Five do-gooders quietly make it easier for KC to heart itself
The past couple of years, we’ve marked Valentine’s Day by talking to our crushes: men and women around town who are doing things cool enough to make us swoon a little. This year, we went looking for people who had crushes of their own: on the city. We’re not talking about garden-variety hometown-priders, the “I share too much pro-KC clickbait on Facebook” types. We mean folks who spend their time actively contributing to the improvement of Kansas City and its citizens.
The five individuals we picked — and yes, we know, our list is a couple of thousand people short — direct their energy toward a variety of civic endeavors, from battling predatory lenders to educating teenagers through theater about HIV/AIDS. What they have in common: They impress and inspire us. We hope they impress and inspire you, too.
PICO National Network
Molly Fleming was one of the front-line petition gatherers in the 2012 attempt to ban high-cost payday loans in Missouri. That was the year when the payday industry hired goons to physically prevent people like Fleming from collecting signatures. For days, Fleming and others (including priests) were surrounded by large men who attempted to block them from engaging with citizens. When they spoke, the men screamed, “Liar!”
Owing to a legal technicality (and the mysterious theft of 5,000 signatures from a car in Springfield, Missouri), the payday industry prevailed that year. But Fleming remains undeterred. After four years of working for Communities Creating Opportunities, a local nonprofit that works with religious and community leaders throughout the metro to bring about positive change in inner city neighborhoods, she recently took a position with CCO’s parent organization, PICO (People Improving Communities Through Organizing). As of last month, she heads up PICO’s national effort to kill payday lending.
“It’s the first time I’ve been a part of what’s really a national campaign,” Fleming says. “It’s about developing strategies for how to engage members of Congress, communities, the public with stories about this issue and get the biggest result possible. I’m pretty optimistic at this point about it [payday-lending reform]. I think we’ll be seeing some meaningful changes soon from the CFPB [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau].”
Fleming is a born-and-raised Kansas Citian with 16 years of Catholic schooling (St. Peter’s for grade school, St. Teresa’s Academy for high school, Loyola University Chicago for college) under her belt. Prior to CCO, Fleming participated in the NYC Teaching Fellows program, where she received a master of arts in special education and taught for two years at P.S. 197, in Midwood, Brooklyn. She then attended the University of Iowa, where she got another master’s degree, in urban and regional planning, and worked as a labor union educator. “I knew I wanted to come back to KC and do community-based work, though,” she says.
At CCO, Fleming started by writing grants and working in fund development. In 2012, she began to concentrate almost fully on payday lending. She eventually became policy director for all of CCO’s campaigns, which include Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage and other issues that affect low-income neighborhoods. It’s easy to see why: She seems to know every last thing, citing statistics and walking you through arguments and counterarguments with daunting ease.
But just because her new role is more national in scope doesn’t mean she’s heading off to a coast soon.
“If I wanted to be in D.C., I’d be in D.C.,” she says. “A lot of people think all the big stuff is happening at the national level, but most of the shifting tides are happening in places we’re from. I think it’s kind of, maybe not a brain drain, exactly, but an organizing drain — how many people leave their local communities and go national. I’ll be staying in KC. Everyone I love is here.”
Blue Hills Contractor Incubator
Adrienne Haynes is one of those people for whom business is a pleasure. During law school at the University of Missouri–Kansas City — not exactly a leisurely endeavor — she ran a seasonal house-painting company because, she says, “I didn’t want to lose touch with the business world for three years.”
Since receiving her law degree from UMKC in 2013 (with an emphasis on business and entrepreneurial law), Haynes has had stints at Legal Aid of Western Missouri and the Missouri Court of Appeals. She also started working (and still works) at the Kauffman Foundation, serving as a part-time website liaison between IT and business and law professionals.
But rather than climb a corporate ladder or go for partner at a blue-chip law firm or build her own company, Haynes devotes most of her time to helping others make their business dreams come true. As business development manager of the Blue Hills Contractor Incubator (an arm of Blue Hills Community Services, a nonprofit serving the neighborhood bordered roughly by the Paseo and Prospect, Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and 63rd Street), Haynes heads up an effort that provides office space, training, education and various other resources to small and medium-size contracting companies at below-market-rate levels.
