Kendael Armstead was 14 years old when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Kendael was confused and frustrated.
“I don’t want to be another Trayvon Martin,” he tells me. Trayvon, who was black, was walking through a Florida neighborhood in his hoodie when Zimmerman suspected the worst and shot him. Three years ago this week, Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of the unarmed teenager who was simply walking home.
“I respect people. I respect cops,” Kendael says. “I have been on field trips to police stations. I just feel bad that people look at us as a danger. It’s something you can’t really put into words. I don’t see change happening until there’s more visibility that will shine a light on all of us and get rid of the stereotypes.”
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Kendael is 17 — the same age Trayvon was. The Kansas City teen works at Ruby Jean’s Juicery, where I met the freckle-faced, brown-skinned boy who smiles at every person who walks through the door. And he rides his bike everywhere: to work, to volunteer, to Allen Village School (his favorite subject is engineering) and to hang out on the Plaza — he gets the most stares there.
“There are white people who stare at me like I am up to no good,” he says. “But there are white people who compliment me, too. They like my bike and my speaker.”
But people are almost always shocked when he tells them he makes the speakers himself. “It’s hard for them to believe because it doesn’t fit the stereotypes,” he says. “But at the same time, it diffuses the stereotypes.”
With Bluetooth wiring, tiny speakers and a little electrical ingenuity, Kendael transforms Gatorade bottles into small speakers that fit inside a bike’s water bottle holder. Since you can’t wear headphones and bike for safety reasons, he designed a way to enjoy Kendrick Lamar and Drake while cruising through the city. He added a light to the speaker to alert drivers he is on the road at night.
He debuted his creation at the Maker Faire invention showcase at Union Station last month.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t expect a young black man to be a maker. There’s not a lot of visibility. But so many kids came up to me and wanted kits so they could learn how to make speakers, too. I want to help teach them how. I want to be a positive example for them.”
His fascination with electronics began as a third-grader at the former Derrick Thomas Academy.
“It was a class project and we built a circuit to power a bulb. I remember when that bulb lit up, it’s like a spark went off for me. As I grew up I started taking things apart like headphones and radio control cars. By high school, I was taking apart computers and speakers. It was pretty fascinating.”
Now he is working on his own company, Armstead Electronics. He recently won a small Prep KC scholarship. He wants to study business management in college — it’s why he works at the juice shop.
Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s Juicery, visited Allen Village School. Kendael hadn’t met many black business owners.
“I didn’t anticipate having the platform to educate and inspire,” Chris tells me, “but owning Ruby Jean’s has created the opportunity to make a difference. I came up under my father, a hard-nosed businessman. So I want to help teach kids how to think ahead, how to nurture a vision — especially as young black kids.”
Chris hired Kendael after getting an email from him.
“He’s special. He was willing to volunteer if he had to,” Chris says. “He just wanted to be a part of it, to learn what it takes to run a business.”
But Chris also worries about the young man and the struggles he’ll face because of his blackness.
“I used to work insurance claims,” Chris says. “I have made appointments over the phone with clients and showed up in person in uniform ready to write a check, and they were nervous to open the door. I had to work 10 times harder than my counterparts to overcome stereotypes and create comfort. I have seen Kendael riding around on his bike. I worry that people will see him as a threat, even though he’s not.”
Kendael’s mom has those same concerns. Every day before he leaves the house, Lashauna Armstead tells her son she loves him and she tells him to be safe. He has to check in throughout the day. His parents have taught him to be smart and respectful, and if he’s ever stopped by the police to comply and call home.
“There’s a lot of violence and racial profiling,” she says. “There’s a lot of things going on out there in the world we can’t control. I can’t shield him from it. But I want to prepare him for it so when he gets out in the real world he can adjust to it. He thinks I am not giving him space because I hover; I have to know where he is. But I have to be that way because things are happening to our young black youth.”
But compliance and communication are just part of it.
“He is a very good, educated boy. He has never had lower than 3.0 GPA. He works hard. He volunteers. It’s important to give back to the community you live in. He’s on the student council, he’s a member of Urban Rangers (a mentor group for inner city kids), and we instill a strong work ethic into him so that as his two little sisters grow up they will follow in his footsteps.”
Lashauna says it’s hard raising a young black man with so many outside factors, but she’s proud of her son.
“I really think he’s on his way. He’s going to college; he’s going to be a very good businessman and mentor. We really have been on a journey.”
Kendael knows his mother wants him to be successful. He wants that for himself. But he says as a young black male he knows that means he has to shatter the way people view him.
“Sometimes I feel anxiety about the way people see me. I try to wave it off. I don’t want it to control me. But it’s hard to do when I sometimes worry that it could be my mom’s last day, my dad’s last day, my sisters’ last day or my last day because of the color of my skin. I am not a stereotype.”