The largest grantmaking foundation in the city, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg – re-created just five years ago from the bones of the Bayfront Health Education and Research Organization, a public charity – has as its focused mission making long-term improvements to quality of life.
From the organization’s website:
Health equity means that everyone can attain their highest level of health, free from avoidable and unfair differences and barriers such as racial discrimination. If we want a healthier community, we must strive for a more just and equitable one, beginning with race equity.
According to Chief Equity Officer Carl Lavender, “2020 was our defining year. From my point of view.”
The arrival of Covid-19 last March was the Foundation’s first call to action. “We knew that there would be so much to do, that if we didn’t organize our response we would be scattered every place and not have spaces for impact,” Lavender said. “So we divided our responses into three different buckets.”
- Disease mitigation. “In cooperation with the Department of Health, we funded some test-taking for Covid, we funded community education for Covid. We reached out to the Department of Health, the Urban League and other organizations to step in and ensure that people of color had access to the right information, testing, et cetera.”
- Economic development. “Forty-one percent of all Black and Brown small businesses closed because of the city, county and state ordinances. Just obliterated them. So we’ve resourced a number of community interventions to allow for the smallest businesses to still have some liquidity during the crisis. So there’s some resiliency there on the part of those small businesses, like beauticians and barber shops, and small seamstress shops – those things that make up a huge fabric in the Black and Brown community.”
- Non-profit capacity. “We allowed our nonprofits to re-purpose their dollars. Whatever their grant was, we contacted them and said ‘You can re-purpose your dollars toward a Covid-19 response.’ Millions of dollars were re-purposed toward Covid-19.”
The next campaign, he added, will address the imminent Covid vaccine, “and how we might get the vaccine information out to those communities that are most likely not to take the vaccine because of their insecurity, and words and traditions and abuses in the past when it comes to these kinds of things in the Black community.”
Lavender sees the big picture – philanthropy is not just about money, it includes education, information and follow-through. “Certainly, 2020 will be a year we could very well say absolutely, we were very clear on our role in the community,” he explained. “It became formally defined. After George Floyd’s killing, it was even more deeply defined. We went from Covid-19 to George Floyd, and to that end people came to us in big numbers saying ‘What do we do now?’”
The Foundation helped organize meetings and peaceful demonstrations, disseminated information and provided funding for violence mitigation and prevention.
Looking ahead, Lavender sees a busy 2021 for the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. Since Black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers for the presidential election, he said, “We’ve got a responsibility now to those we encouraged to vote. We’ll have small campaigns on who did get elected, and where those elected stand on race equity.
“We have a mayoral election in St. Petersburg in 2021. So we want to make sure that people are informed about that, because government has a big role in systems change, and protecting citizens from harm, and institutionalizing economies, et cetera.”
A top “sociological conversation” for 2021, he is certain, will be the relationship between minorities and the vaccine: “Why Black people in particular are hesitant to participate in these kinds of interventions. It needs to be addressed through essay, through advocacy, through leaders taking the vaccine themselves and saying to people ‘It’s OK.’ “
In short, his work is cut out for him. Lavender is a charter member, along with others on the civic front lines, of the recently-formed Race Equity Leadership Council. “It’s going to be a big part of our year, along with some other economic development pieces in race equity,” he said. “I think those things together are going to be very positive.
“I believe that we are in a good place, as a city, to be a model for the country, that says we will no longer tolerate the mistreating of citizens because of the color of their skin. ‘We will object to it, we will fight it, and we won’t see it again.’”