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Thursday, December 30, 2010

End of the Camden Library...just shut down the city

The City of Camden, NJ has had a public library system for 105 years. Pink slips were given out to all library staff today, effective Feb. 11, 2011. Three branches of the library will close. One will reopen in mid-February as a branch of the county system. The main branch downtown will not reopen. Instead the building built by the county fairly recently will be the only open library. Unfortunately it is not easily accessible by public transit. Apparently, talks are underway to put a county branch inside the Rutgers-Camden library. Why that would be better than keeping the downtown branch (6 blocks away) open, I don't know. County staff would run the RU branch and the county would have to pay for the space. How is this better? It's not.

The library is used by job seekers, kids, and homeless people as well as library patrons. Urban libraries are multi-purpose facilities and important havens in the chaotic urban world. Does the county library system expect to fulfill that need? Will the one remaining branch be able to hold all the users? Will the normal load of users be able to get to the remaining branch? The downtown library is within walking distance of the city's main transportation center. The remaining branch is not. There isn't much of a rationale here for the actions taken, except that the city has a $29million budget shortfall. But that said, why close the convenient downtown branch and leave open the less accessible one? Why would the county want to open a branch at RU? RU already allows anyone to use the library and has a section of computers dedicated to the public.

The kids of Camden are the most vulnerable consumer in this debacle. They play chess, do homework, use computers, and just hang out in a safe place when they are at the downtown library (and probably at the other 2 branches as well). The city and county have given zero indication on how the library patrons will be commensurately served under the county plan. The public deserves to know.

Finally, the library is an important economic development resource. Instead of shrinking it, the city should be partnering with every eco-devo outfit in the tri-county area to expand the library as a part of the economic pipeline. Instead, one of the poorest cities in the country shrinks its library at a time of profound economic vulnerability. Does this make sense?

If this decision calculus is evidence of the acumen for regenerating this city, we might just as well shut it down now and save the pain.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Political Endorsements - Worth the Price of Admission?

In Kansas City it is political endorsement season. The 3rd district is highly contentious, even for endorsement groups in the district.

Endorsements often go to incumbents - a safe move by the endorsing group. The unpopular incumbent Mayor Funkhouser in KC is the #1 exception, not getting any endorsements so far.

The diversity of candidates in this election season is impressive - both in the Mayor's race and in the council races. There are black candidates in many districts, women in every race, and a white candidate in the predominantly minority district.

The Northland has spoken with Forward KC endorsements:
3rd district (no in-district endorsements outside of the Northland)
3rd district at-large - Durwin Rice
Mayor - Deb Herman

The Civic Association (primarily reflecting the 4th district) endorsed:
3rd district - no endorsement
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Mike Burke

Combined Union Endorsement (Firefighters, AFL-CIO, building trades)
3rd district - Sharon Saunders Brooks (incumbent)
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Mark Funkhouser (incumbent) <--update

Last night Freedom, Inc. endorsed and it was a shocker:
3rd district - no endorsement
3rd district at-large - Melba Curls (incumbent)
Mayor - Jim Rowland

The Chamber of Commerce and The Heavies (cap infrastructure industry) and Hispanic group endorsements are yet to come.

Chamber of Commerce
Mayor - Deb Herman <--update

There is a great deal of speculation, innuendo, and assumptions about whether endorsements reflect pay-to-play or are in fact honest endorsements of candidate quality. But as political clubs or political action committees, these groups have an agenda, have interests to be satisfied, and have political alliances with a lot of insiders that affect their selections - everything from political consultants, contractors, leaders from other organizations, and so on. Politics is about as inside a sport as you can get, even though it has a very public face.

Given the fractured nature of KC politics in this election, endorsements may not mean much because they don't mobilize a lot of votes. But in a crowded field with a ridiculous primary system that yields only the top 2 vote getters to the finals, just a few votes may have disproportionate influence.

The lack of endorsement by Freedom for 3rd district (in-district) is baffling. I'm sure there is an explanation that is fueled by political alliances (BUF for Brooks and the negative response to that and concern by some for Fletcher). But if Freedom, Inc. won't endorse in the 3rd, then what's the point of making endorsements? And why would Freedom endorse a non-candidate (not yet filed) Rowland who hasn't stepped foot in the 3rd yet? Speculation abounds, but the legitimacy of this organization is once again called into question by those who live outside the 3rd, further hampering the group's effectiveness. Whatever Eric Wesson writes in The Call this week should be a very interesting read. There are contrary reports on whether Durwin Rice sought endorsement from Freedom and if he appeared or not before the board to make a pitch.

Kudos to TKC who's timely info posts and lively political debate keeps everyone informed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Racism, Social Justice and Fear

The holidays seem to bring out the worst in a lot of people. As we enter another year of economic recession/depression, we are going to see a lot more panic, fear, racism, and mean behavior by the haves as well as the have-nots. In other words, forecast is continued ugly.

A white guy angrily confronted an all white/male school board in Panama City, FL over his wife's firing by the district. Or maybe she was laid off - it was unclear. But the husband was upset enough to die for the incident having proclaimed that he would die that day (he did). The school board president was confrontational - claiming not to know anything about why he signed the order to dismiss - sounds like robo-layoffs to me - and then the gunman started shooting at close range and missed everyone. I suspect he may have been shooting while under the influence. Paddy Chayefsky's words ring in my ear - I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

In the UK, a white robber wore an elaborate latex mask (a movie mask) to make himself look black. The subtlety is like a brick. In Kansas City, gunfire erupted outside a church as a funeral service for a shooting victim was going on, no doubt sending a warning to someone about some gang conflict. A news story commenter quipped, "it's not even safe to be dead in the 'hood." In Camden, NJ people are starting to get worried in the face of looming police and fire layoffs that will leave this poor city even more vulnerable than it already is. Local stores are selling T-shirts with the date of the layoffs on it saying, "this is the day we take our corners back." Apparently drug dealers are buying them up...and are ready to feast on Camden. Kansas City has had 99 homicides in 2010 - mostly on the eastside. There is an election for mayor and council coming up and not much is being said about it, except a lot of platitudes.

People are angry and desperate as layoffs and a jobless non-recovery continue. People look for scapegoats in time of financial crisis. People who are are the cause are not taking responsibility and instead are deflecting. Finger pointing is all the rage these days. Rage is all the rage too - from students protesting violently in Europe, to Wikileaks drama, to China dissident drama, to our own Congress and President filibustering on both sides of the tax issues and using us as pawns in their political games. It's ugly out there folks. Keep your head down.

But I would like to suggest that social justice be given a spotlight as a consideration for moving forward. TKC has a very nice post about this today - Secret Santa Charity v. Social Justice. Comments are coming in and typical of his readership, there are lots of very animated opinions on this. Social Justice is about taking responsibility for complicit and explicit contributions to injustices. In Kansas City as in most other places including Panama City, Camden, etc., there are injustices. If the school district lays off people - do they not have a responsibility to provide some job assistance to those thrown into the job pool? Corporations do this all the time. If there are 99 murders in KC, doesn't the entire city need to work together to support the families of their fellow citizens who have died violently? If Camden is going to lay off police and fire as well as other city workers, doesn't the city need to ensure protection for its citizens and support those laid off who live in the city (police and fire are exempt from residency requirements after a couple of years of service)?

When you cast people adrift due to budget shortfalls, bad economy, or whatever - you don't end your responsibility. In the public sector - they are still your residents, still your citizens, and now they are in a precarious position. When you let your city languish with crime - you cast your citizens adrift to fend for themselves - yet they are still your residents, your citizens, and they are in a precarious position.

