Title/Position, Company, Location
In this episode, Tell the Truth, we interviewed Kiona Sinks, Community Engagement Manager for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We met with her on location in the heart of the museum in Kansas City, MO.
Kiona explains how she earned her spot as a prominent change-maker and storyteller in Kansas City, giving a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into her seemingly effortless, resolute presence. She shares stories and experiences that made her ask, “If I don’t believe in myself, who will?” and “Why not now?”.
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Kids are being told what they can and what they can't learn. That's why places like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is very important. Because we're keeping a once forgotten chapter of history alive. Right now, the biggest thing in our country is storytelling. People want authentic stories. If we can find a way to do that without changing a narrative in terms of what you feel like it should be, we'll be better off as a society.
Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. I'm Jen Vellenga, and I'm Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. On the Speak with Presence podcast, we believe perfection is overrated. Leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. And we are here to share stories of powerful leaders who use their voice to inspire change. This season, we are speaking to leaders in Kansas City. So we're asking you, KC, what will it take for you to use your voice? Jen Vellenga, we are on location today at the historic 18th and Vine area at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
We are surrounded by the bronze statues like we're in the middle of the game. We're right by home plate. So, look for our clips on the socials. We are here with Kiona Sinks, the Community Engagement Manager. I think she's the woman that makes it all happen. Oh, we know she does. We're thrilled to be here with you today. We're going to talk about you for a minute. Alright, so you just get to sit there and then take this all in. Alright? Awesome.
So, we were blown away when we met Kiona. She has vision and energy and the museum is so lucky to have her as an advocate for the museum and for KC overall. Kiona is the perfect partner for Bob Kendrick, who's the president, and a prominent figure in KC.
Kiona will expand on this, but the 18th and Vine District became Kansas City's hub for African Americans in the 1920s and 30s and later became the heart of Kansas City's black businesses. Kiona gives a voice to a once forgotten chapter of baseball and American history. You just can't even believe all the things they have happening here now.
Kiona works really hard in her job. Always raising awareness of community resources available to minority businesses. She describes herself as a community advocate, social and civic innovator, and cause-driven, equity leader working to educate the next generation of leaders. Kiona's achievements in engaging, empowering, and informing black professionals earned her the 2020 Gold Stevie Women in Business Award for Multicultural Communications Campaign of the Year. And with that, Kiona welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast.
Well, thank you guys. I feel very welcome. Well, we are the ones that feel just amazing that you welcomed us right into the museum, right where the action happens. Can you tell us a little bit about the space in the museum? Yes, we're sitting on right now, as we refer to at the field of legends, which is our mock baseball diamond here located in the center of our exhibition at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We cheated a little bit today. This is where people end their self-guided tour.
We believe that when people first walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, they enter into our turnstiles, and they literally see this chicken wire that's sitting behind me. And that is very symbolic to what we refer to referencing American segregation, particularly for our younger audience. Because they do not, and probably will never understand a segregated society, which is great. But it's also great for them to kind of get into the space of what the story of the Negro Leagues really represented. And so chicken wire separated black and white fans, major league games, Negro Leagues games, as we see surrounding, you know, the exhibition, we sat side by side.
It brought the two races together. And so what we would hope is our visitors would peek through the chicken wire, see this amazing, incredible display of our bronze statues and say, oh my gosh, I can't wait to take my photo with Satchel Paige and all the energy with Cool Papa Bell. But in order to do so, you have to earn that right. And you do so by learning their stories.
We've been doing this work for three decades. This is incredible space. It is 10,000 square footage of exhibit space. It's small but a lot of information. Makes you appreciate reading. We actually make people read, but I think it's something special about having people kind of go through around this baseball mock diamond and making their way to learn the incredible rich history of the Negro Leagues.
Amazing. We're so lucky to be here. I never dreamed Kiona to have the opportunity to be here today to learn from you, to learn more about the history, to learn more about the role Kansas City plays in all this. But more importantly to hear you and you share the story. So thank you for allowing us to be here today and share this with our community.
