Learning politics from the Kansas Oral History Project

Waving Kansas State Flag

The Kansas Oral History Project is a non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving and providing access to the voices of Kansans in all walks of life including those in public policymaking. I sat down (on Zoom) with Ramon Powers, former director of the Kansas Historical Society and current president of the Kansas Oral History Project, Inc., and Mary Galligan, the Project’s board secretary. Their excitement about this project inspired me. I especially wanted to find out what people can learn from listening to the interviews or reading the transcripts.

Kansas Oral History Project’s interviews represent a wealth of information for understanding leadership, public policy and the process of law-making. You’ll find interviews organized in five collections:

  • Statehouse Conversation,
  • Kansas Governors,
  • Reflections on Water,
  • Notable Kansans, and
  • Women, Then and Now.

Understanding the Political Past

“As a historian, you are also a believer that it is history we study and evaluate to make decisions for the future. It is by understanding that past that we make better decisions for the future. What we see is the value of all of these interviews in educating people about what state government and public policy is all about” Powers said.

Interesting interviews are inspiring

“These interviews reveal the actual way the system works, the system of democratic government, versus the technical way you learn about in a textbook on Kansas state government. Beyond that there are interesting human stories that come out in these interviews.” Powers shared some examples:

  • In one interview, a Democrat legislator describes a situation in which the action of a Republican Minority Leader who acted “As a real statesman” avoided a problem.
  • Former Governor John Carlin describes how his participation in 4-H was very important to him. He learned to manage meetings and essentially developed his leadership skills. This reinforces the notion that those things you do in early life can prepare you for later on.
  • Former Governor Mike Hayden, a passionate conservationist from far western Kansas, tells of a situation where he supported conservation legislation. He ultimately voted against it as he represented the views of his constituents.

The interviews bring out how the legislative process works. It’s complex. The current interviews cover the public careers of people active from 1970 to the first decades of the 2000s. There is more focus on the 1980s and 1990s. This includes a period when there was a significant increase of numbers of women in the legislature. There are several interviews of former women legislators. Some of those former legislators describe their challenges as “firsts” in leadership positions.

Familiar names from Topeka and Shawnee County

While this project is statewide, local people interviewed in the Topeka Interviews or the Shawnee County Interviews include Jack Alexander, Bill Bunten, Ron Hein, Doug Mays, Nancy Parrish, Marge Petty, Alicia Salisbury, Ralph Skoog, Jim Slattery, Bob Storey and Joan Wagnon.

Ordinary people, leadership and the common good

In these interviews, you can see they dynamics of public policy making. The official record and news reporting do not generally capture these details.

“The issue of leadership is particularly striking because we went into this process with the notion that we were interviewing leaders,” Powers said. “We explored former legislators’ views of leadership by having them talk about it. I was struck by the number of times they talked about seeking to achieve the common good, for everybody. We heard an expression of a conscious awareness that they were there serving all the people of the state.”

Regular people step up

Galligan spoke enthusiastically about the value of these interviews. “One of the things I walk away from when I read the transcripts or listen to the recordings is most of the people who have been elected to office are really ordinary people who felt a need to serve their communities,” Galligan said.

We know it’s our responsibility to register to vote, be an educated voter and to vote in elections. But beyond those duties, we don’t often talk about the other opportunities.

“I think this part of civic engagement isn’t said often enough: that most of the good things that happen for communities happen because regular people step up and do the right thing,” said Galligan. “And that is one of the things that comes through loud and clear in these interviews. In one interview, a Senator from Topeka describes raising kids and going to law school while serving in the legislature. Many stories are like that. Someone saw something going on in the community, talked to a few neighbors and then walked down and filed for office. The rest is history. That’s a story that needs to be told and retold.”

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Lissa Staley helps people use the library. She is a Book Evangelist, Trivia Emcee, Classics Made Modern book discussion leader, NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison, and frequent library customer. She loves her kids, being a librarian, living in Topeka, and helping people form connections and community. (She's the Community Connections Librarian!) She reads a new book every few days, but is enjoying the audiobook of "Empress of Forever" by Max Gladstone, the ebook "When We Were Magic" by Sarah Gailey and is eagerly awaiting John Scalzi's "The Last Emperox" in April!