By TAYLOR ELDRIDGE The Wichita Eagle
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Davontae Harris used to feel like his voice wasn’t important enough to make a true difference.
Then, after years of hard work, the Wichita South graduate achieved his goal of becoming an NFL player. Now the Wichita native has a platform and a voice that carries weight in the community.
And Harris is ready to use it, which is why he lobbied and was approved, along with 19 others in the community, to be on a civil right advisory council created by Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple. It comes at a time when there are nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustices following the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that I may not be able to change the world, but I can change my community,” Harris told The Wichita Eagle. “This council can be as powerful and as meaningful as we make it. I feel like God has put me in this position to be in that room to push this mindset of love and positivity. So with me in the room, they don’t really have a choice. I will fight for positivity, I will fight for love until the end. As long as I’m in the room, that’s going to be the direction we go toward.”
Growing up in Wichita, Harris was friends with all races.
Despite living in poverty for most of his childhood (his bed used to be in the kitchen, right next to the refrigerator), Harris kept a positive outlook on life. He was outgoing, smart and funny, easy to make friends with.
He also was a young black man with dreadlocks. Harris has countless stories of not only overt racism, but also subtle examples that are painfully obvious to him when they happen so frequently.
“I walk into a place and I’ve seen mothers and fathers move their young daughters to the opposite sides because I was walking past,” Harris said. “I remember going to QuikTrip with one of my white friends and he noticed it because I had brought it to his awareness that that kind of stuff happens all the time. He was like, ‘Bro, did you see that mom move her daughter to the other side to where I was at?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that happens all the time. That’s normal.’”
Those are the covert acts of racism that Harris said some of his white friends never noticed until he pointed it out to them.
“There’s a lot of white people who are unaware of the situation because they have the ability to be unaware of things that don’t involve them,” Harris said. “But if they acknowledge it and bring attention toward it, then it can easily be cut out.”
There have also been countless times when Harris has been the only person of color in a room and he feels the stares on him. He noticed the mood would always change once they met him or, lately, discovered he was a professional football player.
“I don’t think that’s the way it should be,” Harris said. “I feel like I should be accepted whether I can catch or throw a ball. I feel like if I was white, regardless of what impact I had, I would be given the benefit of the doubt. I’m not asking for you to make me superior in any way, I’m just asking you to listen to me speak and interact with me before you judge me.”
Harris feels like he is uniquely qualified to be on the civil rights advisory council.
“I have the perspective of the inner city hood kid and I also have the perspective of the scholar,” Harris said. “I feel like I represent both.
“I’ve interacted with so many different people from so many different walks of life in so many different environments that I can relate and understand a lot of different views. But with what we’re trying to do, there’s only one perspective. There’s only right and wrong, there’s no middle ground.”
Harris doesn’t want to be known as No. 27 for the Denver Broncos when he participates on the council, but he understands that his platform as an NFL player from inner-city Wichita amplifies his voice.
That’s why he created the Wichita Kid Foundation after being drafted in 2018 and why Harris, who splits his time between Denver and Wichita, is an active member in the community, mentoring and supporting Wichita communities in need with his time, resources and money.
“He’s making good money playing for one of the most famous NFL teams in the country, he doesn’t have to care about what’s going on in Wichita anymore,” said AJ Bohannon, who is also on the civil rights council. “For him to say, ‘I’m a kid from Wichita and I want to help my city,’ from the jump, that’s special. I can appreciate that because that’s genuine. That’s let you know where his heart is.”
So what exactly will the council do and will it have any real power?
Those questions await answers, but members are encouraged by Whipple’s words when he recently announced he was creating the council.
“At City Hall, we are ready to listen and to work with the community towards a better Wichita,” Whipple said. “And that’s why I plan to appoint an advisory council to the mayor that is focused on inclusion, diversity and civil rights so that we can have more people at the table and more voices as we move our city forward.”
With 20 people on the council, Harris said he is most looking forward to listening to so many different perspectives.
“I want to go into this challenging people and I want people to challenge me,” Harris said. “Because if we go in there and just have a conversation, it will lead us nowhere. But if we go in there and have tough conversations, give perspective and find ways to start initiatives that move us toward an overall purpose, then this can be worth it. We can’t go in there trying to make everybody happy or saving face or playing the middle ground. We have to move towards what’s right and implement actions to back that up.”
What would Harris personally like to see accomplished by the board?
He said he wants to see love and positivity spread around the community. He also hopes to bring attention to a case of Albert Wilson, a Wichita native who Harris believes was wrongfully convicted to a 12-year sentence in a Lawrence rape case in 2019.
“Yes, this is about police brutality and yes, this is about inequality,” Harris said. “But we have to be the voice of the unheard. We have to be for people like Albert Wilson. He’s one of us, a Wichita kid, and he’s someone we have to fight for.
“In the Bible, you read that wherever there is love there is going to be hate. When you’re at the end of your life, do you want to be on the side that pushed love? Or do you want to be on the side that pushed hate? I hope I can push love and represent love and if I do that, then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job and I can make peace with that.”