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Young Black Kansas Citians start an activist coalition to ensure ‘kids getting seats at the table’

BAYCON co-founder James McGee II speaking to the audience at the Project Rebirth event held on Jan. 6.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
BAYCON co-founder James McGee II speaking at the Project Rebirth event at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City on Jan. 6.

The Black Youth Coalition Network wants to be a leading voice among Kansas City's youth. Their professional development programs and community activism is catching the eyes of Black leaders.

Instead of partying or relaxing over his recent winter break, James McGee II spent much of his time organizing other young people and their families, and reviving a wide-ranging service organization called the Black Archives Youth Coalition Network, or BAYCON.

Earlier this month, the group held a public relaunch event, and announced a series of cross-generational conversations to identify and address Kansas City’s needs through the lens of young people.

“Leaders will say (they're) trying to get the youth perspective, but then they have one kid out of a hundred people in the room," McGee told a crowd of current and prospective members. “That doesn’t make sense to me and it's why we started this coalition.”

The meeting was the first of the group's new quarterly programs.

“It's about kids getting seats at the table to talk about the issues,” McGee said, “to talk about why certain things are the way they are, and why do we continue to let them be that way.”

BAYCON is the brainchild of McGee and seven other young people from around the metro. It was founded in 2020 by Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, and serves as its youth outreach division.

The mission is to get urban youth socially- and civically-engaged through workshops, community activism and service.

“We are going to bring a group of Black leaders to discuss problems within Kansas City, with students,” said McGee, now a Morehouse College student. The idea is that young people “can give them feedback on possible solutions, assuring their voices are heard.”

The most recent panel of leaders included 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County Judge Jalilah Otto, Department of Veterans Affairs’ Equal Opportunity Program Manager Gloria Cody, and Chris Evans, owner of T-Shirt Kings Inc.

Evans, who also graduated from Morehouse College, says older people need to let the younger generation know they have a place, and a voice, in Kansas City.

“There's just no denying that the intellect and the work ethic is there,” Evans said. “They’re going to be future leaders, so it’s important to show that we embrace them.”

From safe space to supporting the movement

BAYCON started as a safe space for young people to have tough conversations without the fear of rejection from elders, according to McGee.

“We would come and talk about issues from colorism to ageism to misogyny, or how Black women feel portrayed by the media,” he said. “We ended up connecting in so many different ways.”

The conversations also drew attention to resource disparities among Kansas City schools. McGee said the differences for kids who went to Lincoln College Preparatory Academy versus those who attended Central High School raised eyebrows. Students also showed concern over how Lee’s Summit school district is funded compared to Kansas City Public Schools.

“It's hard to grow up in an area and be successful when you know there’s a lack of resources or, if the resources are there, they’re just not for you because you live in a different ZIP code,” McGee said.

After the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, BAYCON’s discussions turned to activism by finding safe ways to support the movement. Members spoke at rallies and marched in protests.

When members of the group felt helpless in the run-up to the 2020 election, they held a voter registration drive to make an impact.

BAYCONS voter registration drive with Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields and members of the youth coalition
Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City
BAYCON's voter registration drive with Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields and members of the youth coalition.

“People came into the Archives, and the young folks walked the neighborhood and registered people too,” said Executive Director Carmeletta Williams, who connected the group with event sponsor Will to Succeed Foundation. The nonprofit established by Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields.

“Will To Succeed even provided a van and driver to take voters to Union Station so they could vote,” Williams said.

The group registered more than 70 people on National Voters Registration Day.

They also produced a documentary called “400 Years of Africans in America: An Inconceivable Journey.” The film gives an in-depth history of the journey from Africa to enslavement in the U.S., and how Black life shaped American culture.

A woman sits on a stool in front of a green screen. There is a video tripod in front of her and a man in a blue jumpsuit is standing nearby.
Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City
BAYCON students on the set of their production “400 Years of Africans in America: An Inconceivable Journey.”

During COVID-19 lockdowns, BAYCON members set up a free lunch station for elementary school students in underserved areas.

At its height last year, the program included 80 young people.

“They came from all places,” Williams said. “Not just in the Kansas City school district, but Blue Springs, Liberty, Piper, Lee’s Summit and Grandview.”

Passing on the torch of leadership

After McGee and other founding members graduated high school in 2021, colleges like Morehouse, Harvard University, Columbia College, and American University came calling.

Morehouse even featured McGee in their 2025 Freshman Spotlight for his work with the group.

But their departures left a local void in the BAYCON ranks. McGee and others resorted to managing the group from their dorm rooms.

Now they hold virtual meetings every other Saturday, and spend their breaks at the Black Archives, mentoring and advising new officers.

17-year-old John McGee, James’ younger brother, now serves as chairman. He wants to help the coalition be more inclusive.

“We recognized that it wasn't only Black voices that matter in this,” John McGee said. "We need Hispanic voices, we need Asian voices, Native American voices, and the voice of white students.”

He says he recognizes the magnitude of the moment, and the foundation laid by his predecessors.

Youth leaders James McGee II, Jonathan Haileselassie. Jillian Collier and Lena Otto speaking to the audience on the importance of youth leadership.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
From left, James McGee II, Jonathan Haileselassie, Jillian Collier, and Lena Otto, speaking on the importance of youth leadership at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City on Jan. 6.

“So far it’s been working out greatly,” he said. “I'm super grateful for all of the founding members of BAYCON.”

Older brother James has assured him that help from the founders will continue.

“We won't be here Monday through Friday but, with our biweekly virtual meetings with the board and in-house staff, we will continue to advise, and help new leadership keep BAYCON alive to serve Kansas City’s youth,” James McGee said.

The Black Youth Coalition Network's next meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6 at the Black Archives of Mid-America, 1722 E. 17th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. For more details, email BAYCON@blackarchives.org.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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