Thank you guys and I think it's so important. We're a national museum that is located in Kansas City, Missouri. We're the world's only national Negro Leagues Baseball Museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich history of African American baseball and its profound impact on America.
And for me, at 28 years old, it's important for emerging leaders to understand the intersection of how Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier really began with Kansas City. In 1945, he put on those Kansas City pinstripes and fell in love with what we all love about our city, jazz and barbecue. Same thing, right? But what that really represented in terms of integration for our sport, but also for our country. Well before Rosa Parks’ refusals to sit at the back of the bus, armed forces weren't integrated yet in this country. And so, ‘47 comes and everything changes, right? And it's all because of baseball. And it's something our country loves and we hang our cap on and it.
It galvanizes and brings people together in ways that I don't know why. I don't know why football doesn't have that synergy or resonates. I don't know why basketball doesn't. Something about America's pastime of the sport of baseball that allows people to really feel inspired and connect in ways that I've been fortunate to see people connect that I've never would have fathomed. And it's all because of this powerful story here in 18th and Vine.
And so, for 18th and Vine still to have jazz, baseball and the Monarchs still play, right? They do. We did a rebrand partnership with the American Association, Kansas City Monarchs. In that same spirit, they're not the best baseball franchise in the sport. But in history, in baseball history, they only have one losing season in its entire existence.
From 1920 on until the Negro exploded, which would have been probably ‘50s, ‘60s, the Kansas City Monarchs were the talk of the town all over the world. So, the New York Yankees before the New York Yankees, essentially. But of course, on that roster you had Buck O'Neil, Satchel Paige, legendary names that people hear about all the time, but not realizing a lot of that was started here in our city.
They played on 22nd and Brooklyn, old municipal stadium. People might be familiar with that name because the Chiefs played there before Arrowhead and GEHA and that our Kansas City Royals played there as well. So, a lot of history in terms of sports that is prominent in 18th and Vine. Wherever you had successful black businesses, you had successful black baseball and the Negro Leagues did that.
And so, not to jump over you guys, but it's truly powerful because this area, as you mentioned earlier in the intro, had everything you needed within 18th and Vine. Within these two crossroads and people literally flocked. It's like Beale Street, people flocked here. Then to really resonate and see the Charlie Parker’s, to see the Buck O’Neil’s of the world, and this is the same spaces that they walked. You know, so we're sitting here today, and that's crazy, because I think about that every day I come here. I'm like, man, if they can do it, I can do it.
That was at a time where, although we still have a lot of work to do, there still wasn't a lot of opportunity for us to progress forward as a community and as a country. So that inspires me every day when I come here.
And that it's still so vibrant. You've got jazz going on. You've got the Gem Theater, The Blue Room, Kansas City Jazz Museum. Of course, right here where we are in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Kansas City barbecue. You have a lot of visitors that come here, don't you? We do. We see a lot of people. If people are sleeping under a rock during a baseball season, we are not, not busy around here. I have to remind people why I'm not just sitting at my desk starting April 15th on towards the postseason. But it's fascinating. I mean, now I think Negro Leagues history is at an all-time high and it's because of the work that this museum does.
We've seen a lot of groundbreaking things that's happened for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, at least since I've been here. The first ever United States Mint coin that featured Negro Leagues. You know, and following, I remember us announcing a groundbreaking new museum, Buck O'Neil's Hall of Fame induction.
The list goes on and on and on. And so, you think about just those three things that I just mentioned. I forgot about MLB The Show, which for people who play PS5 or Xbox, I'm sure they would know if their kids love video games. They know exactly what I'm talking about. I mean, the Negro League were included for the first time ever. This is the most sold game probably out there. It went bananas. So people are literally playing Satchel Paige in a video game. We're taking this history to people. We're not waiting for the young people to come to us. We're taking this museum to them in their homes.
It's amazing. But we see a lot of people that come through here. And it really, I feel like it's not even resonating just through baseball. You don't have to love baseball to appreciate America's pastime and the importance of what this story teaches young people and people of all shades and shapes and sizes of colors.
