Mentally Tough: Mayor Sly James Speaks on his Life of Mediation

Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band

Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band

The importance of RS is greater than it’s ever been. There has to be some way of addressing people who are so adversely affected by the wage gap, by poverty, by education systems that have not worked to their advantage for a long time ... Without RS, the people of 31st and Troost and the surrounding areas will be a lot worse off.
— Mayor Sly James

You grew up on the East Side of Kansas City in the 1960’s. What were some highs and lows of your early life in the community?
Everybody knew everybody – kids and families were tight. We got together in the street for holidays. Families took care of each other’s kids. We played ball in the park, rode our bikes, and ran free. Our families were the working poor, blue collar people who worked hard. Everyone scraped to get by and worked hard to support their families and one another. There was a strong sense of community. There were some bad dudes, but not many. We knew who caused trouble and had guns and stayed away from them. There was no fear like there is over there today!
A low would be the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was a junior in high school and driving home from a night-time job with three guys. Buildings were burning at 44th and Prospect. We turned the corner at Prospect and ran into the National Guard. The whole sky lit up. We were forced out of the car and onto the ground. That was very scary!
How did your experience in High School shape you?
I was an odd ball in our neighborhood because I went to Bishop Hogan Preparatory Academy. I was the only black student in a Catholic High School that served a predominantly white community. It was different growing up in a neighborhood that was all black and going to a high school that was all white. The experience shaped my thoughts about people and race. It shaped my thoughts about how we interact and treat one another. High school is where I started to become a mediator between two racial cultures. All of these things influenced my thoughts about what I was going to do. I knew I would become a lawyer.
It was interesting from a dating standpoint during the 60’s — who do you take to prom? The girl I really liked I couldn’t ask because she was white. So, do I take the girl from the neighborhood that I don’t really care for?
Eventually I dated a great girl! Her name was Ann and she went to school at Notre Dame de Sion, but we couldn’t be seen in public together. Her father was on the city council at the time. For my junior year prom, my best friend Chip Tate—rhythm guitarist in our band—wore my tuxedo and drove my parents' car to pick Ann up from her house on Ward Parkway. He brought her back to my place, I put my tuxedo on, and I drove Ann to prom. It was just the nature of the beast and what we had to do. Ironically, Notre Dame had their prom the same night and our band was playing the after-party. Ann couldn’t go in with me, so she sat in the car while I played. 
You were the lead singer with Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band, an otherwise all white band in the late 60’s. Tell us something about the band’s context. 
Most of the people in the band and the wider group we ran around with were affluent, with the exception of me and one or two others. The civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and music were the cultural influences of the day. Being on both sides of the civil rights argument meant I was in very separate conversations about central issues. Talking about the Black Panthers with my family around the dinner table was a completely different conversation than the one I had at school the following day. It was a different conversation again than the one I had with the affluent people who hung out with our band. It was cool to be edgy and non-conformist in the 60's and I was certainly a non-conformist.
How did you handle the tensions as a teenager?
At school I didn’t know everybody but everybody knew me because of the color of my skin. I’ve always been outspoken and I’m not timid, so I ended up in leadership positions both in school and outside school. As a leader I was able to set my own agenda somewhat. That helped a lot. I made good grades and worked hard. I left home my senior year to live on my own and drew out the money I’d made to pay my school tuition – school was very important to me. I continued being in the band, that helped too.  

Photo by Tom Morse-Brown

Photo by Tom Morse-Brown

My parents were traditional, relatively poor, black people and extremely suspicious of the white man. Later, they started making money for themselves and became Republicans. The kids in my school and their families were equally suspicious about the black community. They were just not sure they wanted black people in their neighborhood. 
I didn’t really have as much suspicion of white people, neither did I have an immediate acceptance of what black people said about white people. I was accused by my neighborhood of not being black enough and on the other side in the white community, I was way too black. This tension still persists today. 
Who have been your key mentors in life?
Two major people greatly shaped me and meant a great deal to me. The first was my Father. He was a mentor in a very silent and powerful way. Just watching him struggling in life and eventually succeeding, watching him maintain a strong sense of self and his own identity when he succeeded was very powerful. He was a direct and simple man with a lot of character and dignity. 
The other key mentor was the senior partner—Bill Sanders Senior—in the law firm I joined when I first started practicing law. He taught me how to be a professional within the profession that I had chosen. A handshake from him was very important to me. He had a very keen mind and he was somewhat experimental. I remember he took me to trial with him and he turned to me (as we were picking the jury) and said, “You do it”. I’d never done this before, but he let me go on up and bumble and stumble around. He had arranged it with the judge ahead of time. He was a great mentor. When I told him I was leaving the firm, he cried.
Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services, suggests that Troost isn’t just a dividing line in our city, it’s a dividing line in our heartsWould you talk about your vision for the future of Troost? 
It matters where you live, what it looks like, and how it feels. Physical changes and development are badly needed for the area. There’s need for infrastructure to attract further development in order to stimulate economic activity and jobs. But at the end of the day the whole concept of Troost, in my opinion, is much more psychological than physical. The psychological has driven the physical. I have hope that the physical development will help drive the psychological. The question is, who is going to be the developer of the psychology of the heart and soul of this area?
This is what you guys at Reconciliation Services are doing. You meet people where they are, as they come to you, in a way that lifts them up, regardless of what side of Troost Avenue they live on. I’m much aware of your trauma focused approach as you interact with people at RS. Trauma doesn’t always mean that you’ve been shot or beaten. Trauma can be atmospheric. You feel it and you’re affected by it! There are very few places in the Troost area where you’ll find an atmosphere permeated with reconciliation and peace. 
The importance of RS is greater than it’s ever been. There has to be some way of addressing people who are so adversely affected by the wage gap, by poverty, by education systems that have not worked to their advantage for a long time. There has been dis-investment, lack of opportunity and, therefore, there is lack of hope. Without RS, the people of 31st and Troost and the surrounding areas will be a lot worse off. If RS can do more than what they currently do the neighborhood will be a lot better off and so will our city at large.
What would be the one thing you’ve learned from your personal life experience that you would like to share with others?
I learned in the Marine Corps that I could pretty much accomplish anything in life that I wanted if I just kept with it. The Marine Corps taught me to be mentally tough. There were many times I wanted to crawl in a hole and quit, but I didn’t. I learned that no matter how bad things look today, if I show up tomorrow they won’t be as bad. I’ve learned to look at what I do have as opposed to what I don’t have. I think that keeps me happier.
A core value of RS is to reveal the strengths of the people around us. How have you tried to see strength and possibility in others?
I try very hard not to accept the visual first impression as being true, in most instances. I believe every individual person has something of value that they can leave you with. I’ve been blessed with the breadth of people I’ve come across in my life in so many different places. When I left home at 16, I was homeless. I remember sleeping on the steps of the Art Gallery in the summer time. There was a bunch of us runaways there who needed a place to crash. Some guy—who initially looked really weird—offered me something to eat. After spending time listening to him I realized that he was very different than what I first thought.
If you spend time with people ... if we will listen and empathize a little bit, a connection can happen. If we give people a chance they are likely to surprise us. I like to think I surprise people!

