The semester hasn’t yet begun, but that makes this the perfect time to get some pre-semester work, activities, and learning in. With that in mind, we partnered with the Freshman Leadership Program, and we undertook a tour of Huntsville and SHSU.
Although we’ve been on a few tours of Huntsville and we know the community pretty well, we wanted to learn some new things, and we wanted to be on hand should any of the FLP students want a student’s perspective on things.
Our tour itinerary involved: (1) a trip to Arnaud’s Food Truck court, (2) the avenues, (3) Eastham Thomason Park, (4) Sam Houston’s grave, (5) the District Attorney’s office, (6) downtown area, the Richard Haas murals and the Old Town Theatre, and (7) the prison, and (8) Austin Hall.
We began with designer lemonades from Arnaud’s, and the general consensus is that we would be returning!
With an idea of encouraging students to shop local, the many offerings of Arnaud’s food trucks opened up a variety of culinary options to students.
The FLP students seemed intrigued by the Dan Phillips’ homes, and several were even already familiar with the Boot and Cowboy Hat homes. Downtown, we learned more of the Richard Haas murals, with a lesson on how the architecture of the DA’s office…
…was used to help craft the design of the Smither Building’s art murals. Haas repeated the arch motif, used paint to mimic the color of the bricks, and through trompe l’oeil managed to recreate some of the relief elements on the DA’s office. And, of course, all this was done while visually celebrating Sam Houston’s history in Huntsville.
We also had a chance to see Haas’s work at the Old Town Theatre, where Morgan also works, and where all the LEAP Ambassadors have volunteered.
We even got to go in the theatre and learn about their programs!
And as a sort of bookend, we discussed Sam’s Table–another of the LEAP Ambassador’s favorite restaurants–with the incoming freshmen.
In the last leg of the tour, we learned more about TDCJ and the Huntsville Unit, including the difference between “Death Row” and the Execution Chamber, which are different entities in different locations. We also discussed a different prison issue: bats. Driving past the TDCJ warehouse (which is filled with bats) and the “Bat Houses” (which are not filled with bats).
And with a final drive around the University and Austin Hall–the oldest educational building west of the Mississippi–we and the FLP returned to our cars, dorms, and other retreats to prepare ourselves for the new semester.
We returned with a lot more knowledge and the community than we left with!
The speaker for the luncheon was Elliot Ackerman, a CIA Officer and Marine stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who, in more recent years, has been a best-selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. The discussion was moderated, as usual, by the excellent Ronan O’Malley, the Director of Programs for WAC.
Attending with us were several SHSU students (Ashlyn Parker, Kiara Williams, Cynthia Boyd), an advisor (Stephanie Fors), and SHSU/community leaders (Gene Roberts, Dean Hendrickson, and Ken Holland).
Ackerman’s book The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan was the hot topic, and the conversation began with how the title of the book came to be. While he was on vacation with his family, Ackerman was asked to write a 500-word piece about the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Ackerman joked that he was shocked and thought there was no way to detail and cover 20 years of war in 500 words. When he was asked to write about the operation in Afghanistan, it was referred to and described as a tragedy and he explained that his journalist’s mind made the connection of tragedy with Shakespeare’s plays. Because tragic drama often unfolds in five acts, and because there was a natural breakdown in five parts, Ackerman focused on these five topics: (1) President Bush,( 2) President Obama, (3) President Trump, (4) President Biden, and (5) the fall of the war.
Ackerman then harkened back to an earlier time in history and the construct of blood and treasure. In more detail, he explained that during the Civil War and WWII two main factors rose: the need for someone to fight and someone to pay. But, typically, everyone or almost everyone had to fight, pay, or otherwise sacrifice–and that, according to Ackerman, is no longer true.
Another difficulty is that, most wars can be marked as “victorious” following a positive and defined outcome–such as liberating Europe (WWII). With the War on Terror, a victory was preventing something (i.e., a terrorist attack) from happening. That poses some difficulty in terms of attributing credit or in achieving a defined conclusion.
The book and the non-fiction drama on which it is centered was interesting, so much so that almost all the LEAP guests, including the students, bought books. But the event was also satisfying for the company we were able to enjoy, the always-pleasant prospect of visiting with WAC staff (Ronan, Jahan, and Sandija)…
…and also meeting our advisor’s (Professor Mike Yawn) supervisor, Associate Provost Ken Hendrickson, who spoke following Ackerman, helping wrap up the event.
In short, it was another great World Affairs Council event, just made more great by the fact that it was held at an SHSU campus.