I often point fingers on this blog - but let me be clear - it is not out of blame or fault. It is out of taking responsibility. What have you done lately to take responsibility? Help a neighbor? Volunteer at a shelter? Demand action from your city? Get engaged with your community? There is a lot of pain out there. Let's not cower in fear, let's recognize it, take responsibility (not blame or fault), and ease the pain - after all - it is the season of holidays.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

3rd District Leadership

Well, it's out there now. Durwin Rice is seriously considering running for the 3rd District At-Large city council seat currently held by Melba Curls. Melba is running for re-election. Also in the race is Brandon Ellington, who ran in the last election for the in-district seat against eventual winner, Sharon Saunders Brooks.

Durwin is an all-around nice person, committed to improving the urban core, active in local civic affairs, and the kind of ally you want to have supporting your cause. He has served the city on PIAC as the 4th district rep, founded Tulips on Troost and works tirelessly for that effort, and was one of the first businesses to glam up Troost before it had been done by anyone other than the long-time locals. He is a good steward of Kansas City. I consider him a friend.

As his friend, I have to say that he should not run for this seat.

He recently moved from the 4th district to the 3rd in order to be eligible to run. Other pols have done this. Sharon Brooks did it so she could run in the 3rd in the last election. Michael Fletcher did it so he can run in the 3rd this time. Moving is not the biggest issue, though, one is open to criticism of carpet-bagging by moving to a district just so you can run for office.

Durwin, unlike Sharon and Michael, is white. The question that will dominate the election is whether he should run as a leader in a predominantly black and hispanic district? Already the blog trolls are posting about who "ought" to represent the 3rd, whose district it is, and the quality of previous representation. The undercurrent is that the 3rd district is not capable of producing good leaders. This debate is fraught with errors, inconsistencies, double-standards, and just plain racism. Durwin, how will you mediate this?

I'm white and I have lived in the heart of the 3rd district. Doesn't mean I should run for city council and I wouldn't. I'm qualified. I think I could do a good job. I could represent the entire city in an at-large seat. But there is a reason the city has residency requirements for at-large seats. So that someone from that area may step up and represent the entire city through the lens of that district. Difficult to represent if you haven't lived there and if you are not "of" the community. I am not afraid to say that I am a good ally of the 3rd district. But I am not a leader of the 3rd. Neither is Durwin.

Before everyone starts quoting MLK and the character vs. color refrain, you have to bear witness to what it means to be a person of color. I am not, so I can only interpret. That is not good enough for a leader. I have white privilege. I can drive as I please, go where I please, and never think twice about anyone stopping me, questioning me, or hassling me for no good reason. I can go just about anywhere in the city and be in the majority. I can watch the news and see people just like me leading the city, making decisions, telling us what to do. I will never be seriously threatened in print or in public because of my skin color. I will not be judged by anyone who looks like me for being white. I never have to operate knowing there is a double standard because of my race (gender is another matter). I do not have to fear the police simply for being on the street, in a car, in a store, or just being.

I have seen my privilege in action as a resident of the 3rd. I have seen the discrimination that has been put upon my 3rd district neighbors by other whites. I am an ally, which means, I got your back. But I cannot be a 3rd district leader because I do not have the life experiences to represent the people of that district through the lens of their life experiences. I cannot adequately bring their point of reference to the decision table. I would only be a proxy.

Durwin Rice will only be a proxy leader if he is elected and there is a very good chance he will be. Melba Curls is being criticized as an ineffective leader for the 3rd. She is a wonderful person and very well intentioned. She comes from a long family history of public service to the community, the city, and the state. These qualities, however, do not necessarily make her the best leader for the district or the city. I believe, however, that at the end of the day, she is a better representative than Durwin could ever be for the 3rd district. But an at-large seat is voted on by everyone in the city, including north of the river and south side. Given a choice between Durwin and Melba, I fear that my people will vote through their own lens and Durwin will win.

As for Brandon Ellington...he is the type of 3rd district leader that is up and coming. I have supported him in the past and support him again this go round. He is dedicated, honest, and sincere. Doesn't mean he has the best qualities to lead the district. But at the end of the day, he is a better representative than Durwin could ever be for the 3rd district.

Some readers will surmise that you must be a person of color to run as a leader in the 3rd district and that as long as you have color, you can run. That's the leap of logic that will dominate this conversation and is in error. It is not color that is the issue, but rather, being "of the community" in order to accurately represent through the lens of that district. The 3rd district deserves excellent representation and exceptional leaders as does every district in the city. It also deserves someone who can effectively represent the people of the 3rd district and bring their point of reference to the larger table of city decision making.

Kansas City is a place of nice people and pleasantries. It also is a place of fierce politics. I think that is why I like the city so much. I will catch flack for speaking so plainly, I'm sure. But I am in a position to say these things because I have lived in the 3rd and I am white. I am urging Durwin Rice not to run.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Citizens Association Q/A of Mayoral Candidates

Update: Mike Burke gets the CA endorsement for Mayor

Four mayoral candidates were quizzed by the influential citizens group - Citizens Association - and TKC - Tony's Kansas City blogged it with live tweets - thank you TKC for giving people at least a glimpse of what was going on in an important forum. See his tweets here:!/TKCLiveTweets.

There was one question about the 3rd district and another about poverty that merit attention here. See one of my previous blog posts on the 5 questions I would ask any candidate about their vision for the 3rd district. Here are the tweets as Tony posted them - first on poverty, then on 3rd district.

Rowland on poverty: It will take a massive level of cooperation to address the complex issue of poverty.
Tony Bee
Deb Hermann and Sly talk education as an answer to poverty.
Tony Bee
KMBC'S Mahoney moderates and asks about poverty. Mike Burke: The best solution to poverty is to create jobs.


Tony Bee
Sly James touts grants and biz cooperation to foster 3rd district development.
Tony Bee
Deb Hermann on 3rd District Development: We need to focus on infrastructure.
Tony Bee
Another Looooooong question from Bonaye (sp?) about developing the 3rd.


It's difficult to judge the quality of answers since I wasn't there and I must rely on the quality of tweets. Hopefully, news reports will speak to this in greater detail. Here is Yael A.'s KC Star thought piece:

I will say, however, that Deb's focus on infrastructure for the 3rd is not a very enlightened answer - though there certainly are infrastructure needs in the 3rd. If you build it, no one will come. And Mike's response that jobs are the answer to poverty is about as lame as they come. Of course jobs are an antidote to poverty - but are you saying that KC does not have enough jobs or that 3rd district residents haven't gotten them - either way - there is a large underlying issue that the generic "jobs" won't fix. It is a matter of getting 3rd district residents into said jobs and that is an answer fraught with peril that most of these candidates won't touch. Sly's response about grants and biz cooperation sounds nice, but we have been there and done that - 18th and Vine.

None of these candidates have said - invest in residents. None of the candidates said - cooperate with people who live there to build their assets so the 3rd district can be competitive. None of these candidates will address white privilege - not as a mea culpa - but as an honest understanding of one of the reasons why the 3rd district languishes. What responsibility are each of these candidates willing to take in the making of our current situation? I would bet - none.

Here's another interesting contribution to understanding the Mayoral Election: A Great Mayor for a Great City at Billed as a citizen's site of 40 and 50 somethings who want to make a difference in improving KCMO via the mayoral election. You can read "In Their Own Words" from candidates and you can vote in a popularity poll for the candidate of your choice.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Moving Forward

I've just been letting the Tuesday election returns sit for a bit. I can't change them. I can only move forward. The election post-mortem is always filled with conciliatory statements which will be followed a few days later by finger pointing and sniping. Never our best moment as a collective society.

Mitch McConnell said today that his number one goal is to get Obama out of office in 2012 so that he can advance the Republican agenda. I get that politics is a contest and I get that we disagree. But winning has become everything and moving forward has left the equation. I get that the R's don't like the Health Care bill, but to suggest that they must repeal it is just folly. A great many people in this country want Health Care reform. Why can't we accept at least part of it and move forward. When George Bush said we had to go to war, many people protested, but when we went to war people acknowledged it and said lets find a way forward. The fact that politics in this country is becoming intractable is a scary thought. We rely on our political process and our constitutional system to work. I don't know that we would get through Watergate in 2010.

