What began as a standard, if not somewhat clinical conversation around race, economic inequality and the achievement gap changed its tune with a single question.
The question (I’ll leave unstated the blame-laden and racially-biased undertones it carried) was at its core about values in the African American community. Or, in the questioner’s mind, the lack of certain values he believed should be taught.
In that moment, the room grew tense and uncomfortable, a caricature of every person’s worst internalized fears surrounding conversations about race. With grace, the members of the panel took a breath, and gave an answer that pushed the conversation to a place of thoughtful, challenging dialogue.
In this second conversation on race in St. Petersburg, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club curated a panel of activists, community leaders and officials last Thursday afternoon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club to discuss how St. Petersburg’s spotted racial history informs its way forward.
Kimberly Jackson, Director of the Institute of Public Policy at St. Pete College, moderated a conversation with Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg Kanika Tomalin, President & CEO of Pinellas County Urban League Rev. Watson L. Haynes, CEO of 2020 Plan and One Community Gypsy Gallardo, and architect Sarah-Jane Vatelot, author of Where Have All The Mangoes Gone?
On values, equity and brain drain
St. Petersburg takes tackling racial equity as central to its function, Tomalin explained, coming at the question of values from a city policy perspective. “The city approaches the goals of the 2020 Plan and the One Community Plan with as much diligence and effort and commitment as we approach the way we pave our roads and build our infrastructure,” she said.
“There’s a context to everything,” said Vatelot, citing the research she gathered in her dissertation, Where Have All The Mangoes Gone? At the time of the Gas Plant District’s razing to make way for Tropicana Field and I-175, it was home to 33 locally-owned businesses.
“What was taken away when those buildings were destroyed were peoples’ livelihoods,” she explained. “You can compensate somebody for land but you can’t compensate them for a lifetime of earning. And for passing down that business from one generation to another.
“When we tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if those bootstraps have been severed, through repeated acts of economic violence and infrastructural violence on a community, you cannot expect that to be the answer.”
“We are teaching our children those values,” Gallardo said, to that same question. She went on to name the gains that have been made in the black community over the last 20 years. The black graduation rate has tripled since the 2001 founding of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students (COQEBS), she explained, an organization formed to rally around black student success in public schools. The black poverty rate has reduced by 45 percent. African Americans have seen gains in income and wealth attainment in St. Petersburg.
“Yet there is this constant narrative of ubiquitous failure that we need to dispense with,” Gallardo said. “It’s time to move on from the narrative that we’ve tried and tried and spent hundreds of millions of dollars and nothing’s changed.
“Tons of things have changed and progressed in our community, and we need to recognize that.”
Then, Gallardo flipped the question.
“What is little known in St. Petersburg is that we have a major black brain drain phenomenon here,” she said. “Our best and brightest leave St. Pete – not finding the opportunities to advance in their careers and to alight to the achievements that they attain elsewhere.
“How many St. Pete natives are in Atlanta? New York? Houston? L.A.?” Gallardo asked. “The question that I think a lot of our white community needs to grapple with is, why is our city so unwelcoming? Why are there so few African Americans who can climb the corporate career ladder here in St. Petersburg? Who do well in this environment?”
A hum followed Gallardo’s statement, nods of understanding and agreement from some of the audience and murmurs of shock and surprise from others. According to Gallardo, this phenomenon is not just anecdotal. It’s borne out in the data, an untold story that arises from our city’s birth, death and mobility rates.
“It’s good that you’re shocked,” said Tomalin. “Hopefully we’ll feel urgent about that fact. Because that is perhaps the number one threat to our likelihood of reaching our potential as a city.”
Brain drain, a phenomenon in which highly-trained and college-educated young people migrate to cities and states with greater opportunities, is an issue the state of Florida and the city of St. Petersburg has been working to combat for the last decade.
On Tropicana Field
On the theme of looking forward, the panelists were asked what they believed would actually be developed at the Tropicana Field site, rather than what they hoped to see there.
