As America Becomes More Diverse, Topeka Rides the Wave of Change
Shifting demographics and changing migration patterns have impacted the city, moving it toward the future with programs that reflect the country’s history of blending cultures.
America is approaching a demographic turning point. By 2030, the Census Bureau says, immigration will become the main driver of future population growth. This won’t be because international immigration increases dramatically, but because older adults will begin to outnumber children and the birth rate will decrease.
The dimensions of this shift will vary greatly among demographic groups. According to Census projections, the non-Hispanic white population will decrease by almost 10 percent by 2060. (It’s the only group that will see a decrease.) By comparison, the Hispanic population will increase by almost 94 percent, its size approaching a third of the entire population.
Three-fourths of these new Americans will be native-born. The rest will migrate to the country. Rather than resisting this inexorable trend or giving space to divisive rhetoric, Topeka, Kan., is making a determined effort to welcome them.
By 2066, the Kansas Health Institute says, the Hispanic population in Kansas will increase nearly 300 percent and account for 36 percent of its population. Topeka saw an increase of 24 percent over the past 10 years; today, 34 percent of its public school students are Hispanic.
Last month, GO Topeka, an economic development agency, announced that it would expand a relocation incentive program that provides up to $15,000 toward home purchases or child care for persons who move to the city and work for a local company. City leaders hope that migrants from Mexico, Central America and South America who enter the country legally will take advantage of the incentive.
The relocation program has been in place since 2019. Its aim was to reintroduce Topeka to the country (and the world) as the state’s cultural capital and a community that welcomes people from diverse backgrounds, says Bob Ross, senior vice president for marketing and communications and events for the Greater Topeka Partnership.
This is just one of the ways that the partnership — the members of which include the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Topeka and Visit Topeka as well GO Topeka — is working with local government to foster a diverse and bilingual community.
Jobs and Culture
“Year after year, our community continues to come together to support its growing immigrant and refugee populations,” said Ernestor De La Rosa. The city’s first chief DEI officer and a former DACA recipient, he is implementing language access services across city communication channels and departments. The city’s mayor, Michael Padilla, is a second-generation Mexican American who served in the Topeka Police Department for more than three decades.
The Spanish-language version of the city’s visitor guide features a discussion of job opportunities up front, and the partnership works to identify employers who are actively seeking migrant workers, says Ross. (The incentive program is funded in part by employer donations.) In June, the partnership became a member of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to add strength to its efforts to support Hispanic-owned businesses in the region.
July marked the 90th anniversary of Fiesta Topeka, a cultural festival that originated as a gathering on the grounds of a church serving the Mexican American community in Topeka’s Oakland neighborhood. Today, it is a five-day event that includes food, entertainment, booths hosted by local businesses, a parade, a golf tournament and a 5K race.
The enduring success of the festival has prompted the creation of new events, says Ross, including For the Culture, a celebration of the city’s Black community, and Indian Mela, focused on Indian cuisine, art and heritage. Both will take place for the first time this summer.
Cities in the Midwest have been growing at a slower rate than those in other parts of the country, says Ross. This reality, combined with the Midwestern habit of hospitality, has pushed Topeka and other cities in the region to develop programs to integrate migrant and refugee populations in ways that can benefit all. “We are probably ahead of the curve on these conversations,” says Ross.
Regional growth patterns aside, the Department of Labor estimates that 78 percent of the people newly entering the workforce between 2020 and 2030 will be Hispanic — of which Topeka’s business and government leaders are well aware.
“We're being intentional in talking to Hispanic stakeholders about how we can market more authentically to that demographic,” says Ross. “We see the growing Hispanic population as a very powerful talent pool that we can draw on over the next 10 to 20 years.”
Helping War Refugees
Yana Ross, originally from Ukraine, has lived in Topeka for 17 years. When Ukrainians began to flee their country following the Russian invasion in February 2022, the Greater Topeka Partnership asked her to lead a task force to develop a program for refugees.
It wasn’t hard for Ross to get her bearings. She heard from a friend who had moved to Poland with her children and learned about missing elements in the support systems for refugees, including medical services for children. A friend told her that her sister and three daughters were stranded at the Mexican border, struggling to find housing. She drove there to help them cross into the U.S., to Topeka.
Through Facebook, Ross found sponsors for three more families — three adults and eight children. She began to find grants, enabling the task force to develop a plan to transition refugees from living with a host to housing of their own.
A nonprofit, Top City Promise, was created to administer this work. Its network of volunteers has grown to 700. The nonprofit rents apartments for refugee families and furnishes them, down to such necessities as toilet paper, toothpaste and hygiene products. A church delivers food until the families have obtained food assistance or found jobs.
To date, Ross and her team have placed 130 refugees (half of whom are children), found and furnished 30 apartments for families, and raised over half a million dollars in cash and in-kind services.
As the work has progressed, it’s become clear that these services don’t fill every need. The most recent evolution is what Ross calls “Welcome Team,” volunteers who help families connect with government service departments, help them fill out forms, take them to appointments or assist them in enrolling their children in school. They collaborate with work centers and help adults put résumés together.
“We’re trying to use our experiences to streamline things and have a map of how to integrate these families into the Topeka community and make them independent,” says Ross. She’s working toward this goal with De La Rosa, the city’s chief DEI officer. A “newcomer’s academy” is in the works that will help refugees learn about city government, a several-week training that will include visits to locations such as the police department.
It's not clear how many of the refugee families might return to Ukraine. Ross thinks those who are allowed to stay in the U.S. will do so. “Some of them don’t have anything to go back to because their homes or apartments have been destroyed,” she says. “If they have to start from ground zero here, build up and then give everything up again, that might cause additional loss on top of so many losses they’ve already experienced.”
Blending Language and Culture
Topeka Public Schools plays a significant role in helping the children of migrants find a place in their new home. The district hosts a welcome center, home to the offices of its director of EL (English learner) and migrant services.
In addition to language assessments, the center provides clothing and school supplies for students who need them, funded by donations and the district. Families with language or technology barriers can come to the center to enroll their children. Spanish/English translators are always onsite, and the district has an outside provider for Ukrainian or any other language, says Pilar Mejia, the director of cultural innovation for the district.
A middle school in the district has a “newcomer program” for students who are new to the U.S. and don’t speak English, and EL services are available at all grade levels. There’s a dual language elementary school, where students continue to learn their native language while gaining English language skills, the only such school in the state.
“Research shows that the stronger your native language, the stronger your target language,” says Mejia, a trilingual native of Colombia. “It’s a beautiful model.”
The district asks all of its administrators to learn Spanish, says Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, and provides resources for this. “We are becoming a bilingual school system.”
While only 10 percent of the district’s students are English learners at present, 30 percent are Hispanic. Spanish language acquisition opens the door to better communication with parents and the community at large.
The emphasis on bilingual education has helped Topeka schools broaden their teacher recruitment efforts during a time of troubling shortages. The district has interviewed candidates from Puerto Rico and Spain; new teachers recently arrived from the Philippines.
Topeka’s embrace of diversity reflects the blending of cultures that formed the country, Anderson says, and she sees much to gain from it.
“We gain the opportunity to teach young people how to be global leaders and collaborators, how to be inclusive and be better individuals,” she says. “We gain the opportunity to be empowered with economic prosperity, ensuring we have ways to uplift individuals and allow cultures to come together and strengthen the fabric of our community.”
“I believe we are compelled to change, because who we are serving is changing.”