Now that the national elections are over we can turn our full attention to local KC elections in February. We should know who's running in another week or so and rumors are flying about who will be in and who will not run. While the elections are great sport, we have to look at how the city will be governed after the election. If we have district and city-wide bloodbath battles, what will be the way forward? The mayor said in his latest news release or newsletter that Jeff Roe was the best political consultant in the world. Was the mayor pandering to republican voters? Is he willing to write off democratic party loyalists? Do I care? NO. I want to know what the Mayor has to say about what he has done and how he is going to move the city forward. On that he seems to be less sure.

I hope that candidates will be pressed for their position on governance as much as their position on issues. Platitudes of cooperation ain't gonna cut it. I want to know where the rubber meets the road and what that looks like to them. Otherwise, it won't matter who is elected.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Viable Third - Bernard Powell

The level of crime and violence in the 3rd District has escalated in the eyes of the media of late and has gotten the attention of the religious faithful. I haven't looked at the actual crime statistics to know if the homicide rate is up or down (I think it stands at 87 for the year) or if violent crime is up or down for this year. But does it matter? Because regardless of the facts, the assumption is that violence is up and that it is much more dangerous in the 3rd district than ever.

Recent murders in Westport, on Broadway, and Downtown have all included discussion that suggests it is the Eastside violence that is encroaching on the rest of the city. Of course there is no evidence of this, but it is always the first assumption. The recent events with teens gathering on the Plaza suggest the same. My people always like to jump to the most obvious conclusion - that black=crime and danger.

A local minister has glommed onto the bandwagon too. I include the video here ONLY because he mentions the subject of this post - Bernard Powell.

Bernard Powell was a civil rights leader who lived at 28th and Brooklyn in the 3rd district. He had a national presence as well as a local impact. He is attributed for having said the phrase, "Goldmine or Ghetto - The Choice is Yours." He believed in the 3rd district and I do too.

Powell was shot to death at 27th and Indiana in April 1979. He was only 32 years old. He made his mark in this world while in his 20's. The old heads who cling to power in this city need to remember that - young people are viable leaders too.

There is a very nice memorial erected to Powell (in 1991) at Spring Valley Park on the Brooklyn Avenue side. His boyhood home overlooks the park. I've driven by there a million times and decided to stop one day. Then I investigated the life of this young man. Here is his bio as written on the Black Missouri site. Here is the City's description of the memorial and fountain (fitting for a Kansas Citian). Bernard's sister, Teola, ran for city council in the 3rd district in 2007. A look at the KC Star archives online only goes back to 1991. Any research on Powell's death will have to be done in the library with microfilm. From all accounts I have found, in books and other historical accounts, Powell was active in bringing civil rights and social justice to Kansas City's Eastside. Desegregation of the city swimming pools, opening up real estate opportunities, and voting rights were all on his agenda - but in the 1960's anything seemed possible.

Here is a photo slideshow I put together to commemorate this great place - the memorial at Spring Valley Park and this great citizen, Bernard Powell. He knew the 3rd District was viable. I do too.

The Viable Third

A few years ago you may remember a project that airick leonard west started called the Viable Third. He and I pledged to spend all our discretionary money (groceries, gas, entertainment, clothes, etc.) only in the KCMO 3rd council district. We did it to demonstrate to those who live outside the district that it is a viable place, despite the violence and chaos that is its normal persona. I even took on a research project, the KC DrillDown, to demonstrate the economic viability of retail in the underserved urban core.

Having lived in the 3rd district for several years now (I include my part time life when I am not in NJ), I feel that the value of the district needs to be highlighted once again. The racism that is spewed on the internets at sites like TKC are very disturbing to me. The inability of City Hall to have ANY strategy to address improvement in the district is appalling. The level of violence in the district that is going unchecked is heartbreaking. There is an election in February for 2 council seats in the 3rd and 2 seats in every other district along with the Mayor. This is a crucial election. We can either solidify our worst behaviors and go back to the KC of not-so-long ago - openly racist and proud of it, or we can take the next step in the transformation of this city and follow the lead of the KCMO School District. That is the only entity in town that is getting it right. But as the resignation of Michelle Rhee and the mayoral loss in Washington, D.C. just showed us, transformation ruffles a lot of feathers and can be bounced quickly. People have to demand accountability from their officials, demand to be a priority, and follow-through by being engaged citizens.

Here is the Feb. 2011 political line-up so far and I expect that there will changes before the filing deadline which is Nov. 17, 2010. There is no official listing on the Election Board site yet. But here are the expectations from the political pundits and those who are campaigning.
3rd district - in district: Sharon Saunders Brooks (incumbent), Michael Fletcher
3rd district At-Large: Melba Curls (incumbent), Brandon Ellington

Mayor: Mark Funkhouser (incumbent), Sly James, Mike Burke, Deb Herman, Jim Rowland, Jonas Hughes.
Let me know who I have missed.

What I want to know from each of these candidates is:
1. what is your agenda to improve the 3rd district?
2. how will you go about building and implementing this agenda?
3. what is your number 1 priority for the 3rd district and why?
4. If an incumbent, list your accomplishments for bringing improvement to the district.
5. In 50 words or less, describe the 3rd district as you see it.

If every voter, blogger, media person, minister, school board member, business person, and others who have an interest in the 3rd district asked these simple, but pointed questions - we might actually have an election that means something. Feel free to appropriate these as your own and ask them whenever you have the chance.

I'm going to devote space on this blog to the viability of the 3rd district and the politics that surrounds it. But this is not just about who is running and what the latest political gossip is. I leave that to the other blogsters in KC. I want to raise issues and remind people outside of the 3rd district (who vote on the at-lard 3rd seat) that the district is much more than it seems. I am going to do a series of posts on the best spots and the best of history in the Viable Third from the perspective of an ally who lives in the district.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Joey the barber

The KC Star has a great article today about Joey the barber on Indiana Ave who cuts hair and runs a foundation to work to keep kids out of trouble. His own journey to where he is today is very compelling. The story spells out the hurdles, triumphs, and realities of eastside living. The comments made so far this morning on the Star site are all about how wonderful the story is - as if a fairy tale - because people on the westside, southside, northside, and suburbs rarely see a story like this.

What struck me is that life on the eastside is very different than all the other parts of KC. The eastside has more violence every day. People on the eastside have to negotiate that violence. There is poverty, homelessness, blight, an entirely different retail landscape, and sometimes desperation and hopelessness. But I also know that people live their lives every day on the eastside, just like the rest of Kansas City does. And I don't think the KC experience is any different than any other city in the US. I see the exact same scenario in Camden with the suburbs looking askance at the city.

People outside of the 'hood look at it like it is some kind of foreign space. This is because the media generally sensationalizes the problems as if it is the sum total of eastside daily life. Because the violence and poverty is so very different from all the other parts of the city, it is seen as exceptional - not good exceptional, but different exceptional. It is that exceptional quality that makes it a curiosity and thus, newsworthy. This conversation needs to change.

If people outside of the 'hood understood the good things that go on - the people like Joey the barber - that are dealing with reality and not exceptions, then perhaps the people outside the 'hood would begin to grasp the gravity of the situation and be able to deal with it, instead of just ogling it.

Right now the good people of KC peer into the eastside as voyeurs through the window of tv news and the newspaper. Their perception is based on an assumption that because it is so very different from their lives, they can't possibly deal with it. They dismiss it as animals, thugs, people who don't deserve our help, and worse.

If the good people of KC were allies of the eastside, they would not be voyeurs and would have a more realistic understanding of what goes on and how to help. That is what is needed.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Dividing Lines

BlogKC has an illuminating map depicting the racial divide in Kansas City. It's not new. It's been a visual for the city since the 1950s. It's just that we can now map it in stark relief. We did a series of these maps at UMKC for several different projects in 2004 and 2005. People see this, they say "wow," and then they move on - until the next time they see the map. Yet nothing changes.

