The young men shuffle into the classroom all wearing the same red shirt. They know why they're here. They're already cracking jokes about it.
"Real men beat their wives," one says.
"Real men scratch where it itches," another counters.
"Real men take care of business," a more mature one advises. "I've got a kid I'm trying to take care of."
"Yeah, you think it's yours," someone says.
They take seats at three cheap office tables. The building feels like a school — empty hallways, pale walls, posters scrawled with life lessons. It belongs to a program called YouthBuild, which teaches job skills and arranges employment for at-risk young people. But a new wrinkle was recently added to the program: To graduate, the students have to finish a 12-week course called the Man Class.
Rodney Knott, who wears a dapper brown suit and a pink tie, watches the men take their seats. As he waits, he grins and looks at his lesson plan — a curriculum that took two years and four UMKC psychologists to produce.
"Real men got money," one of the guys is saying now. "That's what I need to get me. Baller."
Knott shakes his head.
"I can see we have a lot of work to do," he says. "Man, I hope you guys are joking. I know you're joking. Men learn to be men by watching other men. So if there ain't no men around, how do you learn?
"I know right now you don't know me from Adam," he goes on. "I know I got to earn your trust. But I promise you, I know where you been."
Knott spent his teenage years in the same East Side neighborhoods as the boys he now teaches. When he wasn't much younger than they are, he watched it all burn down.
It was a late-August night in 1972. Knott was on his way to a meeting of the Black Panthers. He knew he had to be on Prospect Avenue at a certain time, but he didn't know why.
Knott's parents had split when he was little, so he was living with his stepmother and father. He excelled at sports — basketball, mostly — but he wanted do something in the community, so he went from group to group talking to people, a sort of series of auditions for his services. Eventually he settled on the Panthers.
From his home in the Vineyard Woods neighborhood on the East Side, he walked west on 40th Street, past vacant lots where buildings had stood until Martin Luther King Jr. was killed four years earlier. When he reached Prospect, not much was said. Everyone knew the plan.
Before he knew it, the Panthers were roaming the streets, and flaming bottles were crashing through storefronts — some black-owned, some white-owned. A white grocery-store owner had hand-lettered a sign and put it in his front window: "Soul Brother." He seemed to think it would fool people into sparing his store. It didn't.
Knott watched the blaze and thought, Yeah, yeah. Maybe this time the fire would be big enough. City leaders couldn't just see a whole swath of the East Side in ashes and do nothing. Right?
"It didn't work out like that," Knott says years later, sitting at a bar in the Crossroads District. "The businesses didn't come back. No money came. They still didn't care."
Lynette Sparkman-Barnes is a clinical psychologist at UMKC. She met Knott in 2009, when he asked for help on a then-unnamed project.
She knew his reputation. Knott had been active in the community for years, and he rarely got involved in anything without calling someone to see what he could learn. Sparkman-Barnes was among the UMKC psychologists and sociologists who'd spent hours poring over studies with Knott.