The story, the history. We love stories. And this is a great way for me to transition into this question, which is, we care about you. We care about the history, but we're here sitting here present with you, Kiona Sinks. So I want to know what's been the biggest change you personally have helped create for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum? And this is no time to be shy. Tell us what you've done.
It's been a journey. That's a mouthful. Because I think for black organizations in general, we have to find ways to make our story be so authentic to who we are. Where it still is true to the history, but it also can speak to resonate with other people. I think George Floyd, we saw little glimpses of that. For me, being able to comfortably say, I've grown our brand tremendously on a national level. It's one thing to have assets that sits and sits and sits.
And especially with the word museum. You think of museums, and you're like, oh, it's a museum. Everything's boring. Not really. You still can do some cool things on social media and being able to kind of strategically have a place in how that reaches my 27-year-old friend that's texted me and she's like, damn, I need to get to the museum. She's never told me she needed to come here, but now she wants to come here. I know because it looked cool. Kudos to me.
I feel like just sitting here and thinking about the last four years formally that I've been involved with the museum. It's been so cool for me to just come in and build a foundation to market a national institution of our caliber. It's one thing to take a job, but it's one thing to do it. There’s been moments where I've made mistakes. I think we all make mistakes in our careers, personally, professionally. But being able to really find my voice and find my strengths and say, oh man, I didn't know you could do that, but you're doing it.
I've shocked myself a few times. Just being innovative. And I think that's been the cool part of my job. And, you know, a lot of that goes to our staff. They let me be me. That's first and foremost because you can come into a space and have all these great ideas and want to do so many cool things. But if you don't have a team that's open and receptive to that, and granted, there are things that I do need to learn as well. I think for anyone in any role, you have to learn how things work. But once you do that, there is kind of a new way and a fresh way of doing things.
To be able to do that for people who look like me, who sacrifice so much for this country. To be able to give me opportunities when opportunities weren't afford to black people at a time where we needed it the most. But they still did it in spite of. I just get joy out of that. It's been cool to see, for me personally, outside of saying that I work for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, how I've been able to champion that brand, so to speak. It's been really cool.
Well, alright, so let's just be honest. You are someone who walks in the room and you have oodles of presence. I'm sure that's somewhere in the dictionary. So how do you define presence? And how has it served you in your career?
You know, I think for me personally, there's been meetings that I've attended. You know, I think we all have been there. You go to events and you attend fancy galas and all of these things. But sometimes in meetings, it's saying nothing because there's nothing that needs to be necessarily said. It's just about listening.
I think at a young age, perception is we have a lot to say. Sometimes I don't have a lot to say. I know that sounds very cliche, but being able to just be me. And being me means coming into a space where I might not know everything, but I'm also willing to just show up as who I am and being able to say, hey, like we've done it this way. But have we thought about this alternative? Right? How do we integrate generationally?
That was my start in Kansas City. It wasn't a traditional 9 to 5 job. It was really, going back to your point, grinding it, being fortunate to meet people like yourself and serving on boards. Being in spaces to get professional development afforded to me where I could build those relationships to open those doors. Then the showing up in the seat at the table followed. I was fortunate.
It's interesting because I don't know how to answer that question really. But I've just been very fortunate, very blessed to have people in my corner that's been an advocate for me. And, you know, we all go through tough stuff. Everything that people see who I am now that I think all of us can say, we've all had chapters and phases of our lives that have shaped who we are. And then, lights, cameras, actions, right. As we say, and it goes off right in your best moments. But there's also been bad moments that I've had to grow and learn and deal with. It's afforded me some cool things as well. I would say just showing up, you know, no matter what it looks like. That's what's made me strong. And that's what gives me the confidence and the presence to go before people and continue to put my best foot forward. Because if I don't believe in myself, then who will? And that was my thing. You know, if you can't get a 9 to 5, if nobody's going to give you the time, then you got to go forward.