Kevin Fox Gothem is the authority on how this came to be. Google his books and articles. They are quite well written and researched and very informative. We are divided overtly by public policy. It didn't "just happen." It is intentional.

There have been a few recent reflections on the racial divide in KC with some folks suggesting that US 71 is the new Troost. It's all the same geography - east meets west and west runs away.

Look at our political districts. Precincts don't cross Troost. Ergo, political districts are divided by Troost, mainly because we are an East-West city and all our districts run North and South. Imagine if we divided the city in wide East-West districts that were stacked on top of each other from North to South. Some people's heads would explode. But changing the political boundaries would be the most expedient way to integrate the city. Imagine Brookside and Blue Hills having the same city council rep - who would have to satisfy constituents on both sides of Troost. Why....the residents might have to get to know one another and get along!

We have an amazing opportunity in KC at the moment - redistricting. Not just once, but twice! There are ways to cut the population so as not to dilute minority voting strength and to keep geographical proximity (both required by the US Supreme Court), AND ignore Troost or any other East West boundary. Sadly, every map that has been drawn as a possible redistricting does not even try to ignore Troost. It's as if it is cast in some kind of stone. And, sadly it is - by public policy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

City Streets Invade Schools

I just learned that the Scholars at SWHS have formed a Scholar's Committee. check it out on Facebook:!/group.php?gid=157712014243496. Now this is handling business!!

The big changes in the Kansas City Missouri School District have resulted in some difficulties during the first week of school. Kudos to Superintendent Covington for personally dealing with the problems erupting at Southwest High School. This is a college prep HS located in the white and affluent part of town, that became an attendance-based school this year. The district closed another high school and 1000 new kids now join the existing 500 SW kids. That's a radical change for the neighborhood, the school, the kids. Change does not come easy. During the first week there have been fights at the school, significant student disruptions, and other incidents that look more like Central HS - in the urban core of KC. The Super has re-created an alternative school to ship out the disruptive students. I know a student at SW who started there last year. He's from the urban core and was very distressed that his streetlife was following him to this school. His first reaction was that he should flee to another school district. I told him to give it a week and luckily the Superintendent has not disappointed me.

But the issue here is not unruly kids or bad parents, which is what the news story comments state emphatically along with blog post comments. The unruly kids and bad parents are the RESULT of the complete neglect of the elephant in the room. White people have been just fine with treating black and brown people poorly, being racist, and neglecting poor neighborhoods. That damaging relationship shows up in unruly kids and bad parents. And guess what, those problems come right into the school hallways. And you wonder why DeShawn fights at school, but little Billy does not? Look at the streets people. The urban core has been neglected and abused for so long that residents now reflect that abuse.

Yes, government funds have been spent on the urban core. But there still are no jobs, no retail, and neighborhoods are used as dumping grounds.

Yes, the KCMSD spent millions on schools as part of the deseg case. But kids still can't read.

Yes, "programs" are run by well-meaning nonprofits, welfare flows, and do-gooders do good in the urban core. But those efforts have no impact on the core of the problem that is causing the need for those do-gooders and welfare. Racism, Bigotry, Classism, Fear, and the benefit of keeping a choke-hold on Disparity.

I've addressed all of this before. SWHS this week is a classic example of how this plays out. The public response is so predictable. The Superintendent has few options because his time horizon is right now, not 10 years from now. He has to make sure that learning goes on come Monday. So the thugs and trouble-makers have to go. They'll go back to the urban core and be tucked away so as not to threaten anyone else. In the short term, this seems like the only option. But it is not.

This city has the opportunity to begin healing if it will only take a bold step to do so. There are people in this city who could do amazing things with these kids, their parents, and all the communities involved. But white ego won't allow that to happen, because we are so, so, so invested in being right - THEY are the problem, THEY don't parent well, THEY are thugs, THEY don't want to learn. There is a problem, parents are not perfect, kids become thugs, learning seems meaningless when daily survival is paramount. We can't seem to see past the 3pm bell and then we get up in the morning and do it all over again the next day.

We need a circuit breaker. We need Ossco Bolton, airick leonard west, Jamekia Kendrix, Colleen Innis, and an assortment of other strong skilled people who get it, who understand young people and the urban core, who can spreak truth to power, and start healing this city. It's not a pipe dream, it's survival.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Responsibility is Yours for the Taking

Labor Day marks the official start of the fall campaign season. So expect to see a full-court press of advertising, dirty tricks, sleight of hand, and nothing resembling reasonable discourse for the next two months.

What we will likely see is a lot of immigrant bashing, blaming minorities for their own plight and bringing whites down with them, and other assorted intolerance of "others," which in today's politics is a pretty wide swath of the population.

The economic collapse brings out the need for scapegoats - who can be blamed? Repubs and conservatives blame the Dems and liberals, and vice versa. Whites blame people of color and vice-versa. Paranoids, otherwise known as liberatarians, blame Obama and Obama blames elitists (like Geitner perhaps?). Of course the joke is that the circular finger-pointing will leave no one standing after election day. The political aftermath may be worse than our economic condition.

At all levels of politics, leadership is in short supply. Everyone has an explanation for who is to blame and it is not the blamer! Example: in criticizing urban schools - teachers blame parents, parents blame teachers, students blame teachers, teachers blame administrators, and citizens blame all of the above. No one wants to look at their own contribution to the mess. Even in higher ed, I have become an end-around fighter. I like to call it, "proceed until apprehended." Keeps me looking good and shifts blame to all the administrators that stand in the way of my interests. Problem is, they get upset with me and feel they have to clean up my mess when they apprehend me. I'm generating progress while thwarting my own staying power. I saw the same thing in a NYT article today on public school teachers/administrators. Essentially their argument is that if administrators are blocking progress, let the teachers be administrators. But who will step up when those rallying teachers burn out doing double duty? "Let me do it" is not a solution as much as a shortcut that requires no dialogue or responsibility.

In the end, all this jockeying for position leaves the powerless even less powerful. That's probably the opposite of what many of the jockeys want or expect. Perhaps it's time to start thinking about including the supposed beneficiaries of our efforts to find out what they need to succeed.

Responsibility => Power:

1. have an open discussion with students and young people on a wide scale basis, not just the chosen representatives; likewise with union members, residents. A discussion continues until concluded - not for a set period of time while it is easy and the cameras are on.

2. dialogue up and down the chain of command and across stakeholders - keep it real and check the egos at the door. Call out presumptive and responsibility avoiding actions of yourself.

3. include parents, employees, voters, residents in a discussion of responsibility about education, crime, business, service provision, and the success of what we see as essential elements of our daily life. Again, a discussion continues until resolution and satisfaction are reached, not just until the hour is up. Don't have a meeting, have a dialogue.

It starts with you. What are you doing to take responsibility for the ills you see around you? And I am not referring to volunteering here - another form of "Let me do it."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Opportunity Knocks in Camden and KC...Will They Answer?

As I sit here in Camden, I'm reading stories about a 14 year old girl who is sentenced to 20 years in prison for a torture killing and the fact that the Camden City library system may merge with the County to keep at least one branch open. A poor city is fiddling while it's foundations burn to ashes. The mayor issued a press statement this week to reassure the community that she is working to keep the place afloat, but that the budget is completely underwater. It has been for years, but the Democratic governor and legislature kept propping it up so as to maintain some semblance of viability. The current mayor got stuck holding the bag when a Republican governor took over.

But those are just the superficial features of a city that is deeply damaged. Unfortunately, city leaders would much prefer to play superficial politics than to actually address the foundational problems of this city.

Next week I begin teaching a Community Development class in the new Ph.D. program of the same name at Rutgers-Camden. My goal is to provide an incubator for the most cutting-edge thinking we can generate on creating sustainable community development - that is sustainable economically, socially, environmentally, and politically, and provides reality-connected policy options for social justice, social enterprise, and citizen empowerment/capacity building.

