Defying a “gang list” label to find his voice and lend it to others
By Polly Basore Wenzl,2023-01-18
There is the life you are born to — and the life you create. Desmond Bryant-White is creating his chosen life through words: written words and spoken words, filling books and covering whiteboards. Words rising out of pain, struggle and injustice, uttered at poetry slams, press conferences and policy panels.
And now leaders of Wichita’s Black community have asked him to use his words on their behalf in Topeka, as a paid lobbyist of the Kansas Legislature. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau solicited funds from organizations to pay his gas money for the 275-mile round trip, so Bryant-White can speak in support of changes in how law enforcement treats Black citizens.
“I have never done it before, but I have never done a lot of things before,” said Bryant-White. “I have been doing a lot of firsts.”
Shifting the focus from the past
Sometimes I feel like we
Focus too much
On who we were,
Not enough on who we are.
from Desmond “Des The Poet” Bryant-White, “#NoExcuses”
In the beginning of the life he was born to, Bryant-White didn’t have much voice, didn’t have much of anything. Not food, not safety, not dreams, nor aspirations. Not yet.
Born and raised in Wichita, Bryant-White spent his early childhood with a mom who struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. He recalls being locked in a room with a TV while she went out to party. He was often hungry, changed elementary schools at least twice a year and frequently didn’t make it to school. So he watched educational programs on TV and tried to teach himself.
“A lot of people in the community looked up to the drug dealers as role models,” Bryant-White said. “I knew that was never going to be an outlet for me. I saw the destruction that it caused.”
Around fourth grade, his father and stepmother, whom he saw alternate weekends, asked if he would like to come live with them. “I said, ‘Yes, take me,’” Bryant-White recalled. “It wasn’t like I was moving to a rich family, we still had struggles, but it was stable. I ate every day – that wasn’t the norm prior to. That gave me a chance now as I grew up.”
He attended Truesdell and Hamilton middle schools before going to West High, where he played on the basketball team and participated in the school’s pre-engineering program. He graduated from high school in 2007 with a scholarship to study engineering at Wichita State University.
“What intrigued me about engineering was the design and implementation of ideas. That’s what drew me in: Being able … to take an idea and see it all the way to a final design… which is what that is.” Bryant-White paused from telling his story to point to the dry-erase white board at his office where he works as program manager for Progeny, a nonprofit serving youth affected by the juvenile justice system.
The whiteboard is covered in words, an orderly blueprint for ideas he means to implement – a youth program for Wichita middle and high schools where he would teach young people to find their own voices through creativity and words.
The consequences of the Wichita Police Department’s gang list
Purpose: Show how the power of words can create change.
From Bryant-White’s whiteboard
Once he turned 18, Bryant-White found himself pulled back toward the life he was born into: an extended family involved with drugs and crime. His father and stepmother provided a healthy influence, but they moved into a new house, forcing Bryant-White to find his own place to live. “I had a house and I had a roommate who was actually a cousin. That wasn’t the right environment for me. I was around the wrong people.”
In Wichita, being around the wrong people can cost you. The Wichita Police Department maintains a “gang list” of around 3,000 people believed to be involved with or associated with people in gangs. The police are more likely to pull you over and search your car if you appear on the list. The ACLU of Kansas is currently suing the WPD over the list, believing it violates the constitutional right of association.
Bryant-White believes the list is why he was pulled over the first time. It was July 2009. “I was pulled over because of a tag light – and who was in the car, more importantly.” He was with his cousin. The police gave him a ticket and a fine. “As youth, you really don’t understand the court system and how it is to just pay the fine. Hopefully you have the money. Of course, I didn’t have the money to pay those fines,” he said.
“If you don’t have the money to pay, you appear in court. I missed a court date, not knowing the severity of the system. So once you miss a court date you now have a bench warrant. So you have a whole other set of problems now. That was my first encounter of going to jail – just through traffic.”
Youthful choices lead to grown-up consequences
A four-month jail term derailed his college plans. But Bryant-White said he already found it challenging, trying to fit in with the other engineering students. “Not only am I the only African American male in this classroom, I don’t have what my peers have,” he said. “I was seeing everyone with iMac computers and iPhones and all the newest technology.” He said he felt like he needed those things to fit in.
“So that kind of put me on a path of destruction.” Bryant-White said he engaged in buying and selling electronics. That led to some possession of stolen property charges. But Bryant-White emphasizes he never sold drugs and he never engaged in anything violent – a claim his record with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation backs up.
Bryant-White spent the following years trying to reclaim the life he wanted for himself. He attended ITT for a while, then went back to Wichita State to study business administration before dropping out as a junior with four semesters left.
