for Topeka / Shawnee County. We haven’t had victories where we got everything we wanted, but we've moved the dial. People know about these issues and that there are people ready to act on them. That’s huge. And then we have developed community across racial and other barriers which is fantastic.

Jason: I'm amazed by the relationships that have been built. Having such a diverse group of people with different beliefs and backgrounds coming together because they're united around making their community better is amazing. Then I think the biggest challenge, particularly for our longer campaigns, is to make sure that people don't lose hope. But we just have to remember that justice takes a lot longer than most of us would like. But I think it's important to keep going because I think God calls us to do this work and God’s going to continue it after we're gone.

Anton: I've talked with many people who were in tears when we've not been successful. But I also remember Micah 6:8, which is, to paraphrase, “do justice now.” That's the point. It's not your responsibility to complete the task, but it is your responsibility to make sure it continues. Topeka JUMP has given me the opportunity to live out my faith in doing justice in a way that I never would have been able to through any single faith community; and that's been a really great gift to me.

[This interview was part of the October 2023 Interwoven Congregations Quarterly on "Congregations Doing Racial Justice." Catch the full issue here.]

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