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A new day dawns for equity in St. Pete

Mark Parker



Marcus Brooks, executive director of the Center for Health Equity, stands in front of a quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu that encapsulated the event's theme. Photos by Mark Parker.

The reopening event for a reimagined Center for Health Equity was a passionate affair, meant to stoke community pride and togetherness while highlighting the need to increase health equity through racial equity.

Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s (FHSP) leadership held three discussions Friday to honor the long-awaited occasion, themed “Create: The Center Experience.” A quote from the late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu encapsulated the theme: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

The Center Experience began with a literal boom as the Lakewood High School Drumline emerged from behind curtains, dancing and playing their percussion instruments. Dr. Donna Petersen, FHSP board chair, then likened the reopening to someone awakening from a deep slumber to see the dawn of a new day.

“This space becomes the site where honest conversations happen,” said Petersen. “Where we connect compelling truths to authentic solutions, where we generate the bravest ideas and commit to making them happen. Where we have the courage to co-create a future where there are no barriers to full civic engagement, to financial success, to strong families and long, healthy and productive lives.”

The Lakewood High Drumline set the tone for the rest of the event.

The unique facility originally opened at 2333 34th St. S. in 2019. However, the pandemic soon swept over the area, and FHSP handed it over to the Department of Health (DOH).

Carl Lavender, the foundation’s new co-CEO, previously told the Catalyst it was the only south Pinellas County location capable of testing thousands of residents for Covid. He noted FHSP didn’t charge rent, paid the utility bills and assumed all associated risks.

He said the endeavor saved lives as the DOH conducted 110,000 appointments and administered over 65,000 vaccines at the site.

“We have missed your faces and the interactions that we had in this Center when we first opened it up,” said Lavender to attendees. “This place was designed for gatherings like this … all of those things that were so often a quiet conversation – let’s make them public conversations.”

Fellow co-CEO Carol Martin Brown said FHSP officials reimagined the Center in response to the surrounding community’s needs. She added that it would provide space and resources where people from various backgrounds can collaboratively imagine and deploy solutions “to seemingly intractable problems.”

Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s recently named co-CEOs Carl Lavender (left) and Carol Martin Brown.

She also introduced the crowd to its new executive director, Marcus Allen Brooks. Brown noted his previous mission-driven roles throughout the region and nation, and the former FHSP board member delivered a decidedly impassioned and emotional speech.

Brooks, 36, is also a fourth-generation St. Pete resident. He became emotional while seeing his family in the crowd and describing the facility’s importance and meaning.

“We learned that this space was once a segregated grocery store that my family members living at that time could not go to,” said Brooks. “When we collectively come together, that is the ‘us.’ We can do far greater than when we try to go at it alone – the ‘I.'”

He explained that the building’s success hinges on the diverse groups of innovators, leaders, public servants, students, educators and artists who will use it to foster equitable solutions. However, Brooks said that it just needs human beings.

“We’re human beings, not human doings,” he added. “I don’t care what you’ve done – who do you be?”

Marcus Brooks, executive director of the center, became emotional as he relayed the purpose and meaning behind the Center.

Brooks relayed that the facility is now more accessible to the community. FHSP has streamlined the application process, and partners will receive continuous status updates and event data. Kyandra Darling, innovation officer at the Center, said she would help bring the community’s ideas to life.

That includes assisting people with program design and serving as a conduit to subject experts, vendors and pertinent local partners. Darling added that she would also meet people where they live to provide her services – or just to listen.

Lisa Yacso, strategic initiatives manager for FHSP, said her team implemented new technology to receive better input and feedback. Foundation partners can now see event registration lists, survey responses and other data in real-time.

A revamped website will also include integrated discussion boards and chatrooms. Yacso said, “you’ll be able to see what people are interested in and who’s interested in what you’re interested in.” She added that event guides and videos detailing the hosting process would arrive soon.

Center officials showcased some of the new technology Friday night, with Darling asking people to scan a QR code and then use one word to describe the event. Moments later, she highlighted some responses.

The more than 72 responses included terms like “excited,” “hopeful,” and “encouraged.” Darling noted one read “overwhelmed” and said that is part of the goal.

“If you come in here and leave the same way you came, then we are not fulfilling our mission,” said Darling. “So, it’s okay to feel a little overwhelmed sometimes, and we ask that you really lean into that.”

For more information on the Center for Health Equity, visit the website here.

St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity originally opened at 2333 34th St. S. in 2019. However, the pandemic soon swept over the area, and FHSP handed it over to the Department of Health.



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    Shirley Hayes

    January 25, 2023at5:55 pm

    I hope that our community will appreciate and use the services and the building.

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