Somebody was smart to scoop me up. I'm not a free agent anymore. But, I am afforded the opportunity to be where I am today. But also knowing that it didn't come with just it being handed to you. You earned it, right? And it's two-fold. I tell people all the time around my age group, we ask for it, but are we ready? I'm here, but I think about the last three years. If I wasn't ready and fumbled, you can't go back and redo a press conference to announce a new Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. You can't go back and redo making sure that you've dotted your i's and crossed your t's on a strategic capital raise for a new facility that represents Negro League's history.
So regardless if you don't see it or if you do see it before it even made it to ESPN or MLB. com, there was like 50 different things that had to get done before we showcased it to the world. So can you do it? Are you about it? And does your action show it? And then everything else will fall into place. You put two and two together and it's like, oh, okay. Yeah, like she's doing it.
Well, it's interesting because Bob Kendrick has a pretty amazing reputation. We knew we wanted to come over here and of course we could have talked to Bob and would love to at some point. But we were like, where are the women and what are they doing?
We're like everyone said, Kiona. You got to know Kiona. So I need to correct myself because earlier I said, they're so lucky to have you. I try to steer away from words like luck because they're not, I mean, of course they're lucky to have you. But you earned the right. You're not lucky to be here. You earned your spot here and continue to every day.
Thank you. I'm reminded every single day of how busy we are and every event we have. And we're on the Field of Legends, seeing people walk around. I mean it's a dream job. I pinch myself. If I could share photos of me being with the Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, or taking a selfie with Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I don't share that stuff. Maybe a book one day. But you know, I'm in it. I'm in it. I don't have time to share it and be like, hey, look at me. I'm on ESPN. Like, we just got to get it done. You know, it's a grind. But I really appreciate moments of being able to see people for who they are. This job affords you a lot of opportunities.
Clearly, it's pretty cool. It's one thing for people to come in there in your presence, but it's another thing of how they make you feel right? And you get to see certain sides of people that other people probably wouldn't get to see. So being able to see, they're amazed at this story. And in their own right. If you're a professional baseball player, you're obviously putting that together with sports and playing back your own career and you're drawing inspiration from what was and how you still should move forward and do your best. And then you get to see like, they're really just normal people.
Like they're really just normal people who just happen to be a good baseball player and one day a future Hall of Famer. It's inspiring. It makes you appreciate the game and it makes you appreciate the story more when you have a Dusty Baker that visits the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Takes time out of his schedule, stops what he's doing and comes here. Or having a partner like a Bank of America, right?
Being able to be fortunate to see like, oh man, you're on a call and this is what this looks like when they choose you because of the work that an institution of our caliber does. It has its ebb and flows. But going back to what you mentioned, I've earned it. But it's definitely been hard and it's been a journey. I appreciate every grind and every bit of sleep that I've lost and all the coffee and wine that I continuously drink.
I want to say as we're sitting here interviewing Kiona, people are coming in and out of this Field of Legends. They're coming in and out and looking at the Field of Legends and seeing us sitting here interviewing Kiona, who is a superstar. It is just really cool to be right here in the middle of it.
Alright, are you ready for the next question? Ready. You are a communications expert. You are a changemaker. What advice do you have for others who want to speak up for change? Just tell the truth. You know, we live in a society now where history is trying to be changed, unfortunately. And I think we should embrace it more now than we ever have before because it's such an important part of who we are as a country. We can't pick and choose what chapters we want to talk about and what chapters we do not want to talk about.
I've learned that over the last four years and even longer, when you look at history and you need to learn a little bit in order to do this role and how it really intersects with the black experience, but also us as a country and how you appreciate that. So that would be the biggest advice I would give to anyone is just telling the truth. Using your voice to keep everything authentic, and being able to amplify what it is before you that you have the opportunity to elevate. Kids are being told what they can and what they can't learn. That's why places like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is very important.
We're keeping a once unforgotten chapter of history alive. And so when we hear people say, well I would not want my kid to read this. Well if it's a book on Jackie, well essentially they shouldn't come here to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum either. And so you kind of think about that stuff and how it plays a bigger role when we start talking about being a change maker or having a voice or leading communications. Right now the biggest thing in our country is storytelling.
