Kenya Cox is retiring as head of the African American Affairs Commission

Kenya Cox, a Wichita activist and former employee of two Republican Congressmen, is stepping down from her position as executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, Governor Laura Kelly’s office said Tuesday.

Cox has served in this role since 2016 when she was appointed by the then government. Sam Brownback heads the commission, which focuses on public order and public relations work for the Kansas African American community.

Prior to joining the commission, Cox worked for US Representatives Mike Pompeo and Todd Tiahrt and served as Chair of the 4th District Republican Party and President of the NAACP State Chapter.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cox said her departure was not a sign of a “secret brouhaha” but “because it was time for new leadership after five years in office”.

In a statement, Kelly expressed “deep gratitude” for Cox’s work, particularly for addressing the effects of COVID-19 on African American kansans.

“Kenya has taken initiatives not only to reorganize the Commission and its work, but also between two different administrations and through a unique health crisis,” said Kelly.

There is no time frame for choosing a replacement for Cox. The Commission may elect an Executive Director “subject to the approval of the Governor”.

Cox said Stacey Knoell, an Olathe teacher and former Kansas Senate candidate, was being considered for the position. Knoell referred a request for comment to Kelly’s office.

Brown v. Board mural a highlight for Cox

Cox noted that the commission had a number of successes during its tenure, but said its proudest included the unveiling of a mural commemorating the judgment in Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the Colonel U.S. Court of Justice declared school segregation unconstitutional.

More:Brown v. Board mural unveiled at the Kansas Capitol on the anniversary of the historic decision

While the project was approved in 2009, artist Michael Young didn’t begin work on the mural until 2017, and the project was installed on the third floor of the Statehouse in 2018.

There was no government funding for the painting, which meant lawyers had to cobble together donations.

Former Governor Jeff Colyer (left) and artist Michael Young unveil a mural marking the anniversary of Brown's ruling against Board of Education in 2018. The project came to fruition after about a decade of work.

While Cox said she had successfully pushed Brownback to use his “political capital” to speed things up, she said it was a grassroots group of supporters – not a “few big corporations who could write a check” – who would have helped to get the support they needed.

“Which was really a nice thing,” said Cox. “Because then it really became a mural for people. It was something we did together.”

However, Cox also noted the work of the current public policy commission involving the Kansans of Color, referring to the national reckoning of the murder of George Floyd by the offices of the Minneapolis Police Department, an event held a year ago took place on Tuesday.

This includes ongoing efforts to form a coalition to improve literacy among African American students. She cited data showing reading performance gaps, with the Kansas Department of Education figures showing 54% of black fourth graders in 2019 were “below baseline” federal reading ratings.

Cox optimistic about the fight against policing and voting problems in the future

Cox also highlighted the commission’s work with fellow advocates to call for stricter guidelines for law enforcement agencies in the state, and praised a task force Kelly formed after Floyd’s death in 2020.

More:Will the legislature take action after a year of calls to change policing?

However, the legislature has not responded to a number of recommendations from the Racial Justice and Justice Commission. A number of bills to improve data collection when creating racial profiles, posting body camera footage, and other issues couldn’t even be heard in Topeka.

This also applies to laws to improve access to voting for Kansans of Color, another area the Commission has acted in and an area where lawmakers took no action in 2021.

Some have even argued Republican-sponsored laws to limit the number of pre-votes a person can return in an election cycle, making it more difficult for individuals, especially in color communities, to vote.

Cox said the uniqueness of the 2021 session was due to COVID-19’s limited capabilities on these issues – something she believed would change next year.

“Now all we have to do is do our due diligence and make sure we can find lawmakers who will introduce this type of legislation and then support it,” she said. “And I think that you will really see Kansans again and get actively involved and push the issues that matter most to you.”

More:While Kansas lawmakers argue over changes to the electoral law, some election officials are skeptical of the effort

Cox said she will continue to be one of those people as she continues to work with the NAACP and other groups. She hoped more funds would flow to the commission, which strengthened her successor’s ability to improve the life of the state’s African American community.

“Kansans were pretty progressive,” said Cox. “Sometimes kick and scream, but we get there.”

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