I see other cities actually undertaking these issues - Detroit, Cleveland, Syracuse - the other poster cities for rustbelt decline. Camden can join those cities and succeed in a new economy. But it must engage its people and stop trying to deliver them.

I spent a good bit of my summer working on a campaign in Kansas City called Opportunity Knocks. The goal, which is being met, is to knock on all the household doors in the KCMO School District and have a transformative conversation with residents. A transformative conversation talks about what is possible, what is working, and why clinging to a negative conversation about the district is not getting us anywhere. A transformative conversation opens possibilities, empowers people to make a difference, and creates a collective path for engagement. Opportunity Knocks offered a half-dozen ways that people could be involved with the scholars, the district, their local school as a means to embrace that engagement. So far, nearly 1500 people have signed up as we brought that conversation to their doorstep. Many said they had never been personally contacted or asked. Many said they wanted to support the district, but didn't know how. Many said they understand the importance of having a functioning, quality school district but have felt it is beyond hope to make this district actually succeed.

Kansas City has experienced an extraordinary process this summer. Opportunity Knocks is an amazing success and it has another full week and weekend to go. It will succeed in hitting every area, neighborhood, and nearly every door in the district. But that is just the window dressing. The real issue is that people have been engaged, touched, moved, and inspired to consider a completely different conversation and aspiration for the school district. This will have an effect on the scholars. Imagine you attend school in a district where the news and all public commentary tells you constantly that your district sucks and it is a failure. How well will you learn? Now, imagine you attend school in a district where the news and public commentary tells you they want to do whatever it takes to ensure the district succeeds. Your learning potential may actually increase.

What goes on inside the classroom is primarily about teachers and students. But the baggage they bring to the classroom is an enormous barrier to learning or is an exceptional supplement to learning. There is a choice.

Camden has such a choice too. It can continue to live into a conversation that says it is a crime infested, broke-a$$ city that will always be losing, or it can create a conversation of renaissance. So far, the city leadership does not seem to understand these options. But I have a strong sense of expectation that if the conversation of renaissance were carried to the residents, it would resonate and transformation would occur. We forget how powerful we can be just by how we conduct ourselves. Waiting for someone to give us power is like waiting for a bus that never comes. Opportunity is Knocking, Camden...Will You Answer?

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Does It Take to Get Your Attention?

I am haunted by the stream of stories I read about Kansas City and the escalating homicide rate this summer. I currently reside in Camden, NJ - which is supposed to be the crime capital of the nation. Camden is a walk in the park compared to KC! The only reason KC does not end up higher on the crime rankings is because the city has more people. If crime rankings were crimes per square mile instead of crimes per 1000 people, KC would probably be #1.

61 homicides and counting and this is only July. Staggering. And much of the crime is east of Troost, through Brookside and South KC get their share too. However, the violence on the eastside is waaaaaaay out of whack. Nary a word is spoken about this. Not from the Mayor, city council, or civic leaders. Words are spoken by The Call, Alvin Brooks, various neighborhood and activist leaders. But it is only whistling in the wind. No one with any power is hearing us.

I have watched the crime and violence center in the south 80's and move to the mid 50's. Now the violence is moved to the high 30's. Yep, it is getting too close to my neighborhood and I don't like it, no sir, not one bit.

Meanwhile the Northeast has been blazing for some time and I hope that doesn't move south. I have no desire to be in the middle of two war zones. I have no idea where the violence is coming from, but I have an idea it is gangs and drugs, domestic violence, and the result of a great deal of frustration. In case the rest of the city hasn't noticed - there are no jobs, period. I'm so sick of various national political voices suggesting that people are not interested in working. People in my neighborhood would love to work IF THERE WERE JOBS available to them.

I seem to recall that the Mayor touted New Tools for Economic Development to foster assistance to the Eastside. Haven't really seen ANYTHING resulting from that gravy train except some bucks for the favored consultants. Our city council people are doing NOTHING substantial to stop the violence or improve economic opportunity.

I don't like the Tea Bags, but I really couldn't care less about them. People are dying in the streets and we spend time on a bunch of political sniping???? Have we become so callous that murders and shooting don't garner any attention? We don't need candlelight vigils, we don't need prayer vigils. What is needed is jobs and direction.

One of the efforts underway is the group "I am my Brother's Keeper" that organizes neighborhood action and the July event "Taking it to the Street". While it is a real gesture, it is preaching to the choir. Time to take the conversation out of the 'hood and into the boardrooms.

I understand how KC politics works - it has often been described as "parking lot politics" meaning that it works on informal networks of people talking, planning, and then acting. It is often out of sight, fraught with deal making, and compromised to death. It works in KC and is unlikely to change any time soon. So if those of us who are fed up with the violence and death in KC want to change things, then maybe we need to be "Taking it to the Parking Lot" and buttonhole every pol and civic leader in KC to get some traction. What KC leaders don't like is to be embarrassed in public and called on the carpet. They will respond to requests and suggestions that will enable them to be seen in a good light.

It is election season and this is a once in 4 years opportunity to work the parking lot politics. See you on the asphalt. Let's get this done.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird and KC's Leon Jordon

Apparently the media world is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird (the novel's publication). The book has been a mainstay on high school and college reading lists and is considered by most whites to be a great tableau of anti-racist solidarity. A very different take on this is delivered by a great blog, Stuff White People Do and is worth a read. The post admonishes feel-good liberal whites for warmly embracing what is essentially a racist portrayal of black subjugation, and most whites are clueless to this interpretation. I know I was. White privilege is everywhere and even those of us who think we get it are often blinded by it.

I also read today the KC Star article about reopening the Leon Jordan murder case after 40 years. Leon Jordan was a major civil rights leader and black politician in KC during the 1960s and was a co-founder of the black political club, Freedom, Inc. The news article goes into a great amount of detail about possible motives for his slaying, the political alliances and enemies that arose during that time, and conflicts within the black community itself. It's a level of detail that I never knew and found fascinating in terms of understanding the responses of today's politics in Kansas City. Like the tender reminiscences towards To Kill a Mockingbird, most people gloss over the particulars of what issues were swirling at the time of Mr. Jordan's murder.

For most white people who believe they stand against racism, they really have no clue of the issues involved. Viewing racism as a "bad thing" is akin to being against animal abuse. It is quite superficial. To view racism as something that every white person is accountable for is a much different take on the issue. The lawyer in Mockingbird, forever and indelibly portrayed by Gregory Peck, is a white hero. He stands against the abuse of the accused and is a lone voice of reason in a hateful world. But the novel does not give us anywhere to go with this except that some white people are bad and that we should not treat black people this way. Therein lies the rub.

If white people remain focused on how we should or should not treat black people, then we haven't learned anything and racism still exists. White people never think in terms of anyone "treating" them a certain way. But we feel justified in talking about "treating" black people poorly or well. It's a level of privilege that many whites never fully appreciate, especially in terms of how it affects others.

The Jordan case in KC is riveting because it continues to be assumed that it was black perpetrators that killed this black civil rights leader. But the deep details, as written in this article, suggest that there was a black mafia run by whites that ran the drug trade on the Eastside and had a conflict with Jordan. Jordan also had black political rivals that may have wanted him out of the picture. A further suggestion is that as a civil rights figure, FBI Director Hoover may have wanted him taken out. But the biggest aha for me is that Jordan was a former KC police officer - and it doesn't sound like the police investigated their own on this one. Little mention was made of Jordan's rise to Lt. on the force in a time when racial tensions boiled over in KC.

