Friday, May 24, 2013

Opportunities for Florida’s Black Colleges and Universities to Help “Raise Florida” towards sustainable social development

Opportunities for Florida’s Black Colleges and Universities to Help “Raise Florida” towards sustainable social development – by José Pérez Carrillo for the Raise Florida Network (RFN) Content Development for Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

The state of Florida is home to four different historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs):  Florida A and M University in Tallahassee, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida Memorial University in Miami, and Edward Waters College in Jacksonsville.   Each of these four institutions of higher learning is strategically situated within relatively short driving distances from large portions of Florida’s growing population.  Additionally, the areas removed from the physical campi of each of the aforementioned Florida HBCUs (Western Florida and Northwestern Florida, both along the Gulf Coast) are populated with significant numbers of alumni and students of these schools.  The Florida Panhandle, in Northwest Florida, has the additional logistical benefit of being equidistant from not only FAMU but also an abundance of HBCUs in neighboring “Gulf States” (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana).

The importance of Florida’s HBCUs in the asset-building work of the Raise Florida Network (RFN) is significant.  Each of these schools have a long and storied history of being involved with the very socioeconomic demographic targeted by RFN’s stated goals.   Like most other Black colleges, Florida’s HBCUs were created in response to the need to educate and empower hundreds of thousands if not millions of legally emancipated Americans of African descent throughout the Southern regions of the United States.   These histories and traditions live on today in the mission statements of each of the “Florida Four.”

“Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) is an 1890 land-grant institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, resolution of complex issues and the empowerment of citizens and communities.”

“The Bethune-Cookman University mission is to serve in the Christian tradition the diverse educational, social, and cultural needs of its students and to develop in them the desire and capacity for continuous intellectual and professional growth, leadership, and service to others. The University has deep roots in the history of America and continues to provide services to the broader community through a focus on service learning and civic engagement.”

“Florida Memorial University endeavors to instill in students the importance of becoming global citizens through life-long learning, leadership, character, and service which will enhance their lives and the lives of others.”

“Edward Waters College strives to prepare students holistically to advance in a global society through the provision of intellectually stimulating programs and an environment which emphasizes high moral and spiritual values in keeping with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

How can Florida’s HBCUs comply with not only the mandates of RFN but also fulfill the sacred obligations contained in their mission statements?  The opportunities are endless but the following represents some possibilities.

For example, active participation in RFN would result in the formulation and implementation of social development curricula at Florida’s HBCUs with bona fide community outreach aspects as part of course development for students and staff retention.  Also, semi-annual conferences would be organized and executed among Florida’s HBCU’s with each hosting on a rotating basis. Such conferences would have to include staff, faculty, administration, board/regents, students, families of students, local residents and alumni in such a way that would push the envelopes of inclusion assertively in the direction of plurality (i.e. having only Christian clergy present would not represent a diverse spiritual base).  In short, inclusiveness must become institutionalized. Further, admission priority for new and transfer students would be given to students that dedicated 85% of their community service hours specifically dedicated towards RFN/HBCU activities and initiatives.

All of the aforementioned and following would be developed with an eye towards sustainability.

One particular area that seems to be a natural avenue for the above is that of individual development accounts (IDA).  RFN and its umbrella organisation, the Southern Regional Asset Building Coalition, have already published compelling research on IDAs and their benefits in the lives of people and communities in need of asset-building support.

In a 2010 report titled “Asset Building in the South:  Organizations & Services,” it was determined that “educational strategies, including workshops, information-sharing efforts, trainings, and classes are the most frequently used intervention of respondent organizations regarding asset-building initiatives and services.”  This suggests a strong role for the Florida Four.  Indeed, FAMU is already involved with SRABC; it is only fitting that Florida’ flagship Black college be at the vanguard of a movement that must include its sister schools.

That report also addressed the importance of funding.   As a means of ensuring that innovative, community-focused programs maintain the lifeblood of revenue to sustain its successes, it would be a powerful example of inspired leadership to have board members allocate at least 5% of their standard level of liquid giving towards funding of IDA efforts.  Again, this is an investment in the implementation of inclusiveness.

