July 6, 2007
State Rep. Craig C. Bland, the new president of Freedom, Inc., intends to bring a “grassroots” look back to the influential African-American political organization.
The 48-year-old Bland, who worked precincts in Freedom wards as a teenager back in the years when the group’s endorsement carried great weight, wants the political club to reconnect with the needs and aspirations of the people of Kansas City, white as well as black.
“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bland said in an interview. “But I think a lot of people are available to help the organization. We also intend to network and link with other community group to build a better Kansas City.”
This reporter sat down with Bland on July 5 at Freedom, Inc., headquarters in the Gates Bar-B-Q Shopping Center at 12th and Brooklyn Ave. The interview ended when Bland, a Democrat, left for Independence to attend a speech by former President Bill Clinton on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
Bland, who is serving his fourth term in the Missouri House, does not earn a living for himself and his family entirely as an elected official. He also has worked on the production line at the Ford Claycomo Assembly Plant since 1988. Before that, he worked 10 years at the former General Motors Leeds Plant. He is a member of the United Auto Workers.
As a lifelong Kansas City resident, Bland grew up in southeast part of the city, where he still lives with his wife Alicia and four children. He attended St. Louis Catholic grade school at 59th and Swope Pkwy and Bishop Hogan and Southeast high schools. He attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City and also has taken courses at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I like business and social studies courses, some history,” Bland said. “I also enjoy English — I like to write. One professor at UMKC liked my writing, and he thought I had a unique way of writing. He helped me to structure my writing, and I enjoyed that.”
Bland’s mother, Mary Groves Bland, served 24 years in the Missouri General Assembly, the last eight years in the Senate; she stepped down in January. Mary Bland served as Freedom, Inc., president in the 1990s. Her brother and Craig’s uncle, Marvin L. Groves, was chairman of the Kansas City Model Cities board of directors in the 1970s. Marvin Groves also pushed for construction of the Sycamore Groves Housing Project for low- and moderate-income tenants.
In the House, Craig Bland has introduced bills for health care policy reform and a moratorium on the death penalty. Locally, he was unsuccessful in having three stoplights removed from Bruce Watkins Drive, but succeeded in having three electronic signs installed at intersection approaches, which cut accidents. He has served as chair of the Black Caucus of the General Assembly.
Bland was named Freedom, Inc., president in May by the organization’s board of directors, succeeding Mark Bryant, an attorney and former Kansas City councilman. Bland unveiled his plans for reinvigorating the organization at a June 21 board meeting.
“What I did was propose that we get more organized, that we put committees together in such areas as fundraising, human development, education, health and social activities,” Bland said.
“These committees, I hope, will enable us to relate better with the communities we serve. What’s really important is that we get information to the people about issues, things that are going on in the Greater Kansas City and also the state of Missouri.”
Bland, noting that younger people get much of their news from the Internet, said that Freedom would use the Web to relate to its constituency.
“We’re going into the Internet age,” Bland said. “The Internet is so accessible people can go there and find out how their representatives voted — on the city council, the county legislature and the Missouri General Assembly as well as Congress. I get emails all the time about particular issues people believe are important, issues that are hot.”
Bland noted that he expects more emphasis on the Internet as a means of communication, including information about Freedom activities and “different projects we are involved in that affect the community.”
Bland acknowledged that his emphasis on a new focus for Freedom is in part the result of the lack of success Freedom had with a couple of recent elections. Last summer, state Sen. Charles B. Wheeler, who was endorsed by Freedom, lost his bid for the post of Jackson County Executive to County Prosecutor Mike Sanders. And earlier this year, City Councilman Alvin Brooks, the Freedom-endorsed candidate for mayor, lost to Mark Funkhouser.
“I think one of the problems was that we need to have a stronger personal relationship with voters,” Bland said. “When I was growing up, we had more picnics, more rallies. People need to hear more often from their ward leaders. We need to convince people that it is important to their lives to get out and vote.
“I think we have our work cut out for us,” Bland continued. “And you notice I said ‘we’. I also think we have to have relationships with other groups, even business corporations, and work together for safer neighborhoods, better schools, economic development, economic parity, and better opportunities and living conditions in the urban core.”
Bland noted that the movement within the black community, which led to the formation of Freedom, Inc., began in the 1950s and gained strength in the 1960s under the leadership of such leaders as Bruce R. Watkins, Leon Jordan and Harold Holliday, Sr.
“While remembering our past, we need to continue to look forward,” Bland said. “We need to work with people who are black, white and Latino. It will take all ethnic groups working together to do the job that needs to be done. We have to appeal to younger people who don’t really know the history of Freedom.”
Bland was asked about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to bar the consideration of racial background in school assignments, which should end the use of busing to achieve school desegregation. He answered the question indirectly, noting that there are advantages to neighborhood schools.
“I support quality schools, a good curriculum and special services for teachers to give all students an excellent education,” Bland said.
Crime is another issue, with almost nightly reports of shootings and killings in the city’s core area. Bland said the long-range solution to this worrisome problem is better educational and economic opportunities for all people.
“One of the things we need to do to deter crime is implement programs so people who are not always college-bound can go into skilled trades, construction jobs, labor jobs,” Bland said. “I think crime is often the result of unemployment. We have to provide jobs. And we have to provide internships so students who are out of school for the summer can gain some understanding of the workforce.
“That’s a start, vo-tech training in cosmetology, heating and cooling, auto repair, etc.” Bland said. “Look at the things we used to have in school.”
Bland said the core area also needs “programs to give young people something to do,” such as Night Hoops, Golden Gloves, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. “We need to bring those types of programs back,” Bland said.
Tom Bogdon can be contacted at email@example.com.
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