South by East Podcast "Generations" Q&A
This spring, the Center for Public Partnerships and Research supported Fellowship Hi-Crest’s South by East podcast and its season 2 production. Created and co-hosted by Johnathan Sublet and Brail Watson, South by East discusses “culture, the scriptures, and everything in between and how they impact southeast Topeka.” In contrast to the first season’s commitment to a wide array of topics, the second season of South by East will focus on the state of education in Kansas—the challenges, solutions, and hopes—and its impact on communities across the state.
Speaking with current stakeholders working with and in Kansas education systems, including CPPR’s Executive Director Jackie Counts, Sublet and Watson meet their guests’ perspectives and professional expertise with the lived experiences of communities as well as their own. To encourage community dialogue and action, Sublet and Watson commit themselves to an engagement and exploration of the multiple perspectives on education and provide each guest the space to address the political, the philosophical, and the personal.
CPPR has been excited and inspired to see the community work led by Sublet, a member of the inaugural cohort of Kansas Future Fellows, and Brail, a pastor at Fellowship Hi-Crest. The opportunity to support South by East and the southeast Topeka community directly connects to CPPR’s belief that communities have voices that should be in the policies that shape their current realities and potential futures. CPPR is a proud partner in South by East’s aim to put communities in conversations with the policy makers and innovators tackling the challenges of education.
To share more on the process of making season 2, Sublet and Watson met with CPPR to discuss their experiences as hosts.
Let's talk about the inspiration and process that led to South by East's season 2. Your first season covered many topics, and season 2 is focused on the education system.
What inspired you to pick education as your primary topic and why did you want to dedicate an entire season to it?
Education is a critical topic that affects everyone in our society. Our aim was to delve deeper into one topic and offer multiple enlightening perspectives on it rather than cover multiple topics through our own limited, personal perspectives. It was essential to acknowledge there was more to the topic than we initially thought, especially on issues faced by schools, teachers, administrators, and students in under-resourced communities. For example, in our first episode with Melissa Rooker, the executive director of the Kansas Children's Cabinet and Trust Fund, she explained the tie between the tobacco industry and early childhood education funding. It could be a really big hurdle for some people to get past the conflicts they have with the industry to see how those funds are being used for good. To truly understand and improve our education system, we need to listen more and be open to perspectives that challenge our own.
We have spent a lot of time with the public school system in Topeka. Johnathan has three school-aged kids and I have four children. And personally, the education system helped shape my life. Teachers, social workers, counselors, and custodians all played a deep role in my development as a person. It's wonderful to tell the story of these unsung heroes in our society.
How would you describe your views on the education system before you started production of season 2? What have your personal experiences with education been like?
Education and my faith are two things that have been instrumental in shaping my life, but my experience with public education hasn't always been positive. It was where I first encountered the reality of racism and discrimination even as I excelled as a student. As a parent, I have a deep appreciation for the public education system, but it was unable to meet the needs of my special needs children. The lack of teachers and growing class sizes meant my wife and I were making almost daily trips to school, receiving nightly emails, and taking many walks of shame to aid the public school staff in caring for my kids’ social and emotional needs. It was a challenging decision to pull them out of the system. As a public figure in the community development world, pulling my kids from the local school system could be seen as a hypocritical move, but ultimately, I had to do what was best for my kids. My experiences have taught me the importance of advocating for all students and ensuring they have the resources and support they need to succeed.
After a year of helping my kids with school while we were on lockdown during the pandemic, I found it very rewarding to be more of an active part in my kid's education. I learned more about how my kids process information. My girls deal with trauma from past experiences, so they have difficulty regulating their emotions and dealing with disappointment. One of my daughters has always struggled with mathematics, and I learned that if we took a walk and I could keep her in a good mood, she did significantly better in her studies. The best part for me was seeing her beginning to understand she had some control over her mood. She started to see that she had triggers, but even more importantly, she could manage those triggers if she chose to do so. She started to gain agency. With that experience, I've started to question the efficacy of a system that keeps people from their children for 8 hours a day.
Also, visiting other countries like Spain, where schooling and parents’ work life seemed to be more integrated, prompted me to think that there are different ways to do public education. In Valencia, there is a certain time of day when most businesses shut down so families can spend time together. During the latter part of the pandemic, I was able to have a similar rhythm. I would work in the office and do what I had to, but I would leave for a few hours to go home and walk with my wife and children and spend time with them. I could check on their physical and emotional welfare. That meant a lot to me. Since then, I’ve done as much as possible to live a more balanced life and manage my time spent away from home, but I’m still thinking how school structures encourage and discourage this type of balance. I hate bringing up problems without solutions, and I understand that this is complex. I think a lot of the questions Jake Dunagan asked in our second episode: “What is the school system actually for? Who is it that we want to be, and is the system that we’ve created working for, or against our actual goals?”
As people invested in creating and supporting community resources, how have you seen people approach the issues of education in Topeka and Kansas previously and/or currently? What are the challenges? Has season 2 provided insight in how to help the community engage and address their concerns with the education system?
Often, I have seen our educational system look a lot like the evangelical industrial complex; a lot of fundraisers, speeches, turf wars, and people fighting over who has a right to care for vulnerable people. We are measuring things that don't really matter like test scores. In our fourth episode, we spoke with Dr. Craig Correll, superintendent of Coffeyville public schools and a member in my Kansas Future Fellows cohort, and he discussed his approach to community engagement. It sparked my heart. I think people need to visit Dr. Craig Correll and spend a week with him. Where the district started when he arrived and his approach to engaging the community are so crucial: Be present—open doors. Do more inviting than asking. Have more conversations than fundraisers.
I've seen a lot of yelling. I have seen many disgruntled parents and people fight against the education system. I've seen teachers complain about the education system. I've also seen people work from inside the system to make education what they think it should be. Teachers who try to be more loving or who write their own curriculum. In our second episode with Dunagan, we discussed why these approaches don’t succeed on their own and the need for a collective vision and action. I believe, or at least I hope, as people listen or watch this season, they will start to see the importance of listening and dreaming together. I hope that people see that to create something that helps all of us, it takes the perspective and buy-in from all of us.
What are your plans and goals for season 3?
We are currently researching two topics for upcoming seasons of our show. One of them is the story of how different ethnic groups came to Topeka, and we are working with a historian to help us with this project. We believe everyone's story is valuable and sacred, and by sharing our stories, we can find commonalities and understand each other better.
The second topic we are exploring is aging in place. Kansas is losing its retirees, and our world is often not accommodating to our aging friends and neighbors. It's ironic because we will all eventually find ourselves in that position. We want to look at the challenges of aging in Kansas and start creating a more welcoming and accommodating world for our more tenured community members.
We can't say for sure at this point. It will be hard to top what we have been able to do this season with CPPR as our partner, but we want to honor this partnership by continuing to grow and push toward positive outcomes for our community. We are still in the idea phase, but I believe we will come up with something interesting, impactful, and full of surprises for our listeners!
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views and opinions expressed in this interview and in South by East are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of CPPR, their respective partners, or community affiliates.