By JAMES BELL
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, area residents will gather at Breathe Coffee House, 703B Main, for "Can We Just Talk" — the first meeting of the black, indigenous and people of color community of Ellis County.
The informal meeting is designed to be a way to create a stronger community by enhancing the understanding of racial issues in a nearly entirely white community.
“This event grew from the development of a virtual community I created in August 2020," said Nuchelle Chance, who organized the group with husband Demetrius Chance. "As a black woman, and specifically an underrepresented minority in Hays, I am a firsthand witness to the fact that black, brown, gay, Muslim, etc … people are not always made to feel welcomed and truly included."
The isolation created by the pandemic even further compounded the problem Nuchelle said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has been significantly transformative as it has really exacerbated the loneliness that a minority can feel in a place like this," she said. "For me, I felt that this cannot be the best-case scenario for how I want my time in northwest Kansas to be remembered."
The BIPOC group and the meeting Tuesday is a direct response to that concern.
"I created the Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color Community of Ellis County Facebook group as a safe space for community building, inclusivity and support for underrepresented minorities in the area."
With this first meeting, they hope to expand the reach of their message of inclusivity.
"As the COVID-19 pandemic regulations have been adjusting I felt we were at a place where we could expand and take this movement from a virtual space to reality," Nuchelle said "After conversations with my husband Demetrius Chance, friends, HHS, FHSU students and colleagues I felt we could take this group to the next level.”
While Demetrius and Nuchelle organized the event, they credit Patrick McGinnis as also being instrumental in adding the in-person meetings.
“Patrick, owner of Breathe Coffee House, has been an avid supporter of community initiatives and supported diversity and inclusion efforts since we moved to Hays," Nuchelle said. "Prior to COVID, Patrick was hosting conversations like this and, through conversations with him, it was obvious that with collaboration we could take it to the next level to promote real inclusivity in this place."
While they hope to create a more understanding culture in the area, they understand change takes time.
“We clearly know we cannot solve all the problems of the world, let alone Ellis County, but we can provide those small moments of acceptance, welcomeness, peace, tranquility, support and love," Nuchelle said. "We love our neighbors, black, white, brown, gay, straight, disabled, fully-abled, Christian, Muslim, non-believer, and so on. If nothing more than letting others that look, feel, and think like us know that we are here. Further, we welcome all allies even if they do not self-identify as we do.”
Having a group like this in Ellis County, she said not only helps create a more understanding culture but can also help the minority populations by giving them an opportunity to gather together.
“An organization like this is critical in a community like this where it is so easy for minorities to want to simply disappear and be invisible just to go along with their daily lives only to be hyper-visible and overly tokenized when it suits the masses,” Nuchelle said.
After moving to Hays from North Carolina in 2018, she said she has seen how difficult first-hand life in Hays can be for the BIPOC community.
“One of the biggest things for me is the fact that the representation in this community is very small,” Nuchelle said.
It’s so small that it seems that for minorities, even seeing other people with a shared background can be comforting she said.
She said her family has experienced a few incidents that enforce her belief that groups like this are helpful to the entire community.
“Even if they are just microaggressions, they still have an impact on someone’s fears,” Nuchelle said. “Being accused of potentially robbing a store, just because you are a black man in a hoodie, or being profiled by the police just because you look suspicious based on your skin color, it is problematic. But it is happening across the nation.”
It’s really just about bringing a sense of community and showing that you are not by yourself, she said.
From those living in more urban settings, even with recent strife, often have more support in their communities, by virtue of the larger populations, Nuchelle said.
“In bigger cities, there is a sense of community in that you can walk outside, or go to your neighborhood store and see people and communicate with people that have lived experiences like you, look like you and perceiving the world like you, but that doesn’t happen in Hays or northwest Kansas for the majority of people that brown or black,” she said.
And she said in northwest Kanas the frequency of growing up in a racially homogenous community creates misunderstandings and biases against minorities, simply because of the lack of experience with different groups.
With that lack of understanding comes troubling situations.
“Truth be told, now and in the past years in the current political climate, it has really emboldened many people to spread these heinous and nasty thoughts,” Nuchelle said. “And it’s become super polarized.”
With the lack of diversity in Hays, she said this area is particularly susceptible to biases stemming from a lack of mutual understanding and sense of community that bridges different backgrounds.
Even this month, Nuchelle said in Hays members of the BIPOC group had reported racially motivated incidents.
A Hispanic member was walking while passed by a recent political rally that saw people driving around Hays in support of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
“He was verbally assaulted by the protestors,” she said. “As he was walking to work they drove by and called him a (racial slur).”
“You can’t even mind your business and go to school and be brown without being harassed,” she said. “it’s disgusting, it’s intolerable and it’s unfortunate. But at the same time, the burden of that lies on the marginalized.”
“It’s one thing to be marginalized,” Demetrius said. “But when you don’t have people to connect with it makes living here hard, it makes it tough. To be able to be around people like look like you, that think like you, it creates more of community with each other and changes the climate.”
The opportunity to be around others can create an encouraging environment that can spur change, he said.
He said with the situations that have created strife across the U.S. are not new.
“People are now standing up. People are now talking about it,” Demetrius said. “These are situations and issues that people have felt for years, for generations.
While the desire to create change is being fostered, he said he has to start at home.
“We can't depend on federal legislation or state legislation to make changes,” Demetrius said. “We have to start locally and we have to focus on change and what can we do in this community to make it easier for people that are marginalized to potentially survive more peacefully.”
While he acknowledges that Hays is generally a safe community, concerns for minorities remains a concern.
“I know that they say Hays is a great place, and compared to a lot of cities, Hays is a great place to live," Demetrius said. "It’s peaceful. People walk around with their houses unlocked, so you can see the sense of security here, but there are also issues when it comes to race.”
Now, he said, people are stepping up.
“It’s not going to be a week-long battle or a month battle,” he said. “Racism has been in Hays for generations, so it’s nothing that is going to be corrected soon, but this is laying the foundations and starting the process for us to create the community that everyone envisions.”