July 26th marks the death anniversary of General Sam Houston, and each year on this date, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum opens the Steamboat House to the public.
As an SHSU student, I want to learn more about Sam Houston, and this desire was reinforced even more by the fact that I am the recipient of a generous scholarship provided by SHMM. So, I attended the Museum’s opening of the Steamboat House as part of their reenactment of Sam Houston’s death and the Victorian customs associated with mourning.
Dr. Rufus Bailey had commissioned this home as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law. Its original name was “Buena Vista,” and while it might have offered a “good view,” Bailey’s son and daughter-in-law, according to oral history, weren’t keen on living in it, and they opted, instead, to look for other views. The home, then, was vacant, enabling General Sam Houston make it his home when he returned to Huntsville, following his removal as Governor of Texas.
As the group of visitors approached the home, we were given black ribbons to commemorate the anniversary of Houston’s death. We entered Sam Houston’s room, a mix of a study and a bedroom. Most of the items were period pieces, but we did see Houston’s bed and boots. Seeing these original artifacts, as well as the fact that the clock on the mantel was stopped to the time of his death: 6:15.
We were then gestured into the next room where “Margaret Lea Houston” would tell us about the three phases of mourning she went through after General Sam Houston’s death. During the first phase: Deep Mourning, women would dress in black, from head to toe, including gloves and veils (and, of course, no adornments such as jewelry). During this time, widows were given space, allowed to mourn alone. Once they were ready to talk, they entered the second phase of mourning: Full Mourning. The transition to this phase was marked by moving from the wearing of all black to wearing black with a white collar, along with cuffs and jewelry. During this period, the widow might receive visitors, discuss her sadness with others, and correspond by mail with others.
In the third phase, Half Mourning, women wore lively colors such as lilac, lavender, and light gray, and more elaborate patterns. This is the briefest stage, and it indicated that the widow was ready to rejoin societal interaction.
Men, on the other hand, were not expected to mourn for as long or as elaborately. The black ribbon I received is similar to what men wore during their mourning period.
We were then guided into the next room, the kitchen, where we could see one way that the kitchen could have been designed and what they would have eaten. Soon after, we walked up the stairs into the parlor where the funeral of General Sam Houston was held, and we heard from his “mother-in-law,” Nancy M. Lea, who discussed her feelings about Texas’s greatest hero and her son-in-law. While she initially opposed the marriage, Ms. Lea overcame her doubts, and she came to embrace her son-in-law.
Now, if you are wondering why one of Texas’ heroes had a small funeral, that would be because (1) mail was slow and (2) General Houston was very unpopular at the time, a function of him refusing to pledge an oath of loyalty to the Confederate States of America.
For these reasons, only a select few attended his funeral on July 27th at 4:00 pm. The funeral was indeed held less than 24 hours from his death because back then, their only way to store bodies was to ice them, and in Texas heat, it made it challenging to keep the body in a presentable condition.
Despite him not being as popular and not many people attending his funeral, on August 5, 1863, the Dallas Herald printed an obituary mentioning the great man General Sam Houston was, and encouraging people to put aside their objections to his “failure” to support the confederacy: “Let us not shed tears to his memory due to one who has filled so much of our affections. Let the whole people bury with him whatever of unkindness they had for him.”
With those positive vibes, I allowed myself a very unVictorian-like smile and reflected what a good choice I made attending SHSU.
Postscript: The Steamboat House was originally located a block or so from the Oakwood Cemetery–where Sam Houston is buried! Following Sam Houston’s death, the home deteriorated, and it wasn’t until 1937 that the Museum was moved to its present location and refurbished. If you have not had the opportunity to visit the Steamboat Home on the Sam Houston Memorial Museum Grounds, make plans to do so on July 26th, 2023!
This past spring, I was nominated as an Alternate Delegate to the Republican Party State GOP Convention hosted in Houston this year. The convention was held June 16-18, and I was fortunate enough to attend on Saturday, June 18. Due to an opening in my Dad’s schedule, he was able to accompany me to the convention!
We left from Huntsville bright and early in the morning and headed south to the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston. The convention hall was filled with patriotic booths advertising for campaigns, merchandise, and there was even one with antique maps and flags! The first session began with the National Anthem and speeches from several different leaders in the party.
While the Chairman of the Party, Matt Rinaldi, was leading the GOP in the 15 priorities, I was asked by Walker County’s Republican Chair, Linda McKenzie to move forward to a voting position . Seated next to others from my county, I cast my first vote at the convention by selecting my top priorities.
