Michelle (2)

Michelle smiling

Michelle smiling


“My son was probably two years old when I got breast cancer. During this time I finally I got a section 8 apartment and it was really close to the church I was going to. I used to sing in the church choir and some of my friends on there noticed that I wasn’t looking very good.

I had to get surgery and went through all that process and after that, the church gave me $2000 to help me get out of Puerto Rico. So I started applying to schools because I wanted to do cancer research. So, Wichita State University had some research I was interested in. I don’t know or why, but I got accepted. I found a little apartment and within a year I graduated with a degree on Molecular Biology.

When you’re Latino, when you come from that background, you don’t really talk about your issues. That’s taboo. So, I always thought I was cursed. I felt completely unlovable and had this horrible family situation and thought that it was completely unique to me. In Wichita I started working at Upward Bound and started meeting some of these wonderful kids and a lot of their stories were very similar to mine and it just rocked me. It was one of those life-defining moments. I started telling them that if I did it, they could do it too. They can go to school, they can get ahead in life.

From there I got a job at Office of International Education and that’s where I met the girl’s dad. We got married really fast. And I found out that he was an alcoholic and he was abusive. And a month in to our marriage, I found out that had already cheated on me. But I was determined that I was going to make the marriage work, so I stayed.

One day he showed up to the house we had just bought, and by this point we already had our first baby, so he showed up and he said, ‘By the way, I got a new job and we’re moving to Topeka.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? We have everything here!’

Ironically, I came to Topeka kicking and screaming. My life was completely transformed. I had been teaching Biology at Butler Community College, I was really connected to my church, I had everything there. For me, there was no need to come here.

The cool thing about is that I get here and immediately start looking for jobs and got hired at Housing and Credit Counseling and by the sheer act of being hired there, I was able to meet some people that connected with the YWCA. Eventually that led me to get the help that I needed to get a divorce and not end up being another really bad story of domestic violence.

If I hadn’t moved here, I wouldn’t have gotten to do all the things that I’m doing now and I would have never gotten the help to move forward.”

— with Israel Sanchez and Michelle De La Isla.


Michelle De La Isla

Michelle De La Isla

I had the honor recently of talking to Topeka Mayor, Michelle De La Isla, as part of my Kansas Young at Heart series. This is part one of her powerful story in her own words:


“When I was 16 I had my first boyfriend. He decided that he didn’t want me to go to college without having assurances that I was going to be true to him and only him. I was a minor when he decided that we should have sex. People talk about statutory rape and talk about how messed up it is, but you don’t really know it until you have to deal with it and you’re left with the scars. The experience was horrendous. I was bleeding so bad that I asked to be taken to the hospital, but he refused because he knew that he would be arrested.

I held that in for a while and I was struggling. I was really depressed and started trying to figure out what to do and how to tell my family. Finally, I got the courage to go see my mom for help. I said, ‘Hey I gotta talk to you,’ and she said, ‘You had sex with your boyfriend, didn’t you?’ and I explained what happened. And she said, ‘You put it on his face, didn’t you?’

I remember that I looked her and said, ‘Yeah, I did. I’m going to go on a run. I’ll come back in a bit,’ and I never came back home. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to make it work, so I stayed at a friend’s house for a few weeks. I kept going from house to house and I struggled to find a job, so I kept getting thrown out because I couldn’t support myself.

I tried to enroll back in school and get student loans and use that to fix some of these issues. During this time some of my friends noticed that I was getting super skinny and one of them took me over to their house. This lady, we call her ‘Mami Puchi’ took me in and man, I remember sitting at that table and it was the first time in a long time that I had a whole home-cooked meal for myself.

They took me in and were like family to me and they helped me get back on my feet. During this time I found that I was pregnant. I knew I had to get my life together. So, I went back to school and by the mercy of God I was able to get in. I told the dean my story and he said, ‘It looks like you’re mad.’

And I was like, ‘Have you not heard all the stuff that I’ve lived through?’

And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but you have power. You absolutely have power to how you react to what happens to you in life. You may not control what other people do to you, but there is a lot of strength in how you respond.’

I thought he was crazy at the time. I told him that I wouldn’t let him down that I really need to get in to this school. And it worked. I got in.”

S.J. (2)

SJ Hazim
SJ Hazim

“I look at the world without walls. I never met anybody that I was afraid to go talk to, or shake their hand or introduce myself. So my biggest challenge is to not let the naysayers get me down, which doesn’t happen often. But everyone has feelings and no one likes it hearing those negative things. Like, people often talk bad about Topeka and about the people who are propping up Topeka, so my biggest challenge is to not let negativity win over.

I also don’t want to let anybody change me. There might be different corporations in the future that may want my services, but I never want to become a robot. With all the outside noise, the challenge is me staying who I am. I don’t want to become the status quo.

