Samella Myers Gates was used to leading the way toward change, both professionally and personally.
Myers Gates — a former teacher, city department head and community organizer — died Jan. 28. She was 94.
She was a longtime familiar face to those working on urban affairs issues and the anti-poverty movement, and she advocated for more citizen involvement in local government decisions.
“She first stepped forward as a community volunteer to help organize and encourage community involvement in the process,” said her son, Dave Smith. “That’s her nature — once she got involved she was all in. Her eventual professional role came from that.”
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Myers Gates would go on to be the first female urban affairs department head for the city of Kansas City, Mo.
“A lot of her work involved her being the first woman and first black woman in a role,” said a friend, Stacey Daniels-Young.
Her work often intersected with issues of equality and civil rights. She was a lifelong member of the NAACP and was involved with the League of Women Voters.
“Her ancestors were born into slavery,” Smith said. “She had a keen sense of pride about her race and was always concerned with how do you improve the plight.”
She taught at the Hiram Young School in Independence, a school founded for African-American students. She was the founder and volunteer director of the local chapter’s Homework Hotline Program for school-aged students, and worked extensively with the Girl Scouts and Operation Breakthrough.
“It was important to her to set an example and mentor the other women who came behind her,” Smith said.
Though she retired from the city in 1983, Myers Gates never lost touch with current affairs and was known for her direct and open commentary on what was going on in the world..
For Daniels-Young, Myers Gates was a pseudo mother and a close friend, but she was also a mentor on how to navigate governmental work.
The role came naturally to the former teacher.
“She loved to share her knowledge with people,” Daniels-Young, the director of the Jackson County COMBAT program, said. “She mentored so many different people in so many different areas.”
Myers Gates’ example came home with her at the end of the day. The single parent of five boys wouldn’t allow mediocre performance or behavior, and her dedication to community issues didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’ve always said if I could be half as good as she was in our common role as administrators and organizational leaders, I’d be very satisfied,” Smith said.
Smith is the director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City.
Her leadership was noticed by those outside her personal circle, too.
Over the years, she garnered several awards and accolades, including the 2010 National Forum of Black Public Administrator Marks of Excellence Award. She was also inducted into the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center Hall of Fame.