The GOP reconvened after a quick break, and we were back to work! This time, we had until 5 p.m. to get through the proposed platform, which had almost 300 items listed. Thankfully, before we got too far into the platform, a convention-goer made a motion to reduce the time per section from 25 minutes to 2 minutes, making it possible to get through the entire platform. This motion was met with some disdain, but ultimately did pass among the GOP.
I cast my vote on each item during the discussion, and my dad even snuck up to our section to snap a photo!
Even though it was the last day, the convention was buzzing with energy and excitement for the weeks hard work. I’d like to thank Republican Chair, Linda McKenzie for her hard work and for mentoring me through my first convention!
Dinner at the Grove
One thing is for sure after a political convention, you’ll be hungry! Because we were in Downtown Houston, my dad and I knew that the options were limitless. After a brief online search, we set off on foot towards The Grove. The restaurant was surrounded by (what we thought were ancient) beautiful trees with bending limbs that matched the surrounding park, Discovery Green.
My Dad chose the red snapper, which was highly recommended by our waitress, and I had the filet mignon. It was so big that I needed help finishing it! We thought we had no more room for anything else… but we decided we couldn’t leave without trying the cookie butter gelato. It was the perfect dessert to conclude our meal!
After dinner, we meandered through the park while we waited for the sun to set (a necessity for our next stop) and came across a pop-up flea market! Vendors lined the road selling everything. Leather goods, handmade razors, apparel, and baked goods. My dad and I window-shopped for a little while and enjoyed the summer evening weather before heading to our next site.
Although my dad was a bit skeptical about public art when we first arrived, he slowly began to enjoy himself as the sun set. Turrell’s Skyspace is best viewed at dusk, and the unique design of the space is an excellent display of colors. We wandered in and around the space but enjoyed sitting inside the most.
While the lights are changing color around you, the interior square appears to change as well. However, it is actually just the night sky viewed in comparison to the colors in the space.
The second day of our trip was dedicated to art! Our first stop was to the Rothko Chapel. Rothko is best known for his abstract expressionism and muted colors. The chapel was commissioned in 1964 by the Menils and was intended to be a place of reflection for followers of all religions. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside, but the experience was not lessened. The interior chamber of the chapel is in the shape of an octagon and adorning each wall are massive paintings. At first glance, it is simply a white room with black paintings, but upon a closer look, each painting is distinct. The muted canvases each have a different draw to them, as if they have their own story or personality. There are diptychs, and triptychs each with slight hues of maroons, greys, greens.
The exterior, which was designed by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry (separately), and features Broken Obelisk, by Barnett Newman in a reflecting pool designed by Johnson.
Overall, we enjoyed the new and different experience, and, upon reflection, stands out as one of many highlights over the summer.
All the way from her humble beginnings in Indiana, County Music Legend, two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the year, AMC Female Vocalist of the year, and TV star, Janie Fricke took the stage at Old Town Theatre in Huntsville on Saturday, August 6.
Fricke and her band livened the Theatre with songs of her own, some that she originally sang with other artists, and even some songs from the 40s!
She and her band had hilarious banter on the stage, discussed her career a bit, and she also encouraged everyone to check out her website!
After intermission, Janie Fricke had a confession to make, in the 1980s, she robbed a bank! Fricke said that she would like to get through the show before anyone put a warrant out and her band joked that she is the only person to commit a crime and not serve the time. Fortunately for us, there is footage of Fricke robbing the bank, Janie stared as “Ginny” the bank robber on the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard.”
My favorite song she sang was one that she sang with Merle Haggard called A Place to Fall Apart. Fricke sang the song with her Keyboardist and the duet was beautiful.
Fricke worked a significant amount of her career singing jingles for major companies. She even sang some to the crowd! The audience reminisced on Dial Soap, Coca-Cola, Red Lobster, and United Airlines jingles. Janie even mentioned that she was the first jingle artist in space! Her song was what the astronauts woke up to in the space shuttle.
On behalf of the Old Town Theatre and the LEAP Ambassadors, thank you to Janie Fricke and band for an amazing show!
With the conference going full blast, we awoke early to get in a full day of learning, networking, and marketing Sam Houston State University!