Regardless of who killed him, and that is a chapter for someone to solve, the magnanimity of this leader is completely lost on most of white Kansas City. Freedom, Inc. is often viewed by whites as a black political club that elects their own as if this is unseemly. Meanwhile the Civic Council and other white political clubs are seen as providing political enlightenment to the rest of the city upon their candidate endorsements. This type of double standard is why there is criticism of To Kill a Mockingbird and why solving the Jordan case is not about civil rights.

White people have a lot to learn and responsibility to take on.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fear of Others

Great post over at Race Has Nothing to Do With You on the fear spreading through Chinatown in LA. Stores are boarding up because the shopkeepers fear an LA riot by blacks. No clue what's going on, but the post reminds us that communication is essential in the face of fear.

Here in Kansas City a similar fear is brewing. As schools close and scholars transition to their new schools for fall, some neighborhoods are feeling like they are under assault from more students who don't look like the neighbors. One such transition is the students at attendance-based Westport High who will transfer to the signature school - Southwest College prep. This school will double in size and with mostly scholars of color. This has the affluent white neighbors in a pickle. They don't want to appear racist, but, everyone KNOWS that these students may bring crime into the neighborhood.

I've been to two neighborhood meetings on this topic. At the first meeting, organized by neighbors, it got fairly ugly in terms of the tenor and tone towards the likely bad things that would befall this neighborhood when new students arrive. The room was white, save for one person, and the white fear factor was in full swing. At one point, a man stated that if a group of these kids came walking down his street, well he would have to call the police, because who knows what mayhem would be brewing. Then he took it to the next level...what if someone got shot? (I think he meant if police killed one of these marauding teens) - then all hell would break lose. At that point, some pushback came into play with several people speaking up that the rhetoric needed to be dialed back.

The amazing thing is that all of these folks said, basically, I am not a racist- but, you have to realize that the likelihood of crime is real and these kids will be the source. They are so convinced of their view that they don't even see how racist they are.

At the second meeting a few days later, called by one of the neighborhood churches (white), many of the same people showed up. However, this time there were more black people in the room (the district superintendent, some of his staff, and some advocates from parent organizations). There was no mention of race at this meeting. There was no hint of panic. I believe it was because there was a tipping point and it wasn't "safe" for the whites to be openly derogatory. Or maybe they had just thought things through over the last couple of days.

What is clear is that there has been precious little conversation about the increase in students at Southwest High outside of a few gatherings of neighbors where their wildest ideas seem to catch on. Kudos to the church for taking this on and providing a grounded forum in which to speak. My concern, however, is that the fear was merely masked and not addressed. White people that don't even see that they are racist may in fact be racist out of fear of otherness. These people don't spend any time around people who don't look like them, who don't have the same lifestyle that they do, and that may behave differently from them. That lack of awareness yields fear.

Communication can create awareness and extinguish fear. Some of the ideas raised are to have the neighbors be mentors and tutors at the school, be a booster club, host a welcoming event on the first day of school complete with gift bags, and so forth. Exposure to these students is key and conversation is essential. Fear will dissipate for many and perhaps some real acceptance will be forthcoming. Here's hoping.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Old Schools, New Opportunities

I love to be able to write about exciting opportunities! I'm usually a glass half-full type of person, but this is a glass overflowing. School districts are closing schools for various reasons. But in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City one of the reasons, if not THE reason for closing schools, is the declining urban population. Disinvested neighborhoods have led to population decline, which leads to too many school buildings.

Kansas City, MO is embarking on an ambitious plan to "repurpose" about 25 just closed schools along with a backlog inventory of at least 10 more. People already are saying - well who would want these buildings? And some school board members are whispering that many of these buildings will continue to languish and will never be repurposed. Granted, some of the buildings, especially those in the backlog inventory, are in terrible shape and need extensive repairs or just need to be torn down. Because they are old buildings, any demolition will require environmental remediation. Someone suggested urban farms could sprout - well, yes, but only if you spend a bundle to remediate the soil lest you grow toxic crops. Sigh.

But the glass remains full to overflowing. Having 20-30 institutional buildings come on the market at the same time represents an unprecedented urban opportunity for investment and revitalization of neighborhood anchor buildings. When individual buildings are repurposed it is a victory for adaptive reuse, preservation, and the immediate block faces. But it probably won't do much for the neighborhood, let alone the area. Because Kansas City has been steadily losing population in its urban core and many of the available school buildings are in that urban core, there is the potential to revitalize the entire area through building reuse.

The typical reuses have already been raised - apartments, condos, senior living, assisted living, community centers, and social service sites.

I suggested in a presentation to the school board that they think more about vision and criteria than blueprints and specific uses. Creating social enterprise opportunities to serve the residents of these neighborhoods is the best example I have. This could be an extraordinary opportunity to marry community development, economic revitalization, and social enterprise.

I published my presentation on Scribd. You can link to it here.

Ideas? Reactions? What would you do with 30 closed school buildings? What is the most important criteria for you in disposing of them?

Monday, May 31, 2010


Political strategy is found in the writings of generals and presidents, Samarai and princes, and in a movie that has provided inspiration for urban ills. The movie is the recent Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon vehicle - Invictus.

The movie is about the inspiration that Nelson Mandela used to unite his nation across the races in the post-apartheid era. He could not accomplish this task as a single leader. He needed to inspire the people of South Africa to want to find common ground. He used the national Rugby club to do it. Only Morgan Freeman could pull this off and not make it completely hokey (plus Clint Eastwood directing). But Mandela did more than just use sports to rally the country. He got people invested in the country and the team was a vehicle for that. The team literally connected with the formerly excluded black population and more importantly, the black population joined the white Afrikaners in supporting this team. By not taking the team away from the white community and finding ways to generate support from the black community, each group met on common ground.

Urban places are divided by race, class, ethnicity, gender, etc. We each have our own reasons for being in that urban space and protect our interests accordingly. This self-interest results in each group trying to maximize their own desires, often without regard to how that will affect others in the urban population.

The movie title is Latin for "unconquered" and is the title of a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela. For me, the urban application is that we cannot make cities some kind of territory to own and people cannot be conquered. Gentrification is often seen as some kind of natural market force that changes a neighborhood from poor to rich and from unproductive property to productive property. While change is fine, make no mistake that gentrification is conquering. But the answer is not resistance - it is finding common ground. Cities must be the model for how people can live together and I'm not trying to be all kum-bay-ah on you here. By this, I mean cities have to have room for all different types of people and for space to be available - not limited. Housing projects are the equivalent of homelands, as are suburbs. If you don't belong, you will be hasseled about being there or not being in your homeland. Cities cannot function this way. Let's learn from Invictus.

Here is the poem by William Henley 1875:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Mandela had to unite his country across the chasm of black and white, which seemed an impossible task. Surely, we can make cities welcoming and not conquered spaces.

Monday, May 3, 2010


A documentary short on Troost done by some young folks with idealism? Not sure, but it is an interesting view of the famous dividing line of Kansas City.

This weekend you can attend the 2010 iteration of the Troost Festival - a community fair held by the denizens of the 3100 block of Troost Avenue. I went several times over the years and found it to be a great effort, though the success varied from year to year. Seems like publicity is up this year, so I hope there is a good turnout. It's always great to support local merchants and people trying to build up their community :)

The spring celebration of Troost is seen through the colors of Tulips on Troost. The brainchild of Durwin Rice has turned into a flood of color along Troost as the tulips bloom. Pictures from many sources hit the web this spring, suggesting that people are finally catching on to this wonderful visual image of renewal on Troost

East and West of Troost are local code in KC for white and black - divided and unequal - in terms of income, housing value, employment, school performance, retail, services, trash volume, murders, drug "crimes," and so on. While living in KC I lived on both sides of Troost. I suspect it is an experience that many people in the city cannot claim. I've written about those experiences in the many posts on this blog. I learned a great deal through those experiences, particularly in how it affected my view of the world - large and small. I've tried to use those experiences to add to the momentum of transformation of our outlook on racial divides.

