ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch promised in his inaugural address that he would oversee a city where people from all backgrounds benefit from a booming economy that is leaving many behind.
The city’s first Black mayor was armed with a study completed a month earlier under his predecessor that described how people of his color and their communities have long faced discrimination and neglect. It outlined five steps the city could take immediately to begin righting historic wrongs.
But more than a year after the address, only one of those recommendations has taken shape. Welch said he wants to ensure that whatever is put in place actually benefits Black residents and isn’t just for show, including creating an office to oversee the effort. He also is looking at other communities that have undertaken similar efforts.
“We want it to be successful, we want it to be impactful, and so that’s why we’re doing the work first to be informed about what the office should look like,” he said.
But authors of the study say that was exactly its purpose, to give the city direction. They did not expect quick changes after centuries of racism, but there is concern their recommendations aren’t moving forward while possibly being watered down.
“How much clarity do you need?” said one of the study’s authors, historian Gwendolyn Reese. “Why can’t we be the model?”
Equity, not DEI
Reese is among 11 researchers who spent seven months reviewing the city’s painful history and modern-day practices toward Black residents.
Their work culminated in five recommended action steps: continuing support for the work started by the study, creating an equity department in the mayor’s office, reviewing existing and proposed policies for impact on race equity, creating a permanent resident-led race equity commission; and evaluating the possibility of reparations.
Only one of those recommendations has taken shape. There is $319,412 in this year’s budget to create a diversity, equity and inclusion office — but the job posting for someone to run the office is still in drafts.
The study was specific about the need for an equity office, not “diversity, equity and inclusion” office.
“There’s a difference,” Reese said. “We didn’t want it so broad, so inclusive. We did not want the needs of the Black community to be overshadowed or ignored.”
Welch said he isn’t sure that office should report to him, his chief of staff or elsewhere. And he’d like that office to be in place before exploring the other recommendations.
“I’m not just going to create an office without a clear mission,” Welch said.
A precarious situation
The study’s researchers said their work will take decades to be fully realized. They say the $50,000 study wasn’t funded appropriately — their work should’ve taken two years, not half a year, they said — and they weren’t adequately compensated.
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They also say Welch is taking the reins at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis is prohibiting instruction on race relations and culling diversity, equity and inclusion programs at colleges and universities. Not only is Welch under a microscope as the city’s first Black mayor, but his hands are tied, said Dana Thompson Dorsey, one of the study’s authors.
“He’s in a precarious situation right now,” said Thompson Dorsey, a University of South Florida educational leadership and policy studies professor. “But it doesn’t mean that something shouldn’t be done, because we were asked to do this research for a reason. And it goes back hundreds of years. There’s a lot to be corrected.”
Welch said the governor’s actions have no effect on his approach.
Welch’s administration is focusing on helping minority-owned businesses get more city contracts and creating a more inclusive and equitable work culture at City Hall.
The city recently launched the Office of Supplier Diversity to give more city business to minority firms and hired a manager, Latasha Binder.
The city also spent $50,000 in December to hire Inclusivity LLC, run by Erik C. Smith, to spend six months conducting focus groups among city employees and developing a work climate survey “to understand the organizational culture of the city,” the contract reads.
Reese said those are important changes, but they aren’t called for by the structural racism study. She is now leading a program called Taking it to the Streets, which offers presentations on the city’s structural racism study to anyone or any group who asks, such as businesses and neighborhood associations.
Reese recently gave a presentation at the Center for Health Equity, where her group collected signatures to petition Welch’s office to adopt another of the study’s recommendations: The creation of a permanent, resident-led race equity commission, which would act as an accountability tool.
“Unfortunately, this administration does not believe that this committee is necessary,” said one of the study’s researchers, Jalessa Blackshear. “It is really important that we have a citizen-led oversight committee who is going through data, providing recommendations to the equity officer to make sure that we are dismantling racism in the city of St. Petersburg.”
Welch said he understands the group’s concerns and frustrations. He said Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene and Human Resources Director Chris Guella are looking at other cities’ models for a diversity, equity and inclusion office, including Chicago’s, which Welch said he likes.
“I understand their concern about the pace as it started, you know, before I took office,” he said. “We’re going to implement the office and the plan based on what we think is the best for the city moving forward, to have a real impact, not just to check a box.”