The long shadow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marches with Brent A. Stewart daily at the United Way of Greater Kansas City.
“I think there’s a direct tie, not just with myself but anyone sitting in a seat of corporate America or major responsibility who is a person of color, not just an African-American,” said Stewart, president and CEO of the United Way since 2008.
King’s dream was for color not to be a deterrent so African-Americans’ hard work, know-how and moxie could fuel their success and they could help others achieve, too.
“The responsibility around that has been so heavy, particularly for those in the public light,” Stewart said.
“That’s part of what keeps me up at night,” he said. “I recognize that my success is tied to people in the city getting the help they need and tied to other blacks aspiring to get to this level. It’s just always on my mind.”
He remembers segregation and blacks being excluded from stores. In his high school class of 600, only 16 were African-American; three went to college.
As the youngest of seven children in Lancaster, Pa., Stewart was the first in his family to go to college.
“My whole family put everything they had in me to go to college to be successful,” he said. “I think about that real hard and about all the dreams they were unable to achieve. They are achieving them through me. That’s a lot of weight to carry.”
He chose Howard University, where he got his bachelor’s degree and Penn State University, where he received a master’s in regional planning. Stewart also pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, the same black fraternity King joined.
“In my mind it was in the tradition of Dr. King,” Stewart said. He wanted to continue the work particularly in the fight against poverty serving people who are under-served and voiceless.
The United Way made that possible. Stewart was the first African-American United Way CEO in Battle Creek, Mich., in the early 1990s; Everett, Wash., in the late 1990s; and then in Portland, Ore., before coming to Kansas City.
The civil rights movement has always been the guiding hand in the work he does. He knows the poverty, substance abuse and violence of cities. His oldest sister died of drug abuse, and as a child he was served breakfast in a program for low-income students.
“It keeps me highly motivated,” said Stewart, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century.
He says that in a perfect world, poverty would be eradicated by 2063. But for that to happen, organizations such as the United Way will have to do more to mobilize a broader, more diverse group of people. The dream of ending poverty and the nagging disparities will have to be articulated better to be wiped out.
“Without changing those disparities, not only will we always see poverty, we’ll see the gaps get bigger and the disparities will only deepen,” Stewart said. “There is an urgency of now.”
Stewart wants African-Americans involved in the decision-making. “A possible impediment is trust — that people of color trust that their voice will be heard and respected,” he said.
The digital divide also has to be eliminated and schools improved. Education is essential for civil rights advances, Stewart said.
Programs to help dropouts ages 16 to 24 get high school equivalency diplomas and other projects providing families with budget counseling and financial literacy are getting people ready for success in the next 50 years.
“I have a lot of optimism about the future,” Stewart said. “We are working smarter as a community. We hold ourselves accountable.”
That’s progress. The movement just must energize more people like Stewart.