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Community Voices: Higher education and racial justice

Caryn Nesmith



Members of the St. Petersburg/Pinellas Higher Education for Racial Equity (SPHERE) Consortium. From top left: Paige Dickinson, Robbyn Hopewell, Amanda Hagood, Devona Pierre, Erika Spohrer, Carmen Johnson, Carrie Hepburn, Caryn Nesmith, Megan Holmes, Kayla Rendon, Na’Keidra Perez, DeWayne Anderson, Jake Diaz, Destiny Gomez, Aaron Rose, Judith Scully, and Jessica Estévez. Photo: Boyzell Hosey.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

The painful legacy of slavery has resulted in enduring systemic inequities in the United States and globally. Education is said to be a great equalizer, the key to upward mobility, with the ability to change the trajectory of a person’s life. But our racist historical context leaves us with rigged systems. The weight of the responsibility of the institutions of learning to level the playing field for our citizenry becomes obvious.

According to Randall Russell, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, which has a focus on race equity to achieve healthy equity, higher education institutions must do an internal review of policies.

“What are the hiring policies, the research priorities, the procurement policies, admissions recruitment? What is the culture?” Russell added. “When you chart all of that and decide you want to change the power structure, then you are moving into race equity.”

At a community convening and virtual panel discussion, last year, Devona Pierre, director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at St. Petersburg College, agreed with Russell’s premise.

“Academics serve as thought leaders, educators and conduits to our community. First and foremost, we have to acknowledge the part we have played in systemic racism, and move into transforming our own systems,” Pierre said. “We have to look at our own policies and procedures and funding with intention to transform our systems.”

Many people reference a consciousness shift that occurred in 2020, in the face of global civil unrest spurred by the murder of George Floyd. Institutions and corporations promised action examining and rectifying their part in systemic racism and systems change.  The University of South Florida promised in 2020 to take a series of actions, including establishing a Vice President position for Institutional Equity, targeting recruitment of Black students, focusing on supplier diversity, and hosting a series of discussions on race. It also allocated $500,000 for 23 anti-racist research projects, in which faculty collaborated with community partners.

Last year, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg championed the work of higher education institutions in Pinellas County who committed together to anti-racist work, forming the  St. Petersburg/Pinellas Higher Education for Race Equity Consortium  – also known as SPHERE – that would complement the many initiatives in our city and county working on creating more equitable systems. SPHERE was the result of a community task force USF St Petersburg convened seeking ways the campus could contribute to solutions to heal historic racial injustices locally. 

The SPHERE Consortium includes St. Petersburg College, Eckerd College, Stetson University College of Law and USF St. Petersburg campus. SPHERE’s mission is to create an accessible space for sustained scholarship, conversation, service, education, activism and legislative advocacy around the topics of race equity and racial healing in order to build a more equitable collective future. We want to equip our young people to engage and advocate on issues of race equity and justice. We want our academics equipped to teach a broader narrative regarding race. We want to connect with our community partners heavily engaged in this work. We want to own our racial history and the corresponding roles and responsibilities to change the false narrative of racial hierarchies, and begin the process of racial healing and relationship building.

I have been involved with this effort since it began and have been working with an incredible team of staff and faculty across our institutions. In November, Dr. Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College; Damian Fernandez, president of Eckerd College; Michele Alexandre, dean of Stetson University College of Law; and Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor at the USF St. Petersburg campus regional chancellor affirmed their commitment to the goals of the SPHERE Consortium.

“Formalizing our connection as a regional consortium empowers us to be change agents in Pinellas County, actively seeking to redress the wrongs, resource the people and restore the relationships destroyed by an inherited and institutionalized caste system,” read a letter signed by these leaders. “As a consortium, we also have the power to build more powerful relationships with community organizations already working on racial justice.”

In September, SPHERE launched a racial justice student fellowship program with an initial cohort of eight student fellows – two students from each institution – who are learning more about the work of correcting racial injustices. These students have engaged in a curriculum that includes community experts discussing racial history and topics aimed at correcting injustices of the past. They developed their own projects, such as the community forum on Race and Policing that student Destiny Gomez envisioned and executed.

They are engaging in internships in the community focused on race equity, including one in the Mayor’s Office on a committee that will further evaluate how to implement recommendations of the 200-page study on structural racism  issued by USF scholars and community, blending the expertise of lived experience with academics. Others are serving with the NAACP, the Urban League, The Well, the Black Health Equity Alliance, and the St. Pete Youth Farm.  We’re accepting applications now for next year’s cohort.

In December, SPHERE Consortium received a national designation from the American Association of Colleges and Universities as a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation – or TRHT – Center.

Our goals over the next year include hiring a shared director to move forward the vision for the Consortium, growing the student racial justice fellowship, growing partnerships with community organizations and collectively creating a local higher education racial history. Each organization is contributing resources and funds to action these goals.

“Higher education institutions have a strong desire to connect to community, but in order to do that, you have to listen, not tell,” Russell said. “Externally, institutions should think about how to be a host to the community, how to be a thought leader, and how to listen to inform how you want to be.”

This is what we’re hoping to do.

Caryn Nesmith is director of community relations at USF, a position jointly funded by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, the St. Petersburg Innovation District, the City of St. Petersburg and USF. This is a series focused on USF and its role in our community, serving to strengthen the prosperity of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. You can contact Caryn at carynn@usf.edu


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    June 7, 2022at11:23 am

    Impressive group doing good work.
    Very promising to have such wide recognition and support.
    Wishing the initiative great success!

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