NextGen Under 30 Breakfast
If your city suffers from a high percentage of brain drain and you are looking for a way to “honor, and retain talent,” then the NextGen Under 30 breakfast was the place to be. Across the nation, a lot of cities have experienced or currently have a brain drain problem. This is mostly seen in smaller cities that lose young individuals to larger cities with (1) universities and (2) a more competitive workforce. To combat this, Kansas joined the NextGen Under 30 Foundation which recognizes and honors young leaders and helps them become more engaged in their home state.
NextGen targets individuals who are 30 or younger and aids them with knowledge about their cities while providing them with a vast networking opportunity through various events. To be considered for this opportunity, you must not only be under 30 years of age, but you must also be nominated and complete the application process. All applicants are then considered, and the winners are selected by a group of judges who are business and civic leaders. The winners get the opportunity to meet the governor and lieutenant governor of the state, tour the capitol, and participate in an awards dinner and ceremony. The honorees have the opportunity to apply to become ambassadors for the following year and assist the upcoming winners.
Kansas State Senator Tom Hawk then welcomed comments and questions from the legislators.
However, the narrative was quickly turned over to us (the younger crowd) when one of the legislators asked to hear from us and what would compel us to stay in the area. The number one response to the question was “respect.”
My personal answer was upward mobility, in addition to respect.
Young people want to be able to grow and advance in the field that they go into and not remain stagnant through the course of the years. The lack thereof adds to the brain drainage in certain cities because there is either (1) no competitive work opportunities or (2) no mobility, even after a few years of working there. This dual lack of employment opportunities and career advancement makes it a simple decision when larger cities or even the private sector offer competitive employment opportunities.
The breakfast was not only a good opportunity to be heard and to network but also a nice start to our busy day! (Professor’s note: At lunch, a state representative came up to me and told me that the comments from Morgan helped him feel much better about the younger generation.)
Opening Session: Warm Welcome to Kansas
The LEAP Ambassadors received a warm Kansas welcome from Kansas State Senator Carolyn McGinn, Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple, Kansas State Senate President Ty Masterson, and Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman! All of these legislators shared interesting facts about Kansas. The most important fact that we learned is that Kansans do not speak of the Arkansas River in Kansas as the “Arkansaw” River. Calling it so, is a great indicator to the locals that you are not from the area because it is referred to as the “big river” and “little river”–or, maybe the “ArKansas River.” Along with its geography, Kansas is known as the air capital of the world! Kansas is the home of the Spirit Aerospace Headquarters and the National Institute of Aviation Research, a facility that Morgan and Jessica got to tour! Following this interesting detail, Mayor Whipple mentioned that Wichita is rated the #1 city to be single in and the worst city to date in (a prospect that excited Yvette greatly).
Dante Chinni, our keynote speaker and the Director and Founder of American Communities Project, specifically reviewed Kansas demographics and discussed how the statistical data are interpreted and utilized to highlight issues such as the benefits of Kansas’s manufacturing and the brain drain Kansas is experiencing.
More specifically, Chinni highlighted demographic characteristics such as exurbs, working-class counties, military posts, and college towns, etc. These data show that the Midwest consists of a highly complex terrain that defines easy understanding. Even within individual states, single policies can be difficult fits.
Along with demographic research, we were also shown economic differences and challenges. Coming out of COVID, new problems arose, such as population growth vs. decline, internal personal wealth, and internal community wealth. With these topics, Chinni emphasized the greater use of specific data such as the asset income per capita.
Hearing the data from Kansas allowed us to compare how our city Huntsville, TX, experiences brain drain. Our university facilitates brain gain with incoming students, but after graduation, a high percentage will leave to pursue their careers elsewhere in a more populated city that has much more job opportunities. This phenomenon leaves the City of Huntsville with a much bigger brain drain problem.
Aside from the obstacles Kansas must overcome, we can see the beauty Kansas has to offer and what it can produce to have a better Kansas and uplift our nation. I was fascinated to learn more about the state. I consider Kansas a great state to visit with its excellent hospitality.
Postsecondary Access and Affordability: Policy Options for States
Yvette and I made our way to the post-secondary access and affordability breakout session which was moderated by Senator Dietrich…
… and featured by Dr. Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. As a national expert on secondary education affordability, Dr. Baum was able to provide plenty of statistics to support her claims. Her point was very clear. Not only are we wanting to make colleges more affordable to students, but we want to keep them at a decent quality to have constant graduation rates. There have been frequent conversations about the possibility of college being free and whether that possibility could potentially lower the quality of the schools, which is something Dr. Baum is afraid of.
