Here’s to the opinionated Kansans who spoke up in 2020

The infamous Kansas abolitionist John Brown as depicted in a detail of John Steuart Curry's famous "Tragic Prelude" mural in the Kansas Capitol. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

We knew Kansans would have opinions.

That’s why, when we launched Kansas Reflector back in July, we opened our opinion section to guest commentaries four days out of every week.

We had a clear mission for the page. We wanted to amplify voices of people whose lives are affected by public policies but who might typically be left out of public debate. We wanted to increase readers’ awareness of how decisions made by elected representatives and other public servants affect the daily lives of people all over the state. Ultimately, we hoped to empower and inspire greater participation in democracy throughout Kansas.

We knew that every other Sunday, Max McCoy would propel the statewide conversation with powerful pieces from his outpost in Emporia.

Otherwise, though, we had no idea who would write opinion pieces and what they would be about. Since then, we’ve published 86 such commentaries, each one a gift.

Many writers ventured out of their comfort zones to speak up in public. One minister apologized for comments she’d made in court filings urging leniency for an elderly prisoner. Another minister told stories of what he’d learned by helping utility customers avoid shutoffs.

We heard from people young and old: a high school student who affirmed her first-hand experience that Black girls are disproportionately punished in the state’s education and justice systems, and a member of the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature who pleaded with readers to help protect seniors from COVID-19.

The pandemic was, of course, a constant theme. A public health worker pointed out that people in her line of work are Kansans’ neighbors, not their enemies — unfortunately, this needed to be said. One writer wondered what her Kansas-values-embracing grandparents would have thought about wearing masks. Another wrote a powerful tribute to his grandmother who, like so many others, had died of COVID alone but for her caregivers in a nursing home.

As debates raged about how to begin the school year safely, one writer remembered how he’d felt years earlier when his high school teacher died. We heard from teachers, too. One was grateful to have been forced out of his old routines and had recommitted to greatness; another furiously lamented the “enduring moral failure” of our response to COVID-19 and how a time without sports could teach kids better life lessons.

Not surprisingly, submissions poured in during the weeks just before and after the election. What was surprising, though, was that these pieces weren’t specifically about candidates and issues. Instead, writers pointed out that politics isn’t everything, reminded fellow Kansans of things they all agree on, recommitted to work for the country’s ideals, suggested how we could re-imagine those blue and red marks on maps, and pledged stronger action against discrimination.

It wasn’t all sunflowers and meadowlarks, though. A history professor reminded us that violent mobs we’re seeing in the news are carrying on a long American tradition, an advocate updated us on a Lawrence lynching memorial, a mother demanded that leaders take action on gun safety.

We got primers on solutions our legislators should work on but likely won’t — such as expanding Medicaid and improving rural health overall, approving medical marijuana, securing the rights of people who live in long-term care facilities, coming up with an energy policy and establishing an independent office to advocate for children — unless Kansans stay involved long past election day.

When readers needed a short rest from all of this thought provocation, they could go offseason camping on Kansas’ public lands.

Admittedly, we diverted from our mission a few times and not all of the voices have been ones “typically left out of public debate.” One was a former governor who mourned the loss of a “Kansas champion.” Another was a judge who argued for improving Kansans’ access to public defenders. We heard from one former Congressman and a sitting senator — and from that senator’s former chief of staff, who said his old boss’s refusal to acknowledge the election of Joe Biden was putting American democracy at risk.

Some commentaries flowed easily from the keyboards of professional writers, esteemed journalists and accomplished professors, some weighing in with science fiction and anti-racism reading lists to match our times. The Kansas Poet Laureate wrote movingly about writing toe tags for an art exhibit.

And that’s not even half of what we heard.

To everyone who contributed: Thank you. And extra thank yous to everyone who contributed more than once.

Keep them coming, Kansas. We need you to help us make sense of 2021. Here’s how.