“When I ran my painting company, I knew that if I wanted to take it to the next level, I’d need an office, a fleet of vehicles, employee manuals, guidance on training — infrastructure type of stuff,” Haynes says. “Those are the kinds of things we provide at the Incubator. A lot of small construction companies are working out of their home or a truck. Our goal is to help them get a leg up.”
BHCI has 10 private offices and seven storage units available at its facility at 5008 Prospect. As of now, all are leased. And some are beginning to thrive.
“When you hear ‘incubator,’ you tend to think of a little bitty company that needs help,” Haynes says. “And we have some of those. Our smallest business is about $85,000 in annual revenue. But we also have Lewis Block & Supply Co., which is one of the top-10 largest black-owned companies in the Kansas City area. We’ve got another business that just won a $10 million contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With companies like those, it’s more about helping with infrastructure. In construction, you can have a $10 million company, but if you have high receivables and high expenses, you still might not make any money if you’re not doing things right. So our aim is to assist with that.”
Diversity at BHCI is also a goal for Haynes. Among the current tenants, two are woman-owned, and one is owned by a veteran. There are five black owners, two Latino owners and three Caucasian owners. “It’s a beautiful mix, and when we get together, the camaraderie is real,” Haynes says. “People share best practices and horror stories. It’s a real community. I’ve always believed that all kinds of people are capable of business success regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, and we’re proving that here.”
Michael Andrew Smith
Dramatic Health Education Project: STDs/HIV
In 1993, the Coterie Theatre partnered with the University of Kansas Medical Center and the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine to create what is now known as the Dramatic Health Education Project. The program sends actors and medical students into local junior-high and high schools, where they perform before students as teenage HIV-positive characters. Then the lights come up, and they engage the students in a discussion, and answer questions about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Michael Andrew Smith became involved with DHEP in its second year. He was 18 years old and fresh out of high school. “It was such a gift to be able to participate in it,” he says. “Not just because I’d lost friends to AIDS, but also as an actor — it was fun, and we even got paid.” (DHEP is funded through donations from individuals and corporations.)
Smith acted in the program for several years. Then, he says, “At a certain point, no high school student on the planet could realistically believe I was a teenager anymore.” So he moved into his current role as co-director of the program. He builds the curriculum, is the lead trainer for the Q&A process, and helps write and update the scripts. (“The facts about AIDS are so different today than they were when I first started,” Smith says. “It used to be a thing where you had five years, maybe seven years to live after being diagnosed. Now, with the right treatment and medication, you can live a relatively normal life.”)
Today, DHEP reaches 7,500 students (from eighth grade through high school) each year, and the program estimates that it has been in front of 150,000 students since its inception. Actors are recruited through the Coterie’s annual call for auditions; they try out for the program as well as for the Coterie’s plays. In addition to medical and nursing students from UMKC and KU, the group also includes recruits from UMKC’s School of Pharmacy, Smith says. The med students rarely have much experience in public speaking, so he likes the challenge of coaxing their dramatic sides from them. And he has found that they’re often eager to be involved.
“We just walk into a med-school class with 55 pizzas and say, ‘Here’s the program. Please sign up. You get paid,'” he says. “The response is usually pretty overwhelming.”
Smith is also a musician — he plays guitar in Megan Birdsall’s band — and works a 9-to-5 corporate gig. But his work with DHEP is what most excites him.
“My mother’s a social worker. My father was a hospital chaplain. My sister’s a teacher,” he says. “I come from a family where that’s what you’re supposed to do — where it’s like, ‘You gotta be out there doing good for folks, or else what are you doing?'”
He adds: “And besides that, I really love that this [DHEP] is such a novel program. There’s not much else like it. The arts and medicine don’t often interact, so it’s cool to be around people who are on their way to being doctors or professional actors, and everybody’s developing these overlapping skill sets. Even when we’re talking about disgusting syphilitic injuries, it’s always fun.”
816 Bicycle Collective
Idris Raoufi’s views on urban planning in Kansas City border on bleak.
“KC is one of the most underplanned municipalities in the United States,” Raoufi says. “We’re 30 years behind the curve with land use, neighborhood preservation, municipal services, community health. There’s been almost no emphasis on planning for the future.”
