Meet the woman newly charged with raising Black voices in Kansas

June 14, 2021 3:33 am

Stacey Knoell’s strong but unsuccessful run for a Kansas Senate seat in November 2020 caught the attention of Gov. Laura Kelly, who in May 2021 appointed her as executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission. (Submitted)

Stacey Knoell’s loss in a Kansas Senate race last November turned out to be a win for Black people in Kansas, which is to say a win for everyone in Kansas.

Knoell, a Democrat who’d never run for office, was seeking to represent Senate District 9, the southwestern corner of Johnson County. She lost to Republican Beverly Gossage, 47% to 52%. It’s one of those cases, in Kansas politics, where a five-point loss is a moral victory.

“My race, on paper, should not have been competitive,” Knoell says. “To perform as well as we did — a first-time candidate, African American woman, in Senate District 9, which had been crimson-red Republican — showed that a Democratic candidate can be very viable in that segment of Johnson County.”

Her effort impressed Gov. Laura Kelly, who has now appointed Knoell to serve as executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.

If you’re surprised to hear that Kansas has such a commission, you wouldn’t be alone.

“As an African American woman running for state office, I had the barest notion that it existed,” Knoell says.

After the immediate task of raising COVID-19 vaccination rates for Black Kansans, her charge from the governor is to elevate the commission’s profile and policy impact.

Knoell is the only paid employee of the commission, which has seven members from around the state. Created by the Legislature in 1997, it was moved from the human resources department to the governor’s office by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2004.

Knoell says Kelly’s chief of staff, Will Lawrence, told her they wanted her to “give voice” to things that wouldn’t have crossed their minds.

“That’s a good deal of humility on the part of the governor’s office to say, ‘We need to bring in people who are going to say, “Have you considered this?” ’ rather than barreling through with great amounts of pride,” she says. “The governor’s office is willing to listen to the voices of people in Kansas. My job to go out and bring that information back to the governor.”

Her initial plan is to hold town halls around the state, visiting different communities to hear what people need and then taking that back to the governor’s office to help shape policy.

Some of what she hears might be revelatory to Knoell, who has lived in the city for most of her life. But her family has deep and impressive historical connections to Kansas.

Her great grandfather was Isaac F. Bradley Sr., the first Black graduate of the University of Kansas law school, in 1887, who was also one of the state’s first Black judges. In the 1930s, he owned and edited the Wyandotte Echo newspaper.

Knoell’s parents moved around a lot, so she grew up mostly in Iowa. Still, she graduated from Kansas City, Kansas’ vaunted Sumner Academy in 1990, before heading to school in Iowa and working in Missouri. She moved back to the Kansas City metro in 2002, working as an American Sign Language interpreter at Blue Springs South High School, and teaching math at Wyandotte County’s Central Middle School and the Fairfax Alternative High School. After having children, she stayed home with her two daughters instead of paying for childcare.

Like a lot of people, Knoell responded to the 2016 presidential election by becoming more politically active — though she’d always paid attention. Her mother likes to tell a story.

“When I was 2 years old, I called her a ‘government,’ ” Knoell recalls.

It was 1974 — the fallout from Watergate and Nixon’s resignation was all over TV. One day, the toddler was mad at her mom for some reason.

“I stormed into room, sat on the couch with my feet sticking straight out, crossed my arms and called her the worst word I could think of at the time: ‘government.’ ”

Still, it was a long journey from using “government” as a curse word and wanting to be part of one.

“I was born at a time when I didn’t need to be involved,” she says of her post-Civil Rights-era upbringing. “After the ‘60s, maybe God thought I was soft: ‘I’ll have her be born after all that.’ No, no, no. I was just born at this time because the struggle is still going. I’ll tell my mom, she’s in her 70s now: You don’t have to march anymore, I’ll march now.”

For the foreseeable future, that march will be a drive, out to the parts of Kansas where she’s never been. To listen, and to let others know there are people like her.

“You can’t be what you don’t see,” Knoell says, recalling how her first hint that there was Kansas African American Affairs Commission came during a call last summer with its former executive director and other leaders encouraging Black women to get engaged in civic life.

People have asked whether she’ll run for office again. She says she has one more campaign in her. But she’s focused on this for now — and for good reason.

“In this job, I think I might potentially have a quicker impact on a greater number of people,” she notes. “If I was senator for District 9 it would have been just Olathe, Gardner and De Soto.”

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.