Somebody once told me ‘If you’re complaining about something and you’re not doing anything about it, then you’re part of the problem.’ So I decided that I needed to do something. It didn’t happen immediately, but it made me stop talking about stuff that I wasn’t going to try to fix. A lot of times we just like hearing ourselves talk. Now I’m at a point in my life where I’m trying to uplift the city however I can and try to continue to support local. If I don’t have any money to give, I give my time or share my insights.”

‘What are you the most excited about?’

“What I’m most excited is how this Pay it Forward came about. Over the last couple of weeks I had somebody pay it forward to me. There was an oversight on some funds that were supposed to go one of the companies I was partnered with on a project and it didn’t get paid. Me and the CEO of this company are talking and trying to figure how to make this thing right, so as that’s happening, I get a call from that CEO a half hour later telling me that an anonymous donor took care of the whole total.

At that point is when I said ‘I’m going to start paying it forward on a weekly basis.’ So now I’ve been getting all this traction from people who want to get involved. And not all of it involves money. For example, we’re going to be going to some of these senior centers and we’re taking hair dressers and barbers and beautify the people and a lot of other things. We want to pay it forward with kindness for a better community tomorrow.”


Deanna (2)

Deanna in her studio
Deanna in her studio

“The original idea started about 10 years ago and it came about when my daughter started writing and I couldn’t find a mentor for her. I was like, ‘If I can’t find one for her, there are probably other kids that don’t have a mentor either’ and I didn’t want her to lose the inspiration to keep writing, to do this long term, because she was really good, so I went ahead and decided to ask for help at Hallmark, where I work.

They helped me figure out how to do it with the help of volunteers. It started with about 12 volunteers from Walmart and about 25 students in KCK. I didn’t have any funding, so Irene Caudillo at El Centro in Kansas City, Kansas gave me space for free.

The Latino Arts Festival was born out of the mentoring program. What I wanted to do was to give the kids more experience on what it’s like to showcase and sell your art. Instead of starting in college or after college, why not start when you’re 15? It is all sponsored because it’s a no cost festival for the attendees and it is no cost for the artist. We give them a booth, table and chairs and all they have to do is come with their creativity. I want them to bring exposure to their art within their own community, so that way, no matter what they do with their life, they’ll always remember where they came from.

There are kids here from all walks of life. A lot of these kids come because they want to be somewhere where they’re seen, somewhere where they feel welcomed. And then when they come in they see that there are other kids like them, they see the diverse culture and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is my place.’ And they just have fun. They don’t have to worry about the cost. They just have to get here and they have an outlet for their creativity.”

— with Latino Foundation for the Arts.



This is Deanna Munoz the founder of the Latino Foundation for the Arts a non-profit that is doing amazing things for children in the community. She was also featured in Season 4 of Queer Eye. This is part one of her story. —



“Being on Queer Eye helped me confront some truths about my identity that I had not confronted before. When I’m with Hispanics I have to be that and when I go to the suburbs, I then have to be something else. What I’ve come to find out is that it’s not just a Mexican-American thing, it’s a cultural around the world thing. All the way from Chile, all the way from Portugal, I’ve gotten people messaging me relating to my story of not fitting in. I just hope that in bringing that to light, people could talk about it more and they could share their stories more and that way people won’t feel so alone. And maybe we can all come together and find ways to help each other.

In the episode I also talked about discrimination I’ve experienced. It’s hard for people to understand what discrimination feels like if they’ve never experienced it. I’ve gotten the whole, ‘Oh, maybe it really wasn’t that bad,’ or ‘Maybe you’re reading too much into it.’ People say that because of everything going on in the news that I may be over thinking it, but the reality is that it’s happening here more now than ever before. I’m hoping that people can see my episode and realize that even though we live in the Midwest, in Kansas City, we’re still not safe. Anything can happen, any day.

And people who dismiss things that happens to us and say, ‘Oh, that’s not really racist,’ what they don’t understand is that the long term effect of those hurtful words can last forever. It makes us more afraid. Anything can happen. They can call the police on us and that can go bad quickly. People just don’t understand that their words can do so much harm.

One voice can cause a lot of trauma. I hope that maybe one day they’ll see that we’re people just trying to live our lives like everybody else.”

Lucas (2)

Lucas Smiling

Lucas Smiling

“In order to fully realize yourself, you need to understand on a fundamental level why you’re here and what makes you tick. And I know that’s a big question to answer, but it’s important. For me, all that time that I spent lost, where I wasn’t functioning in a way that I agreed with, led me to where I am today. I now know the reason why I get up in the morning and do the things that I do. It’s genuinely for other people because I believe that a lot of the people in this planet are in circumstances that are out of their control that could be improved and they deserve better.

