Michelle (2)

Michelle smiling

Michelle smiling

(2/2)

“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

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.

SJ
SJ
This is S.J. Hazim, he’s a community leader, activist and connector. This is part one of his story.
-Part of the Kansas Young at Heart series.
—–

(1/2)

“I consider myself a creativity expert. I teach creativity. I believe that in this day and age we don’t tap in to our creativity, or utilize the way that it should be. If we did, we wouldn’t hit a brick wall. Some people play it safe all the time and then wonder why they don’t have the other opportunities that other people have had.

I believe introverts can change the world, but they have to speak from their passion for it to happen. I used to be an introverted person and I had all of these ideas in my head and I would hear people talking and sometimes I had the answer to their questions, but I was too introverted to go share my opinion. Or I thought that people wouldn’t even care about what I had to say.

I believe that there are a lot of people out there that have a lot of the answers we need, but they’re locked up in their introverted selves. We’re waiting on them. Some of those people don’t come to the events and don’t speak out, but some of them are the brightest people in the world. One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how nice you are, how giving you are, there are always people who are going to criticize you. You’re never going to satisfy everybody. Just get out there and be involved.

Step out from behind the curtain and be recognized. It’s not about people knowing what you’ve done, but it’s about unleashing your gift. A gift can make room for you. There are no regrets like something you didn’t say or like something you didn’t do. Say it now, do it now. I probably spent too much time in my life not stepping out. I’ve been a helper for a long time behind the scenes for other activities and different community leaders, where I kind of pushed their ideas. So I think this is something I probably should have been doing a long time ago. But at the end of the day, no one can tell your story, but you. I believe everybody has gifts and it’s up to us to use them. I heard somebody say that ‘There is no other place fuller of regrets and wasted ideas than a graveyard.’

A lot of people die with these ideas that were put inside of them to be manifest, but they took those ideas and those gifts to the grave with them. People die with the music still in them. I don’t want to die with the music still in me.”

 

Deanna

Deanna

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. —

Deanna

—-

“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.”

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.”

Vidhi

Vidhi looking at camera with henna on hand
Vidhi looking at camera with henna on hand
This is Vidhi Heiland, although she goes by V. She is the owner of Essential Henna By V. This is part one of her story.
—-

“Henna has always been part of my culture. My mom used to do it on me when I was younger, so when we moved here my friends were like, “Oh, you got Henna done, that’s so cool” and they would ask to come over and have my mom do Henna on them. Then one day she was just too busy so I decided to do it and that’s how I got started. I started doing Henna in fifth grade and that’s when I started practicing.

My dad’s uncle is the one who brought us out here to the United States, to Topeka. He came first and he brought the rest of his family and I started school in the third grade. The transition from leaving what I’ve always known and coming here and starting fresh—having no friends at all and the language barrier—was hard. I did speak a little English but it’s taken me a long time to come to a place where I have no accent and be able to talk fluently. The progression of those things was hard. I just did me for a while and built myself up.

When I first came here, kids made fun of my accent and also because my food was different than theirs. School was hard. What really helped me were my teachers. I wasn’t an A+ student, but I was a great student. I didn’t make a lot of friends at first. When I learned that my culture was setting me apart, what I did was try to find a medium place for myself. I took some things out of my Indian culture and took some things out of the American culture and mixed them together and kind made it all fit. To me, I’ve never been an American and I’ve never been an Indian. When I’m here I still feel displaced and when I visit India I don’t fit in either.

My real name is Vidhi, but I wanted to do something different for my business, so I started going by “V” just a couple of years ago. I guess that part of me when I was younger has not left me and I was still aiming to do something different and new. I always give myself a new identity, but the one thing I’ve always kept with me is Henna.”

 

Brail (2)

Brail looking at camera

Brail looking at camera

“I had a really good friend who was kind of an outcast in the music department and he was also an atheist. So we had a lot of deep conversations about Christ and religion and later on about race. He was also a military kid, so he grew up with all sorts of races and ethnicities so he said he didn’t get why black people were complaining about racism. I had to explain it to him in a different way that wasn’t ‘I hate them!’ I had to think about it. I told him, ‘There are two reasons why black people don’t like white people. Number one; white people don’t like black people. You see the way that they treat us. We don’t believe that they like us, so why would we become loving and friends with people who we think hate us? Number two: white people don’t understand why black people don’t like white people.’