The statistics showed that more than half of the full-time students at public four-year institutions have their tuition and fees covered by grant aid. The obvious trend we see is that low-income households are not saving their money to put towards their child’s college career. This explains why most students at public colleges are depending on grant aids and loans. Many young people are not willing to go thousands of dollars into debt just to get a four-year education.
Our focus needs to be on helping low-income students become more aware of different financial aid options that will pay for their college. On their behalf, colleges need to, in some way, be accessible to everyone who is willing to put in the effort and work into programs, related to financial aid, that can help tremendously.
Luncheon with Legislators
Once the clock struck noon, we followed the hungry crowd toward the Redbud Ballroom for the featured presentation over lunch. Ashlyn and I sat at a table with State Senator Reynold Nesiba from South Dakota and Kansan State Senators Beverly Gossage and Kristen O’Shea (Senator O’Shea is the youngest female Senator in Kansan history!). Similarly, Yvette and Jessica sat at another table with a senator from Illinois.
Having asked plenty of questions of our own, the legislators were curious to know where we were from and soon enough, we found ourselves answering questions about LEAP and Sam Houston State! Before the presentation commenced, we were able to learn more about what each senator was passionate about, why they chose to become public servants, and asked for advice on running for office.
Soon after, Senator Carolyn McGinn made her way toward the stage and began introducing the guests of honor. The first guest of honor was Kansas Governor Laura Kelly. Governor Kelly expressed her gratitude for all the legislators in attendance and gave a shoutout to our neighbors in the north from Canada!
Unfortunately for us, she was unable to stay for the lunch, but as the past CSG National President, Governor Kelly knows the importance of attending conferences to learn as much as possible from others.
The next speaker put on quite the show! CSG national Chair, Washington State Senator Sam Hunt gave a brief CSG report. He reminded everyone to not forget that the national conference, hosted in Honolulu, Hawaii, is just a few months away. To emulate the spirit of the next host state, Senator Hunt stripped off his dress shirt and jacket–amid nervous twitters from the audience–and showed off his best Hawaiian gear, gear that was underneath his sports jacket!
Senator McGinn then introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. H. W. Brands, the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at UTA. Dr. Brands is a renowned author of 30 books covering American politics and history and two of his books were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
Dr. Brands told us the stories of two completely different historical figures, with a common objective in mind: John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.
Both Brown and Lincoln shared abolitionist views but acted in very different ways. Dr. Brands explained that John Brown acted with violence and aggression, while Abraham Lincoln believed that the law and policy were the best avenues for change.
Dr. Brands did a great job of outlining why the men thought the way they did, and what implications their different perspectives had on the nation. It was a captivating lecture, and I’m sure the whole room cannot wait to read The Zealot and The Emancipator!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
On the Second Family evening, Ashlyn, Yvette, Jessica, and I all experienced a new touristy trip with LEAP: a trip to the zoo! The Sedgwick County Zoo is the seventh largest in the United States and is home to 3,000 individual animals and 400 species.
Typically, a zoo groups species of animals based on the region they are from or the type of habitat they belong to. With cameras in tow, and knowing that we had the zoo for the evening, we scurried over towards the different habitats hoping to capture some great shots!
We were thrilled to see African giraffes graze on leaves…
…the running rhinos playing in their pen…
…and the zebras strolling lazily.
The meerkats were already posed to perfection and proved to be some great models!
As we wandered through the different continents, we eventually found the buffet meant for us! We had a great meal over which we shared our thoughts on the day’s sessions. While jokes were made, (ambassador note: mostly at our expense), we shared a few laughs and enjoyed gazing at the animals.
Despite missing out on the opportunity to touch and feed the stingrays, we enjoyed seeing the available exhibits in the Reptile and Amphibian room through the glass, except for the tortoise! The room was full of a wide array of different creatures from the rarest turtle in the world to recently fed snakes.
While in the room, we found it amusing that a turtle and a frog were playing a game of copycat, as humongous bullfrogs sat idle and lurking in the murky water.
The Cessna Penguin Cove exhibit was right around the corner and Jessica was eager to check it out. We quickly learned why: penguins are Jessica’s favorite birds! The zoo supplied many interesting facts and displays, but most insightful for us was the chart showing the different heights of the penguins. After some convincing (editor’s note: and some dragging) we learned how LEAP Ambassadors fit into the size up!
Stepping back into our childhoods for a lovely outdoor trip to the zoo was so much fun! Thank you to the Midwestern staff.