That’s where I come from and that’s what I’m doing in this world, that’s my why. And I think that if you can find that piece, whatever it is that you want most in life, you should do it. Find something that you love and that you want to do and make that the reason why you do things. You can have a job and have something you love be your work. I don’t get paid for most of the things that I do that I value the most. I mean, I volunteer for things with the city, I volunteer for things around town and I serve on a non-profit board her in town. Those are the things that I love the most and not a single one of them pays me anything. But that’s the work I’m doing, the rest of it it’s a job.

And I’ve recently been able to work my work into my job through community engagement. The property investment firm is focused on developing the community and the people, as opposed to being just another property investment firm. So I’ve found ways to integrate it, but I only was able to find those ways because I’ve learned why and what I want to do. Find the thing that makes you happy and run full sprint into it.”



Lucas Ryan

Lucas Ryan

This is Lucas Z Ryan. He’s the Operations Manager of Infinite Properties Group and he’s also running for City Council, District 6 in Topeka.


“I kind of have run the gamut in terms of expectations. Freshman year of high school my Debate and Forensics coach sat me down and told me that I was going to be the next national champion she coached. Junior year of high school I did an interview with a teacher and they told me that they thought I would win a Nobel Prize at some point because of conversations we’ve had. My mom has two Master’s degrees and a lot of her professional life has been about college access for low income and foster care students as well as now being a school counselor. So, when I told her that I was taking two years off of school, her response was to tell me the statistics on how frequently people actually go back to school, which is a disheartening number.

So, those expectations have always been there, from teachers, from parents and from friends. And I think I internalized a lot of that when I was younger in a way that wasn’t healthy and that’s where those lost years were. I was asking myself, ‘What am I really doing? Am I doing these things because that’s what people expect of me? Or am I doing them because I want to?’ And there was a lot of internal dialogue going on around that process. I was really in a fog. But now I have settled very firmly into understanding the systems and structures that have been built around all of our lives and the way that we interact within those systems and structures and how they’re good and bad. I think a lot of that comes from having those structures putting a whole lot of expectations on me and then really thriving within that in high school and then graduating and realizing that a lot of those structures are artificial as hell.

There’s a business quote that Keller Williams often espouses and I’m real reluctant to use the gimmicky, motivational quotes that a lot of companies use just because a lot of times they’re clichés and overused. I believe a lot in the power of words, so I’m reluctant to use things that are false anachronisms or analogies, but they got this one that’s ‘No pressure, no diamonds.’ And as cheesy as it is, it’s something that I’ll often tell myself internally. ‘You know there’s a whole lot of pressure on all ends, but I know that at the end of the day, even if doesn’t work out, it’s a learning process and I’m better for it.’”


Vidhi (2)

Vidhi smiling

Vidhi smiling

“I’m kind of like the black sheep of the family. To come to this point I had to make it all about me and how to get better and how to make friends. My parents and my family are still very much Indian, but I have immersed myself into this environment to be more accepted into this culture. I put myself out there and created a new identity different from what my parents would have wanted me to be.

Growing up I always did the opposite of what they wanted me to do. One thing I remember was that prom wasn’t a big deal to them. But to me it was because all of my friends were going. So, I fought with them to get a nice dress and for me to go. It turns out that for me it was kind of meh in the end, but I did it. They were right that it wasn’t a big deal, but I’m still glad I did it. Thinking like that made me who I am today. It has pushed me to try new things. I think even the bad experiences I’ve had turned out okay in the end because it made me who I am now. I’m not Indian, but I’m not American, so I had to find that middle ground on my own.

Marrying outside of my culture definitely made me the black sheep of the family, too. I’m sure they wished I was married to an Indian, but they met my husband, who’s white, and they love him. Once my dad met him and asked him a bunch of questions, he then said, ‘Well, you’re not going to find anyone better than him.’ My mom then said, ‘Well, he eats and likes my food,’ so I knew then that it was all good.”

Brail (3)

Brail smiling
Brail smiling
“The science behind racial studies initially was all geared towards separating and creating a white elite class of human beings. There’s nothing good about it. Ethnicity, culture, nationality, history, all of that’s great, but there’s nothing good about race. So I started thinking, ‘How do I reconcile these things? How does Christ look at these things? How did he address them?’ Seeing how the Israelites were treated in Egypt for a long time and then they started becoming productive and successful, so this new pharaoh comes up and doesn’t remember what the God of the Israelites did and he’s like, ‘Who are all these people? Who is these niggas? Who are these people that seem to be doing well? They could take us over.’

