Champions for Justice

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –The Pinellas County Urban League (PCUL) continues to empower communities and change lives each and every day with their dedication to the betterment of the community. Last Fri., Feb 26 they gathered, along with the community, at the St. Petersburg Hilton in Carillon Park to honor those who have worked tirelessly as champions for justice.

Serving as Mistress of Ceremonies, Channel 10’s new anchor/reporter Tammie Fields introduced PCUL’s Board Chair Frank Biafora, who welcomed those in attendance to the third annual Whitney Young Leadership Awards Luncheon.

“Each year at this time many of the friends of the Urban League come together to recognize and honor a select group of extraordinary men and women who have made a significant impact on our community,” Biafora stated.

Young spent most of his career working to end employment discrimination in the United States and turning the National Urban League from a relatively passive civil rights organization into one that aggressively worked for equitable access to socioeconomic opportunity for the historically disenfranchised.

In 1978 when the Pinellas County was certified as a national affiliate, it consisted of four employees and had one program. Now, more than 20 dedicated staff members oversee 15 distinct program serving youth, families and seniors.

One such program is called Summer Training in Youth Leadership and Employment (STYLE), which is an eight-week long summer curriculum offered to youth ages 14-16 that provides training in the areas of employability skills, leadership development, career development and college preparation.

Their Workforce Development Cohort program’s mission is to assist the “hard to hire” population by providing support and resources that leads to a sustainable future. This program demonstrates the life-changing impact PCUL has had on members of the community.

For example, Michelle Sykes found herself in a domestic violence situation with her daughters. She met Employment Specialist Anita Lewis, who helped her find a stable job, worked with her on a resume and gave her encouragement and support.

“Mrs. Lewis got me where I needed to be,” said Sykes, who began attending Tomlinson Adult Learning Center and received her GED within three months. “She has been a rock.”

A role model for her children, Sykes plans to become a licensed practical nurse and eventually a registered nurse. “I’m 41 years old and for me my life is just starting because of the Urban League,” she told the crowd.

Ron Smith, Jr. was also on hand to give a testimony about the PCUL. He worked in a call center in the customer service field until the company relocated to Kansas. Because he had a felony on his record and little skills outside of customer service, he ran into barriers in searching for employment.

Once he met Smith, his life began to change. She helped him put together a resume and encouraged him to go to school. Through her workshop he learned how to format a professional resume and cover letter, and eventually enrolled in the Public Works Academy at Pinellas Technical College (PTC).

“She helped me become more professional,” Smith said. Lewis conducted mock job interviews to critique his performance. She taught him about body language, tone of voice, coached him on what type of questions to ask and proper etiquette after a job interview, which helped him to land a position in the infrastructure department with the Pinellas County Government.

Before honoring the six outstanding local heroes, PCUL’s President & CEO Watson Haynes memorialized two champions for justice who passed away just last year.  Longtime Director of Community Action Stops Abuse, Linda Osmundson and PCUL’s own Randy Lewis will always be a part of the organization’s history.

Students of Academy Prep introduced each honoree with poise and grace. The first to be honored was President & CEO of C1 Bank, Trevor Burgess. Under his leadership, C1 Bank became the first bank in the country to establish a living wage for its employees. He was even recognized by the United States Secretary of Labor for his efforts in leading the fight for livable wages.

Raised by a single mother who once had to sell her engagement ring to put food on the table, he was “fine making less money if everybody on my workforce could earn a living wage,” he remarked.

Carl Lavender, Jr. was honored for a lifetime of service as a community leader. Spending more than half of his professional career with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, he has also served as co-founder of People Advocating Change Together, Dream Team community mentors, the 2020 Plan and many more.

Lavender, Jr. now serves as a consultant for PTC, Mt. Zion Human Services, the Pinellas Education Foundation, Habitat for Humanity Pinellas Advisory Council, the Ford Foundation National Next Generation Learning Project and the Allegany Franciscan Ministries Foundation Florida statewide Common Good Initiative.

Honored for being a community advocate, Deputy William Lawson, Jr. joined the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department in 2006. He serves as a Community Policing Deputy in the West Lealman area. He served in the Air Force during Desert Storm and is currently in the Air Force Reserves with the Logistics Readiness Squadron as a Material Management Specialist.

Lawson, Jr. actively participates in various outreach and community programs, and as a member of the Community Policing Unit his primary goal is to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement.

He feels he has found his life’s purpose.

“Thank you to everyone who has supported me in my efforts,” said honoree Judge Patrice Moore. “Thank you to everyone in my community who told me I could do it when I didn’t think I could.”

Moore is the current Unified Family Court Administrative Judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit. She was recently appointed by the governor as a board member of the Juvenile Welfare Board and appointed by the Supreme Court of Florida to serve on the Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, she was elected the first African-American female Circuit Court Judge in Pinellas County.

Honoree Gwendolyn Reese is the President & CEO of Peaten Reese Peaten Consulting, which provides professional development and consultation services. She is also a contracted consultant with the YMCA of Tampa Bay where she coordinates the annual Stand Against Racism event, the WEE Girls Rock Camp and other projects.

She is also the district manager of Professional Opportunities Program for Students, which provides opportunities for high school students to explore, discover and experience a series of different career goals.

Reese serves on the Community Preservation & Planning Commission, is the president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg and the president of the Gibbs High School Class of 1966, Inc.

“I’m just a nobody who is passionate about serving everybody,” Reese said.

Honoree Rev. Clarence Williams, pastor of Greater Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church, has been a faithful servant and good steward. While following a vision the Lord gave him to enlarge his territory for the ministry, he relocated the church to a larger facility in 2008. The church has grown in membership, receiving more than 400 new members to continue the work of the kingdom.

He and his wife work together as a team in the ministry and both attempt to lead by example by being kind, compassionate and giving spirits.

“A life ought to be characterize by something, and the first thing that we ought to do is strengthen families and those around us,” stated Williams, who feels that the Urban League is doing just so.

Every year the Whitney Young Leadership Awards Luncheon has to be moved to a larger venue. Judging by the sold out crowd this year, Haynes said, they will have to rent out the Coliseum next year.

scroll to top