A college drop-out abandons a lucrative tech career for a life of inner-city poverty – and hopes to save an urban school district from oblivion 

It's a horrible time to run for the Kansas City, Missouri, School Board.

Yet on a windy January evening, the Durwin Rice Gallery — a two-room storefront near 55th Street and Troost — is packed with people mingling casually, sipping red wine and snacking on cheese cubes under the striking collages hanging on the walls. They're here to support one of the only candidates to file for the election.

It's been nearly a decade since state officials stripped the Kansas City, Missouri, School District of its accreditation, and parents are impatient for administrators to find a way to raise test scores and eliminate the stigma so long associated with area schools. And now, the board has to sort out messy details after a divisive vote in November that turned over seven Kansas City schools to the Independence School District. And it has to find a new leader after ousting Superintendent Anthony Amato. Amato was the district's 24th superintendent in 39 years; he'd served just 18 months.

Few people seem interested in trying to change the leadership in a tattered district responsible for educating 27,000 children. Of the four board seats coming up for a vote in April, only one will be contested. In the 3rd Subdistrict, incumbent Duane Kelly is running unopposed. In the 5th Subdistrict, parent Ray Wilson is the only person who filed for the vacated seat. And nobody filed for the empty seat in the 1st Subdistrict — that chair will have to be filled by a write-in candidate.

The lone challenger is Airick Leonard West. He's running against incumbent Bill Eddy, a professor emeritus at UMKC's Bloch School of Business. (Eddy tells The Pitch that he'd never heard of West until West called him to let him know he was running. The two sat down for a brief discussion, but Eddy says he's waiting for upcoming forums to discuss their policy differences.)

Dressed in a neat business suit, West is a handsome 28-year-old with short braids and a quiet demeanor. An hour into his kickoff party at Durwin Rice Gallery, it's his moment to tell the packed room of lawyers, parents and politicians why they should support his bid for the at-large seat.

His pitch is simple. He's running on a unity platform that he says will better involve Kansas City's political and civic institutions in the life of the district's schools. He promises to identify policies that are working and throw out rules that aren't.

A longtime community activist, West has the kind of résumé that gives his name cache in many political circles. With his experience and reputation, West could run for the City Council or the statehouse — and win. Instead, he's vying for an unglamorous post that virtually nobody wants.

But there's more to West than what this crowd sees.

He barely made it through high school, and he left college before he got a degree. For West, though, running for school board makes perfect sense.

At the corner of 33rd Street and Wabash is a two-story home with dull, weather­worn siding. A mattress pokes out of a broken window on the second floor. On a recent Friday morning, a jittery man crisscrosses the block trying to sell a "Foot Spa" jammed inside a tattered cardboard box. Teenage boys who should be on buses headed for school roughhouse as they saunter down the street.

The front door is off its hinges, held in place with an armchair and a couple of plastic buckets. After West pushes it back and slides the door to the side, he hops up and shoves a blue towel into the gaping crack at the top of the frame. It's been weeks since a teenager busted it down in a moment of anger. By now, West is used to the chair-bucket-towel routine.

Boards are propped against the windows to block the cutting draft. In the darkened living room, furniture consists of a couch stacked with blankets and a couple of bookshelves. Along the walls, electrical wires bloom like weeds. An exposed-brick column divides the dining area from the kitchen.

There's no TV or stereo, no family photos on the walls. The one hub of activity is a small table next to the kitchen, where a computer sits amid a sea of paper. West spends most of his time at that station, near an open vent that blows warm air into the chilly space.

In his attic bedroom, West sleeps on top of a few blankets on the floor.

In the short hallway to the bathroom, a handful of suits and coats hang on a rail. West doesn't own a pair of jeans. He did invest in some sweat pants for the campaign — when he's staying up until 4 a.m. studying school district data, he sheds the suit. It cuts down on dry-cleaning costs.

West describes himself as a neighborhood guy, devoted first to the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. His roommate, Robyne Turner, is a fellow neighborhood activist.

They know their living arrangement is unconventional. West's work is almost exclusively grass-roots; Turner is a professor at UMKC. West is a 28-year-old bachelor. Turner describes herself as a "madcap divorcée." But the multiracial, multigenerational, intentionally minimalist household is built on a common vision.

Almost six years ago, Turner moved from Florida to Brookside to chair the Cookingham Institute of Urban Affairs at UMKC. When West was working on the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Plan, he sent out a plea for area officials to lend their expertise to the neighborhood's efforts. West says nobody replied except Turner.

At first, he was skeptical about an ivory-tower professor dictating knowledge to the lowly citizens. But Turner was anything but overbearing. The two found they had similar interests and sarcastic senses of humor.

And the idea of living together in the neighborhood seemed mutually convenient.

Their meeting of minds spawned a new activist endeavor. One afternoon last March, West and Turner were having lunch, wondering what they should do about double-digit unemployment in the 3rd District.