mental toughness.JPG

This blog is excerpted from an extensive interview on 9-9-16 by Father Justin Mathews, RS Executive Director, and Lyn Morse-Brown of Morse-Brown Creative. Written by Lyn Morse-Brown.

Venerating People Over Place

When we said goodbye to the suburbs a few years ago and bought a house east of Troost in KC the irony was not lost on me. We might have looked like one of those families that was sloughing off the confines of suburbia with its immaculate lawns, cul de sacs, and conformity. People may have thought we were on a mission to snatch up an old home for a steal and buy into the increasingly popular urban lifestyle.

This resurgence of city living is very much fixed on the place, the location, the older homes, and interesting architecture in the city scape, or even nearby pubs and artsy shops.

But my family—my husband, three young boys and myself—didn’t move to Hyde Park or Westport where the cool factor is significantly greater. We chose east of Troost, what seemed to many like an identity-less, rougher part of town that was more of a passageway to other places rather than a desirable destination in its own right.

We moved because we wanted to be close to our church and the community we had been growing to love through ministry work at Reconciliation Services at 31st and Troost. It wasn’t about the place or the location. It was about entering into a community where our hearts were called to struggle and to love others.

I didn’t want to be some outsider family that was moving east of Troost to fix things, fix people. I wanted to blend in, to really enter in and to be a part, to be authentic. This is where I wanted to build community afterall.

The fact is however, that I don’t blend in very well. I’m a middle-class, white woman who moved to a predominantly African American community that is economically stressed. I am like the poster woman for gentrification. I move to a depressed part of town and I bring my ideas of community—what that looks like and who belongs there—with me. I want to restore my old house and beautify my garden. I also want safer streets and better quality shops nearby. I want a place that feels good, beautiful and safe.

In the midst of this struggle and tension I have this little mantra: People over place. When I am daydreaming about the mountains or the ocean, when I fantasize about some beautiful paradise or an amazing new house, I remind myself that my deepest desire is always to put people over place. It has so little to do with me impacting someone else and so much more to do with me striving to see beauty and truth in others, in myself even.

The core mission of Reconciliation Services is to reveal the strengths of those we serve, to restore dignity. This mission can bring the kind of development and restoration that really offers lasting change - it is the development and restoration of people. It isn’t some underground initiative to fix or change people but rather a sincere working together to bring to light what is good and true and beautiful - what is already there waiting to be revealed.

Restoration can’t help but alter things. When you move into an old house and labor over renovating and restoring it, you alter it. When we move to a different part of town, where people have different backgrounds and different struggles to us, when we get to know the people around us—us sharing with them and them sharing with us—we alter one another.

I’ve decided that this idea of blending into my neighborhood is not really possible for me. I  want to be light, to love. Light and love alter things. They spill over onto the people around them and they permeate the places they inhabit. But I also want to find ways to see light and love in my neighbor, understand better who they are and what makes them precious.

These connections are so much easier to make with people who are like me. There are some neighbors around me with similar values and backgrounds who have proven to be easy company. But what about the man named John who walks down my street daily to the gas station to get a beer? What about Tamika, who lost her dog recently and lives alone? What about Charles who seems to drink the day away on his front porch? What about the older ladies in the nice house that rarely come outside? What about the family that rents “that” house at the end of the block?

These folks are every bit a part of my community yet so unknown to me. They are more important than the old houses and the latest city plan to better the neighborhood. But man, it sure is easier to hone in on those measurable initiatives, to change the look and feel of the neighborhood than it is to discover the inherent beauty of the people who occupy the neighborhood and to honor their history and struggle.  

It doesn’t really matter if our heart’s path leads us through the wilderness or the urban landscape. The place is just the place. But the people, the people are everything.

Article by Jodi Mathews