Though not in Florida, Alabama’s Tuskegee University has long held a position of influence among the community of HBCUs.   Like FAMU, TU is a member of the SRABC and, in that capacity, published a report by a quintet of its faculty members (Baharanyi, Zabawa, Paris, Quaye-Wilson, and Kanyi) entitled The Impact of IDA Policies and Programs.”

Here is what Baharayi et al found:

“To this date, IDAs have proven to be one of the most promising approaches for asset building and thus, an important tool for achieving family economic success. However since its inception in 1991, and despite its promising ambitions, growth has been slow. Today, only about 30 states sponsor IDAs and over the past decade, federal and state governments have dedicated a meager $183 million to related initiatives. Therefore policies across states and regions must be structured to provide more effective and sustainable programs.

“There is the need to better ‘advertise’ or ‘market’ asset building policies, to build support for these initiatives among funders, policymakers, and the public. This can be done by putting a personal face on success stories and connecting these stories to demonstrate tangible successes and impacts of various programs. Documenting success stories will not only get the word out to potential participants and funders, but could also offer best practices and approaches to other program organizers and administrators.

“Policy initiatives must take into consideration local community factors that might affect the level of success of programs administered in rural communities. Such factors may include lack of public transit systems, predominance of low-wage jobs, access to local public and private funders among others.”

In light of their findings, it is imperative that Florida’s HBCUs and their networks of students, alumni, leaders, supporters, et al begin to advocate for meaningful policy changes that will benefit the state’s economically marginalized.   Concurrently, these institutions of higher learning must accept the responsibility of figuring out new ways of addressing long-standing socioeconomic disparities.

Also, the talent and training to develop a cadre of socially-conscious communicators already exists among and within Florida’s HBCUs.  English, marketing, and communication majors, to begin with, are being trained to craft, send, and deliver messages.  What better way to allow them to develop professionally relevant, genuinely marketable skills in their fields than to enlist them in an initiative that will also have long-lasting character-building implications, too?

Finally, SRABC has on its list of online publications an interesting study that revisits another idea whose merit appears to be as relevant today as it has been previously.    Jessica Nembhard of the University of Maryland authored “Non-Traditional Analyses of Co-operative Economic Impacts: Preliminary Indicators and a Case Study.”

In her paper, Nembhard outlines and discusses the benefits cooperatives.  Those benefits as listed by Nembhard are:

·         Education, training, skill development
·         Leadership development
·         Civic participation
·         Policy and Legislative Advocacy
·         Meaningful work/ Livable wages
·         Wealth creation
·         Affordable quality products

Each of the benefits of cooperatives described by Nembhard speak directly to the obligation of each of Florida’s HBCUs to take a prominent role in the activities of RFN.   Where else can one find entities that are already equipped and endowed with the resources necessary to move forward with each of the positive outcomes shared by Nembhard?

That said, Nembhard closes her report with cautions about the challenges inherent in trying to develop cooperatives.

“Major obstacles to helping co-operatives evaluate their outcomes and impacts include lack of time and personnel to engage in such activities, lack of adequate measurement tools and models to apply, and lack of data or data collection methods. Many cooperatives are preoccupied with securing their viability as a business based on traditional business evaluations. We researchers and academics can be the ones to begin to focus on ways to measure the externalities –the social benefits; the human, social and cultural capital created and nurtured the spillover effects around the community. Some outcomes such as job creation, buying from and outsourcing to other local businesses, development of affiliated businesses, increased skill levels are fairly easy to measure once we associate them with co-operative outcomes. Others such as leadership development, more civic participation, wealth creation, and general community economic stability are more difficult to measure and more difficult to attribute to cooperative ownership, yet seem to be correlated.”

Nembhard does not list the above to discourage; she shares it for the purpose of more effective planning.  This important because the historical record shows that cooperatives have existed in the United States but the Florida Four specifically and all of the RFN must be vigilant to heed Nembhard’s advice and avoid being relegated to being an obscure footnote in the history books such as the old Bayou Bourbeau cooperative in 1930’s Louisiana. 

