Youth climate activists Jarod Hudson, Anjali Singh and Marissa Rapp stand outside city hall. They called on Wichita’s new sustainability board to include a diverse membership. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Youth climate activists Jarod Hudson, Anjali Singh and Marissa Rapp called on Wichita’s new sustainability board to include a diverse membership. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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Dolly Farha, 19, didn’t plan on returning to Wichita. After a seven-year stint in Massachusetts, she told herself that she wouldn’t ever come back. 

“To me, one of the biggest issues of Kansas and Wichita is it was created for … generations of the past,” Farha said. “Without that forward-thinking, headlights to the future … Wichita is going to fade away.” 

But in July 2020, Farha returned to Wichita. Three months later, she established Sunrise Wichita, a youth-led local chapter of a national climate change advocacy group. And this past spring, she made the creation of a city sustainability board a priority for Sunrise Wichita. 

Between March and August, at least 17 people spoke to the City Council about establishing a sustainability board, at least six of whom were affiliated with Sunrise Wichita, Farha said. On Sept. 7, the city passed an ordinance creating one. 

Wichita’s Sustainability Integration Board will advise the council on energy use, waste and the city’s plans for facing climate change. It can make policy recommendations to the council as well as request studies on environmental quality. 

Now, Farha and other youth climate activists want to push for diverse board membership and ensure the board works on concrete environmental issues.  

“It’s not going to stop here,” Farha said. “We, as the youth of Kansas and climate activists, need to continue to put pressure on them so they will actually accomplish things.”

A diverse membership

Climate change began to weigh on Jarod Hudson when the 17-year-old realized how environmental issues impact low-income communities and communities of color more heavily. Hudson, the policy director for Kansas Youth for Climate Justicedescribed growing up poor with working-class parents.

That’s one reason Hudson, and two other climate activists he works with, are concerned that the ordinance creating the board does not explicitly call for a diverse membership, including working-class people, minorities and youth.  

“In no way does (the ordinance) make sure that it isn’t just a predominantly upper-class, white community that usually makes all decisions,” said Anjali Singh, outreach director for Kansas Youth for Climate Justice.

Farha, alongside more veteran climate activists, asked the city to explicitly include a person of color, a person under 25 years old, a person over 65 and a person with a disability on the board. 

The final ordinance didn’t include those categories. But Council Member Cindy Claycomb pointed out that the ordinance requires seven of the 14 members to be appointed from existing city boards, including the Mayor’s Youth Council and the Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory Board

“I feel like their requests were being met,” Claycomb said.

City spokesperson Megan Lovely wrote in an email that “the Council does make a concentrated effort to diversify boards with varied age, gender identity, race, etc demographics.” 

But the city does not track the age, gender, race or ethnicity of members of any boards, Deputy City Clerk Jamie Buster wrote in an email. That information is requested but not required on board applications, Buster added.

Wichita’s new sustainability board will have 14 members:

Seven members of the sustainability board will be appointed by the City Council with expertise in one of the following areas: Business/industry, climate change and resilience economic development, education, emergency management, energy use/conservation, finance, food systems, green building, local environmental issues, natural ecosystems, renewable energy, transportation

Seven members will be appointed from city committees, boards and commissions, including: Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, Board of Park CommissionersDiversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory BoardMayor’s Youth CouncilMetropolitan Area Planning CommissionStormwater Advisory BoardTransit Advisory Board

‘Make sure this is not a token’

When she first sat down with Sunrise Wichita about the board, Farha said their major concern was to ensure it could see through concrete policy change.

“Let’s make sure this is not a token,” Farha said.

The board will receive a draft list of prioritized city sustainability initiatives from Wichita State University’s Environmental Finance Center in December, said EFC Director Tonya Bronleewe. The list will be based on a study to determine how to raise Wichita’s score from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which rates local energy efficiency policies, and the Carbon Disclosure Project, which rates cities on their action against the effects of climate change. Wichita received a five out of 100 from ACEEE and a D from the CDP.

Outside of these proposed projects, several youth activists said the board should address local polluters and air quality in Wichita. 

“Especially how air pollution in the north side of town is worse … and how that disproportionately hurts different communities,” Singh said. 

Three other Midwestern cities the EFC studied to craft sustainability board recommendations for Wichita — Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; and Madison, Wisconsin — used their boards to address city plans for climate change. 

Marissa Rapp, the 17-year-old finance and logistics co-director of Kansas Youth for Climate Justice, said the Wichita board should also consider crafting plans for climate action or reducing carbon emissions. Rapp spoke to the City Council about creating a sustainability board in March.

“Because we can’t vote yet, (that) was a good way to get it out there,” Rapp said. “At the end of the day, it’s our future as youth.”

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.