Published January 9th, 2023 at 1:00 PM2 minute read
“You just start doing stuff,” Jessie Jefferson said. And you answer to this persistent calling to solve neighbors’ problems because “you can’t say no.”
Just like that, Jefferson has become the resource for an expansive portfolio of east Kansas City neighborhoods whenever there are blocks to clean, drug houses to rout out, grants to be written, city officials to be called — any cause in need of a champion.
“You need something? They know I can do it,” she said. “I can’t back down when people are calling: ‘Ms. Jessie!’”
Jefferson, 79, is developing a new generation of neighborhood leaders as a consultant and community organizer for a host of neighborhoods: Town Fork Creek, Oak Park, Vineyard, South Roundtop, Seven Oaks, Blue Valley, McCoy, Washington Wheatley and Independence Plaza.
And she fights for them, arguing for commitments from city department heads and council members to carve out financial support for these neighborhood associations so they can do the work of preserving and growing community power.
“I see how hard they work,” Jefferson said, thinking of the emerging leaders she counsels throughout the East Side. “And they don’t get a dime.”
Jefferson, a retired AT&T supervisor, with a daughter who is an attorney in St. Louis and a 14- year-old grandson, has no office of her own. She operates in the meeting spaces of neighborhood associations, or on front porches, or her own living room.
She does part-time community engagement work for the Kansas City Health Department, and she’ll get an occasional stipend when she writes a successful grant for public funds, but otherwise “90% of this is volunteer work,” she said. “You can’t pay me for what I do.”
Jefferson grew up on Kansas City’s West Side in a Bible-centric family dedicated to the Greenwood Baptist Church in its original location at 18th Street and Belleview Avenue. She graduated in the Class of 1961 at Central High School when it was one of the most esteemed schools in the state.
Her community organizing for many years was the work of Greenwood Baptist — and that work only increased when she retired. When the Rev. Keith Brown was seeking enthusiastic workers to support grant-funded programs in the 1990s, Greenwood’s pastor at the time, Rev. McKinley Dukes, suggested Brown call on Jefferson.
Jefferson took to the mission with zeal, running a Community Action Network — CAN Center — at 27th Street and Troost Avenue when it was one of the most distressed corners in the city. She fought against liquor stores, pimps and drug dealers. She organized youth activities, helped plant a vegetable garden, set up tutoring programs and worked with the Full Employment Council to put young adults to work for neighborhoods.
She gained respect and overcame any fears of working into the dark because “those kids wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
When Brown secured a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to build a network of block captains and other support for the Ivanhoe Neighborhood, Jefferson led the way. She spent hours a day walking the neighborhood’s 400 blocks.
She came to know the issues of her city deeply. She learned the power of relationships. She learned how to get things done.
She knows who to call — from city department insiders to legal aid attorneys. She has a dialing list full of officials’ personal numbers, many of them people she got to know in their neighborhoods long before they became department heads.
“I’ve got a book I put together,” she said. It’s a how-to guide for block captains and neighborhood association presidents. And she’s always on call.
Now, the support she seeks is in support of the new leaders she mentors. They are the lifeblood of Kansas City’s future.
“I know how hard they work,” she said again. “I’m their advocate.”
Joe Robertson is a writer for the Local Investment Commission (LINC). John McGrath is a video producer for Kansas City PBS.