This article is the first of three looking at diversity in Lee’s Summit in anticipation of the commissions report.
Lee’s Summit’s fast-paced growth during the past decade has done more than add to the business culture and school district numbers. That growth increased the diversity of races and nationalities in town. And in turn, the percentage of white residents has followed a national falling trend.
Such a shift has prompted the Lee’s Summit Human Relations Commission to undertake finding the pulse of the community, which it will deliver in a diversity report to be released this fall.
The commission has interviewed each City Council member, is surveying residents online and is talking with members of other major city organizations to gather information.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, chairman of the Lee’s Summit Human Relations Commission, said the information it is gathering is necessary to carry out its task of promoting harmony, inclusion and understanding between residents.
“We are here to educate,” Ngomsi said. “To educate them about anything, we have to tell them where we are.”
Between 2000 and 2010 Lee’s Summit total population grew by slightly more than 29 percent, reaching 91,364.
The white population fell from 93.17 percent to 86.07 percent during the same period, although the total number of white residents also increased, according to CensusViewer.com, which aggregates census data.
The percentage of minority residents is climbing. Black residents were 3.74 percent of the population in 2000 and by the last census that doubled to 8.35 percent. Hispanic or Latino residents (any race) went from 1.97 percent to 3.86 percent. Growth in other minority groups shows similar trends.
The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District had 17,558 students enrolled for the 2012-13 school year, (78 percent white, 13.6 percent black; 5.1 percent Hispanic). The district covers an area larger than the city and includes more cities.
The population changes are in line with national trends and expected to continue, Ngomsi said.
Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that as of July 2012 for the first time America’s racial and ethnic minorities make up about half of the under-age 5 group, according to a recent Associated Press report
For the first time in more than a century, the number of deaths is exceeding births among white Americans.
Due to high birth rates and immigration, racial and ethnic minorities are growing faster in numbers than whites.
In five years, minorities will make up more than half the children under age 18.
Because the American market place is more and more woven into the global market, Ngomsi said, for Lee’s Summit and its children to be competitive in the modern world, understanding other cultures and inclusion will be an advantage.
Mayor Randy Rhoads said when he was first elected mayor he was noticing the shift in population groups.
When the census confirmed his observations, one of his actions as mayor was to create a task force to revitalize the Human Relations Commission.
“Basically what we’re trying to do is get ahead, so we don’t just react if problems occur,” Rhoads said. “They’re asking some tough questions and I’m fully supportive. I’m pleased with what they’re trying to do.”
The commission is seeking a panoramic view regarding relationships and community discourse. While appearance is the superficial and obvious change, the commission is delving deeper.
The confidential survey asks residents about their experiences and asks whether the city is “progressing towards greater diversity and inclusion.”
It asks residents if they’ve experienced discrimination, exclusion or bias due to gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, religious affiliation or belief, social or political beliefs, or age.
The commission also is asking residents what are the most important issues facing the city, from a broad list including the economy, jobs and taxes, housing, poverty, education, domestic violence, health care, drugs, adoption rights and childcare. The survey asks for levels for income, education, race, religious affiliation, and how long they’ve lived in Lee’s Summit.
Lia McIntosh, a commission member, said there probably are longtime residents concerned that the many new faces will end the small-town Lee’s Summit they love.
People often fear change, Ngomsi and McIntosh said, and the city historically has suffered from a reputation for exclusion. She said that as residents of different backgrounds interact and build relationships that fear can fade away.
They said newer residents choose Lee’s Summit for the same reasons as earlier arrivals: they want good schools and quality of life.
“We find we have common values, and that’s what builds community,” McIntosh said. “We ask everyone to reach out and build relationships beyond their comfort zone.”
Next Wednesday the Journal will report on where the city and Lee’s Summit R-7 School District stands in hiring a workforce that matches the population and the following Wednesday there will be a snapshot of other changes such as income and age.