“When you have the chance to impact a child’s life, and you don’t do it, you have committed a sin.  When you have an opportunity to do it and you do, then you’ve helped give that child an opportunity to succeed.” – Sly James. Photo courtesy Mayor Sly James Facebook. 

Mayor Sly James:  A Passion for Purpose

By Brad Lucht

Mayor Sly James is counting down the days, nay, the hours, until his time in office is over.  Rest and relaxation are in his future, but he still made time to sit down with the Martin City Telegraph to talk about his new book, his successes (and one regrettable failure) as mayor and his plans for the future.

A Passion for Purpose

Mayor James has written a book, titled “A Passion for Purpose.”  It is a story about growing up in Kansas City, his time in the Marine Corps, practicing law, and serving as mayor.

James explained how the book came about.

“My wife (Licia) had talked to me a long time ago and said, ‘You really ought to do something.’  And I’d say, “Yeah, sure, right, everybody says that.”  

James had observed how hard his wife, an art historian, had worked on her Ph.D. dissertation.  She traveled to Senegal twice. She visited graveyards all around the country. When he saw how much effort she put into it, he said to himself, “Well, maybe not.”

But then his daughter Aja wrote a children’s book, “Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie.”  It’s a story of where the bow tie spins and takes the mayor to different points in Kansas City’s history.   His daughter’s publisher told him, “You really ought to write a book, and here’s how you can do it.” He thought about it for a while, and said, “What the hell!  If I don’t do this, I’ll wind up lying on my death bed saying, ‘I wish I would have.’ So I did it. It was an interesting, fun exercise.

“I like the story of the Dowdy trial.  That was a huge thing, and really cool.  I like talking about growing up in my house with my brothers and my mother and father when I was a kid until I left home. I tried to put things in there I thought were important to me.”

In the 2011 Dowdy case, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District, Division Two, ruled that the defendant, Neil Dowdy, did not consent to taking of his blood in a non-DUI case, and this taking was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.

James found the writing experience cathartic.  

“You get to say things you’ve been thinking about for a long time.  It was actually fun. I’m happy with the result and actually proud of it.”

James has begun work on another book, one focused on political policy.  

“It has a whole different tone and tenor; it’s a different process.  There’s a lot more research involved in it.”

Taking Some Time Off

After eight years in the spotlight, Mayor James is ready for some time off.  He is heading to Tahoe as soon as he is out of office, taking his entire family with him, including the grandkids and the dogs.  

His daughter and daughter-in-law, the planners, have made arrangements for sailing and a catamaran. 

 After that?  

“I’m not going to be on a schedule, I’m not going to make any plans” a determined James said.

“I’m waking up when I’m waking up.  I’m going to sleep when I go to sleep.  I don’t want to hear any crap,” he said with a smile.  

What He’ll Miss

James said he enjoyed working with mayors around the country.  He values the exchange of ideas amongst people who share the same problems and bring different ideas.  

He plans to continue to work on these collaborations.

“We’ve got work that will keep us in contact.  So that’s going to be good.”

Another thing he values is being privy to what’s going on behind the scenes.

“It’s always nice to have the inside knowledge; you know what’s going on.  But I’ll find ways to do that as well, staying involved in the issues that we want to stay involved in. “

Sly James book “A Passion for Purpose”

What He Won’t Miss

There was a long pause when asked this question.

“I’m not sure I’m going to miss that much, to be real honest.

“One thing I won’t miss are the interminable, back-to-back, unending, mind-numbing  meetings. Eight years of meeting after meeting after meeting. So then you can go meet and meet some more to talk about the meeting you had and the meeting that you’re planning so you can talk about how you need another meeting to do all the other meetings because you’ve just done all the meetings.  Meeting, meeting, meeting. Give me a break with meetings. I won’t miss that,” he said with some exasperation.

What Programs Does He Take the Most Pride In?

James loves the street car.  He’s glad there is finally a grocery store at Linwood and Troost.  He feels finishing the Aldi’s at at 39th & Prospect was long overdue.   He says all those things were great, and someone would have gotten to them sooner or later.  But what he really takes pride in are two little -noticed youth programs.

James is passionate about the importance of third-grade reading proficiency.   When he came into office in 2011, the average third-grade proficiency around the city was 38%.  In the Kansas City Public School System, it was 19%. Further, 75% of kids that don’t read proficiently at the end of third grade never catch up.  Then there is this kicker. The most common reading level in prison is fourth grade. James understood how important it was to focus on those years before a child gets to third grade.  That’s why he started the program Turn the Page.  

Turn the Page is based on a collective impact model, working closely with other organizations, including Lead to Read and a body of volunteer readers.

“We’re at 55% now.  So that means that all of those kids that were in that gap between 38% and 55% now have a better chance at life.  That’s the best program in the world,” James proudly exclaimed.

The Urban Youth Academy is another program James initiated.

“It teaches character, teaches leadership, teaches how to get along with other kids, how to take instruction from adults, how you can always go to a place and do something positive, and stay off the street,” James explained.

“You can learn how to play baseball, but you can also learn how to calculate the flight of baseball through geometry.  You can learn statistics by keeping the stats for the game. You can learn broadcasting, concessions by selling it, grounds keeping by taking care of the grounds.  

“And you can learn baseball,” he continued.  “You can learn from people who know what they’re talking about and who give a damn.  And you can be mentored by people like Dayton Moore, and Darwin Penny, and Angel McGee, and Kyle Vena, and all those guys out there that are working with those kids, making sure that they are giving them opportunities to succeed and teaching them about character.”

James sums up his philosophy this way.

“When you have the chance to impact a child’s life, and you don’t do it, you have committed a sin.  When you have an opportunity to do it and you do, then you’ve helped give that child an opportunity to succeed that they might not have otherwise had.  That’s the most important thing.”

Future Development

One of the things James would like to see a focus on in future housing is making apartments available at lower rates to teachers and other that aren’t paid that well, but perform such important roles in our society.

“Teachers don’t get paid a whole lot,” James said.  “So if you could find a way to help them with the housing costs in some way, that would stretch their paychecks and make it better.  And then you could attract more teachers and keep them teaching longer. Because the job is pretty hard, and you’re not getting paid a whole lot.  There needs to be a payoff somewhere.  

“I know a lot of developers,” he continued.  “That’s going to be one of the things I’m going to raise with them. ”

Missed Opportunity

James regrets not getting the pre-K sales tax passed.

“We are wasting kids lives,” James said with some anger in his voice.

“We can’t seem to get it together enough, although we talk about it, we seem to say we know how important quality pre-K is, but we don’t do enough about it.   Every year about 4,000 kids lose out on the opportunity to have quality pre-K.”

James refers to himself as a facts and figures man.  Here are the facts and figures.

“Between the ages of zero and five, 85 to 90% of the child’s brain is formed.  Boom. Big brain explosion. If you’re born in poverty you’re already 30 million words behind you’re middle class counterparts, you’re starting behind at the age of three.  If you don’t have something between three and kindergarten, you start kindergarten two years behind everyone else. If you start kindergarten two years behind everyone else, your chances of reading proficiently at third grade go way down.  And if you’re chances of reading proficiently at third go way down, so does all the other stuff that’s attending to it.  

“When we talk about poverty and crime, we always want to talk about arresting people.  What we don’t want to talk about is giving them the tools at the earliest possible time so that they don’t get into conflicts and get involved in crime and get out of poverty and all those other things.  

“All those things that we don’t give kids.  And then they grow up and have those problems and then we sit there and say, “Gee, I wonder how that happened.”   So those are the things that drive me nuts.”

2 Replies to “So long, Sly! And thank you!”

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