It was a new experience in many ways: LEAP Ambassadors attended their first light opera, they met many LEAP Alumni, and they spent an evening enjoying good company. The occasion was the summer performance from The Gilbert & Society of Houston, and with all of their performances sold out, it was a minor miracle that we were able to purchase 23 tickets to the third showing of “HMS Pinafore.”
For those who haven’t seen a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta before, it’s worth a summer jaunt to the beautiful Hobby Center to see a performance. HMS Pinafore was written in 1878, but its satirical edge and comedy rang true 144 years later. The opera tells the story of three sets of star-crossed lovers, with each pair being thwarted in their loving ambitions by the British class system. This leads to much shiply shenanigans: an attempted suicide, mystic omens, an aborted midnight elopement, and a dungeon jailing–all chorused by a crew of “sisters, cousins, and aunts.”
We had different favorites, but there was a general consensus that the cast outdid themselves with “Never Mind the Whys and Wherefores,” in which the production deviated sharply from the libretto. The orchestra got involved in the hijinks, Admiral Joseph (played by Alistair Donkins) engaged in much madcap, and Josephine made the most of her many encores. Donkins, who for the past forty years has flown in from England to perform with the Houston Gilbert & Sullivan cast, is retiring. We wondered whether these scenes were written specifically as a scene-stealing sendoff to the most reliable of the performers.
Neither of the Ambassadors had seen an opera, even a “light opera,” and several of the former Ambassadors had also never seen such a performance. Their novice status, however, didn’t prevent them from posing like pros after the production–and, in fact, one pro did pose with us!
The fists-up pose derives from the lyric to “A British Tar.” A “tar” is a nickname for a sailor, possibly as an abbreviation of tarpaulin, and the song–one of two patriotic tunes from HMS Pinafore–celebrates the stoutness of a British sailor:
A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word.
His nose should pant, And his lip should curl, His cheeks should flame, And his brow should furl, His bosom should heave, And his heart should glow, And his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow.
Other than the playful fists, the tone of the evening was one of amicability. Bryan Phillips, who was involved in LEAP from 2010-2012, was the most senior former student. Bianca Saldierna (2017-2018), Staci Antu (2017-18), Esme Mata (2019-20), Quinn Kobrin (2019-2021) joined the current LEAP Ambassadors, providing insight and catching everyone up on their impressive accomplishments post-graduation.
Dr. Bill Hyman and his wife, Carol, were there, too. Maggie Padilla and her husband, Roman (who somewhat resembled the Captain of Pinafore) attended. And Jean Loveall, Program Coordinator for LEAP, also joined us. Of course, Stephanie and our advisor, Professor Mike Yawn, were there. Yawn is an excellent advisor to the organization: “Bad language or abuses / He never, never uses.“
Well, hardly ever.
We had the chance to meet these wonderful folks over dinner at Black Walnut, where the casual atmosphere provided the perfect place to talk–as well as good food!
Professor’s/Editor’s Note: Many thanks to the former LEAP Ambassadors who attended. Their ongoing willingness to meet with current students and provide mentorship is a huge part of the LEAP program. Also, special thanks to Bill and Carol Hyman and Roman and Maggie Padilla whose presence made the evening even more enjoyable.
We awoke early and a bit nervous, headed to the first conference session of the day.
We didn’t expect SHSU to be recognized and highlighted during our first event at the Midwest Council of State Governments (CSG) Conference.
The key speaker and presenter, Carl Reynolds, earned his MPA from the LBJ School of Public Policy, received his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law, and he also worked for the Texas state legislature (Senate) and the State of Texas for a couple of decades. Before speaking, he noted he was happy to see SHSU students at the conference, and further commented on the fact that he had enjoyed his many travels to Huntsville. This helped ease us into the conference!
Reynolds highlighted three major programs led by the CSG Justice Center. These three were:
Justice Reinvestment Initiative uses tools and data from multiple disciplines to take an evidence-based approach to criminal justice problems. This program is employed in more than 30 states, and it begins with the principle that the people most likely to recidivate are the people most resources should be expended on. Another key aspect of the program is to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.
Stepping Up focuses on reducing the number of people with mental health issues who “come in contact with the criminal justice system” and, in particular, reducing the number of people with such issues who are jailed.
Justice Counts emphasizes the use of data for problem-solving in public affairs, and, by extension, believes that metrics should be simple, feasible, and effective. They study seven major sectors using this data-driven approach: police, prosecution, defense, pretrial/courts, jails, prisons, and community supervision.
The Chair of the Committee, Senator John McCollister (NE), did a superb job of taking questions from the committee—and the floor—and Mr. Reynolds was a wealth of knowledge.
