Southeast Kansas is a proud place—a place of earth and agriculture, steeped in coal and hard work—the region covers nearly 7,500 square miles and is home to over 190,000 people. The land is punctuated with wooded hills surrounding deep waterways, scars left from strip mining coal with large steam shovels. One shovel, the second largest of its kind at the time it was in operation, still stands where it was last used, a silent sentinel on the prairie, reminding us of the sacrifice and toil of generations gone by.
Around the turn of the century, fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons spent their waking hours in the dark of the coal mines, sacrificing their health, and sometimes their lives, so the rest of America could have coal. They were subjected to suppression and labor exploitation, and families were being destroyed. Finally, the mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters, of the miners unified, and in 1921, came to be known as the Amazon Army. Holding American flags high, two to six thousand women marched through the coalfields in protest of the unfair and unjust working conditions and labor laws that oppressed the people of the region. Armed only with red pepper, these women stood toe-to-toe with rifle and shotgun-bearing militia, catapulting the plight of Southeast Kansas coal miners into national newspapers, and forever changing the history of the region. But when the coal ran dry, this place was forgotten. Abandoned by the national eye, it became just another corner of a “flyover state.”
However, people are still here, and we are not flyover people. Southeast Kansans toil in manufacturing, farming, service industries, and education. We have successful business entrepreneurs, quality community colleges, and a Regents University. However, there is an economic divide that continues to grow. The overall poverty rate reaches up to 23% in one county; the child poverty rate is nearly 29%–as high as 38.8% in one county. In most school systems, 50 to 75% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Low wages in the region make it difficult to find safe and affordable housing, and 55% of the housing stock is over 54 years old. Our elders are slipping into poverty after retirement, with nearly 10% currently living below the federal poverty line. And our average annual income from wages continues a ten-year declining trend. We are working so hard to make ends meet, that we have had little energy left to question why our economy isn’t growing, why our wages aren’t increasing, and why our civic voice isn’t being heard.
Without the leveraging power of coal, Southeast Kansans have found it difficult to stand up to the continuous attack on our future. The attack comes by way of monetary manipulation within our state legislature, which has passed one of largest tax cuts for the wealthy ever enacted by any state while leaving our schools underfunded, and our most vulnerable without medical access. They claimed these cuts would boost our economy, but according to the Kansas Department of Revenue, tax revenue in April dropped 45 percent from the prior year—$92 million short of forecasts.
We have also faced the single largest cut to Kansas public education in state history, with more than $104 million sliced from Kansas classrooms; these cuts left school funding levels so low that the Kansas Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Another highly controversial school funding bill literally passed in the middle of the night, stripping teachers of due process rights and handing out corporate tax breaks by cutting funding for at-risk kids. And most recently, legislators passed a last-minute budget deal to transfer $5 million from early childhood program funds to an agency that invests in bioscience companies.
At the same time that tax cuts for the wealthy are shrinking needed revenues, Kansas has also rejected federal Medicaid expansion, leaving one in six Kansas adults under 65 without health insurance; nearly 100,000 Kansans in more than 150 industries without access to affordable healthcare.
We’ve done it before—the people of Southeast Kansas have stood up to their oppressors and caused change. Today, we hear gunshots ring out as we harvest deer for the year’s meat. We hear water lapping at the banks of the pits and rivers, as we search for fish to fill our freezers. And people are starting to organize. We are forming organizations and coalitions to take control of our future, grow our own businesses, promote equitable economic development, and solutions to poor health outcomes. Economic development initiatives like Project 17, spanning 17 counties—and the Joplin Regional Prosperity Initiative, spanning 7 counties—are focused on workforce development and living wage job creation. Pittsburg’s Downtown Group and Get Independence are determined to revitalize the central business districts, promoting music, art, and culture. Local farmers and ranchers are being supported through groups like Eat Well Crawford County and the Food Policy Council forming in Iola. And county health rankings are improving, along with our overall quality of life, thanks to groups like Thrive Allen County and Live Well Crawford County.
A movement is beginning to swell—a movement that will create our own version of the Amazon Army and stand toe-to-toe with the income inequality and injustice that is ruining our region, our state, and our country.