Joseph Shepard is not a Wichita native. But you’d surely never know it given his enthusiastic praise for his adopted city and his non-stop efforts to convince other young professionals to pursue their dreams right here.
“I think one of the reasons that I love Wichita so much is that I’ve been all over the country. My dad was in the military and then he was a pastor, so I’ve traveled a lot. It helped me see what an exceptional place Wichita really is,” he said.
Shepard was a high school senior living in California and planning to go to college there when he came to Wichita to spend the summer with his dad, who had been called to St. Paul AME Church as pastor.
“I fell in love with my church,” he said. “And my church helped me fall in love with this community. I decided to move here permanently. My mom had to go to the college where I had enrolled in California and get my tuition back. Then she shipped my clothes and other possessions to me. I enrolled at Wichita State that fall. That was 12 years ago and I haven’t looked back once.”
Making an Immediate Mark
As a college student, Shepard quickly demonstrated an outsized ability at leadership.
During his undergraduate career, he served as president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., president of the Multicultural Greek Council, and as a facilitator for Men of Excellence.
In 2015, he became the second African American in the history of WSU elected Student Body President and was elected again for a second term.
His college experience fueled his passion for public service and for helping young people, especially those challenged by poverty, mental health issues or a lack of role models. He wanted to help them believe in their dreams and pursue higher education and career success. During his tenure as student body president, in conjunction with USD 259, Shepard developed “Wichita State Inspire,” a program to encourage those kinds of students to attend college.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration and is currently working on a doctorate in educational leadership.
Active in Politics
Whether he was bitten by a political bug or it was just his desire to serve, or both, after he finished his master’s degree, Joseph became active in local politics. He ran for the at-large position on the Wichita School Board against a popular and long-serving board member. While he didn’t prevail, he was widely applauded for running an innovative and well-structured campaign.
Instead of giving up, Shepard entrenched himself in local politics, eventually rising up the ranks to chair of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party.
His vice-chair was Danielle Johnson, who was a mentor from his time at Wichita State.
“Together we called for a more open and honest party that responds to all members of the party before, during and after an election campaign,” he said.
He said they both remain strong advocates for working-class families and are devoted to pushing for health care to be treated as a human right.
While he says his work for the party was a full-time volunteer position, his talents helped him secure two progressively important positions after college. He worked for the Kansas Leadership Center as a program specialist and at Newman University as director of multicultural engagement and campus life.
Opportunity to Lead
His current position pulls on so many of his passions, leadership, helping young people and making a difference in communities.
Shepard’s civic engagement caught the eye of Joe Nail, who had recently co-founded a national service organization, Lead for America, that works to help communities across the country retain and develop their promising young residents.
The program gives college graduates a paid full-time fellowship to return to their hometown to be matched with a local nonprofit or local government that is addressing critical challenges affecting the community.
The two-year fellowships are in rural or economically depressed urban neighborhoods where, too often, students leave for college with no plans to return, draining these communities of their greatest resources.
Back in their hometown, the participants grow as leaders, make a positive impact and might possibly make a decision to stay on after their fellowship to continue their work.
Shepard helps match these young professionals with resources to help them succeed.
“It [my job] offers just the kind of help and mentorship that I can give. I’m really enjoying it,” he said.
He hopes his mentorship helps these first-generation college graduates avoid some of the pitfalls that come with success.
“I have personal experience with how easy it is to get into trouble with debt,” he said. “I got into a payday loan issue. Fortunately, I was able to resolve it, but I want to help other young people avoid that.”’
Kansas currently has eight fellows, all in the first year of their two-year fellowship, so whether or not those fellows choose to remain in their hometowns has yet to be seen.
Committed to Wichita
Shepard said he has not given up on public service and might look at seeking office again in the future.
But, for now, he’s happy with the connections he’s making and the knowledge and expertise he’s gaining through his work with young people.
He is still involved with St. Paul AME Church even though his dad is back in California with a new assignment. He’s involved with working with youth and is supportive of pastoral changes including welcoming women into the pulpit.
As a member of the LBGTQ community, he’s not married or currently in a relationship, but he would like to be someday.
Even though all of his family, except for one of his five siblings, live on the west coast, Shepard said his calling remains in Wichita.
“I can’t predict the eventual future, but I can say that, for now, my work with finding local talent and convincing local young people to develop their leadership skills to serve their communities in Kansas is my focus,” he said.
“I love my community. I admire the grit, hard work and talent that I’ve found here. I want to see Wichita grow. I want to see Kansas retain the talented young people who can transform communities across the state.”