To truly move forward with meaningful IDAs for Floridians of limited socioeconomic means, Florida’s HBCUs will be well-served to use existing federal resources to implement the needed changes.  Case in point, The United States’ Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service (also known as the Cooperative Extension Service) “is a non-formal educational program implemented in the United States designed to help people use research-based knowledge to improve their lives. The service is provided by the state's designated land-grant universities.”  

FAMU is a land-grant university and, as such, it is already involved with the CES.  What must be done now is to expand that work not only within itself but with its sister schools, the Florida Four.

Clearly, the work that must be done to truly address the economic disparities present in the state of Florida as it relates to asset building cannot be compartmentalized; however, such a daunting and necessary task can reach fruition more effectively if led by institutions that were created to address them in the first place.

Available upon request

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Westview Fight Goes to Court

Westview Fight Goes to Court
Story & photographs by José Pérez

The ongoing battle over the future of an old golf course and the residential neighborhoods that surround it will finally have its day in court this week several months after the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve an amendment to the County’s Development Master Plan that would allow an unprecedented crush of warehouses and truck traffic in a residential neighborhood. That decision has outraged residents and activists who have been busy trying to raise much-needed funds to cover mounting legal expenses.

This past Saturday, while their legal team was working on last minute preparations for an administrative hearing scheduled for this morning [THURSDAY] at the Miami-Dade County Building at 111 N.W. 1st Street at 9 a.m., the Golf Park residents hosted a fish fry to raise funds to pay their mounting legal bills.  

This week’s hearing is an appeal that will be held before the State Administrative Tribunal.   At issue is a plan to build warehouses in the heart of a middle class black neighborhood.  The administrative challenge was filed by homeowners in response to a decision by the County Commission last autumn to approve a change in the Master Plan or CDMP that would rezone the site of the former Westview Golf and Country Club that straddles NW 119 Street from “parks and recreation” to heavy use industrial.  “What the County Commission did was illegal because it went against the CDMP,” said Greg Samms, an attorney and member of the Golf Park HOA.

According to Samms, a civil lawsuit filed by homeowners in Circuit Court seeking an injunction to block the proposed development by Rosal Westview LLC, new owners of the nearly 200-acre property “was dropped because the opposition agreed that we could bring in the administrative hearing our state issues. Therefore there was no need to have duplicitous proceedings.”

The developer has insisted previously that it will build on a quarter of the eight million square feet of space and, of that, almost a half million square feet will be retail. Another 1.6 million square feet will be used for what they call “a business park.”   Rosal Westview’s Robert Saland told the South Florida Times that he was not able to comment on the matter because of its pending litigation status.

Residents have adamantly opposed the plan, insisting that warehouses will have adverse impacts on their health, property values, safety, and sense of community. “We’re not against development at all. We’re just against industrial,” said Samms.

Activists like Bradford Brown of the NAACP and Doretha Nichson support the homeowners.  Nichson, accused the county commission and the developers of “playing havoc with what our vision of the community is.”  Brown described the track record of developers in Miami-Dade County as “nothing but a history of broken promises.”    

The legal battle is a daunting one for the residents.   Samms said the standard for the appeals hearing is “fairly debatable.”  According to Samms, under the “fairly debatable” standard, the tribunal must decide if a fair debate existed in the hearing.   That means that the question therein is whether or not there was a fair debate on the matter, not if the county commission was made a wrong decision.   

Robert Lincoln, a land use attorney for Icard Merrill, a firm in Southwest Florida, said that “fairly debatable” is a “special standard” based on Chapter 163 of Florida Statutes which is “less differential.”   

“If two different people looking at the decision can reasonably disagree” about the validity of a plan to amend a CDMP, the hearing officer’s decision “tips over to the local government,” said Lincoln.   Proving that the county violated its own CDMP is “a huge burden,” he added.  

Because of that, Samms is already planning for the strong possibility of an unfavorable outcome during the hearing.   That means that the next battles would be in zoning and, if necessary, the site planning phase.

Samms also shared that the developer has retained the services of the firm of White & Case, which he called “one of the top land use firms.”   

