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Spirit of 42 is strong in Tampa Bay, especially among these youths

Area dignitaries talk about their lives and role models, with the backdrop of Jackie Robinson Day as inspiration, to aspiring writers in the Poynter Institute’s Write Field program.
Write Field member Mikal Morris looks on as former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12, shares stories about his career at the Rays' Jackie Robinson Game on April 22.
Write Field member Mikal Morris looks on as former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12, shares stories about his career at the Rays' Jackie Robinson Game on April 22. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]
Published May 4

ST. PETERSBURG — What a day — April 22, 2022.

The participants of the Poynter Institute’s Write Field program attended the Rays’ Jackie Robinson game with an assignment: interview dignitaries about their lives, role models and mentors. We spoke to St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, former MLB first baseman and current broadcaster Xavier Scruggs, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens, St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams and former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson.

The event meant a lot to me because I play baseball at Lakewood High School and I wear No. 22. In my personal Morse code, the number sequence encodes a message from 42 (Robinson’s number) to 22 on April 22. Because of my great admiration of Robinson, I knew April 22 was set to be a great day.

What was the message 42 was sending to 22? What messages would the dignitaries send to the Write Fielders, middle school and high school boys who have spent the year learning about writing? Chief Holloway got us started.

“He broke down those barriers in baseball,” Holloway said of Robinson. “But really, he didn’t just break them down in baseball, he broke them down everywhere else. People saw what he did and as men of color, we knew we could do whatever we wanted to do. We just had to prove it to everyone. He opened a lot of doors.”

The people we interviewed were special. But they made us feel special. They asked us as many questions as we asked them. They encouraged us not to give up when we run into problems. They said they admired us. Wow.

Robinson overcoming barriers in baseball, Jackson’s integration of the police department, and Scruggs’ quest to become a Major League Baseball player all proved difficult, but they showed when adversity hits, you can’t let it break you down. Scruggs shared his baseball experience, speaking on how we should “control the controllable” and “make our weakness a strength.”

The experience during Jackie Robinson Day helped us understand how we should reevaluate our reactions. We learned that you can take important life lessons from the game of baseball.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch

Write Field members, counter-clockwise from left, Ethan Chapparo, Ashtyn Benjamin, Tobias Garcia and Syncere Marryshow, interviewed St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch, center, during the Rays' Jackie Robinson game.
Write Field members, counter-clockwise from left, Ethan Chapparo, Ashtyn Benjamin, Tobias Garcia and Syncere Marryshow, interviewed St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch, center, during the Rays' Jackie Robinson game. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch threw out the ceremonial first pitch, then he made a pitch to three Write Field students about the importance of mentoring.

Much like Robinson served as a role model for millions of Americans, Welch’s father, David T. Welch, served as a role model for him. It was only after his father was elected to the St. Petersburg City Council in 1981 that the younger Welch began to consider a role in government. He saw the impact his father was making on local policy and realized a government role could be an opportunity to make a real difference.

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During his tenure on the city council, David T. Welch fought for his beliefs, spearheading loans to repair rundown buildings and serving as part of the Community Alliance that sought to improve substandard housing and code enforcement.

This commitment to the city has continued in Ken Welch, who now is battling to resolve St. Petersburg’s affordable housing crisis.

Write Field member Syncere Marryshow looks on as St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch answers a question.
Write Field member Syncere Marryshow looks on as St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch answers a question. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

Another sentiment passed down to him from his parents focuses on the importance of one’s “dedication to education.” Welch said that his time at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Florida A&M helped him connect with others and prepare him for his future in public office. He continues to keep a relationship with several former professors.

Welch said the mentoring he received never really goes away. He treats his work as a “continuation of the legacy of the others who came before me.”

Another focus for the mayor is youth education. Last year, he held three sessions with community members to learn what areas were of most concern to the city’s citizens. Of all the topics, education and youth opportunities came in second. His Youth Opportunity Agenda is a program to teach learning, critical thinking and financial skills to the youth of St. Petersburg.

He believes this knowledge will allow future generations more economic mobility and the ability to create wealth effectively. There’s also a belief that when children and their future posterity are given the ability to better their lives, they’ll grow to benefit the community and help others.

Much like Robinson, Welch, 57, said he hopes he is an inspiration to young people, especially African Americans, to reach their goal.

Asked how it felt to be the first Black mayor of St. Petersburg, he said, “It felt good to be the first since people before my time couldn’t get those opportunities.”

