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City council searching for solutions to structural racism

Jaymi Butler



Concerns over policing at the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. parade were one of the reasons city leaders commissioned a study of structural racism in St. Petersburg. Final results of the study will be presented to city council in September.

Higher poverty levels. Disparities in education. Unequal access to health care, economic opportunities and housing.

These were some of the issues identified in a study on the impact of structural racism on the lives of Black residents in St. Petersburg that was presented at a recent city council meeting. 

The $50,000 study is being conducted by a team of researchers from the University of South Florida and is scheduled to be completed in September. It aims to provide a historical framework for understanding structural racism and how the actions of the past – including redlining policies that kept Black neighborhoods segregated, and the displacement of Black residents as a result of the construction of I-275 and Tropicana Field – have shaped the current racial environment in St. Petersburg. The final report will also include recommendations on what the city can do to create a more equitable environment for people of color.

“Although the analysis is still ongoing, the emergent themes thus far highlight a need for a systemic approach to dismantle structural racism, which appears to be the root cause of inequities that impact the quality of life for the Black community,” said Ruthmae Sears, a USF professor who is serving as lead investigator of the study. “Admittedly, this task cannot be completed alone. It requires a collective responsibility in which all parties work collaboratively to address disparities in economics, education, health and the criminal legal system.”

Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city’s director of urban affairs, considers the steps St. Pete is taking as “legacy work” that is critically important to the city’s future.

“As a Black woman, I take this very seriously and I want to make sure you know you have my commitment to see this through,” she told council members.

Where it began

The idea for the study originated in 2018 after a group of stakeholders came before the city’s Youth and Family Services committee to share their concerns about the policing that occurred during St. Pete’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration earlier in the year, according to council member Brandi Gabbard. In addition to requesting the study, the stakeholders also proposed creating a quality of life committee to address ongoing issues of inequity. In April 2019, council members unanimously approved both measures with plans to appoint members from each council district to serve on the committee. However, despite the interest in creating the committee, there has been little action thus far. Gabbard wants that to change.

“What I’m looking for is a commitment from administration that we will leave a lasting legacy. That we will, in fact, set up a standing committee of concerned stakeholders from the community to address these issues going forward,” she said. “That is my challenge to administration to say that we are finally going to make that happen.”

Not everyone is certain that a committee is necessary, though.

“I understand the need for wanting to have a focused role in leadership to address these issues but then again, here as council members, we can address them every week,” said council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders. “You don’t have to have a committee to do the right thing when it comes to equity and diversity and inclusion.”

She went on to say that she and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the council’s other Black member, can help provide their perspective on what it feels like to be African American in the city of St. Petersburg.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of those resources,” she said.

Wheeler-Bowman, who shared stories of how racism continues to impact her life every day, agreed. 

“There’s a problem and it needs to be addressed. Do we need a committee? I don’t think so because like Deborah said, we’re up here. We represent our districts in this city. She and I are two Black women that live this every single day,” Wheeler-Bowman said. “And Brandi, I appreciate you for bringing this forward because I know that you care. All of you care and that’s a fact. But until you walk in my shoes, until you leave from here and drive to my district where every other day it seems like someone’s getting murdered, where you don’t know if you’re gonna walk out your door and come home again, or your children are going to come home – until you live it, you can never understand it.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said that forming a committee might be the right way to go but noted that administration will let the data from the survey help guide their decision. 

“I just think if we prematurely get overly invested in one tactic without it being validated by the data, we very likely stand a chance to end up exactly where we always have been,” Tomalin said. “While we don’t feel like we are at a place to say exactly what we will do, we are committed to finding solutions and we will do so every day that we are here.”

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  1. Avatar

    Eliseo Santana MBA

    May 17, 2021at4:32 pm

    This is a needed study to guide the community out of the restraints of systemic racist….

    I hope the the Hispanic Community is included in this study and are invited to participate in finding the way forward

    It has been my experience that the City of St. Petersburg and the County only see things in BLACK & WHITE almost always overlooking/ignoring the fastest growing sector…. The Hispanics/Puerto Rican residents

  2. Avatar


    May 17, 2021at3:57 pm

    The City of St Petersburg WILL become the City that finally gets this right.

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