"At that point, the hypocrisy of it all really struck home," West recalls. "We were sitting at a restaurant in the 4th District complaining about high unemployment in the 3rd."

He'd been working to get city leaders to direct more funds to the 3rd District, but he wasn't even spending his own money there.

That was the start of a project West and Turner called Viable Third. For the past year, the two have spent their money almost exclusively in the area bound by Independence Avenue on the north, Brush Creek Boulevard on the south, Troost Avenue on the west and Interstate 435 on the east.

It's been a revealing effort. Aside from catching Spider-Man at the I-70 Drive-In, West hasn't seen any movies on the big screen in the past year — there aren't any theaters in the 3rd District. He misses the days when he could buy syrup and peanut butter in bulk; there aren't any Costcos, either.

If he has to head to the suburbs, he makes sure he has enough gas and food before leaving home. When he needs to withdraw money or make a grocery run, he goes to the Central Bank of Kansas City or the Apple Market on Independence Avenue.

West says he's not trying to be a hero. He's just made a personal choice that works for him and may prove useful or inspirational to others.

The effort has generated some buzz, including hundreds of hits on the Viable Third Web site and segments about it on local radio. Missouri Rep. Mike Talboy and a handful of other community leaders have pledged a portion of their own dollars. West didn't grow up here, and he doesn't have to live like this. He could have just stayed in Johnson County, making money in the computer industry.

West's mother, Sherry Payne, was just 17 when she gave birth to him in 1979. She knew she wasn't ready to be a mother. At 6 months old, West was placed in the foster home of Dick and Linda Crabill in Joplin.

He has happy memories of the big, ranch-style house with animals, pecan trees and a fishing pond, and he still considers it home. When "Ricky" was 5, Linda Crabill and her husband — who raised nearly 80 kids over the years — tried to adopt him, but his biological family resisted.

On his 5th birthday, Payne showed up unexpectedly to take him back to Kansas City. West remembers that day as the first time he met his biological mother. The years with his mother that followed were dark, he says.

Payne acknowledges that it was rough. "I was dirt-poor," she says. "We didn't have a phone. I couldn't afford to keep all the utilities on simultaneously."

West returned to the Crabills when he was still in elementary school, then living in rural southern Missouri, which presented new challenges. In Mountain View, a small logging town of fewer than 2,500 people, West was the only black student in the district. In seventh grade, a classmate beat him up; he says the kid's father sympathized with the Ku Klux Klan. Crabill says West was constantly threatened. Though he was a gifted athlete, West was heckled whenever he touched the ball during football games.

The family moved back to Joplin when West was in high school, but by then, West seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, Linda Crabill says. "They would try to discipline him," Crabill says of school administrators. "He's super-intelligent. He thinks way beyond all that, so he didn't really want to go along with the rules. To him, they were in his way."

At 16, he packed up and moved back to Kansas City. Payne says West stayed with her for a short time but then struck out on his own. He lived with a couple of friends while he attended Shawnee Mission East High School. To make rent, he got a job in Westport. Then a friend borrowed and wrecked his car, making it impossible to commute. West says he ended up living in an empty building near the school. He showered each morning in the school gym's locker room.

He admits that he made plenty of bad choices as a kid, though he won't get into specifics. "One line I never crossed," he says. "I never sold drugs."

After attending 11 schools, he graduated from Shawnee Mission East in 1997.

One Friday morning that year, Payne says, West asked for a lift to Lawrence. He told her to pick him up after the weekend. "By Monday, he'd enrolled in school, talked someone into renting him an apartment — even though he wasn't 18 — and he'd gotten two part-time jobs," Payne says with a laugh.

He didn't stay at the University of Kansas for long. Records show that West was enrolled at KU only from fall 1997 to summer 1998. He'd always been skilled with computers, and a job opportunity in Lenexa was too good to pass up, West says. For his job with Cephas, a dot-com-era Web development firm, he jetted all over the country. West remembers making more money than he knew what to do with.

But Cephas went under. West secured some of the contracts and started his own company; when he sold out to Computer Sciences Corporation, a business technology services firm based in California, it seemed time to move on. Certain realities had begun to outweigh his financial comfort and professional success.

"Lenexa was a wake-up call," West says. "Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought if I could be successful in the dot-com industry, if I made enough money, then I would be accepted there as who I was: a bright guy with a successful company making lots of money. Turns out, that was not the case. I was still just some black kid."

He bought the house in Ivanhoe and slowly became involved in the neighborhood association. By 2004, he was leading the creation of a detailed, resident-driven neighborhood plan. He didn't know anything about city zoning, and he knew even less about his neighbors.

At one point, West and the other organizers drafted a 60-page report based on input from several group meetings. West argued that sending the bulky document to all the residents would be a waste of paper. No one would read it, he argued.

