Eight Shawnee Mission East High School students ventured behind the Family Dollar store at 75th Street and Metcalf Ave. Only one of them, maybe two, had seen what had been built up behind that seemingly innocent, easily ignored strip mall before.
Though the area is part of Johnson County – home to Mission Hills, the third richest suburb in America, and just two miles away from Shawnee Mission East, a straight shot west down 75th street from the school – what they found didn’t quite fit that Johnson County stereotype.
They found a bag of “sketchy” white powder, which they quickly disposed of, 20 to 30 used syringes left behind, a deserted homeless camp with empty beer bottles strewn about and one homeless man who helped them clean up the mess he himself was living off of.
These kids make up the “Struggle Party,” and they were there to clean up the area behind the Family Dollar. Their goal is to make the world’s issues heard by making themselves part of them. This means that when they find a “struggle,” they actively participate in the problem – talking to homeless people instead of just giving them money, spending time in a dirty environment like the parking lot of Family Dollar instead of giving money to help clean up a polluted area. They base themselves off of the idea that giving a voice to lesser known problems is the way to get society to address them and help things to improve.
Senior Graham Murphy founded the Struggle Party, which is what he describes as a youth activist party intended to improve the community. Although currently made up of all Shawnee Mission East students – approximately ten come to the weekly meetings every Wednesday – the party isn’t school-sponsored, and technically speaking, is not a club.
“[The party focuses on] difficult issues that people don’t like to talk about, like homelessness and race,” Murphy said. “There are people experiencing those struggles, and if those aren’t heard, then we’ll never have the opportunity to make them better.”
The Struggle Party’s goal is to host events like the Family Dollar store clean-up, which are intended to not only clean the area, but also expose Shawnee Mission East students to struggles that go on so close to home.
“When you think of JoCo, you don’t think of homelessness,” Murphy said. “That’s one reason we’re going to this area, because it’s a particularly dirty and particularly ignored part of town.”
They are planning to visit other, dirtier areas of Kansas City at some point as well, like Swope Park or the industrial area just west of Kansas City, according to Struggle Party member senior Paris Girard. The first clean-up went well in Murphy’s eyes, partially because it opened the eyes of some of the students who attended, like senior and student body president, Kyle Baker.
The most eye-opening part of the experience for Baker was the interaction with the homeless that lived in the area. The group that attended met and talked with several homeless men.
“There was just a huge pile of trash where people, when they had been evicted from their apartments, would dump all their trash,” Baker said. “There were dirty diapers and tons of maggots and just stuff that really shouldn’t be there. We were just helping clean that up so that it was a better environment for everyone.”
“I think that this was one of the most hands-on experiences I’ve done here [at Shawnee Mission East],” Baker continued. “I’ve gone on service trips and gotten to work with the people we’re helping, but it brought it to a new light seeing it right here in Johnson County, a few miles away from my home, instead of millions of miles away in Tennessee or New Mexico or Wyoming.”
Murphy actually knew one of the homeless men before the event. He grew up in what he describes as “one street of lower class in the middle of a middle class area.”
“Just walking around and having my childhood adventures, I’d meet them and just talk to them,” Murphy said. “Of course, I didn’t relate to them until now because I’ve been to the city quite a bit more. But it really is all around you.
Because the party isn’t school-sponsored, Murphy hopes to also attract kids from different schools in order to gain as many members as possible. However, most of the party is made up of Shawnee Mission East kids, because the high school is where the weekly meetings take place to plan the events.
“[Shawnee Mission] East is a particular focus area for me because I feel like there are a lot of very intelligent people here with a lot of resources,” Murphy said. “The only problem is sometimes we let the easy life make us not care. If intelligent, affluent people can care, it has the potential to make the world much better than it is.”
Photos by Hailey Hughes