People want authentic stories. They love hearing about people's lives and what made him tick or what made her tick or what made them get to where they were or how did they get here? They love storytelling. If we can find a way to do that without changing a narrative in terms of what you feel like it should be, we'll be better off as a society.
The two terms that you put together, truth and story. These are two things that should not be difficult. The importance of being who we are, telling the truth, and learning how to tell the story is a gift. All of us have something to say. And we all want to be heard. And the way to that is through story, as you just said. And that's why we exist today, to help people tell their story. Yeah. And it's awesome. I mean, it's needed. I mean, especially having allies. You know, that necessarily people who don't look like us. It helps.
I think, in 2020 as a country, we had time to sit as the world was shut down by the pandemic and things were closed. You couldn't really hardly go but only to the grocery store that I recall. It made you appreciate people. And connecting and we had time to learn. And then unfortunately, we all know what happened in 2020. And so it gave you time to really think about our society. And having those dinner conversations with your families, maybe that we probably didn't have before or we have, but we needed to revisit some conversations. Because at the end of the day, we all know it starts with you. It starts at home with your families and in your home. And so we all don't have to agree on everything. That's not the human experience.
What makes us great is because we're all different and we all have different views of the world. But I think if we can all find a way to bridge that gap, I think we'll all be better for it. So, for me that changed. You know, some of my perspective on that, you kind of knew, right? I was raised that way, but you appreciate it more when you have the opportunity to work for an institution like this and you have no choice but to kind of look at the stories and learn. And understand outside of the baseball side of things, the importance of how it integrates to people's lives and how do you now make that relevant. The life lessons of the Negro Leagues really connect to real world experiences in a lot of ways.
We know the important work that's taking place here. It's just the beginning. What's next? Yeah, that's a great question. I have no clue. I think for me every day I wake up and I'm grateful to the man above for giving me an opportunity to be on this earth and I didn't know when this job fell in my lap what was next. I just kind of follow my passion. I'm still going to do that, be true to who I am and continue to move forward and I think everything else will take care of itself. It’s how I've looked at things.
If I'm still here in the next three years, obviously a new museum will be putting shovels in the ground at some point. So that's exciting. But for me, I just really have never been a person to say, I need to run for office or I want to run for the mayor. Unless God himself wakes me up and tells me that I have no aspirations to do anything political. Because I get that a lot. You know, in terms of you should run for office. I'm like, man, I love my hair, the color, that the way that it is. I don't know if I want grey hair when I'm 45. You know, I'm just enjoying life and hopefully if I'm still fortunate to be around the museum, it would be to help continue to grow and foster one of our national gems right here in Kansas City.
Well, here's the beautiful part. I think we know that if you are supposed to do any of that work that you just mentioned, you will get the sign. For sure. We just got to be listening. Yeah, and who knows? I mean, not saying, I just through the political aspect out there, because I get asked that all the time, right? Why not that? Why this? Well, I just don't love it. You know, I think you don't always have to run for office to make change.
It might be a different avenue in sports. It might be a different avenue in the not-for-profit industry. Who knows? I'm so immersed in enjoying where I am currently. I'm happy where I am. And I think we all can agree that opportunities come and go all the time. You only get one life. And sometimes putting focused on where you are now is better than thinking about the future. I've been there. And this is very fun because these are questions I don't get asked. I get asked a lot about baseball.
Do you know what though? I just was doing the math and this is going to just, I can't even, I'm like nearly double her age. Not quite, but nearly double your age. But what that tells me is we get to watch her journey. Think about where we were half our lives ago. I mean, of course, I think we're bad asses, and we always were. But being able to continue to take risks like we do in our lives, but just to watch you and get to know you and see what your journey is going to be, makes me just have goosebumps. I'm so excited to see where you go.
I appreciate that. And, I know it's been so cool to just meet people like you guys in the Kansas City community. And I think the work you guys are doing is needed. There's a lot of great people in Kansas City that have a lot of great stories. I'm fortunate to be just one of many. The city has known greatness since its inception. The Negro Leagues is just one part of that. But just to think, going back to your point, the journey, and you know, I reflect on that in my own right, and it's my life has changed, just in four years alone.