He worked a series of what he calls bad jobs, mostly involving manual labor. He worked for a computer company, doing shipping and invoicing and building machines. He worked assembly line jobs at manufacturing plants. He worked in meatpacking through the pandemic, sometimes 80-hours a week because of worker shortages. He dug swimming pools.
“I don’t want to say manufacturing makes it a bad job. It’s the amount of work for the amount of pay, when you can barely feed your family when you’re making $10 an hour so you now have to work 60 hours a week,” he said. Bryant-White is married with three children.
Those jobs were what he could get with a police record, he said. “That comes from bad decisions. Now you can’t work certain jobs, they turn you down. That’s why I now preach to make good choices because they can haunt you.”
Finding meaning before his mother’s death
But jobs are not life. While Bryant-White was working those jobs he was also building his chosen life. “I wanted to create something that would leave a positive impact on the world. So I started my spoken word.” Bryant-White wrote poetry, which he shared at poetry slams and on videos he created. That led to hosting events featuring spoken word, poetry, music and comedy – creating spaces for artists to come out and network and show their talents. “That’s what really gave me a platform as a speaker.”
He also wrote and published three books: “Better Days in 90 Days: Secrets, Tips & Cheat Codes,” a self-help guide to digging yourself out of a bad situation and building a better life, and “Adoer” and “#NoExcuses,” both anthologies of original poetry.
The first book is a tribute to his mother, who died in 2020. Bryant-White says “family issues” and the pandemic meant he never knew what she died of or got a chance to formally mourn her. She was cremated with no funeral, and he doesn’t know what became of her remains.
But before she died, Bryant-White said she had the hard but necessary conversations with him about his childhood. His mother wrote some of it down, in what became the foreword of “Better Days in 90 Days.”
“She said, ‘You need to hear these things, because it will make you a better man.’” Bryant-White said understanding the source of his family’s generational trauma has helped him process some of the bad decisions made by people in his family – including a brother charged earlier this month with first-degree murder related to a drug dispute.
“Should I share this?” Bryant-White paused in telling his story before continuing. “I am sure he went through the same trauma. … I think that conversation (with my mother) helped because I knew what was going on. And you know, those are just some of the things we face in our community. We feel pain, but how you process those emotions is very important.”
Bryant-White finds a platform by speaking up
Sometimes it is the small things… that can impact a life tremendously.
from Des The Poet, “Better Days in 90 Days: Secrets, Tips & Cheat Codes”
In July 2016, Desmond Bryant-White made a decision to go to a community barbecue hosted by then-Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay. “If it wasn’t for me going to that barbecue that day, I’d probably still be on the gang list to this day.”
Bryant-White said he and others in the Black community were wary of the police-sponsored event. “Why would I go? … But I knew the impact of having the opportunity to speak with the chief of police. What is one thing I can ask him that he can actually change?”
A video from that day is on Bryant-White’s Facebook page. It shows him asking the chief, in front of a crowd, whether someone like him trying to build a better life could ever get off the list. He told the chief he had never been in a gang himself. On camera, Ramsay gave his word that he would give Bryant-White an opportunity to get off the list; months later he was removed.
The exchange brought Bryant-White to the attention of the news media for the first time, he said. KWCH came to his house to interview him. “That gave me a platform for speaking,” he said. “That was before I was comfortable. You have to put yourself into things that scare you.”
Bryant-White made a habit after that of putting himself in new spaces to meet new people. He networked with Wichita’s entrepreneurship community, which led him to Marquetta Atkins-Woods, which led to his first job assembling ideas into action, rather than parts into products. Atkins-Woods hired him as the project manager for Progeny beginning in May 2022.
That work led him to speaking at the commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the in-custody death of CJ Lofton. And that led to speaking this past month at a press conference and then a city hall meeting regarding an off-duty police officer hitting, pushing and pepper-spraying a teen he was trying to subdue while working security at a south Wichita skating rink on New Year’s Eve. The incident was caught on video.
Which then led to more appearances on television news, the invitation to act as a lobbyist in Topeka and an invitation by KMUW to appear on an Engage ICT panel with the current Wichita Police Chief Joseph Sullivan about the relationship between the Black community and the police.
Bryant-White feels fortunate to get these opportunities. He credits his decisions to take the negative in life and channel it into something positive. “Luckily I turned out OK,” he said. “I know my peers didn’t, and everybody I know is in prison, dead or their mental health is horrible.”
Does he feel that lawmakers and law enforcers will listen to his words?
“We always feel like the system isn’t listening,” he said. “When you feel like the system isn’t built for you it kind of puts you in a messed-up headspace. But I know that somebody has to say something.
“We have to be brave. Our ancestors were brave. I think about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey… Somebody needs to be brave enough to speak the truth and be the voice in the community because if we don’t make change, nothing will change. We need to be the change we want to see.”
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