And I gave this example, ‘Man, if your brother set my sister on fire, literally on fire, and I ran into you and you’re holding a bucket of water and I said, ”Bro, let me get that water man and throw it on my sister, she’s dying.” And you’re like, ‘I don’t see any fire. How did she catch herself on fire anyway?’ And I’m like, ‘She didn’t catch herself on fire. Your brother did that.’ And you’re like, ‘My brother wouldn’t do that.’ So now I’m looking at you like you’re the enemy too because you’ve enabled for this to happen and I’m in desperate need and you’re just sitting here telling me that there’s nothing wrong. We talked about that and from there we started building a friendship.

Unbeknownst to me, this was also helping me see things from a different perspective because he grew up in a situation where he didn’t see people being set on fire, but I grew up in a situation where I did and I was expecting him to have the same of perspective that I had. He’s white and I’m black and I see white people set black people on fire every day. He must have seen it, but maybe he didn’t, so it’s hard for him to see the flames because he’d never seen the fire. It didn’t make sense to him. So then I’m like ‘What if other people always see other people set others on fire but because it’s the way they grew up, it doesn’t make sense to them either?’ I started to understand why some of my ‘friends’ would act the way that they would. I started taking world history classes at Washburn.

I started learning about the beginning of slavery and how these first slaves who came as indentured servants started outnumbering the powerful white people. So they were scared about losing their power and changed the rules so now if your dad or mom were slaves, you were a slave for life. So how did they justify that? Well, then the Church came in and twisted Scripture to kind of fit that, ‘You know maybe they’re not image bearers.’ So then you get this perverse religion that is taught to people who grew up swimming in racist waters and they don’t understand that this water is toxic and their brothers and sisters are drowning.

So I started gathering this perspective that racist people are sick. They don’t understand to what they’ve been exposed to and it’s become a part of who they are. I also started learning about systemic racism, about the systems of racism that exist today. They just don’t know. My goal became to educate others. I even had to re-educate myself on the factors of systemic racism even though I have the life experiences. I had the experiences reaffirming what I had been learning, but I still started questioning myself because it’s much easier to go ‘Maybe it’s not a thing. Maybe if I work hard enough things could be different.’

Because who wants to spend their days thinking, ‘I’m a victim, I’m a victim, I’m a victim’? No one likes to live like that, so you tell yourself that you’re strong and powerful only to realize that the system is trying to destroy you. That’s a harsh reality to live in, but I’m like, ‘If that’s hard for me to live with it and I can’t ignore it, how hard is it for some of my white brothers and sisters to step over that line and acknowledge the problem and how they benefit from it even though they didn’t start it?’ So now I’m like, ‘Okay, my whole perspective on race started changing and I started understanding how race was invented for racism.’”

Brail

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.

—-

(1/3)

“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.”

Elena

Elena looking to the side
This is Elena Sanchez. Elena is a photographer at Glass Lantern Photography, who has been in love with taking pictures since she was a little girl and would go on trips with her family. She’s also my wife and mom to three little ones. This is part one of her story.
Elena looking to the side
(1/2)
“Right after my last baby was born, I was in a really, really dark place for months until very recently. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that kind of place before. Even though I felt so much love for my baby and she made me happy, I just felt this unexplainable sadness. The depth of that sadness was more than I could bear. I would wake up and not want to get out of bed. I would send my oldest daughter off to school and it would just be my son and my baby and I was struggling to function. I didn’t want to get off the couch. I would turn on a movie for my son and I could barely handle getting up and getting him snacks and interacting with me. I felt so guilty about that. I isolated myself and I avoided a lot of social situations. I remember being in a room full of people and knowing that if someone asked me how I was, I would break down crying. That’s how vulnerable I felt. I just could not function. After talking to my husband multiple times, I finally reached out to my OB. I went in for my appointment and told her I was pretty sure I had postpartum depression and even just admitting that to her was a lot and I started crying. I started an anti-depressant and I’ve been on that for a little while now and it has changed my life.

I feel more like my old self. I feel like I have the motivation to work. I feel like I want to play with my son again during the day and I can be a better mom and wife. I can be a better me. There’s so much stigma around mental health issues and not just that, but medication as well, but there shouldn’t be. It’s such an important thing that people deal with and some times medication is necessary and it’s not a bad thing.

I think more moms go through this than we hear about. I wish it wasn’t like that because you need support and you need other people to tell you that they’ve gone through this, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. People need to hear that there’s nothing wrong with getting help or needing medication. Don’t be afraid to seek help if you’re not feeling right or if you need to talk to somebody. There’s nothing worse than being isolated and feeling like you can’t talk about what’s going on with you. It’s okay to get help, whether it’s postpartum or regular depression, or anything. It’s okay to not be okay. For so long I kept denying that something deeper was going on, so I kept putting it off until finally I realized that I needed help. I feel totally, totally different today.”