Promoting Peace and Conflict Awareness In Small Town America: Independence, Kansas

By: David J. Smith, February 19, 2015

Using peace and conflict education to promote communities that are vibrant and can thrive in the face of economic and social change is a critical objective of peacebuilding work.   In working with community colleges, I often learn about the greater community the college serves and help consider ways in which peace and conflict efforts can serve larger needs.

Dinner with PTK and Debate Club members
Dinner with PTK and Debate Club members

From February 11-13, 2015 I had the honor of visiting Independence, Kansas. Mary Jo Dancer and Konye Ori at Independence Community College (ICC) hosted me.   The city of Independence with a population of 9,200 is the county seat of Montgomery County, Kansas with 35,400 residents and is located in the southeast corner of Kansas. As a point of comparison, I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a population of 1,000,000. Our county seat is Rockville with 61,000 residents. Ironically, this difference is met with a commonality: both Montgomery County, Kansas and Montgomery County, Maryland are named for Revolutionary War hero Major General Richard Montgomery.   Though communities are often different in many ways, there are things that can connect us.

Mural from downtown Independence, Kansas
Mural from downtown Independence, Kansas

I was invited to Independence Community College to raise awareness of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the community, and specifically promote the efforts to develop a program at the college.   ICC has a student population of about 1,000, which makes it one of the smallest community colleges in the U.S. At a small institution, the impact that a program could have on students is great. With a small population there is the possibility of exposing nearly every student to peacebuilding and conflict resolution notions and approaches. The program planned includes a core of courses in conflict analysis, peacebuilding, and identity and conflict and will be part of the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Institute for Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (to honor the only U.S. president from Kansas).

Rotary members, Konye Ori, seated left
Rotary members; Konye Ori, seated left

More importantly, offering an academic program along with an array of related activities and services on conflict resolution could be of great benefit to the larger community of Independence and the entire county.   As is the case in many parts of the U.S., Independence has suffered from declining population with young people moving to larger cities such as Wichita, Tulsa, and Kansas City. Of late the area has seen employers leaving the area. Most recently Amazon closed a distribution center that had employed 500 residents. This was a major loss for the community, and has been part of an overall trend.

Replica of home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived here 1869-1871
Replica of home of Laura Ingalls Wilder who lived here  from 1869-1871

While in Independence, I met with members of the business community; faith community; education leaders; college students, faculty and staff; and gave a talk to the local Rotary club. I learned of the important assets that Independence has such as residents dedicated to small town life, many having deep roots in the community. I also met newer arrivals looking for a slower pace and the opportunity to raise their families where traditional values were important.   Besides having a history that includes an early home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder ( her first book, Little House on the Prairie, is based here) as well as the birthplace of playwright William Inge (the college has an annual festival honoring his life and work), Independence is the home of the Neewollah Festival (Halloween, spelled backwards), which attracts over 20,000 visitors every October.

During times of transition and change, empowering local communities with conflict-based and peacebuilding aptitudes, skills, and resources can offer important means for adjustment and moving forward.   In talking with business leaders, I shared how conflict awareness skills, particularly for younger employees, can better prepare the local workforce.   Encouraging business leaders to develop conflict awareness skills can enable them to better deal with a workforce that is evolving.   By emphasizing peacebuilding, the college can also present itself as an institution prepared to welcome a world changing as a result of globalization and increasing diversity. I was impressed that the college was involved in international exchange, and while there I met students from Turkmenistan. Konye Ori, my host, who teaches communication studies and sponsors the debate club, is a native of Nigeria. This infusion of international cultures will serve the college and greater community well as it prepares for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Meeting with students at Independence Community College
Meeting with students at Independence Community College

I’ve had the honor of visiting nearly 100 colleges around the U.S., most of them community colleges, and many in small communities such as Independence.  As practitioners and educators, it is important that we share the benefits of peacebuilding and conflict resolution strategies to advance the hopes and dreams of communities that are at times facing uncertain change, but have the determination and “grit” to create positive futures. This is what I found in Independence, Kansas.

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