Shala Perez, who sits on Wichita’s Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, hopes to see increased diversity on all city boards. (Celia Hack/The Beacon)
Shala Perez, who sits on Wichita’s Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board, hopes to see increased diversity on all city boards. (Celia Hack/The Beacon)

When Shala Perez began serving on city, county, state and national advisory boards in 2009, she was often the only woman and person of color in the room. 

Having worked in law enforcement — including the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, the Bel Aire Police Department and the Mulvane Police Department — Perez was accustomed to this. But that didn’t mean it was easy. 

“It’s been a rough road,” said Perez, who serves on Wichita’s newly established Diversity, Inclusion & Civil Rights Advisory Board.

“A lot has changed over the years, but maybe it’s not where we want it to be,” she said.  

In an effort to increase board diversity, the city of Wichita is partnering with United WE, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to women’s economic and civic leadership, on the organization’s Appointments Project. The project is dedicated to appointing women — particularly women of color — to city boards, commissions and committees. 

And while Kansas City-based United WE focuses on women, Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said he hopes civic appointments ultimately represent the diversity of Wichita as a whole — not just in terms of gender, but also in race, ethnicity and sexuality. 

The city has a long way to go before reaching that goal, and it’s unclear how progress is being measured.    

Wichita’s boards, commissions overrepresent men, white people

Current data shows that Wichita’s boards and commissions significantly underrepresent women and overrepresent white people as compared with the city’s population. 

Hispanic or Latino people and Asian people are underrepresented on city boards and commissions, while Black or African American people are overrepresented, according to data The Beacon obtained through an open records request to the city. Notably, only about 75% of board and commission members self-reported their race or ethnicity, so the dataset is not complete. 

Janet Johnson, an assistant to Whipple, oversees the logistics behind Wichita’s boards and commissions. This October, she asked each board’s liaison for the race and gender of board members whose information was missing to get a more complete dataset. That data — showing women make up about 34% of city boards, and white people make up about 77% — closely mirrors the self-reported data obtained through the open records request.   

But Johnson noted that Wichita’s boards and commissions move closer to gender parity — about 38% women and 62% men — when considering only appointments by City Council members, the mayor and the city manager. Other entities, like Sedgwick County or the Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas, are sometimes given appointments to Wichita city boards and commissions. 

“We do better once we eliminate all those outside organizations,” Johnson said. “Our diversity numbers go up.”

Wichita’s efforts to improve diversity of boards and commissions

Partnership with the United WE Appointments Project is one step toward making boards more diverse in gender and race, Whipple said. 

Women interested in serving on boards and commissions can register with the Appointments Project, which acts as a conduit between them and the city of Wichita. The organization identifies board and commission vacancies, encourages women to apply and advocates for them throughout the appointment process. 

Other best practices to gain a more diverse civic board and commission membership include an easy and transparent application process and outreach to underrepresented communities, according to Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of United WE.

Doyle said Wichita stands out as particularly transparent in its board application process. The city’s boards and commissions website lists vacant positions and dates that appointments expire. The site also houses the application for boards and commissions.

“We really lift them up as an example to other cities across the country just with the accessibility of the information,” Doyle said.  “It is really transparent publicly, and that’s a good first step.” 

Whipple said he is working personally on outreach to underrepresented communities, including the memberships of Wichita Urban Professionals, Young Latino Professionals of Wichita and the National Association of Asian American Professionals – Wichita. The urban- and Latino-focused groups have partnered with United WE on the Appointments Project.

Idalia Loya, vice president of Young Latino Professionals of Wichita, attended United WE’s webinar about the Appointments Project on Nov. 10. Now, she’s looking into applying for a city board or commission. 

“I’m from the North End of Wichita, so preferably I’d like to be on a board in that area, focusing around Spanish speakers,” Loya said. 

Johnson encourages people to learn about the city’s Civic Engagement Academy, which was established in 2018 to acquaint residents with their local government. 

“The goal of that was to attract marginalized populations and unusual voices to that program,” Johnson said. “After that, we started seeing the number of women and minorities applying for boards go up significantly.”

Wichita board diversity data collection: ‘We could be doing more’

Showing that increase in gender and racial diversity post-2018 is difficult because of the city’s system of collecting demographic data, Johnson said. 

Board and commission applicants are not required to report their gender or race, Johnson said. And the city does not systematically collect self-reported demographics of applicants after they become board or commission members. 

Generally, self-reported demographic data is the most accurate, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University. Many federal government datasets, like the U.S. Census, are based on self-reported data.

Johnson hopes her recent work to try to collect demographic data of all board and commission members will serve as a baseline to measure the city’s progress in future years. 

She retires in July but said she hopes her replacement will continue collecting complete demographics of city boards and commissions.

“We could be doing more, and I think we could definitely be doing better,” Whipple said of the city’s board and commission diversity evaluation process. 

Research by the University of Missouri’s Institute of Public Policy indicates that establishing a baseline of boards’ diversity — and then regularly measuring progress against this baseline —  is a best practice for improving  diversity.

“We’d love to get to the point where … we’ve got a baseline of XYZ participation of women on boards and commissions, (and we’re) benchmarking, moving toward that 51%,” Doyle said. “We’ll get there. We’ll get there.”

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...