ST. PETERSBURG- Ya La’ford and the Florida Holocaust Museum hosted the third installment in a series of storytelling events Feb. 12 at the “Blue Sunnel.”
The Blue Sunnel mural was designed and painted by La’ford, an internationally known artist, with the intent to remind city residents that one can find hope in the darkest of places.
La’ford uses this space to promote unity within the community by bringing local leaders together with children. The Blue Sunnel provided a living room like ambience where the children sat with community leaders.
Friday’s event gave students from Mt. Zion Christian Academy the opportunity to talk to Councilwoman Darden Rice, St. Petersburg Chief of Police Anthony Holloway, St. Petersburg Director of Urban Affairs Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, Artist Bob Barancik and Journalist, Software Engineer and Athletic Hall of Famer Sandra Gadsden.
The children came ready with well-prepared questions for each guest speaker.
Prior to the events, they were assigned a research class project, where La’ford guided them through research methods for each panelist and taught them how to ask questions that they can learn from.
The intent of the class project was to prepare students for public speaking, critical thinking and how to improve their listening skills.
Questions ranged from budgetary inquiries to how basketball is a metaphor for life.
Police Chief Holloway emphasized the importance of continuing education when asked how to become a police officer.
Councilmember Rice advised the students to get involved at school, student government and the community when asked how one becomes an elected official. “We can get so much more done by getting involved with other people” said Rice.
Director of Urban Affairs Nikki Gaskin-Capehart informed the students of her work with the police department and their efforts to reduce gun violence when asked what major projects her department is currently working on.
In 2014, South Carolina State inducted Gadsden into their Athletic Hall of Fame for her achievements in basketball, which she openly admitted was not her initial passion.
When asked what inspired her to play basketball, she bluntly responded, “It wasn’t inspiration, it was a growth spurt.”
Gadsden later explained that although she wasn’t inspired to play basketball, basketball inspired her outlook on life. Her experience at South Carolina State University showed her how people who are considered different and marginalized deal with and navigate through life.
“When you see it for the first time it’s hard to pinpoint what it is,” Gadsden said of her alma mater. “People there go beyond just being your professor, they advise you on life, they prepare you for the real world outside of campus…you learn about adversity.”
Bob Barancik, an artist originally from Maine now residing in St. Petersburg, was asked what his art means.
To him, art is a source of happiness; his art came from his challenges as a youth. St. Petersburg has been a positive emotional inspiration for him from the somberness of northern winters.
Bob explained a few pieces as being his interpretation on global warming; “ahhhs” ensued from the crowd as they took in the overwhelming images that visually expressed a nearly invisible occurrence.
One student even predicted the upcoming presidential election by asking Rice, “Do you want to be president after Hillary Clinton?”
As the event concluded, each guest speaker shared words of inspiration with the students:
“It doesn’t matter where you start, you all have an opportunity to make an impact in the lives of other people,” stated Gadsden.
Barancik suggested that each student carry a notebook in their pocket, “when you get an idea write it down, when you see something interesting try and sketch it, in no time you’ll be an artist.”
“Diligence, keep at it, don’t quit, learn from failure,” advised Rice.
Gaskin-Capehart, encouraged each child to know their purpose, to “build your personal brand, be comfortable with who you are.”
Holloway concluded with his one word: “choices.” He continued by impressing the importance of lifestyle choices and how each student must learn from their mistakes and move one. Life is about growth.
“These events really have grown into a magical real life field trip, kids get an experience outside of their regular routine, it challenges all of their senses, listening, thinking, speaking,” reflected La’ford.
La’ford’s next event will be with the SunLit Festival, where children are invited to participate in a community literacy mural titled “Lift Every WORD and READ” at the James Weldon Johnson Community Center March 5.
Laura Mulrooney is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.