City governments effective because they ‘have to get things done,’ says Sly James in Prairie Village talk

Brian Ellison, left, and Sly James participated in the first Village Talk event at Village Presbyterian Wednesday.
Brian Ellison, left, and Sly James participated in the first Village Talk event at Village Presbyterian Wednesday.

In a wide ranging talk in Prairie Village Wednesday, Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Sly James touched on everything from the role of cities in American life and how elected officials can work effectively together to the intersection of race relations and policing.

The discussion was the first of Village Presbyterian Church’s new Village Talk series, a program of live conversations exploring “the intersection of faith and values, religion and public affairs, social issues and the common good.” The series is hosted by parish Associate Rev. Brian Ellison, a contributor to KCUR.

Discussing his role as mayor, James said cities are widely viewed as more efficient than state and federal governments because “we don’t care about all this ideological nonsense. We have to get things done.”

“At the state level and the federal level, it’s party against party. Even common sense solutions fail if they don’t meet the party criteria,” he said.

While much of the talk revolved around duties as the head of Kansas City government, James also touched on a number of deeply personal topics, including the foundational experiences he had as a child that formed his current beliefs, and how those beliefs influence his views of race relations, policing, education and more in his current role.

James described a childhood in the middle of the century that straddled the line between white and black Kansas City communities that rarely intersected. His parents moved the family from Wyandotte County to Kansas City, Mo., and converted them to Catholicism when James was around 9 years old so that the children could attend parochial schools.

Education, he said, was something his family believed was worth making tough choices for. James attended a high school that was almost entirely white and lived in a neighborhood that was almost entirely black.

“That made me less popular in both places than I would have liked to have been,” he said. “But it also gave me an education about the fact that the stereotypes that were drilled into my head around the neighborhood about white people were not true.”

Today, he said, he feels passionately that people need to get to know each other on a one-on-one level before they make judgments. Having an interracial family underscores the point.

“My wife is white. My kids are mixed,” he said. “It’s very hard for us to figure out who to be prejudiced against.”

At one point in the evening, James said the Kansas City area faces a number of challenges, and that societal problems aren’t confined to Kansas City proper. He noted that many payday loan operations, what he described as one of the “scourges of society,” are headquartered here in Johnson County.

“What they do to people and families is horrible,” he said. “But when they have the money to buy politicians, they’re never going to stop.”

The next Village Talk will feature Time Magazine editor-at-large David von Drehle on Wednesday, Feb. 11. University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little will be the guest April 8, and KCUR host Steve Kraske will be the guest May 13.