Small increments of change can be seen in terms of bridging the divide, but the change is too slow to be meaningful and seems to be un-scalable. By this I mean small changes are possible, but massive reform, renewal, and rethinking is nowhere near being reached. I applaud all the efforts by all the dedicated organizations and people working on and around Troost, trying to make an impact. It's all good! But let's be realistic about this. There is no way that these small steps will amount to anything more than a few small steps. For every success there is a relapse, leaving little net gain over the years.

Renewal cannot be piecemeal. You can't build 4 houses and declare success because you did something. But in the realm of urban redevelopment, you can't just scale up and ignore the community. As most people know, inclusion is messy - but necessary, if there is to be any chance of sustainability.

The conundrum is made up of several key points:
1. how do you create sustainable community revitalization? By sustainable I mean something that is linked to the market and can find a set-point to maintain gains and avoid losses. Net gain over time yields sustainability.

2. how do you scale revitalization so that the impact yields a measurable presence that replicates faster than it decays. Imagine if you took the entire length of Troost Avenue and did one revitalization project on each block over one year. That would create enough agglomeration of renewal action to make an impact. The greater the impact, the great the sustainability - but it has to be renewal that is connected to the local market. Scale is an elusive strategy in community development.

3. how do you create a sustainable market for retail and services as well as jobs on a corridor like Troost? You have to redefine the market. Developers come in and have an external yardstick by which they measure the market's likelihood of success. They can't see how the market could work with the existing neighborhood. But the local neighborhood IS the key to sustainability. Otherwise you just push the existing issues somewhere else...

So the moral of our story is that redevelopment is hard. It's why we haven't had much success in 50 years. But the tools are there, the knowledge is there. We just need the moral conviction to implement. Implement with the existing people in the neighborhoods. That's the key to sustainability and scale-ability.

Enjoy the festivals, have fun, then roll up your sleeves, sharpen your pencils, and sustain and scale - get it done.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Kids of color, flash mobs, and scared white folks

Deja vu all over again. A couple months back there were "flash mobs" of urban youth terrorizing people on the streets of downtown Philadelphia. Mainly these kids of color had used facebook, myspace and other social media and texting to gather and get wild. Most of the kids were drunk (not literally) with the freedom of doing as they pleased and running wild, willy-nilly, crazy, or whatever you want to call it. Some got carried away and got violent. They broke windows, pushed pedestrians to the ground and got in fights with each other. They ran through Macy's and did damage to the merchandise. They repeated the game on South Street as well. Police presence and the presence of Mayor Nutter seemed to quell the disturbances. Or perhaps the school district looking into violence at the schools helped lessen agitation. And the police probably were aggressive in finding the social media trail that led to the organizers.

For the last 2 or 3 weekends there has been a similar blow-up of teen activity in Kansas City. Teens descended on The Plaza outdoor dining and shopping area last Saturday night and ran wild in the streets. People have called it a riot, a wilding, a Phily flash mob, hooligans, and of course, black kids out of control. These kids come from different high schools and gathered via notice on social media and through texting. They took to the streets, some got violent, several pedestrians were pushed to the ground or otherwise roughed up, and the police responded with pepper spray. Many comments in KC have revolved around the fact that "our beloved Plaza" has been denigrated by these "urban" kids who are violent and, and, and, well....they are black!!!

Today, however, takes the cake. Yael A. - an editorial writer for the local paper, the KC Star, actually patted himself on the back for daring to state openly that the youth involved are, in fact, black! He then goes on to state authoritatively that the reason these kids chose The Plaza:
That's where the crowd of mostly white adults hangs out.
And the youth know their presence will be disturbing to people who aren't used to seeing so many black kids in one place.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kansas City Schools and Race Relations

I have written a piece on the recent events happening in the Kansas City Missouri School District (KCMSD) regarding the school closings right-size plan and the recent school board elections. My take on this is related to the historical context of race relations in Kansas City and how that has shaped modern social and political dynamics. You can read it by clicking this link:

or click the Scribd button at the top of the blog. Scribd is a social publishing site where you can store your documents and allow others to read them!

I hope you will take time to read this piece and comment here, on scribd, on fb, or twitter!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

KC school board races - UNITY wins!!!!

Just a short post to say congrats to the Kansas Citians United for Educational Achievement (KCU4EA) candidates that all won by huge margins tonight in the school board race. This was a unity group, campaigning on the high road, and beat every single competitor with authority. This is not only a testament to the volunteers who worked hard to get the word out, get the vote out, and get voters informed, it is also a testament to airick west's School Board School sessions over the fall that helped train candidates and school advocates in how to effectively talk about the school issues.

While the competition slate was talking trash and telling tall stories, the KCU4EA team was working hard to be positive, talk about their vision for the district, and support the superintendent in a very tough school closing decision. It's great to see the best and brightest win and be given a vote of confidence as the next generation of leaders in the school district.

Congratulations to all!

Official Results 100%

Number of Precincts
Precincts Reporting
78 100.0 %
Times Counted
12033/151697 7.9 %
Total Votes

8214 35.79%
1933 8.42%
8307 36.19%
1744 7.60%
1291 5.63%
1211 5.28%


Number of Precincts
Precincts Reporting
15 100.0 %
Times Counted
1489/25601 5.8 %
Total Votes

981 68.13%
356 24.72%

Step 1 in Camden - Transparency

Kudos to Mayor Dana Redd of Camden. She is moving forward on several fronts in the city and letting people know what she is doing and sharing the input she has received. This is a first step in making Camden city government transparent. Others may say that the weekly 500+ page City Council agenda is transparency in action. Providing copies of financial statements, employee records, and all correspondence around an issue is certainly a bright light shining on the bureaucratic process. However, we need to understand what our elected and appointed officials are doing, their agenda, and how they are moving the city forward. The mayor has made good efforts in the last week.

First, she received the recommendations from her transition team for her first 100 days in office and beyond. Granted, she received this report just 2 weeks before her 100 days are completed - but she said she was busy handling the budget crisis and focused on that first. Uh, multitasking is an important skill for a mayor, madame Mayor.

Mayor Redd has posted the report in its entirety on the city's web page. You can read all 5 reports here: .

Second, Mayor Redd has called for applications to replace a school board member that moved up to city council. As other school board members' terms expire, she will appoint their replacements as well. The mayor now has full control of the board. The CP article informs us of who will be on the review committee and that is a huge bit of transparency. Unfortunately, the Mayor has not indicated anything about her priorities for qualifications or how she sees the school district moving forward and how her appointments will play a role in that.

Finally, the Mayor announced that the City received some revitalization funds from DRPA this week. The funds will be used to continue revitalization of Broadway in the downtown area. This will certainly enhance Cooper Hospital and the new medical school. Before people jump on that bandwagon of this is helping George Norcross, it also helps Camden. Shops on Broadway will do better business, people will be more inclined to shop locally, other investors may be willing to build, rent, and open stores and offices. This is good news. Unfortunately, the Mayor indicated that her first order of business is to hire a consultant to prepare a plan and in the fall seek feedback from the residents. This is a classic backwards approach to revitalization and one that smacks of power insulation - those in power will deliver a plan to the people and tell them how good it is for them. That's a big misstep Mayor. Listen to what you know to be the best move and do it. Don't follow the advice of so-called experts whose only agenda is to get contracts for professional loyalists.

All in all, it seems that things are moving a bit in the right direction for Camden. Let's see who gets appointed to school board, who get's hired as consultant and what they come up with, and most importantly, what Mayor Redd does with the transition recommendations. More insight on those recommendations later.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Is Change Happening in Camden - Not sure

I read the story in the Courier-Post this morning about Camden Mayor Redd's assistant, Novella Hinson and her checkered political past. It certainly does not give this resident much confidence in the new Mayor's ability to lead the city out from under the shadow of the Camden political machine. I think the most interesting tidbit from the article is that Mrs. Hinson earns $14,800 as a Camden election commissioner. Nice work if you can get it! I think part of New Jersey's fiscal woes come from the outrageous pensions, salaries for low-show jobs, and no/low contribution benefit packages that are provided to people who get on the public gravy train. Now, I have worked for state supported universities all my life and consider myself a public employee. I feel I have a right to criticize the public sector. I also have made a career out of studying and examining the public sector, so I feel like I know a few things. I know many people look askance at academics because we are eggheads in the ivory tower - whatever that means. I've been on the ground involved in public sector actions since I was old enough to go door-to-door with campaign flyers. I think I have enough experience to make comment.

