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‘Equity Amid Crisis’ day two: The way forward

Margie Manning

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Time is ticking.

That was a key takeaway from the second day of a virtual workshop centered around equity, inclusion and diversity hosted by Inclusivity LLC. The conference looked at systemic issues, such as health disparities that became more noticeable amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and racial injustice that rose to the forefront after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

After the initial discussion Thursday about data and gaps in equity in the St. Petersburg area, panelists from corporations, nonprofits and civic groups regrouped on Friday to talk about how to move forward.

One of the most compelling moments occurred when Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said his cancer diagnosis a year ago caused his own shift in perspective.

“To get healthy I had to do some things that were incredibly uncomfortable. I went for the most aggressive treatment because I wanted the most amount of time,” Steinocher said. “I think that’s what we’ve got to do now. Time is ticking. I think it’s time we get really uncomfortable. I think it’s time we go to places we’ve never been to have these conversations and listen. I’m willing, able and ready.”

While the Chamber may not be the right “brand” to lead the efforts, the Chamber can be an important partner, he said.

Grow Smarter, a strategy developed by the Chamber and the City of St. Petersburg and supported by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, is designed to reduce gaps by race and place by introducing equity to economic development efforts. It is one forum for all parts of the community to come together and address complex issues, said Ryan Griffin, an attorney at Johnson Pope, a small business owner and chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Grow Smarter brought diverse groups together, many for the first time. “It started a pathway to ‘we’ instead of ‘us versus them,’” Griffin said.

St. Petersburg College has focused on creating an educational ecosystem, because education is a big engine to change lives and close equity and achievement gaps, said Tonjua Williams, president of SPC. She said SPC needs more community involvement and collaboration, however, because COVID-19 has changed the workforce.

“We can’t do this alone,” she said. “Our workforce partners are looking at the kind of jobs that have changed with COVID and we have to move with those changes. We have to change how we teach, how individuals learn, how people work and the training … We cannot do that without workforce and community members coming together.”

Beth Houghton, CEO of Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, said the pandemic highlighted the need for flexibility, collaboration and cooperation among nonprofits..

“We moved to where we needed to be and got out of the way when someone else needed to take the lead or had better resources to take the lead. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but also mindful that this is just the beginning and I hope many lessons of collaboration and breaking down silos continue to serve us and the community well,” Houghton said.

As more businesses open back up and workers start to return to their offices, flexibility will continue to be important. While some have referred to this as the “new normal,” Zamiuel Haque, a consultant with Inclusivity LLC, said he prefers the terms “new equilibrium.”

“The ‘new normal’ is about accepting the way things are,” Haque said. “To me the more appropriate term is ‘equilibrium’ which is saying things are happening, based on a little bit of pressure here or tension there. The set point is going to move and that’s all about equilibrium … Equilibrium defines the fact that things are in motion, and where we are now is we can apply appropriate tension to move the setpoint in the direction we want.”

It’s important to follow through on that, said Sharon Wright, sustainability and resiliency director for the Mayor’s Office in the City of St. Petersburg.

“I’m afraid we’re getting back to normal without stopping to talk about the new inequities or the new equilibrium we could find going back,” Wright said. “I think it will be fun to work with businesses on resiliency from new perspectives we’ve learned. If you are building a business right now, can you make room for a drive-thru or a curbside or some circumstance you may not have thought of before?”

It’s important for organizations and companies to make sure their policies and practices support equity for people of color, LGBTQ+ and others with marginalized identities, said Jennifer Yeagley, CEO, St. Petersburg Free Clinic.

“What does the board of directors composition look like? What does your leadership team look like? What does your staff look like? Does it reflect your customer base? Are we thinking about equity when it comes to wages and compensation?” Yeagley said. “This is not flip a switch and fix everything. This is ongoing work that leaders must take responsibility for moving forward.”

While some people have said half-jokingly they would like to “cancel 2020,” Jaclyn Boland, executive director of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute, said this year may be exactly what the world needed. She quoted an essay she saw on the internet that said 2020 was “a year so uncomfortable, so scary, so raw that it forces us to grow.”

The death of George Floyd was a watershed moment in race and equity, said Carl Lavender, chief equity strategist at Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

“The image of a black man on the ground and the knee of a white police officer on his neck as he suffocates to death. The time that will remain in our minds forever is 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s how long it took to change the world,” Lavender said.

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