While Rosal Westview’s legal team has been strengthening, Golf Park HOA’s has been circling the wagons.  The attorney who originally represented the homeowners, Tucker Gibbs, had to leave the case because of health reasons.  Frank Wolland is now filling in for Gibbs.   A former mayor of North Miami and land-use expert, Wolland is, according to his website, a “Former Chairman [of the] North Miami Planning Commission.”   

For Samms, this late change presents yet another challenge in what some regard as an uphill battle.   Because of the change in personnel, the Golf Park legal team asked for and received a continuance that pushed back the hearing date three days.  “We could not get any more time,” said Samms, “because under administrative rules when the opposition files a motion for an expedited hearing it must be granted.

Sylvia Kemp, President of the Golf Park HOA, said that last week’s fish fry was a continuation of their efforts.   The group has already hosted two garage sales, with the majority of items for sale being donated by area residents, and another fish fry and garage sale scheduled for this upcoming Saturday.   For the determined group of long-time homeowners, the garage sales and fish fries have had two purposes.   The first, said Kemp, is “to secure funds for our legal support.”   The other reason is “an opportunity to engage our neighbors.”   That outreach in the neighborhood has also involved old-fashioned door-to-door contact as well as utilizing social media.  Just over the past week or so, the homeowners group, which is registered as a non-profit, has created its own facebook and twitter pages as well as its own home page.

Jennifer Walker, a member of the Golf Park HOA, described the group’s efforts as “a real fight.”

“This is a few fighting for the many and a lot of them don’t understand how real this is.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bendross-Mindingall Fetes Local Haitian Heroes

MDPS Recognizes Haitian Heroes for Haitian Heritage Month
Story & fotos by José Pérez

In honor of Haitian Cultural Heritage Month, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Board member Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall recognized activist Jean-Robert LaFortune and Florida State Representative Phillip Brutus for their efforts "to champion causes important to the Haitian-American community."   The event was held in the auditorium of the Dade School Board's Administration Building at 1450 N.E. 2nd Avenue as part of a larger programme honoring residents and students alike for outstanding achievements.

LaFortune was gracious as he accepted the honor.  "Great spirits communicate," said LaFortune who enjoyed sharing the spotlight with the two former colleagues in Florida's State House, Brutus and Bendross-Mindingall.   Calling the recognition from Bendross-Mindingall "a privilege," Brutus told those gathered at the event earlier this month that he “learned a lot from her.”   For her part, Bendross-Mindingall said that “our community is quite fortunate” to have people like the honorees. 

In a written statement released prior to the ceremony, Dr. Bendross-Mindingall applauded the efforts of LaFortune and Brutus (as well as outgoing North Miami mayor Andre Pierre, who was not able to attend) to employ "utilized democratic principles to advance issues that largely impact Haitian-Americans, while enhancing the quality of life for all citizens.'

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Black Community Reacts to Collapse of Dolphin Deal

'It's Us We Need to Work On' - Black Community Reacts to Collapse of Dolphin Deal
Story & photographs by José E. Pérez

The eagerly-anticipated referendum for Miami-Dade County voters that would have helped decide the future of a deal between the county and South Florida Stadium LLC to upgrade Sunlife Stadium was derailed in stunning fashion as a key provision that required legislative approval in the State House of Representatives never reached the floor for a vote last week in Tallahassee.  When that vote was not taken, it immediately nullified the special yes-no referendum that was already put before Dade voters via early voting leading up to the special election scheduled for May 14. 

As the 2013 lawmaking session was winding down last Friday, a House vote to approve a proposed 1% increase on hotel bed taxes in mainland Miami-Dade County which was to be the primary source of public dollars for a massive stadium renovation never materialised prompting some, including Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, to place blame solely on the shoulders of Wil Weatherford, Speaker of the State House and rising star in Florida’s Republican party.

