The empowering story of a Kansas City teen mom who became a voice for Black reparations

This interview is part of the second season of Voices of Kansas City, a project created in collaboration with KKFI Community Radio to highlight the experiences of Kansas Citians making an impact on the community. All the episodes are available at the site and listen to KKFI live on 90.1 FM, or at Do you know someone who should be featured in a future season of Voices of Kansas City? Tell us about them using this form.

Nearly every time Janay Reliford, who chairs the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, is out and about at events around the city, she is literally wearing evidence of her Black pride, assuring there will be no mistaking where her passions lie. Usually she is adorned with some combination of a head wrap, earrings and a dashiki ( a colorful tunic worn mostly in West Africa and made popular in the U.S. during the 1960s), or a sweat shirt or “T” shirt with some positive Afrocentric expression emblazoned across the front. Her attire pairs perfectly with the smile she also flashes proudly.

Reliford’s smile and Black pride are two things she had to learn. She found them with the help of family and friends who supported her as an unmarried teen mom taking care of her child while getting her education and building a reputation in Kansas City as a determined, hard working, well informed citizen whose passions are service to others and striving to repair the harms historically done, through systemic racism and overt racism, to Black Kansas Citians. Her story is powerful and relevant and that’s why The Star invited Reliford to join us in the studios of KKFI radio where she recently spoke to Mará Rose Williams, The Star’s assistant managing editor for race and equity. That interview, with minor editing for space and clarity, is published here in a question and answer format to share Reliford’s authentic voice.

Meet Janay Reliford

The Star: Janay we want to hear all about the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, but first, is there something else you do? Do you have another job?

Reliford: Well, that is a great question. No, I do not have a 9-to-5. It seems more like a 24-7 kind of thing that I have going on, which makes it difficult to find balance with all the things that I have going on. But somebody gave me some great advice not long ago and said it’s not about balance, it’s about some things you just have to say no to, right? But along with my role with the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, I also am the CEO and founder of Camp CHOICE, which is a life enrichment resource for youth and families. So I do adult life simulations for teens, but I do a whole lot of other life skills, education-type experiences. It’s more than just the adult life simulations.

So that’s really my baby, Camp CHOICE. CHOICE stands for Children Having Opportunities In Creating In Environment. That means the choices we make create the environment we find ourselves in. On top of that, I am also the program and fundraising coordinator for the Yvonne Stark Wilson Park, and this is with Heart of the City, Dunbar neighborhood, and it’s through the AmeriCorps program.

I’m an AmeriCorps Vista working in the historic Dunbar neighborhood to raise money for this park that is named after Senator Yvonne Starks Wilson. So it’s a very important and exciting role. And I’m also engaged with a lot of other wonderful community organizations that I volunteer for.

So would you call yourself a community activist, a community advocate? How would you sum up all of these projects that you’re working on into one title, if you will?

I would call myself a community servant.

A community servant. I love that. What is your goal with each of these? Are they different, or is it all about creating a better quality of life for every individual?

That’s a great question because when I pointed out that it’s really hard to find balance with all these things that I’m engaged in, while some of them may have uniqueness about them, they are all connected in some way. And I would say that my ultimate goal is to help enhance the quality of life for others. So for my youth camp, the vision for that is youth choosing well. I want young people from all walks of life to understand the power of their choices so they can have a better quality of life. And I’m a social worker, so all the other things that I do are just about really wanting to see people be better.

Are you from Kansas City originally?

I am.

So you were born and raised here? What part of the city did you grow up in? Where did you go to high school?

So I grew up right off 39th Street; My childhood home is at 39th (Street) and Tracy (Avenue). I went to Westport High School and I’m a product of Project Choice, which is a scholarship program through the Kauffman Foundation that afforded me the opportunity to go to college.

So where did you go to college?

I did my undergrad, well, I did a two-plus-two program with Central Missouri State University and Longview Community College. So I took all my classes at Longview, but I got my bachelor’s degree from Central Missouri State, and then my master’s program I did with KU (University of Kansas). I took all my classes at the Edwards campus.