At the next meeting, dozens of his neighbors showed up, their reports worn from reading and covered in notes.

"It was really a series of moments like that that took over," he says. "Now, instead of being a full-time technology entrepreneur, making scads of money and being very self-important, I'm a part-time, gainfully unemployed computer hacker between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. and spend most of all day every day working on community projects that don't pay a dime."

On evenings and weekends, kids are checking their e-mail or doing their homework at West's house. Over the past few years, he and Turner have let young men stay at their house for varying lengths of time. Some have been kicked out of their homes. Others just need a place to cool off after confrontations with other neighborhood kids.

West calls the rotating group his "gentlemen." When Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama was at Municipal Auditorium last month, West and his gentlemen were there. Sometimes he takes them to the symphony.

Recently, though, his routine changed.

West's 14-year-old cousin, Damon, had sometimes stayed with him. Family members saw that, under West's care, Damon was making progress. So this past summer, West became Damon's legal guardian.

The air-conditioning and cell-phone bills spiked. But that wasn't what worried West.

"Ghosts of my own childhood return to taunt," he wrote on his blog in August.

Damon attends Fairview Alternative School on Pittman Road near East 38th Terrace, a boot-camplike place with as many cops as administrators.

West had served on the boards of Gordon Parks Elementary School (an inner-city charter school) and the Stephanie Waterman Foundation (a program that pairs tennis lessons with tutoring). But over the past year, he has navigated the public school system as the guardian of a struggling student.

In September, West got a call from the Walgreens on Linwood and Prospect. The man on the other end of the line told him that Damon had been caught shoplifting. Fuming, West met the 14-year-old at the store, bought some poster board, and ordered him to make a sign with the words "I like to shoplift." Then West marched him outside and made him stand on the sidewalk, holding up the sign.

After a few minutes of watching from a nearby bus stop, West broke out the markers and made his own sign. Standing next to Damon on the corner, he held up a sheet that said: "I love him and I will never give up."

It sparked a three-hour community dialogue, West says. Leaning out of car windows, some people berated the young shoplifter. Others scolded West for his unusual approach to discipline.

West keeps his sign on top of his washing machine, where he sees it every day.

West went to Damon's school and sat in the back of his classroom. On any given day, half the students were out on suspensions, he says. Those who did attend got next to no instruction from teachers who aimed only to keep them out of trouble during daytime hours.

Damon was rarely assigned homework, so West made up his own lessons. "He has homework every school night, period," he says. He became the parent chairman of Fairview's School Advisory Committee and started going to district meetings.

"I told the district, I told the school board: This school is not working," he says.

West understands that the kids lingering on his block are the products of a failed education system. But, as with the Viable Third, there are examples of success within the struggling school district that could serve as inspiration. 

It's 7 a.m. on a frigid Tuesday, and the still-dark parking lot at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church is empty. Except for West.

At 7:30, he's chatting inside with Jim Eller, the All Souls minister and public education advocate. Slouched casually a the chair, West explains his vision for a district unified with community leaders, where every high school prepares students for college, and racial politics take a backseat to educational achievement. Eller is won over.

At 8:15, West shoots across town to pick up Turner, who is serving as his campaign manager. They head to a meeting at the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council. West sits on the advisory board that decides how to spend the tax-increment-finance money that Ivanhoe shares with two adjoining neighborhoods. He loves the role but says he's open to someone else stepping in. West argues for dispersing leadership as widely as possible, but the group urges him to stay in charge of the $500,000 pot.

Next stop is Fairview, where he goes every Tuesday. After police officers get the students seated facing the same direction in a drab, concrete cafeteria, West sits with them during lunch. He doesn't preach at them. He just asks questions: Have the choices you made gotten you what you want? If they haven't, he suggests, then maybe it's time to try something new.

It's a discussion, not a counseling session. It seems to resonate because it's pragmatic, echoing the way West lives his life.

"Not screwing people over works," he says. "Being a man of your word works. Taking care of people for no apparent reason works."

West also visits twice a month with a group of fifth-graders at Weeks Elementary School, a windowless building with bunkerlike rooms and no playground. West cringes at the expanse of patchy grass and mud. West helped get money for playgrounds at several other schools (then showed up and helped put them in the ground) back in 2005, when he served on the city's Public Improvement Advisory Committee, a citizen body that hands out money for neighborhood projects.

Sitting at a long table, mulling over the gray meat patties and the overripe bananas, the students at Weeks straighten up when West looks them in the eyes and shakes their hands like adults. Up in the classroom, they're eager to know if he'll be able to go on a skiing field trip to Weston with them. He tells them the most exciting thing in his life is that he's running for school board.

They walk through the organization of the education system — from teacher to principal to superintendent. With a mix of pride and embarrassment, one student says they've all heard that the superintendent called some women "the B word."