Not even pre-museum. Just currently being here. So you do appreciate, not just the professional accolades and the people and the experiences and the growth, but just you as a person. If this all leaves tomorrow, who are you? Right? And that's been a really cool thing for me to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, man, like you've kind of bossed up a little bit.
You got it going on. It's kind of a party over here. If you haven't heard. Party over here. I want to transition to your fun question. She's got something for us, I know. I think she's got a long list, so she's going to have to think about it. Alright. Let's hear answers. Here we go.
I want you to noodle on a time where you observed something, you were a part of something and you just sat there and you just shook your head and went, what on earth? Yeah, I'll bring it back to the museum. When we found out Buck O'Neil was going into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, I was like, what is going on?
Why now? But what I've learned is why not now? Sometimes when we think things are supposed to happen when it's supposed to, ironically, maybe it wasn't meant to at that time. But that was crazy because you got to keep in mind the same field we're sitting on, 17 years ago, he found out he didn't make it into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He did not make it in. So the impact of why now? And essentially, it wasn't meant for him. Maybe it wasn't his time. He wrote his memoir, “I Was Right On Time.” So when you think about that book and knowing the history of the museum and him not essentially when it's like the ballot was set up for him to be inducted, but he wasn't.
So I found myself in that moment, two years ago, like why am I the one that's at this moment, this time, I'm here, I get to experience this. I mean, we had 300 people on this field with champagne the night we found out because we didn't go to bed till like 2 a.m. Because we had a watch party essentially to learn the results. That'll never happen again. It was a yearlong celebration of Buck O'Neil.
I mean the Kansas City we know now wasn't always the Kansas City he knew. But in spite of, he still showed up. He still showed kindness. He loved people. He preached the gospel of the Negro Leagues. He traveled this country. He was a stand-up man. Like what more in life could you ask for? If living a good life was an example, I'd want to live that life always happy, always welcoming. If anybody listens to this and they don't know who Buck O'Neil is, they need to Google.
You know, I tell people all the time, two iconic Kansas Citians that I don't think we talk enough about. That somebody will be smart enough to create a leader. I know we got a lot of leadership programs. Kansas City isn't lacking on having a lot of leadership programs. But Mr. Kaufman and Buck O'Neil. I mean, you think about their impact in Kansas City. White, black, but one thing that drew them to the community was their love for the game and their love for people. And to me, that's just so special. I'm a beneficiary of him doing the right thing and him following his passion. When he wanted to build this facility, it was so they would be remembered. And now we're doing just that today on this podcast. And so, he's the reason I have a job. I got hired by the press, but Buck started all of this.
It's crazy to think you can leave a legacy as such as a person and then be a recipient and be a small part in that story. He didn't unfortunately get to see. We wish he would have experienced knowing that he was going into Cooperstown when he was living. But ever since then, his induction, nothing's been the same for this museum. We've announced three groundbreaking projects since then and we've just been rolling.
So that's what's next. It's just going to keep on rolling. I hope so. You know, I would encourage people if they've never been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum here on 18th and Vine, please come see us. Holidays. Family in town. Baseball season, of course, always come see us. Jackie Robinson Day. Black History Month, February. Come see us. Don't wait until any special occasion. If you need something to do or if it's been a while, come and check us out. Beautiful area. Beautiful part of town.
Well, Kiona, we are so excited to have been introduced to you and to get to know you and be part of your team and network now. We just appreciate hearing your voice and being able to share it. Thank you so much.
Thank you guys. Keep continuing to share these amazing stories of Kansas Citians who are doing great things. You guys are already on to something. We don't hear enough of our voices in our city. I think people assume we know, but it's always great to be reminded of people who are doing great work and it's all starts with you both. So thank you for having me on your platform.
We're honored and thrilled and it’s just the beginning. It really is. We'll find some way to drink some champagne at some point. We have no problem. We'll be there. Just let us know. Thanks so much.
Jen & JRT
Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.
Politician, Chicago, IL