A new report from Apartmentlist.com ranks Lakeland as the 7th best city for Black professionals in the nation, scoring higher than Orlando, Tampa, Cape Coral and Miami. In all, 82 cities were included in the study. The news came as a shock to a few of the Black transplants we spoke with.
“To be honest, I’m surprised that Lakeland ranked in the top 10 at all,” said Desirae Ofori, 37, a visual artist who moved to Lakeland from Miami in 2002 to attend Southeastern University. She lived in town for 15 years before moving to nearby Auburndale.
“Looking at the study, I don’t see how the authors came to their conclusion about where Lakeland ranks,” said Rick Maxey, 65, who retired last August as Florida Polytechnic University’s assistant vice president of diversity and inclusion. He moved to Lakeland in 2013.
The report came to its conclusion through analyzing four categories:
- Community and representation
- Economic opportunities
- Housing opportunities
- Business environment
The authors consider Black professionals to be people of the African diaspora who graduated from college and are part of the workforce.
Community and representation. For this category, analysts looked at if the Black community is proportionately represented in the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and managers who live there. According to the report, Lakeland ranked third in this category.
“We could definitely have more Black representation and housing costs continue to skyrocket, making it a challenge for everyone,” said Andrea Oliver, who moved to Lakeland from Jamaica in the 1980s. She worked as a news director for a local media group before finding her current occupation as a resource development manager for the United Way of Central Florida.
“Not that long ago, I read in a recent Wall Street Journal article that only 7.8 percent of people in management occupations identified as Black in 2019. From my experience, this remains accurate, even in Lakeland. We still have some work to do with representation and I think this is reflected across the country, “ said Lauren Springfield, 35, of Lakeland, who moved to the city from Delaware in 2015 to work for Lakeland Regional Health as a talent communication consultant.
“ I think the general business environment is becoming ripe for opportunity, but I believe organizations must do a better job in attracting and retaining Black and minority talent.”
Economic opportunity: The report looked at whether Black professionals were receiving competitive wages, the college graduation rate among Black adults, the employment rate, the median income among Black workers and the ratio of non-Black incomes to Black incomes. Lakeland ranked 54th in this category.
“We have to do more than just talk the talk. Companies have to be willing to put qualified Black professionals in executive and leadership roles. Gone are the days when we as a city can just be comfortable with the concept of ‘the good ol’boys’ ruling from the top,” Oliver said.
“I do agree with the score. I don’t know that there are a lot of readily available high-paying jobs. People who qualify for them most likely commute to Tampa Bay or Orlando to get better pay and opportunities. When I worked in the corporate world, that’s what I had to do,” Ofori said.
Housing opportunity. This category measured affordability and equity within the local housing market. It considered the Black home ownership rate, how the Black home ownership rate compared to non-Black households, and the percentages of Black households who spend over 30 percent of their monthly income on housing costs. Lakeland ranked 10th in this category.
The Black professionals we spoke to said moving to Lakeland was quite an adjustment.
“I was coming from a so-called third-world country but lived in the capital city and the infrastructure was in place for transportation and easy access from one point to the next,” Oliver said. “My biggest issue coming to Lakeland [was] that the buses stopped running at 6 pm. I was also very aware of the disparity in the race culture and that racism was something I had to contend with.”
Oliver said attending services at the Family Worship Center was her biggest help in adjusting to her new city. She now attends Grace City Church.
Springfield said signing her son up for baseball helped her family adjust.
“It [was] one of the best things we did as it helped us meet people. The people we met are the people we do life with until this day,” Springfield said. Trips to Disney also helped.
Business environment. This category examined the percentage of local businesses that are Black-owned and whether Black ownership is proportional to the overall Black population. Lakeland ranked fourth in this category.
“I think Black professionals, particularly from the North, are moving to more southern cities because of increased opportunity. Lakeland presents a great opportunity for growth as more and more businesses take up residence in the area,” Springfield said. “It’s also a prime location right between Tampa and Orlando.”
All of the Black professionals we spoke to say Lakeland has come a long way from when they moved here.
“I believe there is potential for more growth and that it can truly be a positive place for Black professionals if we work together, support each other, and create opportunities specifically for our communities. Collaboration is definitely the key,” Ofori said. “We have to be willing to step out and create what we want to see in this city.”
“In my view, Lakeland is a great place to live regardless of your identity,” Maxey said. “Like any other place or organization, there is room for improvement when it comes to fully providing equitable opportunities to everyone.”
“Most people do not get up and wish to be hypocrites, but if you say you want diversity and inclusion and every time you are pictured on social media or at any other venue, you are surrounded by individuals who only look like you, you have to ask yourself the hard question, ‘Am I just mouthing something to be cute and trendy?’ Oliver said. “Diversity [and] inclusion will take everyone of us doing our part.”
“Representation matters,” Springfield said. “Future Lakelanders must be able to see themselves and their families represented in all aspects of life — from local business owners and involvement in recreational activities to positions on community boards. It’s hard to move your family somewhere if you can’t picture a future.”
The cities that made the top ten:
- Washington, D.C.
- San Antonio
Other key findings included Texas being the best state for Black professionals and states with a large historically Black College and University presence tended to score higher.
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