So what about your upbringing in Kansas City and your education in Kansas City led you on the path to become such a community servant?

Janay Reliford, who chairs the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, considers herself not just an activist pushing for reparations for Black Kansas Citians, but also someone who works in service to others. The KC native works tirelessly to see that other’s live quality lives.
Janay Reliford, who chairs the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, considers herself not just an activist pushing for reparations for Black Kansas Citians, but also someone who works in service to others. The KC native works tirelessly to see that other’s live quality lives.

So my mother passed away when I was 15. I always say that two great things she did for me before she passed away was she first gave me a spiritual foundation. She taught me about Christ. That has been my saving grace up to now. That has helped me more than anything, my faith. And, she signed me up for that scholarship program. She did that literally months before she passed away.

So those two things have made a major impact on where I’ve ended up now. So also, when my mother passed away, I got pregnant immediately. The same month she passed away. And that experience of becoming a teenage mom really shaped my desire to want to start Camp Choice.

Tell me a little bit about being a teenage mom. You talked about high school. You talked about going to college and you’re talking about being a teenage mom. Tell me about that challenge. What was that like for Janay?

Well, it was awful and it was a blessing at the same time.; Of course, any mom would want to welcome their child. But being a teenage mom I wasn’t in the mindset to be able to be happy about my pregnancy, and especially about being a single mom. So that was hard. And then as well, I felt I was an embarrassment.

And that will kind of make me cry because I’m the oldest of four, and our grandparents took us in. They came and got us when my mother passed away in a car accident. So it was very sudden. And our grandparents, like they made a huge sacrifice to take us. And there are three dads. None of the dads were, I guess, in a frame of mind to take that responsibly.

So my grandparents did. And then for the fact of me getting pregnant right after that. To add to that, I mean, that was embarrassing.

I can see how emotional this story is for you, That feeling that you had, that you felt embarrassed, you knew that your grandparents had taken on a huge responsibility, did that also gave you some drive, extra drive to be successful.

It absolutely did. And also remembering my mothers words when she was signing me up for that program. Because my mother was pregnant with me at 15 and she dropped out of high school. But she went on to get her GED. So when she was signing me up for that program, I was like right there. And she just turned around and looked at me and she said, “You’re going to go to college.” And just like the way she said it to me, it stuck with me.

That was very important to you. So how did you juggle? Did your grandparents then help you with the child and work too, so that you could get your education? Or were there some outside agencies and organizations that also stepped up to help you?

It was all of that. It does take a village. It really does. So I could not have gotten through without my family. There was an aunt who really made… all my whole family made a lot of sacrifices, with my mom’s passing, to take care of the four of us. So. But there was an aunt in particular who would stay the week over to my grandparents and go home on the weekends to help my grandparents.

o that and then when I ended up getting pregnant, this same aunt was helping me with my babies. So I would have never been able to get through those years without my family. And then just all kinds of people in the community programs, as you said. I went on Section eight.

But I was on all that government assistance. And thanks be to God, I was able to work my way off of those assistance programs and stand on my own two feet.

It’s it’s a beautiful thing that you had that kind of a network around you. But I’m thinking that struggle is what has powered you to become the kind of social worker that you are and the programs that you’re involved with today. Could you talk a little bit about the connection of those two things?

I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it like that, but I think you’re right. When I was in the Kauffman Project Choice program, and I just have to shout out the Kauffman Foundation for that because they’re still providing scholarships to youth, which is so absolutely needed and is such a beautiful thing. And they’ve also increased it.

Now they’re supporting adults to even go to college. But I don’t know where I would be without that college degree and I mean, they (Project Choice) took teens through, you know, all kinds of career assessments. Yes. To help us figure out what we might be good at.

And that’s where I came up with the thought of being a social worker, through the Kauffman program. You know? So that’s what led me into the field of helping people. I just knew that I wanted to help people. And I think you’re right that it was my experience that made me so passionate about wanting to do that.

