New generation prepares to fight for civil rights

As a child, McClain E. Bryant often tagged along with her father to the neighborhood, civic and political meetings he attended throughout Kansas City’s urban core and elsewhere.

Her father, former city councilman Mark S. Bryant, was providing a real-life civics lesson but also helping shape her political future.

Today, Bryant is an associate with the Husch Blackwell law firm and commissioner of the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation. She is among a growing corps of young African-American and Latino professionals who are being groomed for future leadership.

As the nation celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., these emerging leaders see unemployment, education, urban violence, immigration, pay inequality and poverty as the new civil rights frontiers. The political clout claimed by the old guard, they say, hasn’t translated into prosperity.

“We still have an educational system that is not equitably providing the highest quality of education for all students,” said newly elected Missouri state Rep. Randy D. Dunn. “Additionally, too many persons of color find themselves locked out of employment and locked up behind bars. This must change.”

For years, Emanuel Cleaver, Nelson Thompson, Alvin Brooks, Cris Medina and Julia Hill were among those who played an integral role in the area’s quest for racial and economic equality.

But those individuals are in their 60s and older, so the critical challenge is to identify, engage and cultivate the next generation of leaders.

“There are some who recognize the importance of succession planning and are mentoring young people so we are better prepared for the obstacles that we presently face and those that are to come,” said Bryant, 31, who spent last week in Washington, D.C., as a presidential inaugural committee fellow.

One of those mentors is Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who has chosen young professionals under the age of 40 — from different ethnic and racial backgrounds — for 50 of the 200 openings on municipal boards and commissions.

“We need to build bench strength in terms of our leadership,” James said. “We have a lot of bright young people who represent a different approach, a different method of thinking, and their voice needs to be heard and incorporated.”

Similar to Bryant, many of those potential leaders are in their 30s and 40s. They grew up in stable, middle-class families, are college graduates and have focused on their careers.

They are decades removed from overt racism and the blatant discrimination their parents and grandparents endured. The crushing punishment of billy clubs, police dogs and fire hoses has never been a part of their lives. That’s the stuff of black-and-white news clips.

While the early civil rights movement focused on destroying the barriers of discrimination, many of the young leaders say times have changed, and a new direction and new ideas are needed.

“I never thought of myself as a civil rights leader, but I do think of myself as a legacy of those earlier leaders,” said Erika J. Brice, a member of the Kansas City Employees Retirement System Board of Trustees. “There is no replacing those people, but I feel that today calls for a different type of activism because there is a different environment and a different culture and that is what we bring.”

The tactics may be less confrontational than before.

“I believe that through education and philanthropy we can create successful, positive and meaningful impact in our community,” said Randy Lopez, who works for the Shawnee Mission School District in Johnson County.

Yet the effort to engage new leaders is a work in progress, according to those involved.

Several politicians such as Cleaver and Jackson County Legislator James Tindall and groups such as the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and the Urban Summit have done work in that area.

About three years ago, a young professionals group emerged from the Urban Summit. The younger group sought to attract and galvanize 20-something recent college graduates. Maybe the city needed more social outlets and civic and intellectually challenging opportunities for them to remain.

Since then, the young professionals group has sponsored outreach events and other activities, said DaRon McGee, 25, a group organizer and public affairs coordinator for Jackson County COMBAT.

McGee said the mentoring that he and others received from Tindall and Cleaver has been invaluable because they stressed meticulous attention to details when encouraging them to apply for municipal boards and commissions.

“It was things you normally won’t immediately think of, like making sure your taxes were paid,” said McGee, who began working for elected officials as a high school junior.

In 2007, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce created a network for the growing number of college-educated professionals to become civically engaged. The Young Latino Professionals has grown to more than 1,000 members and focuses on various community projects, said Carlos Salazar, a member of the Hispanic Development Fund.

“We have been asking for a level playing field for decades, as every minority group has, but what we have lacked in our community was educated and qualified Latinos, and that was what corporations kept asking for,” Salazar said. “But now we’ve got a group that is 1,000 strong, college-educated, doing good work and volunteering. This is a new era.”

Hispanic leaders also are preparing young professionals to serve on boards, commissions and other civic posts.

Martin Luther King Jr. was in his 20s when he emerged as a national civil rights leader, but some leaders of King’s era have been seen as reluctant to hand over power and responsibility to younger, untested people.

“It has been difficult interacting with those people because they view our youth in a negative way, that because we don’t have the experience they feel like we can’t be effective,” Bryant said. “But we bring other things, a different perspective, a different world view, to the table.”

However, young professionals must be prepared and willing to educate themselves on a variety of issues, said Gwen Grant, president and CEO for the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.

“Having the passion and desire is not enough,” Grant said. “It takes hard work, commitment and time.”

Involving younger professionals became more urgent after the recent municipal and state elections because some people were concerned about the lack of suitable candidates.

“We were pretty much winding up with the same folks,” said Ajamu K. Webster, a former parks board member and president of the Kansas City Black United Front. “There was a need to get some new blood in there.”

Earlier this month, the black political club Freedom Inc. sought to address that and invited about 20 young, black professionals to a brunch meeting at a Country Club Plaza restaurant.

“Many of us have been involved in politics for many, many years. It is past time to engage those younger people, and we specifically are looking at professionals between 25 and 40 who can step into that leadership role,” said longtime Freedom Inc. member Gayle Holliday.

But politics aren’t a panacea.

While African-Americans have ascended to prominent elected and appointed positions, they’re not as visible in the local corporate arena, said Clinton Adams Jr., a longtime community activist and lawyer.

“It is important that the next generation of political leaders succeed where we have failed,” Adams said. “Many of the barriers to access and advancement in public institutions have been removed. However, unless and until we succeed in the private sector, King’s dream will not become a reality.”

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