Justice Together: Pushing for Justice one City and one Step at a Time

By Russell Arben Fox

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and coincidentally—though considering the providential perspective of many involved in this story, perhaps not so coincidentally—on the 9th of May, something potentially quite remarkable happened in Wichita, Kansas, to improve the ability of those of us who live here to serve the needs of those around us who struggle with mental illness. At the Century II building in downtown Wichita, elected and agency leaders—specifically Wichita Mayor Lily Wu; Sedgwick County Commission Chairperson Ryan Baty; the managers of both Wichita and Sedgwick County; and leading representatives from both COMCARE, a state-wide mental health provider, and the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services—stood in front of over 1300 people and committed to take certain specific local policy actions to address mental health crises and homelessness. At least one of the commitments they made—supporting the creation of a municipal ID card--will be controversial, and may already be in the process of being walked back slightly by Mayor Wu. Still, you don’t often see such public support for social justice actions coming from city and county leaders in Kansas, so applause—and encouragement!--for those who brought them to the stage is much deserved.

The people who these leaders together and laid out the commitments which they gave their commitments to is called Justice Together, a group I’m proud to have participated in from its beginning (though I played no formal organizational role). In early 2023, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, a friend and occasional interlocutor from the Ahavath Achim Congregation here in Wichita, told me about an interfaith group that was coming together to try to move social justice issues forward. I’m not a leader in my faith congregation but I was happy to attend nonetheless, mostly out of curiosity. There I was happy to find Louis Goseland, a Wichita-born community organizer that I’d known as a DSA member from various civil actions more than a decade before, taking the lead. He was there as a regional coordinator from the Direct Action and Research Training Center or DART, an umbrella organization that has been working with church congregations and other community groups to help them apply the best lessons of religious activism to motivate their members towards specific social justice goals.

DART started in Florida in 1982, working primarily with various ministries that served the interests of senior citizens; since that time, it has helped build more than 30 additional interfaith movements across the country, including several in Kansas. DART was instrumental in the formation of Justice Matters in Lawrence, KS, which has raised millions of dollars for a locally managed Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and JUMP (Justice, Unity, and Ministry Project) in Topeka, KS, which is working to bring a mental health crisis intervention program to Shawnee County. Similar interfaith organizations, representing dozens of different faith-related groups, have been formed with the assistance of DART in 10 different states so far; Wichita’s Justice Together is just the latest example.

Justice Together includes nearly 40 Wichita-area religious groups—mostly mainline Protestant churches, but Catholic, Mennonite, Unitarian, Baha’i, and Jewish congregations are present as well. Over the past 14 months they’ve worked through their own communities and researched issues in order to develop specific, practical plans to assist those struggling with mental health (funding to provide free bus passes to those in crisis and to pay for staffing for 24/7 on-call psychiatric help) and homelessness (sustainable funding plans for an integrated agency center, and the aforementioned municipal IDs) in our part of Kansas. These were the plans that Justice Together asked local leaders to support and to which the local leaders committed support. 

This is DART’s method, one that they’ve adapted from the history of activism in so many of the faith communities that they work through, as well as directly from the history of civil protest. Months of research, parishioner outreach, and consensus-building culminates in what they call a “Nehemiah assembly,” an idea taken directly from chapter 5 of the book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible—specifically Nehemiah 5:12, where the prophet Nehemiah, having heard the cries of the people of justice, presents their pleas to the nobles, rulers, and priests, and “took an oath of them to do as they had promised.” Justice Together’s strategy, following the same approach taken by dozens of other DART-inspired interfaith justice organizations across the country, is not a confrontational one; their goal is not to generate walks-outs and protests. But their strategy does aim to generate tension: to developed a well-researched case in support of needed and achievable social justice concerns, and then publicly, in front of hundreds of newly activated religious citizens (the great majority of whom are, crucially, registered and informed voters!), demand action. This is the kind of tension central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s position, which Justice Together explicitly cites: to raise just enough heat that “a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” 

As socialists, it’s certainly possible to critique the plans which Justice Together developed as lacking any kind of demand for structural change. Calls for more free bus passes for those with mental health needs, more staffing for on-call psychiatric assistance, and a sustainable budget plan for a Multi-Agency Center to bring together resources for homeless individuals, are all needed and important goals, but they’re definitely not radical. Nearly all of these proposals involve projects that the city of Wichita, or Sedgwick County, or COMCARE already have in front of them. But the fact that Justice Together managed to elicit public support for a free municipal ID program? That is a genuinely transformative step. And, not surprisingly, it is the one receiving the most pushback.

Having a reliable form of ID is desperately needed by many in recovery or on the streets when it comes to accessing welfare, getting housing, applying for jobs or insurance, and so much more. And it is also something that Republican leaders in the state capital of Topeka have repeatedly attacked as a backdoor to legalization for undocumented immigrants, leaving aside those whose access to state services often depends on a simple form of reliable identification. Wyandotte County in Kansas introduced municipal IDs in 2022, and former Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple had pushed—against resistance on the city council—for our city to do the same. Both of those efforts, as well as some that were being contemplated by other Kansas cities seeking to address this genuine need on behalf of their poorer and unhoused residents, were knee-capped by the Republican majority in the legislature, leaving this small, crucial reform very much in limbo.

Thus, a real test confronts the Justice Together coalition: will it find a way to publicly hold city and county leaders accountable to their promises? Will it be able to push the negotiations that will have to take place in such a way that the municipal ID doesn’t get killed by elected and appointed leaders fearful of blowback from ideologues who share the manufactured paranoia about illegal immigrants that is unfortunately common in Kansas, and many other places besides?

Again, to those who see all the ways in which developing these programs arguably involves striking compromises with forces of capital and exclusion, obliging those suffering mental health crises to wait, Justice Together and other DART organizations might seem pathetically incremental. But I think socialists who take democracy seriously—and especially religious socialists who understand the importance of patiently working so as to bring the consciences of ordinary believers to bear directly upon the elected decision-makers—have to learn to see, as activists from Martin Luther King on down have insisted, the beautiful radicalism of believers coming to own their step-by-step approaches to justice and service as part of a larger historical arc. Whatever its ultimate success in Wichita—and I am hopeful for it—the fact of this group’s existence is itself a needed reminder of the long history in this country of people of faith organizing public support on behalf of specific social justice actions, in particular the poor whose mental health needs are too often ignored. To me, the presence of Justice Together here in Wichita is a blessing in itself.

P.S. For those interested: the newsletter of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the federal government offers educational resources for faith communities.


Russell Arben Fox, a long-time DSA supporter, teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita, KS.

Image Credit: Stefania Lugli/Kansas Leadership Council