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More than 100 people packed into The Well event center on Parker Street Tuesday evening to talk about race and equity issues at an event cohosted by LkldNow.com and Lakeland Vision.
“I know the conversations around race can make us a little bit uncomfortable and I just want to acknowledge that from the beginning,” said Trinity Laurino, LkldNow’s executive director. “But I also think it’s that uncomfortability that makes these conversations so necessary, and so necessary to have in a very sustained way so that we’re not just having a response to a crisis. It is part of the mental reset. It is part of our community vision to build an equitable and diverse life.”
- Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz
- New Bethel AME Senior Pastor Eddie Lake
- Lakeland Assistant Police Chief Marvin Tarver
- Public health policy expert Dr. Lynn Marshall, founder of Melanin Lives Matter
The forum was held three years after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and massive protests over his death throughout the country – including one in Lakeland. That month, Lakeland officials hosted a similar forum to discuss things that could be done to make Lakeland an equal and equitable community for all of its residents.
“Body cams came straight out of that because that became one of the highest priorities in terms of making sure there’s parity and equity in the big events, the traffic stops and just the way (people are ) greeted, just to the ways that we’re talking to” each other, said Mayor Bill Mutz. He added that mentorship programs were implemented or ramped up as part of that 2020 forum. “How do we help people have opportunities, to see futures that they might not have considered otherwise?”
But Mutz said the city continues to work on accountability and holding people responsible if they act in unacceptable ways.
“So I think the answer is yes, we have accountability. It’s at different levels. And it is not as robust as I hope it can become,” Mutz said. “When you do things incrementally, it is hard sometimes to feel the progress because things that matter take time to make a real difference.”
Assistant Lakeland Police Chief Marvin Tarver remembered a man who helped pave a path for him – the retired LPD Sgt. Edgar Pickett, who died recently. Pickett was one of the first four Black police officers hired at LPD in 1954 at a time when he could not arrest white people even if he saw them breaking the law. Pickett was shot in the line of duty and went on to teach himself forensics work, including fingerprinting, photographing crime scenes and evidence and developing his own film.
“Mr. Pickett, he was an honorable man and he really loved doing his job. And he did it to the best of his ability,” said Tarver, noting that LPD’s forensics lab is named after Pickett. “Those who can relate to those men, it gives them a sense of pride and I believe it generates a sense of respect for the organizations that the city gives the Police Department … we can see that there has been some movement and there is continued movement. I guess the question is, are we making progress since that meeting in 2020?”
Eddie Lake, senior pastor of New Bethel AME Church, said some things have improved, particularly because some are willing to stand in the shoes of others to understand their often painful experiences.
“One of the things I have recognized is that more people are seemingly involved in community, in business, and involved with making the difference and understanding the value of coming together,” Lake said. “It’s absolutely critical and necessary that we continue to talk. But I will caveat my next statement by saying if you’re not willing to cry, if you’re not willing to experience the pain that is the currency for the lift that we need in our community, we will not get to the result that we need.”
Lake talked about equity, pointing out that it is not the same as equality. Equality is giving everyone the same opportunities. Equity is preparing everyone equally for that opportunity. Because someone from a middle-class household with two parents will not have the same preparation as a child from a low-income house being raised by a single parent – usually a mother, grandmother or aunt.
“The equity portion is important because we don’t need equity where everyone gets the same thing,” Lake said. “But we don’t need equality, but equity is what we need. And here’s why we’re at different places at different levels … we have to give consideration to where people are, where they’ve come from, and how far they need to go to get to this place of equitable outcomes, which is absolutely critical. But here’s the thing — all of you need to participate, because it can’t be just from the standpoint of politics.”
Marshall, president of Melanin Families Matter, said you need to become informed to be empowered. She said there is one phrase that she does not like to be used: I don’t see color.
“I feel like it has been dismantling, and it has essentially divided people is what we have heard or perhaps some of us have said, I don’t see color,” Marshall said. “When you don’t see color, you don’t see problems. When you don’t see color, you don’t see health inequities. When you don’t see color, you don’t see disparities … we have to be willing to learn from each other’s experience.”
Marshall said she gauges a community’s inclusivity by looking at its overall health, including employment, education, transportation, poverty, toxic stress and housing.
Marshall said they look at infant mortality rates – the number of deaths per 1,000 live births before those babies turn one. She shared a stunning statistic: in 2018, Black babies were three and a half times more likely to die before their first birthday. In the last five years, that rate has dropped to “two and a half times more likely to die compared to white children.
“We need to look at a few things that may be contributing to that,” Marshall said, pointing to economics and education. “The median African American income was at $38,000, that they were bringing in compared to Caucasians, which was at $52,000.”
Several people mentioned needing educational opportunities, including taking advantage of all of the career academies offered by Polk County Public Schools. Every high school in the district offers at least one certificate program that allows students to graduate and go directly into the workforce with a school like aeronautical mechanics, electrical lineman, culinary arts, medical training, or agriculture.
“We’re talking about mentoring, or academies and academy exposure and making sure we have opportunities for people to have access to those kinds of categories that meet their passions and desires and that they’re exposed to those passions and desires,” Mutz said. “We have to do that early enough in their life for them to be able to see” the opportunities.
Olivia Laurino, a junior at George Jenkins High School, is enrolled in a YMCA program called Easing Government that focuses on race and equity. It’s a program, she said, that has helped so many people, but struggles with funding. She asked the panel how they were willing to help the young people in group advance in becoming stakeholders and game-changers in the community.
“Invite us to come – seriously – because we love speaking at those events,” Mutz said. “Giving an opportunity for people to get to meet each other is a great example. You all have organizations like this, and it will be rare that we will say no if you ask us to come.”
Jessi Eady noted that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is “passing a lot of laws that deliberately impact our Black citizens or citizens of color of Lakeland … I would like to see something change, at least from Lakeland – and maybe we could be the start of something in Polk County – where we began showing dissent towards those opinions and support legislation that’s going to allow people like Olivia and her student government to discuss race and equity. Because right now that right is being taken away … I’m wondering what the city of Lakeland and our city government can do to support our School Board and our schools?”
Mutz said if people don’t like what they’re seeing, they should vote or run for office themselves.
“It isn’t just the governor that signs the bills. It’s the legislature that passes laws okay?” Mutz said. “So what we have to make certain that we’re doing is if you feel like we’re not, as a state, representing well, we’ve got to have people run for office that represent differently.”
Mutz said often when a pendulum swings far one way, in the next election, you’ll see it swing far in the opposite direction – like the difference between U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“The balance is in the middle,” Mutz said. “I don’t despair on either side, pendulum swing, because I know the swing is going to come back. And so in the process of that we can find the middle ground that honors everyone.”
In breakout sessions after the panel discussion, many participants reflected that one important way to break down barriers is at the individual level, by talking to people one-on-one. One person said instead of being defensive, she tries to be curious.
City Commissioner Stephanie Madden said becoming friends with people who have different life experiences and cultural backgrounds has been important in guiding her votes on several issues.
LkldNow’s next forum will be in the fall and will cover education.
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