Soul of the City

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Soul of the City

Kansas City shaped the history of jazz, and now jazz is helping to shape the future of Kansas City. This year, it'll boost efforts to solve some of Kansas City's most pressing maladies, such as blighted properties in struggling neighborhoods, the dearth of high-quality grocery stores in the urban core and an out-of-control payday-loan industry that's robbing poor people of their livelihoods.

Key to the success of these efforts is the Soul of the City concert, which takes place this Saturday evening at the Gem Theater. The marquee attractions include vocalist Lisa Henry, organist Everette DeVan, trumpeter Rusty Tucker, The Blue Devils Big Band with Jim Mair, and Chico Battaglia.

The event started four years ago as a fundraiser for the Kansas City Church Organization (CCO), a consortium of fellowships from around the city that have bound together to identify solutions for the problems that plague Kansas Citians.

For more than a decade prior to the establishment of Soul of the City, the group operated under a community organization model that was developed in California. First, members of individual churches venture into their communities and ask people about their concerns. Then they research the causes and solutions. Ultimately, they hold massive community "actions" in which hundreds, sometimes thousands of residents gather before elected officials to elicit their commitments to solve the problems.

In the late '80s, CCO members called for a solution to the drug epidemic. From that arose Jackson County's half-cent drug tax. In the early '90s, members addressed the lack of recreational activities for inner-city kids. Those efforts culminated in an action that drew 1,000 people to Central High School, after which city leaders expanded the Midnight Basketball program and launched a "Hot Summer Nights" program at city pools.

In the late '90s, the group sought to tackle the manifold problems in the Kansas City school district, which led to the launch of Soul of the City. "We realized schools were going to be a major challenge," recalls Warren Adams-Leavitt, CCO director. "Yet it was one we couldn't turn away from anymore."

But the members of CCO knew that if they took on problems as big as the ones affecting schools, it would detract from their work with their membership organizations. They needed more money to make ends meet.

So Soul of the City was launched as a fundraiser. After its successful first year, CCO was able to expand upon its partnership with the Local Investment Commission to do community building around schools. One of its earliest post-concert successes was the organizations' combined effort to help Ladd Elementary force out of business several drug houses that were operating around the school. After that came the launch of the Home Visit program, which allows teachers to make connections with their students' families prior to the start of the school year.

But Soul of the City has become more than a source of funds. "The event has helped us connect with parts of Kansas City we hadn't worked with before," says Adams-Leavitt. The concert -- and in particular the pre-party -- has afforded the opportunity for grassroots organizers to rub shoulders and share ideas with some of the city's biggest movers and shakers. "We've got everybody from the poorest people in our churches to former CEOs of some of Kansas City's philanthropic institutions," says Adams-Leavitt.

CCO chose jazz because it promotes diversity, Adams-Leavitt says. "It's music that both black people and white people listen to," he explains. But on a deeper level, jazz shares something in common with community organizing. "Constant experimentation," he says. "That's what we need to do in our communities."

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