That fear then takes over and they decided to destroy them and they did almost the exact same thing that we did here in America. This isn’t new. This isn’t a white people problem. This is a sin problem. And so how does Christ address sin? He addresses it pretty sternly, but he addresses it in love. Now I can look at my brother and sister and go, ‘Man, just how I have sin in my heart that I have to fight, you have sin in your heart that you have to fight.’

We’re living in a world of sin and the only way to reach them is with love, not with complacency, not with compromise, but standing on the truth with love and grace. So going into school out there turned me into a racist, but it’s also where I began to understand what it means to be a Christian. I began to understand what it means to work toward reconciliation and started understanding that reconciliation only happens within the confines of relationship. It doesn’t happen outside of that.

The only way to have racial reconciliation is to have a relationship. My entire approach went from, ‘Man I gotta show white people how much they hurting us!’ to ‘Dude, I need to establish relationships with these people.’ I need to be the one that they come to when they go, ‘Is this racist?’ I can’t fire off on them every time and say ‘You crossed the line,’ because if we don’t have any relationship my words fall on deaf ears. Pain is not finite and neither is empathy. You need to build relationships.”



Brail looking at camera pensive

Brail looking at camera pensive

This is Brail Watson. He’s a recording artist, as well as the Worship Resident at Fellowship Bible Church – Hi-Crest. You most definitely should check out his EP, the Demo at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-demo-ep/1453031808.



“Right now what I’m focused on is cultural and racial reconciliation. Everything I do feeds into that. Everything about me is more about message than music. I was raised in East Topeka and when Topeka was viscerally segregated, that part of town used to be called Mud Town. My grandfather was on the NIA that actually got my entire neighborhood built. The white contractors didn’t want to build on that side of town. Everything moved; everything kind of went west. The black people were pushed east and all the expansion went west. When I was about two months old, my mom moved in there, so I grew up in that same house.

I went to Highland Park North. At one point the school closed down so I went to Scott. Back then it was a computer technology magnet school. I went there and I was in the gifted program, but around fifth or sixth grade they told me that there was a better gifted program at French Middle School, which is far west side. There was a loophole in the system and because of that I was able to get free busing. Then in the eighth grade I was just in the orchestra, but I did really well in some of my other classes, so they would let me leave class to go help out in the choir. So, I would assist in the choir, even though I wasn’t in the class. And one my best friends in the orchestra was sick and they were supposed to do choir auditions for Topeka West, so I offered to audition with him to help him out. They ended up wanting us both to go that school.

And this all ties up to the story of how I became a racist.

So there were experiences that I had that were really defining for me when bitterness set into my heart. I had this open attitude of loving everybody, giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, but I experienced things that changed that. One time I made it into ‘Singers’ as a sophomore, which is kind of the elite group at Topeka West, and we’re sitting there talking about a concert where all of the elite groups of the high schools come together to raise money and they do a concert at Washburn. So these kids were talking about Highland Park in a very negative light. I lived in the Highland Park district. So I was like, ‘What’s wrong with them? I know some really good singers out there.’ And they’re like, ‘It’s not really about the singing. You know, it’s those kids.’ And I didn’t really understand what they were trying to say. So then I asked, ‘Is it because most of them are black?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, but you’re black and you’re not like them. You’re not like those black guys.’ So I started getting upset and defending my friends and they were like, ‘Come on. Let’s not make it a race thing. You know, they get pregnant and smoke weed,’ which is an interesting thing to say because a lot of that was happening at Topeka West. All the stereotypes were coming out and I was blown away by that.

So all of these things start coming out and then I get to Washburn and apparently it was the year of the black jokes. So everywhere I go it’s ‘fried chicken this; grape drink that; watermelon this and the n-word this.’ And these are all of my white friends making these jokes and because I’m so loving, they thought it was cool to say that around me. At the same time I’m an artist and I’m doing a lot of shows in these small Kansas towns and I’m hearing, ‘Hey man, do that new Soulja Boy dance’ and so everywhere I go, I’m a minstrel show. So I started reflecting on the world and I came to the realization that white people think they own everything. I started seeing white privilege in action without understanding at the time what it was. And then if I spoke out against it I was the angry one even though I was the one being offended.

So then I started thinking back about these bullies in middle school, who were white, and they threw me in a trash can once and I said, ‘You niggers go in the trash!’ and no one ever did anything about it, there was no outrage about it. It was treated as that’s what bullies and mean kids do. Then I got to high school and there was still some of that. One time in high school all the seniors on Facebook got together and changed the Spirit Week and they made a ‘Gangster Day.’ So what ‘Gangster Day’ meant is that you came to school dressed in gym shorts, Jordan’s, tall tees and you’d have a fake grill, so hip hop culture, black culture. That was ‘Gangster Day,’ dress like a black guy.”