Call it serendipity, coincidence or just plan old chance. No matter how it is labeled, the timing is perfect.
A few days after Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a major speech imploring black fathers to take responsibility for their children, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, whose district covers parts of Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties, announced a long-overdue, bold campaign to provide jobs and mentors for at-risk teens who are out of school for the summer and have a lot of time on their hands and energy to burn.
The campaign, a joint effort between Rouson and community activist Gypsy Gallardo, is called the 50-50-50 challenge. Rouson and Gallardo plan to recruit 50 mentors for 50 youths who want to stay out of trouble and set positive goals. The hope is that 50 employers will hire the young people. The Pinellas County Urban league will screen and place the applicants.
Rouson told the St. Petersburg Times on Monday that the program will cost about $50,000. To kick-start the program, he pledged $10,000 out of his pocket. In less than 24 hours, Rouson said, he had received another $40,000 in donations from private and corporate donors, including $10,000 each from the Tampa Bay Rays, Progress Energy and developer Brent Sembler.
A cornerstone of the 50-50-50 challenge is to encourage wealthy blacks to contribute money, become mentors and boldly carry the banner of personal responsibility. Speaking cautiously, Rouson said that several wealthy blacks have donated money: "I'm not ungrateful for the black leaders who have stepped up. But I also know there are others who can step up and help us carry this a lot further."
Knowing that Rouson faces many black and white skeptics regarding his motives for establishing the 50-50-50 challenge, I asked him to explain his reasons for creating the initiative.
I quote him at length:
"Why am I doing this and what do I hope to accomplish? I am reminded that Dr. King said that it's not just the choice between violence and nonviolence. It's the choice between nonviolence and nonexistence.
"It's not about me and what I want. It's about these children and their future. It's about giving them something to do that's positive and meaningful and substantive or their idle time will be taken up with potentially negative and non-productive and, in some cases, violent activities. It's not about so much me. It's about the private collaboration of grass-roots organizations, leaders stepping up and private corporations supplementing where government can no longer afford to be because of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.
"Nancy Reagan used to say: 'Just say no to drugs.' Well, you just can't say 'no to drugs' without saying 'yes' to something else. 'Yes' to a sober lifestyle. And it's not about just cutting dollars and saying 'no' to the kids, that 'there's nowhere to go.' It's about creating things where they can go, that continue on a road of safety in our community.
"The simple genius of this whole thing is that it's precisely the type of community-led, privately directed effort that we need, not just here but across the country. With Department of Juvenile Justice programs being cut, with the city of St. Pete Summer Youth Employment program being cut, with the Juvenile Welfare Board suffering a cut in programs, deletions and reductions, we have to create a model for public-private partnership where we can help in this austere financial time.
"So, we need the success of a St. Petersburg 50-50-50 so that I can replicate it in Manatee and in Sarasota, in poor parts in Bradenton and Palmetto, as well as New Town of Sarasota. I'm glad we got this success here. But remember, it's all about the children and creating for them something to replace cuts."
I'm taking Rouson at his word.
I'm also hoping that black leaders, including the wealthy, will join Rouson and Gallardo in their effort to inculcate a culture of responsibility and self-help among blacks in District 55. They're not blaming the victim. They're trying to get people to actively help themselves.
Now is not the time for backbiting, passive aggression and name-calling. The problems and issues in the black community at large are too urgent for such nonsense. As Rouson said, now is the time for cooperation, hard work and financial donations.