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BRIDGING THE DIVIDE?

A diverse group meets for the first time to try to close the racial gap in St. Petersburg.

It's a daunting goal: bridge the racial and socioeconomic gaps that divide St. Petersburg and persuade people of different backgrounds to work together to better connect the community.

In the aftermath of three police officer shootings earlier in the year, that goal may seem a bit farfetched.

But on Monday night, a group of 50 residents, politicians and consultants met to discuss ways to do just that by holding a series of meetings across the city for the next six months.

"We all saw the painful division in St. Petersburg after the recent terrible events," said Stacie Blake, the executive director of Community Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that is organizing the meetings. "We want to know more about why there's this division, and get people to have a dialogue that's broader than race."

Community Tampa Bay was hired by St. Petersburg to run the meetings after City Council chairman Jim Kennedy persuaded his colleagues to support an idea he had in January - before the shootings - to discuss racial and cultural differences in the city.

Kennedy was a former member of the Community Alliance, an organization that first met in 1968 to discuss racial issues but disbanded shortly after the 1996 fatal shooting by police of a black man.

"I'm already impressed with the group that we have here tonight," Kennedy said Monday, scanning the racially diverse group of people in the small conference room at downtown's St. Petersburg College Center.

While optimistic, some who attended acknowledged the meetings would end up being another feel-good exercise in community building if there was no follow-through or attempt to get many of those causing problems to participate.

"The extremists causing the problems are not here," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. "Those are the people we need to reach."

But continued discussions will help expand minds, which is needed more than previously believed, said Will Michaels, the immediate past president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Michaels presided over the organization last year when other members exchanged racially charged e-mails.

"Tonight was a great start," said Michaels, who co-chairs CONA's diversity committee. "A lot of people's attitudes about racism is not to talk about it. But it has to be talked about frankly and civilly. (At CONA) we thought we were way beyond that. Then it popped up. Now we have to revisit it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

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