But even in challenging environments, dedicated souls tend to locate niches in which a difference might be made. Raoufi’s niche: the 816 Bicycle Collective, where he focuses his energy when he’s not working his day job as a transportation planner for Wilson & Co., an engineering and architecture firm.
The 816 Bicycle Collective is a free community bike shop, staffed by volunteers who repair bikes and teach commuters how to do the same: how to adjust the brakes, how to change a flat, how to fix a derailleur, even how to build a bike from scratch. “People who rely on a bike to get to work — many of whom realistically can’t afford to ride the bus — are in large part the people who visit us,” Raoufi says. “There’s a large population of people in this city that gets around by bike, and our main function is to empower those people with the knowledge to fix their own bikes.”
Raoufi co-founded the collective in 2008 with Suzanne Hogan, Kirk McDowell-Shafer, Bri Lauterbach and Sean Eagan. For now, it’s located in a back alleyway off Troost, at 3116 Forest. But in late spring or early summer, it’s moving to a more visible location, in the Union Hill neighborhood. Two years ago, at the Jackson County delinquent-tax auction, the organization purchased three buildings near the corner of 31st Street and Cherry.
“We got these three buildings on the same parcel in incredible condition, in a great location,” Raoufi says. “We had no intention of actually getting them. But nobody else bid on them.”
Thanks to donations at the shop, heavily discounted services from a friendly contractor and $32,000 netted from a 2013 crowdfunding campaign, the 816 Bicycle Collective has gradually renovated the properties. The new space will be multifaceted, housing the collective as well as its parent organization, the KC Bicycle Federation. The goal is to have leasable spaces in the other buildings that will generate revenue to fund the operations of the bike collective and pay for expenses associated with upkeep. “Ideally, we’d be leasing to like-minded nonprofits,” Raoufi says.
A self-sustaining hub for cycling advocacy: not bad for a town that historically has been less-than-progressive on transportation issues.
“There’s a lot you can do here that you can’t do in other cities,” Raoufi says, sounding a little more optimistic. “It’s why the collective has been able to do what it’s done so far. The work I’m passionate about is taking technical abilities I learned in school and helping advance disenfranchised communities to take better hold of the development of their neighborhoods. If you tried to do that in lots of other cities, you’d be dealing with higher real estate [costs], scarcer resources, more competition. This is a city of great opportunity if you’re aware of it.”
KCKPL Mobile Library
Last summer, Jessica McClanahan enrolled in the training program that all school-bus drivers in the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools must pass. Her goal wasn’t to haul students to and from class every weekday, though. She had recently been hired to help launch the KCKPL Mobile Library, an enterprising new branch of the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library.
The Mobile Library is more or less what it sounds like: a modified, 37-foot school bus outfitted with shelving, electricity, Web access, computers, CDs, DVDs and, of course, books.
“People walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is like a real library!'” McClanahan says.
McClanahan serves as the Mobile Library associate, a communications-centric role, alongside Sandra Finley, the mobile librarian. (They take turns behind the wheel.) Prior to the vehicle’s October 2014 launch, McClanahan spent months forging partnerships in KCK and scouting locations to serve as weekly “stops”: community centers, churches, preschools, playgrounds, nursing homes, senior housing, and other places where access to a regular library branch might be limited. The Mobile Library now follows a regular schedule of stops throughout eastern Wyandotte County that repeats biweekly. (Look for it online at kckpl.org). And in its first four months, it served more than 3,700 KCK residents.
“I’ve been surprised by how popular it is with seniors,” McClanahan says. “A lot of the kids have computers at school, so the laptops aren’t as big a deal to them. But older people often don’t have regular access to computers or the Internet. For the most part, they’re able-bodied and mentally aware. They’ve just never really had access to the technology. So part of what we end up doing is teaching them the basics: This is how you use a mouse, here’s how to drag and drop, this is how you right-click.”
Otherwise, things are library-as-usual. “We run the checkout desk, help patrons, rotate the collection, teach workshops, make displays and create fun events,” McClanahan says.
“Some of the people we visit hadn’t used a library in six or seven years, and now they get to browse books every two weeks when we show up at their door,” she continues. “And not just books — it’s movies, it’s access to popular culture. Even Facebook. It feels like we’re helping people connect, or reconnect, with culture in general. And it’s really gratifying to pull up to a place where the people are so excited to see you.”