Following the session, we spoke with Mr. Reynolds for a bit, discussed Texas (where he still lives), and even found that we have common friends (Mr. Wayne Scott!).
With its Texas-friendly environment, its emphasis on issues we can relate to (we live in Huntsville, after all!), and the knowledge of the panelists, this was the perfect first panel for us to attend!
Gabby’s Peruvian Restaurant
Before continuing our educational journey on expanding our knowledge of state governments, we dove into local cuisine, Gabby’s Peruvian Restaurant, to fuel our bodies and brains. The restaurant’s decor gave us a small taste of what the Peruvian culture uses to liven up a space, such as beautiful tapestries with llama designs.
Our aperitivos of fried yuca, papa rellena, and tostones rellenos with either tuna or chicken were all very delightful in their way.
This was my first real experience with Peruvian food, and I was not disappointed. I ordered the fried tilapia, which had a beautifully thin layer of fried batter that–to my delight–did not take away from the flavor of the fish.
The rest of the party ordered more traditional dishes such as Bistec a lo Pobre, Aji de Gallina, Tallarin Verde con Bistec, and a traditional Peruvian breakfast.
All the dishes looked extremely appetizing, and I would personally recommend you all to eat at this restaurant if you ever visit Wichita, Kansas.
Although this was one of the first times that a few of us had Peruvian food, it was delightful! We made our way back to the conference hotel with enough time to prep before breaking off into the different sessions that interested us: Health and Human Services, Education, Midwest-Canada Relations, and the Economic Committee meeting.
Health and Human Services Committee
At the Health and Human Services Committee session, Morgan and I listened to speakers Stephanie Anderson (the program specialist for Wichita Public Schools), Holly Yager (Program Specialist for Wichita Public School Psychologists), and Melissa Zieammermann (Director of Behavior for Wichita Public Schools). They all discussed how they have been implementing mental health practices in local Wichita Public Schools through the Kansas Opportunity Support Program (KOSP).
KOSP offers 24/7 mental health services to children and family members in the public unified school district (USD 259) headquartered in Wichita, KS. To be able to give everyone access to the help they need, the school system is set up with psychologists, counselors, social workers, and even a behavior health school liaison! All faculty and staff receive training at least annually on how to deal with students who want to harm themselves. The program motto is “Stay. Listen. Get Help.”; and, everyone on campus is equipped to watch for the patterns of mental illness.
Not only do they provide round-the-clock mental health professionals, but they also have many other policies and programs in place to aid in determining who is most at risk. These include the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS), a screening tool that was taken by all 47,000 students and faculty in the district this past year to determine who they thought were most at risk.
KOSP’s work is not so much measured by statistics as it is by the stories they have been told as they implement these services in the school system. For instance, they were able to save a faculty member who was attempting to take their life and would have succeeded without the proper training that others received. This wonderful program improves and saves multiple lives each year in the Wichita Public School District. Hopefully, more programs like the KOSP can be established in other public school districts throughout the country.
While both Ashlyn and Morgan were at the Health and Human Services Committee meeting, Yvette went to the concurrent session of the Education Committee.
A remarkable society strives for making K-12 students’ education a top priority! Unfortunately, with COVID-19, there has been a slump in children’s education. The two keynote speakers, Lindsay Dolce, Chief Advancement Officer of ServeMinnesota, and Wendy Wallace, the Director of Engagement and Development for the National Student Support Accelerator for Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, have one mission: to improve student performance and achievement with high-impact tutoring.
Both Dolce and Wallace discussed and promoted how their respective programs have helped the goal of assisting students in advancing in their studies, despite any disastrous event that may become an obstacle. These are the programs:
National Student Support Accelerator: Wallace explained the components of this high-impact tutoring program that also provides statistics on how beneficial tutoring is to students. The main points are facilitating implementation with research-based tools; catalyzing the tutoring field by having research and communities of practice; and engaging and activating stakeholders.
AmeriCorps, ServeMinnesota: In describing this program, Dolce discussed the process of meeting milestones in math and reading to live up to their mission statement, “a future where all children are proficient readers by the end of third grade and algebra-ready by the end of eighth grade.” With the high-quality training, evidence-based interventions, and expert training and coaching, one can see measurable progress in the students’ understanding of the material.
The entire audience, Education Committee members, and legislators peppered the speakers with specific questions that will get the gears turning on applying these tutoring programs to their midwestern states to benefit their students’ education.
