Garden City residents gathered on Thursday to celebrate the diversity of Finney County at the 2017 Diversity Breakfast and Multicultural Summit at the Clarion Inn, which included a bevy of speakers and panels geared toward the central topic of Garden City’s rich, multicultural history and the work still left to be done in a truly inclusive community.

Speakers included researchers, historians, first-generation Americans, immigrants, activists, Police Chief Michael Utz and Mayor Melvin Dale. The day started early with breakfast and a series of morning speakers, transitioned into a research panel, and was followed by a cultural comparison panel, testimonies from the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” project, and a call to action.

“Garden City is unique in the way that we intermix throughout the community — next door neighbors, across the block and across town — but we are one as a family in Garden City,” Dale said during an opening statement. “We all have the same goals, the same feelings, the same desires. We all want to work. We want to educate our kids. We want to raise our families, and we want to be part of the community. And you are part of the community here.”

Presentations by researchers over the course of the day demonstrated that Garden City is a unique focal point for anthropologists, historians and immigrants.

As of the 2010 census, there were 26,658 people residing in Garden City. Of that population, 48.6 percent were Latino, 4.4 percent were Asian, 2.8 percent were African American, .9 percent were American Indian, 14.2 percent were classified as “some other race,” and 2.9 percent were from “two or more races."

Those numbers were shared during Thursday’s presentation by Johnetta Holmes Hebrlee, education coordinator at the Finney County Historical Society. Another fact from the Census based on data collected from 2011 to 2015 shows that 23 percent of Garden City’s population was or is foreign-born.

With a robust population of Burmese, Vietnamese, Somali, Latino and German community members, not to mention so many others from countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Garden City is an exemplar among growing rural cities, as attested by Don Stull, a professor emeritus of anthropology who taught at the University of Kansas from 1975 to 2015.

From 1987 to 1990, Stull directed a team of six social scientists conducting a Ford Foundation study of changing ethnic relations in Garden City. The study yielded recommendations for the improved community reception of immigrants in education, housing, health care and social services.

Stull’s research was so resonant with Garden City residents that he was presented a key to the city in 2001 and named an honorary citizen in recognition of the progress his research and publications lent the community.

During his research panel presentation, Stull noted that his research was part of a larger national study by the Ford Foundation examining what has been termed “the new immigration.”

At the time of Stull’s initial research, there were two large meatpacking plants in Finney County. Stull said those plants boosted Garden City’s population by a third from 1980 to 1985, which made it the fastest-growing community in Kansas.

Stull noted that the demographic flocking into southwest Kansas for the jobs offered at the plants predominantly included refugees from Southeast Asia and immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

“Overwhelmingly Anglo and agrarian at the beginning of the 1980s, by the time we arrived, Garden City was in the midst of a dramatic social and cultural transformation that presaged the gathering tide of economic and demographic change that was to sweep across rural America in the years ahead,” Stull said.

Stull explained that the final report submitted to the Ford Foundation in February 1990 provided recommendations to Garden City residents concerning education on community issues such as housing, health care and social services.

Stull and his team collaborated with the local school district to create the Multicultural Action Committee, an advisory board representing public school teachers, city government, Garden City’s three main ethnic groups and service organizations.

The committee was intended to fine-tune the aforementioned recommendations, and the result was that social service agencies used findings to obtain funding, and the school district revised policies and procedures on curriculum, bilingual and ESL instruction, extracurricular activities, community outreach, personnel training, evaluation and retention. The city commission also established a cultural relations board, and local law enforcement began “aggressively” seeking minority personnel, according to Stull.

Stull said the five-state multicultural conference celebrated on Thursday was one of the legacies of his study’s findings and effects.

“This conference grew directly out of our recommendations and Garden Citians’ heightened awareness that theirs was a cosmopolitan community, one that had much to learn from its rich cultural and linguistic diversity and much to teach others. This diversity breakfast and the multicultural summit in turn grew out of that conference,” Stull said.

Stull said something about Garden City continued to draw him back, even after his research spread to other packinghouse towns.

His studies of Garden City have produced three reports for the community, a museum exhibit that traveled around the state, six special journal editions, and two-dozen journal articles and book chapters.

“The people of Garden City have always been gracious hosts, and many have become good friends,” Stull said. “I am deeply, deeply indebted to the people of Garden City, and I hope that my research and writings have in some small way paid the community back for all that it has given to me.”

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.