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‘It’s Not Just Talk’: Friendship Seven To Discuss Progress Since Inequity Report At Town Hall

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Sixteen months ago, more than 100 people filled Mount Moriah Baptist Church. They were not waiting for Sunday services.

They flipped through printed copies of the newly released Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County report and read the data projected on the wall. The numbers were irrefutable. Black residents — particularly black public school students — have been left behind for decades.

Today, community members will have the opportunity to ask local leaders and organizations what steps have been taken to fix the problem at a town hall.

The Alachua County branch of the NAACP and the United Church of Gainesville’s Racial Justice Task Force are sponsoring a town hall called “Understanding Racial Inequities: Where Are We Now?” at 4 p.m. in the Thelma Boltin Center, at 516 NE Second Ave.

“We’re hoping that people will leave with a sense of hope,” said Jackie Davis, a member of the task force who organized the event with the local NAACP branch. “That this time, it’s not just talk.”

The report, conducted by the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, provides data on how black and African American residents disproportionately struggle in seven areas: housing, education, economic well-being, family structure, child welfare, the justice system, health and transportation.

Page after page of the report details where the county fails in racial equity. According to the report, the median income of black households is almost half of that of white households. African Americans are almost 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than white residents. More than half of high school students who drop out are black.

Today’s town hall is expected to last about two hours, Davis said. The purpose of the town hall is for the community to learn about what progress or changes the institutions have made since the report was released last year, she said.

The entities that commissioned the report — known as the Friendship Seven — consist of the University of Florida, UF Health, Santa Fe College, the City of Gainesville, Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, Alachua County and Alachua County Public Schools.

The town hall will begin with presentations from representatives of the Friendship Seven organizations who will attend, Davis said. Volunteers will pass out index cards for audience members to ask questions, which will be read by two moderators, Davis said.

Mayor Lauren Poe, Santa Fe College President Jackson Sasser, County Commissioner Charles Chestnut and school board member Tina Certain will attend, Davis said. The Chamber of Commerce, UF and UF Health will not have representatives at the meeting.

Gainesville Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Eric Godet cannot attend because of a prior commitment, said Scott Costello, the chamber’s vice president for marketing and communications.

Susan Crowley, the UF assistant vice president of community relations, said she provided the Task Force and NAACP with a two-page summary on UF and UF Health’s progress.

Fuchs emailed Foxx about six weeks ago saying he would meet with the executive committee of the NAACP and the church, but he would not participate in a town hall-style meeting. Crowley said town hall meetings tend to lose focus and are not as productive as meeting one-on-one with community leaders.

Davis said the town hall will be a safe space for the representatives and audience members.

“When you look at City Commission meetings, sometimes people get the microphone and they just kind of rant and rave or they preach,” she said. “So we’re not exactly using that kind of format.”

Community leaders and members have gathered to discuss the report’s findings several times. In September, the city’s Office of Equal Opportunity hosted a community meeting in which representatives from institutions gave presentations. The audience then split into groups to workshop solutions.

Chanae Baker, 39, a local education activist, said she is attending the town hall as a form of “checks and balances,” especially after learning that some representatives are not coming.

The Friendship Seven institutions, which are among the largest employers in the area, are part of the systemic problem, Baker said. In order to know if programs are effective, she said the institutions should be more open to feedback from the people who are being served.

“If people don’t trust you, why would they come?” she said.

A solution to closing the education achievement gap is ensuring that teachers make an effort to establish relationships with parents, Baker said.

“They look at parents, especially minority poor parents, as enemies, rather than as collaborators,” she said.

Nkwanda Jah, the chair of the local NAACP’s environmental and climate justice committee, went to Mount Moriah Baptist Church last year to see the report’s results. She said she doesn’t know what progress has been made since then.

She looks forward to hearing from institutions like Santa Fe on programs that have been implemented to help close the achievement gap in public education.

For Jah, the education of Alachua County’s young students is the most pressing issue. Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.

“I think they’ve been really cheated out of that here in this community,” she said. “And the data will bear witness to that.”

Part of the longterm solution is for residents and the Friendship Seven institutions to partnerships and continue to invest in resources that benefit students of color, she said.

“We can’t be selfish or defensive about it,” Jah said. “The facts are in.”

About Amanda Rosa

Amanda is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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