Race Relations + KC = A Unique Opportunity

An author by the name of Tanner Colby wrote the book, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America.  As a teacher consultant for the Greater Kansas City Writing Project this is a book we study in our Summer Institute to help us address social justice matters we see playing out in our classrooms and communities.  In this book, he outlines that despite laws put in place to mandate integration we, as humans, found a way to continue segregating through four key areas: busing in public education,  restrictive covenants and the birth of suburbia in real estate, marketing and advertising in the media, and religious beliefs.  His book is broken up into these for key areas, with the second part–restrictive covenants and blockbusting–focusing solely on Kansas City.

J.C. Nichols, a real-estate mogul in the area at that time, was not just a key player in making this happen, he was the player.  With direct ties to the federal government and FHA he, quite literally, singlehandedly created the suburbs of Johnson County and built the “Troost Wall” of racial divide in our city.  Fact: to this very day there is not a pizza joint on the west side of Troost that will deliver to the east side of Troost.  If you live on the east side, pizza delivery is a luxury you do not have.  These facts and many others are uncovered as the reader finds the immense amount of work left to do to address race relations in this country.  If you are an American citizen, this book is an essential read.

some of my best friends

A part of our Writing Project Summer Institute work is a “Taking Action” piece that addresses how participants will leave this experience to make positive change regarding these issues where they see them.  The first year we worked with this text many participants simply took the step in adding this book to their curriculum so they could teach their students the unique history Kansas City holds in race relations.  This book offers a much more realistic and balanced view than focusing only on MLK, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom March.  The whole country was involved and we omit some very significant content in our retelling of this history.

From this simple step two things happened: a field trip was put in place by way of bus tour  for students metro-wide so they could experience their city in connection to what they read about it in the text.  After the tour students then went back to write from a stance of place and have discussions about social justice issues facing our city.  The writing and discussion that came from this was powerful, and people started hearing about it.  After all, kids from across the city were coming together for a field trip.  Never had this been done in an organized way and around such compelling topics in need of discussion.

As this was happening in public schools, the second thing happened: Tanner Colby came to Kansas City through a series of visits he had set up with the Johnson County Library to discuss his book and race relations in KC.  All of us at the Writing Project jumped on, informing him and the library of all the work we had done with his book.  The movement was gaining momentum.  We were able to speak to him through a conference call to get more ideas in taking this back to our classrooms, as well as his insight on the best way to approach this topic responsibly with kids.  Since his speaking forums had already been set up through the library we were able to bring in kids from the classrooms who’d studied his text and been on the bust tour to talk about race in KC.  To hear what these students had to say was, in a word, humbling.  To say the energy at the start of the discussion was awkward is an understatement, but by the end it was something intangible and awe-inspiring.

So, where are we now?  Johnson Country Libraries are working on getting Tanner to make a five-year commitment to KC.  We are currently working to get him scheduled to return in the fall of 2016.  So, over this next year we have developed what it being called the Teacher Summit.  This group of teachers spans pre-K through collegiate with our primary work focused on how to get this discussion in classrooms at all levels, K-12.  The team of librarians we are working with in Johnson County have connections to Mid-Continent so this work can spread more largely on the Missouri side as well.  I am working directly with them to create ways to make this conversation accessible and appropriate at the elementary level.  If you have any interest it being a part of the Teacher Summit, please let me know.  Or if you cannot make that commitment, but want to bring this work into your classroom we can arrange that as well.  I am energized with where this work is headed and cannot wait to see students from all over the metro coming together for a unifying purpose.

In the meantime, you should check out this podcast:


It’s hosted by Tanner Colby, along with two other authors of books addressing race in our country–Baratunde Thurston (African American) and Raquel Cepeda (Dominican American).  This leads to balanced, intellectual discussion on matters that need balance and intellect.

As we continue to see racial issues play out in the media almost daily, more often than not the question becomes, “How close are we to putting all this behind us?”  In short, we aren’t. And in all honesty I’m not sure an issue such as this one can ever truly be “behind us.”  This is going to be  facing us for years to come. We have to learn how to come to the table to discuss it in a way that makes progress.  Not a way that turns to politics or a diatribe.  This is not an issue to be solved by politics, it’s an issue to be solved by humanity.  It’s on us, as humans, to come together with open ears and minds ready to listen.  I know that sounds very kumbaya-ish, but in truth we have to stop looking to someone else to solve the problem and start looking within ourselves.  That’s when change is made.  Do you want to be a part of it?

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