I can't begrudge the Mayor for making a trusted ally and mentor her unpaid aide. In politics, you need a person you can trust without hesitation. I think it is the other aides that people are concerned about - all the ex-Corzine administration folks that were the "best qualified" to take the positions. I have no doubt they have qualifications. But if there is to be any hope for Camden, the city needs to be able to make decisions that can be independently vetted. Right now it looks like the Democratic machine train has pulled into the station. I don't even have a problem with political machines. I grew up in Chicago when the original Mayor Daily was in office - the trains ran on time, the city grew, and the city operated. Of course it also was a racially prejudiced place that did not tolerate dissension (1968 national D convention head bashing of protesters), and had a corrupt housing authority that eventually had to be taken over by a judge.

A reliance on the expediency of a political machine has a price. In Camden, I don't know if we can afford to pay that price forever. The new mayor has been in office for only a few months. What can you expect in that time? One might expect a plan, a strategy, or a laundry list of items to tackle. We haven't seen that yet. One might expect a commitment to going after federal stimulus funds to boldly take on some of the vexing economic issues facing the city. So far there has been a $750,000 charitable grant to Cramer Hill to hire community planners/implementers, a $21 million grant from HUD for housing repair and development split between two different applications in the city, and .... (sound of crickets chirping). It may be unfair to compare the mayor to Corie Booker in Newark or mayors in other cities, but she is not going to make any lists of exceptional politicians this year if she continues this trend. Unfortunately, her most noteworthy act to date is an attempt to garner more salary dollars for her aides. Not a smooth move Mayor.

Camden has come out from under state control (for the most part) and will have the power to take over the school district, which is a hot mess. So far, two people from that underachieving school district have been appointed to the city council to fill vacant seats due to members moving up the political food chain (including the Mayor). These decisions do not bode well for Camden improvement. Meanwhile, the Mayor has not made any statements about how she will appoint school board members, run the budget commission, or what vision she has for the district.

The absence of direction, information, and leadership in Camden is very disappointing and very troublesome. We have rhetoric in large doses, but specific action, strategic vision, and detailed direction is in very short supply.

It is easy for me to throw criticism from the sidelines. So let me give some concrete suggestions.
  1. outline how school board appointments will be made. What criteria are needed in board candidates, how will they be screened and vetted, and what will be the decision process. Same goes for the budget commission.
  2. outline 5 goals for the rest of the calendar year - whether it is in visible accomplishments, professional benchmarks for city staff, partnerships with measurable milestones - something the city residents can hold the mayor accountable for. Right now, we have nothing.
  3. the mayor made a big deal about economic development during the campaign. What types of development are you going to pursue? How will you decide? We supposedly have a medical school coming that will support Cooper Hospital. What jobs for Camden residents are being supplied or offered by this development? What modern technology, green efforts, sustainable practices are we pursuing? What innovation or bold strokes will be undertaken? Look around and see what other cities are doing. Camden is like a barge stuck in the mud. We aren't doing anything and we are going nowhere.
Those ideas should keep the Mayor and her aides busy for a while. Transparency, accountability, measures, and production. It isn't that complicated - but it isn't easy either. It can be done if there is political will. I can attest that in Camden there is plenty of civic will to support these things. There may not be much civic will to support the current status quo.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Change is Happening in KC - We Knew It Would

I have delved deeply into the civic life of Kansas City since my arrival in 2002. Not even my departure in 2008 has reduced my enthusiasm and belief in this city's potential. It's my occupational sideline - I bet on cities and their trajectory. My research has always been focused on the link between development and community - sometimes looking more at the development side, sometimes more at the neighborhood side. I have long been convinced that it is the dynamic of people interacting in the civic sector (elites, interest groups, and galvanized citizens) that determines the success of development. Development without the support of a wide swath of the public is doomed, regardless of how shiny and new it is or how hip and trendy, nor how well it adaptively reuses the city's history. Jane Jacobs defined this for me - it is the people that make cities work.

The 2010 school board elections, I believe, are a microcosm of what is happening in Kansas City. Change always creates stark differences between groups with different agendas and outlooks. The city has undergone a LOT of changes since 2002.

When people step up to lead with vision and thoughtfulness, with bold ideas and with candor, the genuineness cannot be overlooked. The 2010 KCMSD school board elections represent such an opportunity - people are stepping up, speaking out, and coming together for the common good of educating ALL the kids in this KC district.

The new vanguard is not protecting the few at the expense of the many. They are stepping up for ALL students, ALL parents, ALL citizens to say - enough is enough. The school district MUST function as a reflection of our community, not just a few schools.

In my opinion, here are the people you should follow on FaceBook, Twitter, listen to and interact with at public forums, and step up to volunteer your investment of time with their activities and campaigns. This is a momentous time that puts this city on the cusp of greatness and not gloom and doom as the naysayers will point to. These folks are all on FaceBook, some are on Twitter, and web sites are highlighted. Check them out and support the KCMSD!

Airick Leonard West - school board member, founder of BE1! ( You will always get a strong dose of realism, information, and listening from this public servant. *and in the spirit of disclosure, yes he is my very good friend. Catch him on FB and Twitter.

Kyleen Carroll - school board candidate at-large, former district teacher, and business entrepreneur. She has a head for understanding how to generate value in our district and deliver that to an engaged community. This is not just about balancing the books and finding savings in the district, but connecting it to the parents and community that want a value-added district that serves scholars and the city. We can have both.

Crispin Rea - school board candidate at-large, youth advocate at Mattie Rhodes, Northeast resident and champion, and unfairly maligned for his stint in the Mayor Funky administration. He is young and open to fresh ideas and understands why the Latino 25% segment of the school district population needs the perspective he can bring to the board.

Joseph Jackson -school board candidate 4th sub-district (Helen Ragsdale's open seat - she is not running), parent advocate and leader in the district DAC and SAC - putting ALL parents forward as an important voice in the governance of the school district. For too long, parents have been used as a political tool by those with a very limited agenda. Joseph has listened to the wide variety of parent opinions in the district and as a parent, he is adept at understanding those voices. His experience will bring forth a refreshing voice on the board.

Candace Koba - advocate and volunteer in the KCMSD schools and leader of a movement to engage parents and community members in a broad forum for the improvement of the district. You can sign up for involvement by going to Community Support Link. She is the epitome of a volunteer who cares about the future of the district and sees it as not a black/white divide but as an opportunity to support our children and the future of this city. She is the real deal and asks you to be sure to Register to Vote.

There are several other candidates who are running as new voices - Rose Bell and Bob Peterson.

There are others who are incumbents and newbies running with current board president Marilyn Simmons. I see their platform as the same old politics of divide and conquer with a self-serving protectionist bent that serves a few schools in the district quite well, but gives others a very short shrift. Ms. Simmons has had her chance to improve the district and has served while disaster after disaster has unfolded with poor leadership and cronyism. Her slate of candidates cannot be recommended. Unfortunately, her opposition candidate failed to reach the ballot and, therefore, she is automatically returned for yet another term.

April 6 is election day. If you are not registered to vote - you have until March 10 to do so (
Register to Vote). This is a critical and pivotal point in the life of Kansas City. These folks are the real deal. They are not grandstanding for politics. They are putting their butts on the line for the scholars of this district. Your time will be well spent following their lead and doing the same!