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St. Petersburg is one of the fastest growing cities in the state. With its beaches, sunshine, economic opportunity, art development and natural beauty, our city has a way of embracing every individual that comes with a fervor and excitement unique to our region. Truly for many, the opportunities here are endless.
However, at a time of rapid growth and expansion, we simultaneously see that many young people in St. Pete are lacking critical opportunities to thrive in terms of leadership, personal financial growth and economic development. Many live in historically underrepresented and under-resourced communities. These local youth rightly feel that their voices are going unheard, their futures uncertain.
This situation is even more bleak for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) youth in St. Petersburg. Specifically, young people of color in St. Pete face complex challenges related to a generations-long legacy of racial discrimination and wealth inequality that hinder their progress.
One of the change agents in our city, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, which focuses on the advancement of racial and health equity, is housed in zip code 33711, where a Black household on average makes a full $28,406 less than a White household per year. In this same zip code, Asian people and Hispanic people make $13,638 and $1,198 less per year on average respectively (Black Wealth Data, 2022). As the city continues to expand, we face a unique opportunity to ensure that those who grew up here are provided the chance to share in the rising tide of St. Petersburg opportunity.
To bridge these gaps, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg is supporting the BIPOC Young People Leadership Initiative, a transformative program that will connect BIPOC youth to opportunities that can accelerate race equity, build community and create personal wealth. The initiative is committed to fostering a meaningful discussion and inspiring pathways of advancement for young BIPOC community leaders to become changemakers and contributors to the political, financial, economic, educational and social systems in Pinellas County.
I spearheaded this initiative, with the full participation of talented youth like Jaihde Williams. She noted the importance of youth connecting with established community leaders as a way to advance their dreams and goals.
“I believe mentorship is needed to be successful,” Jaihde said. “To get into the rooms we want to be represented in, someone must give you a hand and lead you to the room – because sometimes, you might not even know the rooms exist until other people tell you about them.”
A unique aspect of the BIPOC Young People Leadership Initiative is its “design thinking” model. Seasoned community leaders and St. Pete’s youth were consulted during the planning phases to tailor the program’s curriculum to address young people’s specific needs and concerns. With the input of our youth, the initiative allows students to become active participants in moving our community forward to overcome racial inequities.
Students can challenge assumptions, learn about social issues and receive mentorship, helping them to gain social change skills and build efficacy as leaders. During this ongoing initiative, participants will have access to a wide array of transformational learning experiences including events, activities, diverse inter-generational ideation, volunteering, shadow experiences and internship opportunities.
“I think this is a great initiative we are doing that will expose youth to different perspectives. It’s just amazing the progress we’ve been able to make so far,” stated Jaihde.
The initiative hosted a convening of St. Pete youth and local leaders Oct. 20 at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg’s Center for Health Equity. The BIPOC Youth Summit was attended by Mayor Ken Welch, who read a City Proclamation announcing the rollout of this endeavor.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, an author, Georgetown University professor, New York Times contributing opinion writer, and leading voice on race, history and contemporary culture invigorated a crowd of over 200 attendees, a majority of whom were St. Pete local high schoolers.
Further included in the program was a panel discussion spearheaded by young people aged 16 to 21 who talked about their dreams, accomplishments, struggles with imposter syndrome and barriers to race and wealth equity. Because it was important to continue the momentum beyond the summit, nationally renowned facilitators led separate breakout groups for the young people in attendance and seasoned local leaders to identify how to best support St. Pete’s future leaders.
Trenia Cox, President of the St. Pete NAACP, stated that the “Youth Summit was inspirational. It was an opportunity for the youth to connect with those of us who are experienced, can be a resource, and are available to use our skills to help them realize their path in life.”
Cox’s sentiment was echoed by a young lady, Amra, who is a senior at Boca Ciega High School. “I think it was enlightening to see how connected the community is here. I saw how the Black community has been able to rise and stand up against oppression and overcome it. Today was welcoming, warm and perfect.”
Both cohorts of seasoned leaders and students left feeling inspired. “Being here today was eye-opening. I got to see what is going on in our community, and it inspired me to want to be a part of active change,” expressed Nishi, a student from Largo High School.
Jacob Diaz, Dean of Students at USF St. Petersburg, noted that “This kind of initiative can affirm that our black and brown youth matter, that they see role models, and cultivate possibility to achieve their dreams.”
It will take all of St. Pete working together for the advancement of our youth. The BIPOC Young People Leadership Initiative is an ongoing program seeking support from people throughout the community committed to diversity in our future leadership and opportunities for our youth.
For more information, visit the Foundation’s website at https://healthystpete.foundation/bipocleadership/.
Dr. Loretta Caldwell-Thompson is President and CEO of Caldwell Management Solutions.