Tuesday, October 15, 2013


When we first moved to Johnson County, KS, I was twelve.  Mom suggested we drive around to see the neighborhoods.

"We can show Becky Mission Hills," Mom said.

"Instead of showing Becky the richest part of town, I'd rather drive her to the ghetto to show her how good she's got it," my dad countered.

They never did either.  My parents at the time were homebodies, more content to sit in their living room after a long day at their white-collar accounting jobs, watching TV, Dad dropping popcorn onto his chest hairs peeping out of his undershirt, Mom draped in whatever afghan she was crocheting or blanket she was quilting or clay she was molding or colors she was painting.  Mom is the kind of person who can't do just one thing at a time.  She can't just sit and watch TV.  She has to craft and watch TV.  She can't clean the house unless she's also listening to music.  Some of my favorite childhood memories are of watching mom dust the living room while we listened to her eight-track tape of Queen's "A Night at the Opera".  She sings along.

So I never did get a chance to drive around much until I met some friends with cars and a sense of adventure.  Still though, Kansas City is a sprawling town.  I've lived in the Greater Kansas City area since I was six years old, and yet there are many neighborhoods I have never seen.

I finally got to visit one of them yesterday.  For my job at the public library system on the other side of town, I took a tour of the LH Bluford Library in the inner city, the traditionally "black" part of town.  Many middle-class African-Americans have migrated to the suburbs, so today the area around Bluford is primarily black and poor.

The tour was fascinating.  The building itself is quite nice.  They remodeled it in 2010.  It's open and inviting, painted in vivid colors, orange and purple.  There's lots of space for teens, free computers, free wifi, and a big meeting room where they conduct children's programs and other community events such as an exercise class a couple of times a week and periodic health and wellness screenings.

Here's an informative blurb from their website.  They can say it better than I can:

The Bluford Branch Library is located in Kansas City's east side. Along with its strong collections in African American literature it is the first library in the Kansas City Public Library system to host a Health & Wellness Center. Among the amenities in the Center are specialized collections featuring extensive materials on topics ranging from teen pregnancy to diabetes; health kits for adults and teens containing books, DVDs, brochures, and articles relating to particular ailments, conditions, and diseases; and a machine to measure blood pressure. Also, a series of special programs take place on a monthly basis featuring health experts, healthcare industry job fairs, workshops, and health screenings.

The branch is named after Lucile H. Bluford, a local civil rights activist and managing editor of The Kansas City Call newspaper who spent her fascinating life working for civil rights and building a strong community in Kansas City.  There's an exhibit about her life and her work at the front entrance of the building.

There are posters on the walls throughout the building featuring local historical figures who have helped shaped the community.  Reading about these people and what they did for the community strengthens the connection to the neighborhood.

One of the best programs the library offers is for teens.  They periodically charter a bus and take trips to different parts of the city to experience culturally significant events, such as attending the ballet, going to Powell Gardens, eating dinner at a nice sit-down restaurant in the fancy part of town called The Plaza, and other field trips that allow these children to experience life in a way they never have before.  The woman giving the tour, branch manager April Roy, explained to us that some of these kids had never eaten at a sit-down restaurant where you order off a menu.  They saw big pitchers full of ice water and freshly sliced lemons.  Several of the kids exclaimed, "Oh, do we get to have some of that?"  Ice water with lemons.  This is what kids who have lived in poverty their entire lives think is a treat.

One program the library offers in its large meeting room is an after-school meal program featuring food from Harvesters, a local food pantry, for kids who might not get a decent meal until they go to school the next morning.  The money it takes to fund the program will be cut in a few days if the federal government continues to be shut down.  The government shutdown is affecting a children's nutrition program.  Kids aren't going to get the fresh food they need to nourish their growing bodies and minds.

This library is in one of Kansas City's most poverty stricken areas.  When the Kansas City Missouri School district lost their accreditation a few years ago, those who had the means to left, so the area's population has dwindled.  Most of the people left in the area are senior African-Americans who have lived in their homes for decades.  There must be some younger people, parents, somewhere.  At low-wage jobs.  If they're lucky to be employed.  There are condemned houses in the area where criminal activities take place.  Wherever the parents are, the kids in the area are often unsupervised, so the library has become a safe haven for them.

My favorite quote from this tour came after someone asked if they ask patrons to get off the computer if they're "just playing games" rather than doing research.

Ms. Roy laughed and said, "No.  Everyone in this library is entitled to their 60 minutes of internet time.  If that guy wants to spend his 60 minutes playing Bejeweled, so what?  It's his 60 minutes.  It might be the only 60 minutes of his day he's not under stress.  No I'm not going to tell him he can't play his game!"

Empathy.  The Bluford library has it.

I wish we lived in a country where rich white men in Congress would forget about greed, forget about party lines and lobbyists and all their political addictions and wake up from their greed-addled fog.  People all across this country, not just this one community I had the honor to visit yesterday, need help.  Those of us who are in positions where we can help them must do so.  End the government shutdown so great programs that help people rise up and find knowledge and develop a sense of themselves as empowered people worthy of a life of their making can continue.