By Don Bradley
Being appointed Kansas City mayor pro-tem usually comes with handshakes, a new business card and the rare gavel.
Ryana Parks-Shaw, the second African-American woman to hold the job (Joanne Collins was the first), got more than that. Mayor Quinton Lucas threw the 5th District council member the extra duty of leading social change.
Lucas said Parks-Shaw would give a stronger voice “for not only south Kansas City but for all folks who have for too long felt under-represented within government ranks– particularly Black women.”
Doubtful her predecessor, Kevin McManus, was ever assigned such lofty idealism. Parks-Shaw is fine with it. She grew up in the Ruskin area. She knows Kansas City’s history.
“Definitely as a black woman, I’m grateful for the honor and grateful for young black women to see me in this leadership role,” she said in a recent interview. “Women work hard and are oftentimes invisible. We have jobs, run businesses, run households and churches.
“For me to be in this leadership role, I’m excited about the next four years and what it means.”
Her new mayor pro-tem position, which means she fills in for the mayor when he’s absent, is just another job in an already busy life.
She won her council seat in 2019 and won reelection earlier this year with no opposition. She’s a longtime health care executive. She volunteers with several organizations, serves on the boards for Starlight Theater and the Kansas City Zoo, and she and her husband are part owners of a restaurant in Kansas City, Kan.
And perhaps a first for the council, for years she has run an Avon business. The business is now online, but she says all that Avon door knocking came in handy when she went door-to-door campaigning.
While she is honored at the pro-tem appointment, she knows her first duty is being the in-district council representative for the newly redrawn 5th district.
It is an area she knows well. She’s a 1988 graduate of Ruskin High School, and she and her husband, Kansas City public works director Michael Shaw, and their family have lived in the 5th District of Kansas City, near Lee’s Summit, for 22 years.
She remembers a neighborhood vibrancy that is fleeting today. She says the Hickman Mills-Ruskin area has the worst scoring of infrastructure among council districts.
Part of the reason, she told an audience recently at a community meeting, is that PIAC (Public Improvement Advisory Committee) funds typically come from homeowner requests for work to be done on items such as streets, curbs, sidewalks and lighting.
But some areas in the southeast part of the city have a high number of rental properties and tenants aren’t as likely to be invested in the neighborhoods, Parks-Shaw told the audience.
Her plan to get around the squeaky-wheel disconnect is to organize “walking tours” for city staffers to let them see for themselves the neglect of sidewalks, streets and curbs.
“I want them to see the impact of disinvestment for the area,” she said.
A factor that drives her is data that shows a disparity of life expectancy, sometimes as great as 20 years, between neighborhoods separated by only a few blocks but with dramatic differences in rates of chronic health issues such as diabetes and cardiac problems.
What’s needed, she said, are grocery stores with fresh produce, enhanced public safety, jobs for youth and, yes, even something as simple as a smooth, level sidewalk.
“Think what good sidewalks can do to help people get out and walk and live healthy lifestyles,” she said. “I just know we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
She smiled at her busy calendar. “I believe God made special people to do special things. I take good vitamins. I’m doing what I was meant to do.”