For now, the plans to begin construction on modernizing the autumn home of both the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and the NCAA’s University of Miami Hurricane football teams have been stopped.  In a brief communiqué released shortly after the news broke from the State Capitol, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez stated rather matter-of-factly, that “the State Legislature did not take action on the bill to provide an additional 1% mainland tourist tax for the Dolphins’ stadium renovations.   As a result, and in accordance with the resolution calling the special election, I have instructed our Elections Department to cancel the special election effective immediately.”

In a written statement, Ross said that he was “deeply disappointed by the Speaker's decision.”

“He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami-Dade and that is just wrong.”

Attorney H. T. Smith who, in his role with the Friends of Miami First, a political action committee created just two months ago, has been among the more visible supporters of the stadium improvement plan, also felt blindsided by the no-vote in the State House.  “

We were surprised,” said Smith, “because the Speaker had given his word” that the measure was going to be voted on in the House.

Smith and Ross were not alone in feeling shocked.   “My initial reaction was disbelief,” said Christine King, Executive Director of the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation (MLKEDCO) which had been increasingly vocal of late in its insistence that South Florida Stadium LLC and the Miami Dolphins do more to strengthen the deal with the county before the now-cancelled referendum.   “I was surprised that there was no debate.”

According to Smith, the outcome of a House vote was not really in question.  “We counted the votes, we had enough,” commented Smith who said that proponents of the modernization project had obtained pledges from at least 84 State Representatives who had “committed to support” the plan.    Whether or not the legislators that had committed their support were going to follow through became moot when Weatherford did not bring the measure to the floor for a vote – a move that Ross and Smith said was contrary to what the Speaker had promised himself.  “He gave me and many others his word that this legislation would go to the floor of the House for a vote,” said Ross, “where I know, and he knows, we had the votes to win by a margin as large as we did in the Senate.”  Smith observed that “politics are one thing, keeping your word is another.”

As the Dolphins and Miami-Dade County move forward, the question has become “What now?”  Depending on who one speaks to, that question will differ.

For example, County officials now find themselves with a sudden windfall of over $1million left over from the non-refundable $4.7million check paid by the Dolphins to Miami-Dade to pay for special election necessary to put the latest stadium deal before voters.  According to the Mayor’s Office, that money “can be used to meet other County needs.”

For South Florida Stadium, the Miami Dolphins, Miami First, and the South Florida Super Bowl host committee, the immediate concern is the question to have the NFL’s biggest game come back to town.   “At this point, the Dolphins will try to salvage the Super Bowl bid,” said Smith.   That bid is due this week to the NFL.

Former Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson is optimistic about the future.  “I don’t see that it is all doom and gloom,” she said.   “I still believe that there will be renovations to that stadium.”

Smith disagreed – sort of.   “The Dolphins are pretty firm that there will be no renovation without a public-private partnership.”   He explained that, in the eyes of Ross, “the community benefits” from having a more modern stadium and the high profile sports events that come with such a venue so they should help make it happen.    Supporters of the stadium upgrades have consistently touted the upsurge in thousands of jobs to be created by an improved Sunlife Stadium.   Ironically, about a year before the Dolphins went public with plans to refurbish their home stadium in January 2013, Ross said that “the jobs aren't going to be created by the government,” during an interview on CNBC on the eve of the Republican Party’s Florida primary.  When asked during that interview if “getting government out of the way” would benefit the economy, Ross replied in the affirmative. “Exactly.”

In spite of the blow to the stadium plans, Smith and King both see signs of encouragement.  The first, Smith said, is that there is now “a template for future business plans to use” when looking at large scale private-public projects.  The second positive is that “at least now we have dialogue,” said King.

For Betty T. Ferguson, those positive developments fall short in terms of long-term comprehensive community benefits.  “We need to do a better job of coming together,” said the former Miami-Dade County Commissioner who called for the community to work together to “create a master plan based on what we have put together.”

“It’s us that we need to work on,” said Ferguson who battled then-Dolphins owner Joe Robbie when he moved forward to build what is now Sunlife Stadium in her neighborhood in the 1980’s.   “We already ought to know.”   Not doing so, she cautioned, will continue to leave Miami-Dade’s black community vulnerable to the whims and machinations of better organized outside forces.  “When it comes to real decision-making, we’re not there.”