Of course, they had to show you, that there is a career path for that kind of person who wants to be a help. Right? If you don’t see the career path, you don’t realize that it exists. And Kauffman was able to show you that there’s a career path for what you’re so good at today.

How much of what you experienced as a single mom and then also the loss of your mom, the wrapping arms around you that your family and community did, translate to you as a mom, as a mother?

I think that translates to me as a mother, knowing that my children need the same support that I received. I definitely did everything that I could to ensure that. I have two sons, they’re 31 and 28 now, and I have grandchildren as well. I have one granddaughter and two grand babies on the way, like right now. So as a mother and a grandmother, knowing that my children, and my family need the same kind of support that I needed as I was growing up, I’m learning that that nurturing never ends, right? It never ends.

Right. Well, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing with the city now. You’re the president of the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, and there’s a lot to unpack there. People have been talking about reparations for many years. Tell us what exactly is that, reparations? For whom and for what.

Reparations, a simple definition is it is repair for harm. So reparations can apply to many different things. But this in particular is repair for harm that was done to a specific group, A people. African-Americans are who we’re fighting for, because, as you know, other ethnic groups have been harmed, have had crimes against humanity bestowed upon them by America, and they have received reparations so it’s definitely past time for African Americans to receive reparations. No other group in this country has undergone chattel slavery. And, I definitely don’t want to belittle anyone else’s pain or story of injustice in America, but I’m sure those groups still have residual effects. But unfortunately, with African-Americans, there hasn’t been any (reparations/repair). And the anti-blackness that was created, that message that we’re less than human., it lives today.

Right. So what kind of reception are you getting as a coalition as you go about the city talking about the idea of reparations for African Americans?

I would definitely say it is mostly positive. But there is still so much educating to do. I mean, even for me. I’m constantly having to educate myself on the past and the present conditions of African Americans in this country and abroad, because reparations are not just a story of America. It’s a global story.

So when you talk about reparations, I think that most people immediately think about a check, right? That, if we get reparations, what we’ll be getting is a big fat check from the government apologizing for what have you, for slavery, for chattel slavery. Is that what we’re talking about? Or are there other forms of reparations?

Janay Reliford is chair of the Kansas City Reparations Coalition. She shared her story about how she grew up in Kansas City and why the coalition is important, as part of the Voices of Kansas City project.
Janay Reliford is chair of the Kansas City Reparations Coalition. She shared her story about how she grew up in Kansas City and why the coalition is important, as part of the Voices of Kansas City project.

There are lots of forms of reparations. And I definitely want the community to understand there is way more than a check because the harm was way more than economic. There is psychological damage that was done, being done, because anti-black racism runs deep. It’s something like a disease because it’s passed down through the generations.

And really killing racism is really the highest form of reparations that we can achieve. But aside from that, you know, there’s land, there’s education, there’s entrepreneurship, health care. There are all kinds of ways that African Americans can receive healing and repair from the damage.

What do you say to those people who say, my gosh, slavery was hundreds of years ago, that there have been laws passed that give African-Americans the same rights as everyone else? We should just get over that.

I would implore them to think deeper and have more compassion, because, first of all, as I stated, it wasn’t so long ago. It’s today. And because racism is at the root of all of this and racism still lives right now, people definitely can’t say, just get over that because it impacts the lives of African-Americans daily.

And the racism cuts through the law. So you can have, you can pass all kinds of laws but if people still have hatred and racism in their hearts, they’ll go over the law. Right?

Well,tin 2020 the Kansas City Star apologized for its lack of coverage of the black community in Kansas City. And one of the things that I heard after that piece came out was that so many people didn’t realize the kinds of racism that was occurring.

So as the chair person of the Kansas City Reparations Coalition, how important is the process of educating people?

