Walking along the Jersey Creek Park Trail in northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Broderick Crawford can see the overgrown weeds, the fractured asphalt trail and broken benches.
“You can’t sit on them without getting a splinter,” he points out.
No one could blame him for being angry with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, which hasn’t kept up with trail maintenance. But instead of complaining, Crawford practically bounces down the path. He knows government doesn’t have the $1 million-plus needed for revitalization. Instead he’s motivated to be part of the change.
An alumnus of the Kansas Leadership Center, Crawford is familiar with the third of KLC’s five core leadership principles – “it starts with you and must engage others.” But he doesn’t just know it. He and other members of his church, New Bethel, are living it out.
Crawford, the executive director of the NBC (New Bethel Church) Community Development Corp., sees possibilities in deterioration. He envisions children biking to the playground, perhaps to play pickup basketball, and families who can enjoy the outdoors in safety.
The NBC Community Development Corp. is one part of a multifaceted coalition that includes Healthy Communities Wyandotte, Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, FreeWheels for Kids, UG Parks and Recreation, the University of Kansas School of Architecture, the Latino Health for All Coalition and other organizations that are working to improve the health of Wyandotte Countians.
“In order to really have an impact on the health of Wyandotte County, we all have to be involved,” Crawford says.
Small tweaks can beget big changes.
KU architecture students designed and installed some new metal benches that double as bike racks and exercise stations. The Friends of Jersey Creek walking club meets at the park every Saturday morning with as many 40 people. The NBC Community Development Corp. has also started a family 5K and health fair. The Mount Carmel Redevelopment Corp., which has also played a big role in the effort, has its own health fair, too.
To keep building momentum, neighborhood resident Alexis Gatson got involved to help connect walkers through social media.
“This area has come a long way,” Gatson says.
“We’re doing the work.”
New Bethel Church got involved, Crawford says, because it takes a holistic approach to spirituality. The lead pastor, the Rev. A. Glenn Brady, is focused on the congregation’s spiritual needs.
The church also understood that Wyandotte County regularly ranks among the worst in the state for health outcomes. (Wyandotte County ranked last in the 2016 county health rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.) That’s a problem government can’t fix alone. So why not harness the power of church congregations in the urban core?
“If you think back to any movement that has had an impact in this country, it all started with faith,” Crawford says. “Why was there a civil rights movement? Why was there a women’s rights movement? And who started each of those movements? It started in the church.”
New Bethel Church is one block off the Jersey Creek Trail, and for years congregants didn’t feel safe using it. These days they’re among the groups taking ownership of it. Crawford points to neighborhoods, churches, the Boys & Girls Club and a day care facility that have helped.
This isn’t just about fixing up one trail, Crawford points out. It’s about building a community.
People start exercising at the park, and it deters crime and improves public safety. Residents walk or exercise together, and it improves their mental and physical health. People begin to feel more connected. Basketball players return to the court. House hunters might see the active trail and 24 acres of parkland – a crown jewel of real estate – and want to buy homes nearby. That won’t happen overnight.
“The beautiful thing is that we haven’t asked the city or the county for a dime. It’s all come from private funding. Obviously we won’t be able to continue doing that,” Crawford says.
Church members such as Crawford have already stepped forward and worked to engage others on improving the trail. But lasting change will require the involvement of even more people.
The group plans to challenge unified government commissioners to invest more. But first they’ll continue to mobilize their flock. When it works, Crawford says, state and federal officials can join the walking club to get advice.
“I don’t care what (Governor Sam) Brownback does in Topeka,” he says. “If we do what we should in Wyandotte County, he’ll come to us.”
—Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.