Topeka residents pitch ideas to tackle poverty

Grace Foiles

For the last two hours of the Topeka Community Conversation on Poverty, participants gathered in the Washburn A and B room. Anyone interested was then given the opportunity to give a 90 second pitch about any idea for a project or collaboration between organizations. After that, participants split off to meet with those who had given pitches for projects in which they might be interested. Eleven pitches were delivered.

Three of the pitches focused on political activism. Davis Hammet, director of operations at Planting Peace, spoke about the importance of voter participation and gave suggestions to increase it, such as hosting pre-election day block parties or holding civic education courses.

Ben Bartee, development coordinator for El Centro, then discussed another political forefront that he hopes to focus on.

“Today my main focus is campaign finance reform, removing money from politics and having publically financed elections, having no more money coming in from private interests and overturning the citizens united decision,” Bartee said.

Bartee was hopeful that collaboration between likeminded individuals might be formed from the discussions the group began. El Centro is a grassroots organization that provides culturally sensitive assistance for low-income members of Topeka’s Hispanic population.

Joe Cheray, a community activist, also spoke about voter registration and participation. Cheray suggested voter registration rallies as a possible way of increasing civic participation.

Rebekah Gaston, an attorney and Childhood Hunger Initiative director with Kansas Appleseed, a legal advocacy organization, discussed changing a food bank policy here in Topeka that may be negatively impacting impoverished families.

“A lot of food pantries here in Topeka participate in MAACLink, which is a computer program that tracks what services different clients have taken advantage of,” Gaston said. “What I’ve learned today is that food pantries in Topeka limit families from getting their assistance more than once every 60 days and the assistance that they get is supposed to be a three day supply so that doesn’t go very far. Maybe we can talk to these groups about a change in policy.

A representative from Quincy House spoke about their services as well. Quincy House is a shelter that provides resources for homeless veterans.

Then Caitlin Cameron, an Americorp Vista participant who’s focus is incarcerated populations, invited participants to join a reentry coalition that meets as Let’s Help on the first Wednesday of every month at 3:30 p.m.. The group works to provide services for formerly incarcerated persons to reduce the rate of recidivism, or returning to criminal activity, in the Topeka area.

Dale Matherly, senior minister at First Christian Church, spoke about starting up a Circles chapter here in Topeka. Circles is a support group and self-sufficiency program for people in poverty.

Two groups also spoke about vaccines and healthcare. First was Carolyn Weinhold, point person on face-to-face meetings for Results, a Topeka group working toward global immunization and dealing with maternal and child healthcare. Weinhold used her pitch as an opportunity to invite other participants to join the organization and told those interested to speak with group leader Lila Bartel, who can be contacted at [email protected].

The other was Tosha Jansen-Conkey from the Shawnee County Health Agency. She spoke about collaborating with Topeka Metro and Topeka school districts to provide transportation so that impoverished children could be brought to the health agency for their immunizations.

Michaela Saunders, web editor for Washburn University public relations, then made a group where participants who felt overwhelmed by the event could take a moment to decompress and discuss what all had happened that day.