It is top priority. So there is a distinction made between the Kansas City Reparations Coalition and the mayor’s Commission on Reparations. Now, the the coalition was responsible and was interested in helping to usher in the commission. But their role, the commission’s role is to get the research done. They won’t necessarily be the ones doing the research, but they have to organize all that gets done, and then they have to develop proposals that will repair the harm in five injury areas.

So those injury areas are education, housing, health care, business, and economic mix. And did I say all five? I’ll just say them again Housing, health care, education, criminal justice, business and economics. Because business and economics are one, right? So their role is to come up with those proposals. Our role as the coalition is to educate the community on what reparations are and what they are not, and to get the community engaged in the reparations movement.

And that is so important because I think that’s the way to change the hearts and the minds of people. That’s the way to cure racism, is if people are educated on it. I don’t see how anybody can continue to not be for reparations if they really have an understanding of the journey that African Americans have had and that they can see that there are residual effects.

But we still live in a separate and unequal society. You know, African Americans still have received unequal education. You know, schools are very much separate, segregated. And that’s because of the way schools are funded. They’re funded to perpetuate poverty, racism, and segregation, which are the kinds of laws that have to be changed.

Where did your passion for this movement come from? This coalition is fairly young. So when did you develop this passion for a fight for reparations?

This is where I might cry again because I believe God, chose me for this. I believe all of us in this movement, were chosen. I truly believe that there’s a time and a place for everything, you know, Ecclesiastic. I don’t know the exact scripture, but he talks about a time for everything. And I believe now is the time for reparations.

And I believe I was born to be in this movement. It actually was on my heart a couple of years before the opportunity even came for me to be on this coalition. And I was already telling myself, I want to be in this reparations movement. I think I don’t even remember when I first started hearing about it, but I know that it was a couple of years before the invitation came.

So Baba, Mickie Dean, who was with the National Black United Front, he put out the invitation for lots of other black-led entities to join this coalition. And so I was with Sankofa For Kansas City at the time.

Can you tell us what Sankofa for Kansas City is so that people understand what that is?

Absolutely. So Reverend Ester Holzendorf is the founder and visionary of Sankofa for Kansas City. Sankofa is from the language of Ghana, and it means go back and fetch you. Go back and get those things that you have left behind that you need for the journey ahead. So the mission of Sankofa is to get people in the community out of their silos and working together, because so many of us have this mission. We want to see the same things, but we’re working in silos, which diminishes our capacity to serve more people or make a greater impact.

So the mission of Sankofa is to organize the community, to become a resource to one another, to restore things forgotten. So that invitation came to Sankofa. Myself, Rev. Esther, and also another member, Rev. Carmen Williams. We all joined the Kansas City Reparations Coalition along with several other black-led groups.

So along with the National Black United Front of Kansas City, there is SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) of Greater Kansas City, and there is Muhammad’s Mosque #30. There is the Urban Summit, and there is the Urban League of (Greater) Kansas City. We all make up the Kansas City Reparations Coalition.

And you all helped the city to craft an ordinance that led to the Mayor’s Commission on Reparations. And you’re working closely with them and educating people. It sounds to me like this is an extension of your community servant mindset. Do you see it that way?

I absolutely do. I have so much hope and so much vision for what we can be. And so I press towards that.

Is there a time frame on this?

Well, absolutely there is. It’s God’s timing for everything. But the commission has a time frame. They were on a 18-month time frame to complete their proposals, but they got started without any funding. But the sun is shining because at first the mayor, the council, were only going to commit to giving the commission less than half of the budget that they needed to do their research.

And now they’re talking about putting the whole 510,000 in the 2024 2025 budget. So I’m extremely proud of Kansas City for making this decision, and I’m excited.

If someone in the community wants to get involved with the reparations movement to learn more about what’s being talked about. How would they do that?

They can go to our website, We also have monthly meetings. We meet every last Monday of the month except December. Our meetings are at 6 p.m. and the commission also meets.They meet the fourth Tuesday of the month and you can just search online for Kansas City Reparations Commission or you can get on the city’s website. The Kansas City Reparations Coalition meetings are only virtual and you can get that link on our website.