Welch is happy with what he and his team have accomplished thus far. Building community excites him, and as he envisions the future, he works to build a healthy and vibrant city for all.

— ETHAN CHAPPARO, TOBIAS GARCIA, SYNCERE MARRYSHOW, Write Field

St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams

Write Field members, from top left, Matthew Bynum, Tyler Speed and Amari Lopez interview St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams.
Write Field members, from top left, Matthew Bynum, Tyler Speed and Amari Lopez interview St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

Whenever life throws you curveballs, you have to overcome challenges and go on to succeed — even if it’s after your third strike.

That was just one of the lessons offered by St. Petersburg College president Tonjua Williams.

Williams summed up her great will to push through pressure when critics arise, especially at times when she’s forced to make tough decisions she knows are the best in the long run.

“If you want to be a leader, you have to be prepared for the haters,” Williams said. “You have to be able to stand strong on your virtues and your values and you have to be willing not to sell your soul to achieve your goal.”

Williams, who made history by becoming the first female president of St. Petersburg College, said because she cares so deeply for people, she has had to remind herself of her own advice and self-worth throughout her life. She addressed the challenges she faced during her 35-year career at St. Petersburg College.

“Do you ever have times in your life when you feel like this is too hard, and you want to quit?” Williams asked. “I believe those are the times when you have the greatest opportunity for growth. Having the grit to do what I feel is right despite adversity is one of the hardest things about my job, but sticking to my faith and what I feel is right is what always gets me through.”

Then Williams posed a question to the aspiring writers: “What is stopping you from being the best you can be?”

One Write Fielder said, “Me, thinking I’m not good enough.”

“Never underestimate your power,” Williams said. “Never let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do.”

— AMARI LOPEZ, TYLER SPEED, Write Field

Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens

Write Field members Matthew Bynum, center, and Josh Santana greet St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens.
Write Field members Matthew Bynum, center, and Josh Santana greet St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

Stephanie Owens currently serves as the Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, but her interest in government dates back to her childhood.

She grew up in Detroit and remembers when a civil rights riot once interrupted her education.

“My school had a really big playground and it was filled with tanks and the National Guard and I literally could not go to school,” Owens said. “I became really curious as to how that worked together. There was a riot. The reason for the riot is in terms of equality, and yet education is so important — and now I’m not allowed to go to school. What’s going on here?

“I realized I wanted to be part of government to help create policies that really impact people.”

While Robinson served as a role model to millions of Americans, Owens had a different role model: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president.

“She had a saying: ‘unbought and unbossed,’” Owens said. “But it was less about the things she said than the things she did. It was the way she carried herself, the way she dealt with certain situations. I just admired her.”

Owens also admired her grandmother, who worked hard to provide a life for Owens, her siblings, her cousins and anyone in their neighborhood who needed help and love.

Throughout her career, the deputy mayor has held a lot of different jobs, including working as an appointee of former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Although Owens may be a political powerhouse, she has interests outside of politics.

In a YouTube interview outside of the St. Petersburg City Hall, Owens said she usually listens to music from Broadway musicals on the way to work, and that she’s insanely curious.

“I always want to know why.”

– MATTHEW BYNUM, JOSH SANTANA, Write Field

Former MLB player Xavier Scruggs

Former MLB first baseman and current baseball broadcaster Xavier Scruggs speaks to members of the Write Field program.
Former MLB first baseman and current baseball broadcaster Xavier Scruggs speaks to members of the Write Field program. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

A single moment in Xavier Scruggs’ childhood changed his life.

As an 11-year-old in 1998, he watched as the New York Yankees celebrated winning the World Series against his hometown San Diego Padres. Scruggs was so shocked to see grown men jump up and down with such child-like excitement that he decided he wanted to be a baseball player to make fans feel that happy one day, too.

He wanted that feeling of victory, of teammates growing into family. He wanted to share the highs and the lows.

Fast forward to high school, where by the time he graduated, he was so good at baseball that he got drafted; he opted instead for a scholarship to play at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

He majored in communications and thought about working in the media. His parents had told him, “baseball is a small window, so you have to be prepared for the next window after you play.”

Write Field member Chase Temple listens as Xavier Scruggs speaks.
Write Field member Chase Temple listens as Xavier Scruggs speaks. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

He eventually got drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals after three years at UNLV. There were many points of uncertainty for Scruggs before he reached the majors. He was in the minor leagues for six years and struggled with strikeouts even in his latter years of the minors.

