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The Kansas City Call's Eric Wesson Is A Visible Man

Paul Andrews
Eric Wesson sits at his desk off 18th and Vine, in the historic Kansas City Call building.

Eric Wesson of The Kansas City Call says that Kansas City's black community is like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

"I am a man of substance," wrote Ellison's invisible narrator, "of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- I may even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Wesson read those words for the first time in sixth grade, but didn't relate to them until he was in his 20s, at which point, he said to himself, 'Oh, I get it. We're here, but nobody sees us or pays attention to us.'"

He's tired of seeing issues that affect the black community being discussed, but ultimately, just "blowing in the wind." Especially when it comes to crime.

"If white males were being killed in record numbers like African-Americans are, someone would be doing something about it,"  he insists.

Wesson grew up in Kansas City in the 1960s, thumbing through his parents' copies of The Call in a neighborhood called Vineyard Gardens, just off 47th Street. It was a tight-knit black, middle-class neighborhood where people knew each other, and if you got into any trouble, someone else's parents wouldn't hesitate to let your parents know about it. He says that if it takes a village to raise a child, that's exactly how he was raised.

As a teenager, he was part of the bussing experience during the integration era, making him one of about fifteen African-American students attending Southwest High School.

"We all stood together," he says. "We all knew each other. If one went to the bathroom, we'd all go to the bathroom."

That was for protection. Wesson says that there were a couple of white gangs at the school who bullied the new students.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Wesson went to Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia, on the G.I. Bill. He studied political science, and found the curriculum demanding, but Atlanta's progressive community seems to have informed him as much as the coursework. 

"It was a shock seeing African-Americans, especially young ones, that were progressing, that were making money, were driving nice cars, were owning businesses," Wesson says.

"That was something I hadn't seen here," he adds.

But journalism did not yet factor into his plan to change things.

"I wanted to save African-American boys," he says. "Traditionally, test scores drop off at 3rd grade and after that they hang around long enough to graduate, or drop out. I wanted to do something to change that trend."

After a few years as a teacher, Wesson got distracted by what he calls a "walk on the wild side" -- meaning drinking, drugs, and partying -- followed by a "state-funded vacation."

That is to say, time in prison.

He came out of prison with a renewed interest in helping young black men, resulting in a hotline for ex-convicts to help, and a 501C3 non-profit to offer guidance and mentoring to at-risk men and boys. He explains his focus on men and boys by citing imprisonment statistics, and also a dwindling number of male heads of households. 

"The head of the household needs to be the man," he says. "As a society we've accepted the fact that it's [now] women and we've built a focus on helping women get through those years and those changes, but I think it has to go back into men being the head of the household."

That opinion has inspired objections from listeners, but Wesson stands by it.

It was also in prison that he started making plans to turn his life back around. With plenty of time on his hands, he sent letters to the editor and commentaries to The Call. That ended up setting the stage for his career as a journalist for that very newspaper.

Credit Paul Andrews
Eric Wesson stepped into a long tradition of black journalism when he joined the Kansas City Call staff twelve years ago.

Wesson investigates the daily concerns of Kansas Citians and weighs in on national discussions, but it's all part of his concept of advocacy journalism.

"I look at myself as starting a conversation. I don't believe there's one black person in Kansas City that represents the African American communities. It's so diverse and so fragmented and there are so many different views. I believe that I'm blessed to be in the position to just start the conversation about some of the things I see driving down the street and some of the things people talk to me about," he says.

This is the definition Wesson provides for 'advocacy journalism':

"People call and they say 'I don't have enough money to pay my light bill,' or 'I don't have enough money to pay my water bill. What do I do?' So as a journalist in the African-American community, you have to be able to... help them get their utilities turned back on, or get raw sewage out of their basement."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with a photographic portrait by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.