This topic is critical since education plays a significant role in our identity. It was heartwarming to know that our passionate government officials play a crucial role and take seriously that role in doing all they can to help our schools.
Like in several other sectors, the COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on United States’ international relations. Laurie Tannous, a cross-border attorney for the Cross-Border Institute, and Christopher Sands, Director of the Canada Institute for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, were the experts on the US-Canada relationship. Quoting President Ronald Reagan, Sands opened with the words many people fear, “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
Following are a few of the general topics both keynote speakers touched on:
NAFTA: During the pandemic, trading between the Mexico, U.S., and Canada borders “suffered,” as they each implemented their own protection measures. However, the U.S.-Canadian border suffered the most and is still not functioning at full capacity. Despite goods being transported, drivers only ever made it as far as the border. Goods were then stored in a facility before distribution, causing the supply shortage. The biggest takeaway for most legislators was that both governments need to work together through the pandemic and its aftermath and not just for trade purposes.
Open Border: It boils down to how the U.S. and Canadian governments struggled to compromise and be on the same page. Although they both implemented regulations to respond to COVID-19, they had different requirements and exemptions for travel. They both compared how the Canadian and U.S. governments considered different policies to be essential and how those differences became real issues for citizens of both countries to travel to and from both these countries, even for work. Some legislators expressed concern over borders cutting back hours of operation.
9/11: The lessons learned after 9/11 were often used to compare the response of the U.S. government to its COVID-19 response. During 9/11, the U.S. focused on pilot projects and more easily adapted and recovered from that tragedy. Some argued the U.S. should have used a similar approach with COVID-19, keeping in mind that ‘one shoe does not fit all’.
Following the presentation, the committee members continued their meeting by discussing three pending resolutions: (1) Support of the U.S. – Canada Trade Relationship, (2) Protection and Return of Indigenous Remains and Property, and (3) Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, but the resolutions were tabled until there were “enough Canadians” to help answer questions and discuss opinions.
While all the speakers were interesting, I was most interested in meeting Ms. Tannous, who was not only an attorney, but one who specialized in immigration, an area I am interested in.
Opening Reception at Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, and the Lighting Ceremony at the Keeper of the Plains
To close out a great first day of committee meetings covering a wide array of topics, we made a quick wardrobe change, then headed out. Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, just a short bus ride from the conference hotel, was a nice break in scenery from the brick and mortar of the downtown.
The gardens feature 17.5 acres of flora, foliage, towering trees, koi ponds, statuary, and more. We followed the path and crowd toward the main amphitheater and quickly joined the crowd. Much to our surprise, we arrived just in time to see the Wichita War Dancer! Professional Native American performer Greg Victors explained his traditional garb and the process of how it is made. I was fascinated by the bright colors and intricacy of design.
We were amazed when the Wichita War Dancer put down the microphone and began his first dance. This war dance was fast and lively, and the movements allowed for his clothing to be shown off perfectly. Some of us were able to snap some photographs, while others were mesmerized by his routine.
Then, after a few other dances, he gave the audience a call to action, beckoning us to the front to join him in the Snake Dance. Traditionally, this dance was performed by snake dancers to stamp down and level the dance floor for the ritual dancers, held over four days from sunrise to sunset. The Wichita War Dancer instructed us to form a line and follow the leader. Yvette and I stepped up to the call, and Jessica came along with us! We then, as a line, snaked across the lawn with our arms extended, stamping our feet.
The dance was quite fun but also a little confusing when we lost the form of our line! We ended by taking a shot at our best war cries, some of which were good, and some of which could use practice.
We were also able to take a selfie with the Wichita War Dancer and thanked him for teaching us more about the Native American traditions.
The rest of the gardens awaited us, so we made our way along the paths. With some guidance from a staff member, we found the butterfly house filled with native butterflies.
Much like our group of travelers, some of the butterflies were all for the show and ready to pose for the perfect photo, whereas others preferred to not flash their wings around.
The next Wichita stop was the Lighting Ceremony of the Keeper of the Plains, a steel sculpture that is the city’s icon.
The Keeper of the Plains stands above the confluence of the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas rivers with his head held high.
We claimed a spot on the footbridge to watch the lighting of the fires and took advantage of the beautiful sky to capture the moment.
At 9:00 p.m. sharp, flames began to light up on the metal fire pits. They lit up one by one until all five had a blazing fire.
As the festivities came to an end, we strolled back to the hotel, welcoming the beautiful night and cooler breeze, right alongside the Arkansas River.