City Leaders Listen as Community Speaks up on Race Relations

A public forum called “Lift Lakeland” drew a crowd large enough to fill 2.5 hours with 2-minute bits of input on race relations Thursday night.

The event, held at the RP Funding Center’s Sikes Hall, began at 6 p.m.and did not conclude until Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz was convinced it was time to call it a night at around 8:30 p.m.

Mutz had said previously the purpose of the Phase One meeting was to allow input from citizens to shape the community-inspired Lift Lakeland plan. “We will bridge social gaps with people-centered solutions and create a network of harmony,” he said.

The mayor appeared willing to listen all night, but eventually conceded it was late and time to stop. The board worked its way through about half of the list of issues, meticulously documented on 73 slides.

Photo of the Lift Lakeland forum provided by Jennifer Houghton Canady

 “It’s extremely important to have a way to vent,” he said. “When we lose hope, we quit. All of us fail in life, with some consistency,” he said. “We are broken people, dependent on restoration.”

The Lift Lakeland plan was created after the Lakeland City Commission held a community forum event on race relations June 29. The event sparked follow-up meetings with community stakeholders, and created the foundation for the Lift Lakeland plan.

“A great deal has happened since that initial meeting took place earlier in the summer,” said Kevin Cook, Lakeland’s director of communications. ”The Lift Lakeland process included gathering input from the community to determine the most significant gaps in society to address racial disparities. The information was consolidated into nine core categories to serve as a roadmap to meet our community’s needs.”

They include:

  • Polk County Schools Academy and Career Exposure
  • Practical Life Education to Prepare for the Future
  • Leadership Development and Mentoring
  • Lakeland Police Department: Protecting the Quality of Life
  • Venture Capital and Other Support
  • Courageous Community Conversations
  • Community Opportunities
  • City of Lakeland Additional Potential Initiatives
  • Leveraging the Impact of Youth Sports Organizations

Jill Dorsett, an education consultant who has served on the Polk Vision Education Task Force, was perhaps the only person who spoke the name of George Floyd.

But Floyd’s presence could certainly be felt during the forum. He was a 46-year-old Black man who died May 25 pinned beneath Minneapolis police officers after being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit  $20 bill.

“I saw a lot of the ugliness that came out of the killing of George Floyd,” Dorsett said. “I know you are passionate about this, but we don’t want to waste time.”

Antonette Pollard, a mental health counselor, encouraged leaders to remove the stigma of mental health issues. “A lot of students, as well as adults, struggle with their mental health. We certainly need to normalize this more.”

City Commissioner Phillip Walker urged community members to continue to be involved in the Lift Lakeland process. “The city can’t do it by itself,” he said. “You’re going to have to step up to the plate.”

Many who spoke urged commissioners to strive to get the word out. Often, some said, news of programs such as Lift Lakeland may not reach members of the public who need to hear about it the most. Jarvis Washington of Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk suggested placing notepads at the doors for those who’d like to become involved.

Pastor Scott Thomas of Free Life Chapel, offered volunteers available through his congregation. “We have resources,” he said. “The church we could go for resources, to meet immediate needs.”

Kenneth Glover of the NAACP asked the board to take a closer look at the idea of using police body cameras. He said they are in use elsewhere in the state. They are important for transparency, he said. “We need police body cameras so we can break the cycle of what we have seen,” he said.

Previously, stakeholders reviewed the steps to triage the plan’s most critical aspects before introducing the Lift Lakeland Plan to the community. The City Commission reviewed the responses and “tweaked” them further.

Mutz said the community event allowed officials to introduce the top items recommended in each of the nine core areas, and to invite citizens to provide input before the plan is finalized. “This meeting is a time to showcase the plan’s initiatives and invite volunteers to assist us in moving Lakeland forward,” the mayor said.

Cook  said there will soon be a Lift Lakeland button on the city’s website where the nine initiatives and a sign-up form will be posted for those interested in volunteering  and in receiving additional information.

OTHER REPORTS: Fox 13 News

Summary of Thursday’s Lift Lakeland slides:

Lift Lakeland slides, updated after Thursday’s meeting:

Video of Thursday night’s forum:

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