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A KCUR series aimed at countering the pervasive negative images of African Americans by showcasing Black success stories in Kansas City.

Young Black Professionals In Kansas City Feel A Responsibility To Help Next Generation Succeed

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Spencer and Phyllis Hardwick have both returned to non-profit work from corporate professions. They believe they have a responsibility to address barriers young African Americans face when entering professions.

The country's racial reckoning is redefining expectations for young Black professionals. As part of "Under the Radar: Recognizing Black Excellence," one young couple shares their experience and insight with high school graduates in the Class of 2021.

Spencer Hardwick, 30, grew up on Ward Parkway, the son of two lawyers. His mother, Lisa White Hardwick, is now a judge for the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District.

Hardwick started school in the Kansas City Public Schools, but graduated from Rockhurst and went to Harvard University.

After a stint on Wall Street, Hardwick returned to Kansas City to teach in the public schools.

“I went to an Ivy League school and some of the best schools in the city,” Hardwick said. “But the most valuable experience I had was at KCPS.”

He went on to a job with Teach for America, a nonprofit committed to educational equity.

It was there he met his wife Phyllis, 33, who was also teaching in Kansas City’s urban schools and had attended the University of Missouri, after growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The couple understands the nuanced perceptions surrounding conversations about success, and how geography can factor into it.

“I think when you’re a kid from a working-class neighborhood that’s been associated with challenges in urban spaces, folks feel very comfortable defining it that way,” she said. “But I just remember wonderful loving neighbors and people who knew my parents because they met at the grade school where I also went.”

A changing workplace for young professionals

The latest iteration of the nation's social justice reckoning accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd has spilled into the workforce, challenging especially younger Black men and women who are new to the workplace.

A survey by Glassdoorreveals three-fourths of employees and job seekers say diversity and inclusion figure in to their decisions whether to work for a company.

And that doesn’t just mean a line about diversity in the mission statement but explicit steps for advancement to positions of influence.

Phyllis Hardwick confronted insecurities born of systemic racism in her corporate experience.

“The most important thing is to actually believe I could (work in the corporate world,)” Phyllis said. “I think what’s interesting is we have an intersection of experiences in America and quite often the face of a person of color who’s quote-unquote successful is often Spencer’s story.”

Spencer agrees, and acknowledges there are implications for his access to opportunity: a motivation to return to urban education.

“I learned over time that my responsibility was to create better outcomes for kids who may not have shared my upbringing and background,” he said.

Today, both of the Hardwicks work in the public sector. Spencer is the interim Executive Director of Teach for America and Phyllis works for Community Capitol Fund , a non- profit that provides financial capital to support neighborhood revitalization.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
A group of friends from Lincoln Prep Kansas City Public School Class of 2021 at a graduation party. All plan to attend college. From Left: DeLea Whittaker, Lee Allen, Kemiyah Sims, James McGee, Lena Otto, Marcus Bass.

Advice for those coming up

I recently sat down with a group from the Class of 2021 from Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, and with their permission, shared parts of their interviews with the Hardwicks who saw it as a chance to encourage.

Marcus Bass is going to West Point on a football scholarship and after his time in the service plans to become a civil engineer.

“I see a lot of Black men, they develop a lot of insecurities that set them back from trying to attain their goals,” he said. “I see those stereotypes as motivation because I want to break past these stereotypes and show them that they’re not true.”

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Marcus Bass,17, plans to be a civil engineer after attending West Point on a football scholarship, and his ensuing years of active duty in the Army.

Spencer praised the young man’s drive, but after a decade of real world experience knows Black men will be treated differently.

“With that said, because I don’t think it’s enough for him to have just a good attitude in the line of adversity, it’s on me and others in my generation to make sure that systemic barriers are not in the way,” Spencer explained.

Lena Otto is going to American University in Washington D.C. as a Fredrick Douglass Distinguisehd Scholar and has plans to become a doctor.

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
DeLea Whittaker, 18, says her generation is more aware and vocal because they are connected all the time on social media, not just to one another but to the world. She will go to North Carolina A & T, a HBCU, and plans to become a neonatal surgeon.

“A lot of people underestimate Black women,” she said. “With me going into the medical field which is not very highly populated by African American women, it’s going to be a lot harder. I’m going to have to push harder to reach my goal.”

Phyllis sighed. “I’m sad to hear that."

A newly graduated high school girl should be thinking about what she’s wearing to prom or how to decorate her dorm room, Phyllis said, not the weighty and longstanding challenges of systemic racism. But she said such worries are inherited just by being Black in America.

“It makes me sad because we’re still here,” she said. “If you’d have asked my friends 15 years ago what we worried about when we were at the same place (as these graduates), I think we’d have said a lot of the same things.”

This is the frustration on the mind of James McGee who is headed to Morehouse College. He plans to become a lawyer with ambitions to go far in politics.

He said his generation is impatient and bold, growing up in the era of Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, and George Floyd.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
James McGee, 18, says his generation won't settle for perfunctory diversity initiatives. He will attend Morehouse College, a preeminent HBCU, to study political science. He plans to attend law school and go into politics.

“When you have injustices like these going on in 2021, then there’s a problem,” he said. “I think what’s different from us is the complacency. It’s not gonna be, 'Okay, you guys can get a little bit of rights here and there.' No! We want full equality like everyone else, and it’s not something hard to ask for.”

As millennials, the Hardwicks came of age between these graduates and their parents, who grew up closer to the civil rights struggle spawned by Jim Crow and segregation. The election of the first Black president was the defining moment of the Hardwicks young adulthood.

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Phyllis and Spencer Hardwick believe they're responsible for using their decade as Black professionals to advise young Black men and women on how to address still-existing racial barriers as they begin their careers.

“How we understand Black excellence is full-throated humanity and dignity that allows for young Black kids to be young Black kids,” Phyllis states. “To have their own potential be the limitations on their success, not structural racism.”

Under the Radar: Recognizing Black Excellence is a KCUR series aimed at countering the pervasive negative images of African Americans by showcasing Black success stories in Kansas City.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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