It got so bad he even thought about quitting baseball. There was one huge factor that made him decide to not give up on his dreams of making it big: the support of his family, including his now wife, Jessica, with whom he has two kids.

Scruggs’ professional career ended in 2020 and he moved to the “next window:” broadcasting. He started with a podcast that initially didn’t draw a lot of listeners. But his wife encouraged him to keep going. Now Scruggs, 34, works on pregame broadcasts for the Rays, does work for ESPN and appears on the MLB Network’s Off Base.

FARIS ALI, RASHAY RIGGS JR., TYLER SPEED, CHASE TEMPLE, Write Field

Leon Jackson, The Courageous 12

Former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12, was interviewed by members of the Write Field.
Former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12, was interviewed by members of the Write Field. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

When Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier 75 years ago, he dealt with fans talking trash, throwing things at him and even sending him death threats.

Leon Jackson overcame barriers that opened doors for many African American police officers in St. Petersburg. Jackson was one of 12 men to file a lawsuit to have the police department fully integrated.

They were called “The Courageous 12.”

Jackson, now 81 and the last surviving member of the group, passionately shared his experience and how his first legal attempt to bring equality to the police department was unsuccessful. Yet, he was determined to make a change. Jackson’s desire to “treat people how he wanted to be treated” led to a historic victory and rich legacy.

Jackson was asked to join the police department on Oct. 4, 1963. He was 23 years old at the time, single with no job. After he finished the police academy, it took him six months to join the police department because the waiting list was segregated.

Write Field members, from left, Chase Temple, Faris Ali and Mikal Morris interviewed former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12.
Write Field members, from left, Chase Temple, Faris Ali and Mikal Morris interviewed former St. Petersburg police officer Leon Jackson, one of the Courageous 12. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Special to the Times ]

Jackson could only work in Black neighborhoods. Black officers were forbidden from arresting people who weren’t Black and could not investigate non-Black crimes. They were also forced to use different locker rooms.

At the time, Jackson was among 15 African American men in the police department. Twelve of them formed a group to talk about the racial disparities in the department. The three who declined were a sergeant and two detectives, and the risk of losing everything, including their jobs, was too great.

The Black officers had two meetings with the then-chief of police, with nothing to show for them. A third requested meeting was denied. In 1965, the 12 officers filed a lawsuit to integrate the department. Federal District Judge Joseph Lieb dismissed the case.

The Courageous 12 powered on. The group’s leader, Freddy Crawford, contacted a lawyer, James B. Sanderlin, who filed an appeal with the assistance of the NAACP.

On Aug. 1, 1968, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Courageous 12′s favor, integrating police departments nationwide.

— FARIS ALI, MIKAL MORRIS, CHASE TEMPLE, Write Field

About Write Field

The Poynter Institute’s Write Field program, now in its 11th year, invests in young men so that they become more confident and knock their school work out of the park.

This free, academic year-long program teaches a group composed largely of African American and Hispanic middle and high schoolers how to be better writers, communicators and students. They meet on the second Saturday of each month during the school year, and each day is themed to explore a specific topic such as poetry, writing for comic books, hip-hop music and public speaking.

The Rays Baseball Foundation serves as the lead sponsor and each year the participants get to interview a current or former Rays player or someone from the organization. They also get to meet writers and journalists. This year’s special guests included comics industry visionary Bob Layton, former Ray Denard Span and Poynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark.

For in-person meetings, students receive free breakfast and lunch as well as a $20 Amazon gift code.

Founded by Karen Dunlap in 2011 to address the achievement gap in local schools, the program now continues under the guidance of co-leaders Ernest Hooper and Demorris Lee, along with Poynter director of teaching operations Andrew DeLong and freelance journalist Bailey LeFever.

The Write Field XI (2021-22) class

Faris Ali, Berkeley Prep; Ashtyn Benjamin, Largo Middle; Matthew Bynum, Gibbs High; Ethan Chapparo, Lakewood High; Daniel DeJesus, Countryside High; Tobias Garcia, Hollins High; Logan Johnson, Gibbs High; Amari Lopez, Sarasota Military Academy; Alex Mack, Safety Harbor Middle; Syncere Marryshow, Chasco Middle; Mikal Morris, Lakewood High; Rashay Riggs Jr., Largo Middle; Joshua Santana, Lakewood High; Tyler Speed, Clearwater Central Catholic; Cameron Temple, St. Petersburg High; Chase Temple, Bay Point Middle; Luka Vaughn, Admiral Farragut Academy

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