In another life, Lazone Grays would only be known as a computer geek, one of those guys who does something technical with computers that most of us don’t understand. However in this life, Grays is known more for his unrelenting activism. For the past 26 years, Grays has been a person people in power in Topeka,KS have preferred not to see. If Grays showed up, you knew the soft spoken but determined man would be armed with facts and ready to go to bat for what he felt was right.
Grays, all 5’8” of him, is no lightweight. Since arriving in Topeka, he’s successfully sued the area’s quasi-governmental organization, the Joint Economic Development Organization (JEDO), for failing to follow required competitive bidding laws and pushed for and saw approved a program to have $500,000 annually in local sales tax revenue designated for economic development programs for socially and economically disadvantaged individuals and or businesses. Just this month, after years of bringing attention to the disproportionately high unemployment rate among African-American men in Shawnee County, he finally saw JEDO approve more than $5 million for a work training program on Topeka’s east side.
What’s most amazing about Grays accomplishments is that he’s an army of one. He’s not the leader of the big group, a church or a civil rights organization. When he shows up, there’s no Amen choir behind him. For decades, it’s, been just Grays showing up at meeting after meeting, making his points.
Early on, he says, he’s tried to get others involved, but “Black folks ran from me like I was the plague,” noted Grays, who admits to being a “fire brand” in his early days. When he first arrived in Topeka he was just 30-years-old and, like in many cities, the members of the old guard weren’t ready to relinquish the reigns, especially to a young person determined to challenge the establishment and who they knew little about.
Grays started off challenging diversity in local corporations and contracting, but in 2000 began focusing his efforts on the city’s recently approved .25% local sales tax option. Of the millions collected from the sales tax, $5 million per year was required to go to local economic development. Grays wanted to make sure African Americans, who paid into the fund every time they made a purchase, also benefitted from the fund proceeds.
The JEDO Board, composed of three county commissioners, the mayor, vice-mayor and two city council members make decisions about how to use the sales tax revenue, with the entire City Council and the County Commission making recommendations to JEDO on how the funds are spent.
Surprisingly, Grays says one of his earliest and easiest victories was getting the JEDO Board to designate 10% of the $5 million for programs for racial minorities. “This wasn’t much of a battle,” said Grays during a recent interview. “I got the City Council’s support on it.”
Since minorities were about 21% of Shawnee County population, Grays asked for 21% of the funding to be designated for minorities. With such a quick victory, Grays wasn’t terribly disappointed by 10%. However, not long after the vote, the wording was watered down. The City’s Human Relations Office was concerned limiting the funds to minorities might be challenged, so the wording was changed to “socially and economically disadvantaged” groups, which expanded the program to include women.
Not used to someone with such tenacity, the powers that be may have believed that was the last they’d hear from Grays. Wrong! Grays wanted to make sure some of the money set aside for “minority” economic development found its way into the Black community. Instead, without a competitive bid, the JEDO board gave a contract to administer the Economic Development Program to the organization Go Topeka, an economic development “arm” of the Topeka Chamber of Commerce.
“I challenged them that anything over a certain amount had to go out to a competitive bid,” began Grays, while also noting the political power of the Chamber. “I went to the City Council and said, ‘you can’t do this.” They asked for a ruling from the City attorney who signed off on giving the contract without a bid.
“When I protested, I was told, ‘if you have a problem with it sue.’” That’s exactly what Grays did.
After soliciting the minority community for financial support and receiving less than a handful of small donations, he moved ahead on his own.
“I put everything I owned up and hocked it for a loan,” said Grays. “They (both the community and power brokers) tried to spin it that I was doing this because I wanted a contract. I wanted the money.”
“My reasoning from the very beginning is that I wanted a minority chamber or a minority business development group to compete for the funds. The Topeka Chamber had always been a good old board network. They’d never done anything for minorities and they didn’t have the expertise.”
Gray couldn’t find local firm to take the lawsuit, but he finally found of group of Black female attorneys in Kansas City, MO to take the case. It was three years before a decision came down, but Grays won.
The judge ruled the contract “illegal, hence void.” However, the victory was rather shallow, because the judge gave the city and county 45 days to consider whether to exempt the contract from competitive bidding requirements. Four days later they met and exempted the contract from competitive bid.
Broke and with no funds to move forward, Grays gave in. However he won in the long run, when the initial contract ran out, the next time it was put out for bid, and Go Topeka has held on to the contract for 15 years.
The lawsuit against JEDO didn’t endear him to the powers that be. In fact, it “pissed” quite a few people off. “They just don’t want people to rock the boat and other Black organizations never did,” commented Gray.
Grays still didn’t go away. In the decade since the lawsuit, he could be counted on to weigh in at government meetings on issues of importance to the community. Each year, he’d appear before the City Council with statistics on the high rate of unemployment of African Americans in Topeka.
The year the Economic Development program was implemented, the unemployment rate among Black males, who are just under 4% of the City’s population, was around 6%. Every year after, the numbers continued to rise, with the Black male unemployment rate reaching as high a 17.1%.
Comparatively, the unemployment rate for Topeka White males was 3.8% in 2002 and toped out at around 7% during the economic recession.
The point Grays continued to make, year after year, was that the $5 million being spent each year for economic development was not resulting in a positive gain for the Black community. According to the agreement guiding the use of the economic development funds, some of the money could be used for workforce development.
“I just continued to hammer them about it over and over,” said Grays.
It didn’t take months, it took years to change the community mindset, but last month, JEDO approved more than $5 million for a workforce development program in East Topeka. Grays doesn’t take total claim for the project, even though Councilwoman Karen Hiller drew special attention to Grays long-term support of this issue just moments before the vote to approve the funding was taken.
“I want to thank in particular Lazone Grays,” commented Hiller. “Those who don’t know it, he’s been here at every meeting. He has kept this issue alive; he’s brought great data; he has always been thoughtful but purposeful; and has been the flag bearer for this issue. Thank you Lazone and enjoy.”
After years of hard work, Grays is finally getting at least some acknowledgement for his years of work.
“When people get to know me, they find out I really don’t have horns and a tail,” joked Grays.
He admits a growing respect for his work in the community, but quickly refrained, “But Westar Energy doesn’t take respect for payments.”
Grays has never received any compensation for his work and from all indications lives a very modest lifestyle, focusing more on giving back to the community that raking in the big dollars. A humble individual he makes sure to acknowledge the role of other watch dogs in the community, like the League of Women Voters.
He notes how they stepped up and started questioning powers – to – be and demanding transparency, particularly with the money that was awarded to Go Topeka.” They pushed for and got a detailed accounting of how those sales tax dollars were being spent.
He’d like to see more members of the community get involved.
“What do you think 10 of us could do or 100,” he questions.
After he received an award from a local community group SUCCESS, Grays took a picture of the award and posted on Facebook. In one of his typically long, but thought filled, posts, Grays wrote, “Along with thanking the group for their acknowledgement “Anybody has the chance to either live their lives for themselves or for a greater good of others; I just happen to ‘chose’ the latter, and that’s okay with me.”