"Females don't like that," another says.

West indulges their laughter but takes them in a different direction.

"What are the biggest issues facing fifth-graders?" he asks, as if he's addressing a group of parents. At first, they don't understand the question. When they do, their litany of complaints — having to wear uniforms, being fed "nasty" food, not having recess on Tuesdays — keeps West at the front of the class, sitting on a kiddy chair that puts his knees nearly in line with his shoulders, for more than an hour.

The clock is ticking on filing his signatures to get on the ballot. But after lunch, he gets a call from a social-justice group called Communities Creating Opportunity. Its Internet connection is down. West does part-time tech support to make ends meet, and CCO is one of his clients. He breezes in, assuring the CCO employees and volunteers, "I'm here to hook you up."

The next destination is downtown. In a no-parking zone outside Kinko's, the two idle in Turner's Acura with a bank on speakerphone. She's transferring money to make a mortgage payment for Simply Equine Assisted Therapy, a program that uses horses to teach life skills to kids. West has been on the board for several years; he helped line up financing to buy a piece of land in Lee's Summit, where the group now stables its horses. Turner hangs up when the transaction is complete. They both sigh; one fire put out for the day.

At the Missouri State Office Building, Turner gets the signature sheets notarized in the Secretary of State's office. As Turner waits at the Board of Education to get the count from a district official, West darts across the street to a budget hearing in the Jackson County Courthouse. He's the chairman of the board for the University of Missouri Extension, and Jackson County legislators are about to reduce his group's appropriation. West is going to try to convince legislators not to cut those funds.

As he waits in the county chambers, Turner sends him a text message: "We got 869 signs!" West's name will appear on the school board ballot.

By the time the hearing is over, it's nearly 3 p.m. With more meetings this evening, West and Turner need to refuel.

When they walk into El Pulgarcito, a Salvadoran restaurant on Truman Road — in the 3rd District — the waitress speaks to them in Spanish. West has never studied the language, but he has picked it up well enough to talk about education with families in the Northeast and on the West Side.

"Como se dice crackers?" West asks when his soup calls for more saltines.

"Galletas," the waitress says with an appreciative smile.

After the meal, West goes back to the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council's brick-walled meeting room. The council has bought some abandoned lots and started a project called IvanHOME to oversee their sale and development. (This effort isn't to be confused with Ivanhoe House, a concept of West's in which college education majors live in kids' neighborhoods while tutoring them. UMKC and Swope Community Builders signed on, and the first round of student mentors now are living and teaching in Ivanhoe.)

At 5:15, West excuses himself to make it to a meeting of the Light Rail Task Force. Outside that meeting at the HNTB architecture and engineering firm, as task force members graze on a buffet table, West strikes up a conversation with Ed Ford, a Kansas City councilman from the 2nd District. West mentions that he's running for a seat on the school board. Ford stops West before he gets too far into his pitch.

"You had me at hello," Ford says.

At his off-the-hinges front door, West repeats the familiar chair-bucket-towel routine.

Turner says it's not that she and West are trying to live some bohemian lifestyle. They're just too busy to catch up on home repairs. But West does take pride in the fact that his life's possessions fit into the trunk of his car. "I've made a habit slowly of giving everything away," he says. "I see myself as a minimalist. I want to own as little as possible. That's one of the reasons the open-door policy has never backfired — there's nothing to take."

Last August, he decided he would live without locks. One day, West found a familiar 15-year-old rooting through a chest of drawers where Turner had once kept a digital camera. This teen was the one who broke down the front door, and he didn't want to talk. West had to call the police — something he tries to avoid.

He prefers more amicable approaches. His car has been sitting awkwardly on the front lawn since a few other neighborhood teens stole it, crashed it and brought it back with a big crack down the right side of the front bumper. West didn't call authorities. Instead, he brokered a deal with the kids and their parents. The car awaits repair until the teens' new jobs bring in the money necessary to fix it.

He's frustrated that the kids in his neighborhood have to ride buses to school buildings on the other side of the city. On the school board, he would push for a return to community schools where parents and neighbors could be more easily engaged and create a support system for the area children. That means schools would end up more racially segregated. So be it, he says. They'll deal with issues as they arise.

West has been prodded to run for office in the past: twice for City Council, once for a seat in the Missouri Legislature and once for a position on the school board. He has resisted, he says, because he has never seen himself as a politician.

He's no good at telling people what they want to hear. He admires the hopeful leadership style of Barack Obama, but he also counts Harriet Tubman as a role model. She had the kind of focus that defied conventions of the time, he says. In her determination to liberate slaves, he says, she was just as likely to aim her rifle at black people as white. West knows that kind of determination doesn't play well in some camps.

Sitting in his cold, unfinished house on a recent morning, composing an e-mail to supporters, he admits that he's anxious about the political campaign. Then again, he says, he has nothing to lose.

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