Bobby King wondered what trash pickup had to do with the future he wanted.
It was July 2006 and King, then 16, was working in the summer heat with around a dozen other East Tampa teens as part of the city of Tampa’s Career Explorations program.
King remembers other students asking aloud why they had to spend hours in the sun doing hard labor. He wanted to work with tools and learn a trade, but those opportunities weren’t available, he said.
“There was so much more we wanted to do, not just pick that stuff up,” King, now 32 and a freight truck driver, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Members of the historically Black East Tampa community say that for over 15 years, the city’s program had their youth doing manual grounds maintenance in the name of work experience. Now, after outcry from the community and questions from Tampa City Council members, the program is set for a revamp — but not until next summer.
The Career Explorations program, started in 2006, is run by the city’s East Tampa Community Redevelopment Agency, which is funded and operated by the city. The teens get paid $15 an hour for an average of 32 hours of work per week, from early June until August. The goal is to get them ready for careers through hands-on experience in different city jobs, and in some cases, offering them entry-level positions when the program ends.
Emvory Burton, 19, said she worked in the program in 2020 and 2021. During those summers, the teens also did lawn maintenance, along with picking up trash.
Burton, who is going to school soon to be a vet tech, said she wasn’t offered a job with the city after the experience. While she appreciated the work, she also wishes they could have tried out other kinds of city jobs.
In a meeting on March 9, Alis Drumgo, deputy administrator of development and economic opportunity, told City Council members that changes are on the way. He gave a presentation that explored methods to improve the program, including hiring a temporary coordinator to implement new job descriptions and opportunities.
Small changes will begin this summer, with participants being introduced to other departments in the city beyond the grounds maintenance program. By next fiscal year, the students will apply for and take part in different city roles, including administrative and office jobs. Drumgo said that his department will present the proposed overhaul of the program in September.
“The community has every right to have concerns about whether or not we will execute on this,” Drumgo said. But he assured council members that he will keep a close eye on the progress.
Council members said it’s unacceptable that the focus on trash pickup is specific to East Tampa, and expressed urgency in bringing about the changes.
During the March meeting, former council member Orlando Gudes said that even though he won’t be on the council when the changes are presented, he’ll be watching the progress of the program to make sure the students have pathways to different types of jobs.
Council member Lynn Hurtak said she was looking forward to updates and said, “The goal is to make sure we’re getting the kids out of just picking up trash.”
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She also asked for an update in July on how this year’s program is going. At the meeting, the City Council unanimously approved $25,000 in funding for the part-time coordinator that Drumgo asked for.
In an email to the Times, Drumgo said that next year, the program will be “much more focused on career development than ground maintenance cleanup.” Tampa’s communication director, Adam Smith, said he believes everyone in the city involved with the program thinks it’s due for improvements.
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, raised concerns about the program at several City Council meetings, alongside multiple East Tampa residents.
She said she hopes the new East Tampa program might present the same type of professional opportunities as Mayor Jane Castor’s Youth Corps program, which gives teens from public and private schools exposure to city government roles.
“If you teach our children, they will learn,” Lewis told the Times. “And when they learn, they can become productive citizens that contribute to the city.”
She says she’s hopeful about the proposed changes and said that the community will be keeping a close eye on the progress.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Lewis said.