Black activists in Johnson County see progress since last summer’s racial justice protests — what’s next?

Nearly a year after George Floyd's death, which sparked a nationwide movement for racial justice and equity, civil rights advocates in Johnson County are reflecting on progress and the work left to be done. Above, Linnaia McKenzie puts her 4-year-old daughter Genesis' hair into two buns. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Linnaia McKenzie sat behind her 4-year-old daughter, Genesis, on the couch, gently combing back her curls and tucking them into two cute buns on top of her head.

They were getting ready to have their picture taken in their Shawnee home for this story on the progress toward racial equity in Johnson County.

“One of the reasons why this work is really important to me is because of my daughter,” said McKenzie, the founder of local civil rights organization Advocacy and Awareness Group of Johnson County.

“When she becomes our age, and when she is in a position to be a leader in this community, I want her to do so in a more supportive, welcoming, inclusive and safe place for people of color. That’s ultimately why I got into this work,” she said.

For McKenzie and others in Johnson County whom the Shawnee Mission Post spoke with recently, the call to become a civil rights advocate happened almost overnight. They were sparked by the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, most notably George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.

Thousands of Johnson Countians, along with residents in the Kansas City metro, marched and rallied in subsequent weeks last summer, calling for social justice, police accountability and a broader reckoning with racism in America.

Now, at the end of the first Black History Month since those rallies, some Johnson County activists are taking stock of the state of progress toward change and a movement towards ending systemic racism and racial inequities locally.

Check out the Post’s series on “Reckoning with racism in Johnson County.” Meanwhile, here’s a look at how some of these got started last year, how things are going, and the work they say is still left to be done.

Signs of progress

“It seems like everyone is clamoring for change, but how do we actually make this happen?” said Haile Sims with Advocacy and Awareness Group of Johnson County.

In the wake of a nationwide movement sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May, many local activists took up the mantle of civil rights advocacy in Johnson County. And they say they’re hopeful — in some cases, cautiously optimistic — that changes are coming.

“We were experiencing all of these police shootings and deaths of African Americans, I can remember just being so weary about hearing about it, and then when that (Floyd’s death) happened, something broke,” said George Williams, president of STAND UP for Black Lives + Prairie Village. “There was something in me, a fire that was lit, that I’ve got to do something.”

George Williams, president of STAND UP for Black Lives + Prairie Village, speaks at the rally in June 2020 that drew hundreds to the Village Shops. Photo submitted by George Williams.

Here are a few key events in Johnson County that have occurred since Floyd’s death:

Advocates who spoke with the Post also highlighted other milestones over the past nine months they say are signs of progress:

Only scratching the surface

Jenelle and Brian Holmes, a Lenexa couple and members of the Johnson County NAACP. Jenelle said progress is slow, and actionable items should come from conversations.

While advocates agree there’s now a heightened awareness of racial inequities, they share mixed feelings about the pace and scope of progress in Johnson County.

Some believe that positive changes are happening. Others fear they’ll lose the momentum built up during last summer’s protests and rallies. All those the Post spoke with agree they’ve only scratched the surface, and more work is left to do.

“I think that there is progress, but it’s slow,” said Jenelle Holmes, a Johnson County NAACP member who lives in Lenexa.  “I think that people are beginning to be more open and more inclined to having the conversations that we need to have, but it’s not enough to just talk. We need to see some tangible things come out of these conversations.”

Haile Sims of Roeland Park, a member of AAGJC, also expresses cautious optimism.

“It seems like everyone is clamoring for change, but how do we actually make this happen?” Sims said. “It’s great that all of these organizations have sprung up, and it’s great that we’re doing this work, but I wouldn’t say we’ve completed work. I would say we’re just starting.”

Bringing advocates together

“The change we’re doing now is going to set our children up for success when they’re our age and they’re raising their children in a community like this,” said Linnaia McKenzie.

Several groups that have sprung up or grown in the last few months are now joining forces to address racial inequities in Johnson County.

Led by McKenzie and AAGJC, nine local organizations have met regularly since December to develop specific objectives and strategies across a spectrum of issues.

Their first focus is Overland Park. Because it’s Johnson County’s largest city, advocates believe changes there could have a larger impact. The city has also been under pressure to be transparent after police arrested protesters in July 2020, and a now ex-officer shot and killed a teen backing out of his family’s driveway in 2018.

City officials, including some city councilmembers, have been working with activists to devise a way forward.

Linnaia McKenzie’s daughter, Genesis, likes being silly in front of the camera.

“The change we’re doing now is going to set our children up for success when they’re our age and they’re raising their children in a community like this,” McKenzie said. “We want the community to support them, welcome them and celebrate them for being Black, being Hispanic, being of Middle-Eastern descent, of being not white.”

The groups are focusing on addressing:

  1. Racial bias and systemic racism in policing in Overland Park
  2. A lack of representation of BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) in public offices
  3. Transparency in data and information about local government decisions

Click here for a report of the groups’ findings from a meeting in December.

Meanwhile, the groups’ may release a list of specific requests of Overland Park city leaders in March. McKenzie said that report will be a result of a concerted effort by many local groups using data and research to support those requests.

‘Weapons of justice’

At least 2,000 people gathered at a rally for racial justice in Prairie Village in June.

The constant outrage at injustice has lit a fire under these activists, inspiring them to push for changes in their communities. And yet, the outpouring of public support for many of these efforts is also an encouragement.

For example, Williams recalls hoping for a hundred people to come to that Prairie Village rally in June. Instead, at least 2,000 people showed up.

“I really was so happy about so many people coming out to that rally because it just spoke to where people were at,” he said. “It was just such a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

The public is invited to participate in a virtual Black History Month celebration Thursday night hosted by STAND UP for Black Lives + Prairie Village.

Williams said he hopes events like these can help the community prepare for diversity and inclusion. Such changes can be painful experiences, he says, but it is worthwhile to get to know and respect your neighbors.

“Unarmed truth, unconditional love and unrelenting humility are the weapons of justice,” he added.