Dr. Keesha Benson, like many St. Petersburg natives, recently found her way back to St. Petersburg. In many ways, it was the city she remembered. Her five generations of family were there, and her favorite ice cream shop, too. But things had changed. Exciting things, like a new pier, bustling local restaurants and stores. But other things too, like an increasingly segregated city, a city with children in need, with haves and have-nots. Now, Benson is working with a new nonprofit effort, Thrive By Five, backed by the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, to create a more equitable, socially just and stronger community, for everyone.
Years in St. Pete
I was born and raised in St. Pete. I’ve been gone for 20 years, and I brought my family back here about a year and a half ago.
Organizations involved in
So many: The Early Learning Coalition, St. Petersburg NAACP Phyllis Wheatley Rise to Read Campaign, Liberty Church, Grow Smarter – Coordinated Education and Training Committee.
What gets you out of bed every day?
My faith, my family and just knowing that I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to do. I’ve been called to this work and it’s really exciting to be home in St. Pete doing the work that I love. There’s five generations of my family here, so it’s not just a job for me, it’s a calling. Knowing that when I’m in the community doing the work, that it impacts the people I love, from my niece to my 96-year-old grandmother. My own family as well, I have three children, they are 3, 5 and 7. My husband and I have been married for 10 years. They’re just amazing and they really make me want to be a better person.
Why St. Pete?
When we were thinking about St. Pete, and we were living in the Northeast at the time, we identified three things things that were really important to us. And they were building community, diversity and family. We just purchased a home. I grew up in South St. Petersburg in Lakewood Estates, so when we moved back, I wanted to make sure we were near the area. So the fact that my mother could pick my kids up from school, they could see their cousins and aunts and everyone that’s really important to them. I had a really diverse childhood here, I grew up in Pinellas public schools, I went to Starkey Elementary, I went to Southside Fundamental, which is now gone, and Lakewood CAT program. I had great educational opportunities and met a lot of different people from various races, backgrounds and socioeconomic status, and I want that for my children. I think since I’ve been home, the city feels a little more segregated than it was when I left 20 years ago. I’m thinking about what that means, why that’s in place and how I can be part of the solution.
What is one habit that you keep?
I would say self-reflection. I’m really big on metacognition and thinking about your thinking, understanding why I think the way I do. For example, if I’m in a situation and something triggers me or something comes up for me, why do I feel that way? What’s causing it? What’s the history behind it? We always think of problems as an iceberg. What is the core issue and how do I start to address that? Then, being mindful of that instead of being reactive to that situation. In my community practice work or in my personal life as a mother and a wife, that’s really important to me.
Who are some people that influence you?
My influences are more personal. I would say my faith, my lord and savior Jesus Christ. My mother, she is just really hardworking and dedicated. My husband, he is steady, whereas I am very visionary and movement oriented. He keeps me calm and relaxed. And my children, they teach me so much about life and seeing life through their view, to just slow down some.
What is one piece of insight - a book, methodology, practice - that you would share with our readers?
Cultural humility: It’s a phrase that I love, it’s a public health term. It’s going beyond cultural competency. How do you stay humble? How do you know that you don’t know everything? How do you know this is a journey when you’re getting to know various cultures? How can you say, “I don’t know” and it’s okay to be in that space? Thinking about who you are and your social identity, and what you bring to the work that you do. For me as a community practitioner, it’s really understanding, as a black woman in this space, what does that mean for people? How do I show up in the work that I do and how is that received? One of my favorite quotes is, “If you’ve come to help me then you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come to help me because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I think it’s really important to know that you can’t just walk into a community and say, “Hey I’m here, the savior, to help you.” Especially in St. Petersburg, understanding the history of this city, understanding what has taken place. People always say, “Why can’t we just get past it?” No, having those conversations about why this is important, why it’s relevant, and then also finding ways to move forward by bringing all of the partners to the table to do that work.
What is one thing you wish you knew about your work 3 years ago?
A career isn’t a straight line. I think I’ve been moved in so many various directions career-wise and it goes back to my spirituality. One thing that I have done is kind of yielded and said wherever it is that I’m needed, I will go. I have been a professor, a community practitioner, now that I’m back home I’m more in the nonprofit world with communities again. Knowing that I’m right where I’m supposed to be in this time and this space.
So many things, of course. Thrive By Five, we’re about to launch some amazing initiatives, so I’m really excited about the work that we’re doing. Focusing on accessibility and equity-based systems of care for our children and child development and for their families and family supports. Being back home doing the work that I love, and being mindful of who it’s impacting and how important that is. I always say that it’s great that my kids are having great educational opportunities, but I want to know that Bobby down the street has the same opportunities and the same access, and how can I be part of that solution moving forward?