“I challenge this room to resolve today that what will take place is exactly what we aspire to take place,” said Tomalin. “That site is generationally transformative in so many ways. We’re moving in a very methodical, intentional, purposeful way to ensure that it is a catalytic enzyme for the creation of economic empowerment and the uplifting of people from every corner of our community, regardless of the corner of the community from which they come.”
In the face of controversy regarding the redevelopment of Tropicana Field site, and the role the Tampa Bay Rays may have in stalling it or moving it forward, Mayor Rick Kriseman told City Council earlier this month that rights afforded to the City and the Rays are clearly laid out in the use agreement. He cited two provisions of the use agreement that he believes the city’s redevelopment of the site, outside of the stadium itself, would not impair. As such, City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle announced last week that it would be releasing a request for proposals for private developers to bid for the site’s redevelopment, tying in the city’s Grow Smarter strategy to the site.
The city’s StPete2050 visioning exercise and previous city meetings regarding site redevelopment plans have been among the other ways the city has attempted to reach out for feedback from many corners of the community.
“That site absolutely carries a very heavy burden of expectation and history of marginalization,” Tomalin said, in reference to the promises made and broken prior to the initial construction of Tropicana Field. “As much as it has been an illustration for ways to not honor the importance of individuality in the community, it can become a beacon, a national and international model for how a city does it right. How a city connects with its people and its community to create exactly what it intends to see there. That’s not a hope, not a wish, that’s my bottom line expectation. We will see exactly what we in this community have charted a course for, for that site.”
Gallardo, recently returned from a Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative along with seven other local leaders, said that the group spent 84 hours in intensive planning and visioning focused around the future of Tropicana Field.
“I can say two things,” she said. “Our city is moving in ways that will be transformative, where everything the deputy mayor just spoke will come true, and we’re being watched across the nation for coming up with a formula for authentic engagement of community and real, measurable advances toward equity.”
Haynes, who was raised in the Gas Plant District, recalled the time when the community came together and announced that they would move, in order to see the jobs they had been promised come to fruition. He also remembered the feeling of betrayal. “Jobs didn’t happen,” Haynes said. “But we moved.”
He also remembered being quoted by what was then the St. Petersburg Times, saying “African Americans did not expect to have jobs selling beer and peanuts, and that’s what we got.”
On what we can do to move the city toward inclusivity, together
Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, also attended the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Mathis asked: “What practical advice would you give to all of these people who want to be ambassadors, who want to do the right thing, who want to be part of the solution, how would you empower this group regardless of race or socioeconomic status to go out and create a more inclusive St. Pete?”
That has to be a personal commitment, Haynes explained. “We can’t look to the right and the left and say what are the people next to me going to about it and I’ll help them,” he said. We have to be able to say what we want to happen and form a solution ourselves, and bring others along with us.
Tomalin argued that we should look at inclusivity along four “strategic pathways,” acknowledge, accept, actualize and ascend. “It’s critical to acknowledge what has happened here, and the truth of that,” she said. “Acknowledge both the shame-filled pain of systemic discrimination and the light-filled triumph of being a city right now that in many ways is a standard bearer and a record setter for diversity and inclusion. Both of those are true.”
“We need to embrace the dichotomy of who we are, who our community is as a being, and then accept that truth and understand that who we’ve been does not need to dictate who we will be and realize that we are in charge of what will be. We have all of the power to do absolutely everything we need to become the city that we want. It’s up to us, we have to be intentional, we have to be purposeful in the ways that we not only map out and strategize about inclusion but the ways that we actualize that.”
“We have to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and insist on that next level raise that will take us from a great city to an iconic one as it relates to diversity and inclusion and equity.”
Gallardo argued that everyone should get involved in the economic advancement initiatives by the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation (TBBBIC), Pinellas County Urban League, One Community and 2020 Plan. She also challenged employers to think about target job opportunities to underrepresented populations and targeting bids to black-owned and latino-owned businesses.
“We need to have honest conversations,” said Vatelot, “with ourselves and with our friends and our family. We need to inform ourselves and we need to inform others about the way things are, the way things have been and the way things can be.”