ST. PETERSBURG — A sense of accomplishment comingled with the feeling that there is work yet to be done when the Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) organization held one of its quarterly meetings at the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church June 20. FAST is made up of 40 diverse congregations in Pinellas County that work together to address root causes of poverty and injustice in the community.
Pastor Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church reported on the Disadvantaged Worker Ordinance, which ensures that on construction contracts of over $2 million, 10 percent of work hours will go to disadvantaged workers such as ex-offenders or people who have been on public assistance in the last year.
Sykes said that it’s estimated this recent ordinance will create over 210,000 work hours for disadvantaged workers in the coming years, adding that so far two big projects have already begun hiring these workers.
Mayor Rick Kriseman noted that since the city has utilized over 1,236 hours of disadvantaged workers for its Citywide Street Resurfacing contract and plans to use 2,600 more.
Eddie Pelham, an ex-offender who works for the city’s sanitation department, got another chance when the city “banned the box,” Kriseman said, referring to job applications in St. Pete no longer requiring applicants to disclose if they have a criminal record.
“I made some very bad mistakes when I was a youth,” Pelham admitted, “and when I came home six years ago I didn’t think that I would have a chance with any career in my life.”
When the city no longer required ex-offenders to reveal criminal records on applications, Pelham said, he truly felt that St. Pete was a city of second chances.
Referencing his Second Chance Program, which allows young offenders to do community service through the Parks and Recreation department rather than do jail time, Kriseman said that 111 young people have successfully completed this program.
“That’s 111 kids who have a chance,” Kriseman said.
Rev. Willie McClendon, of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church lauded the Learn to Earn program at St. Petersburg College (SPC), created by SPC President Dr. William Law. The program aims to get unemployed workers trained quickly and affordably for new jobs. McClendon noted that over 200 people have gotten jobs through this program.
Dr. James Conley of SPC pointed out that those 200-plus students have secured jobs with an average starting salary of about $40,000.
Flo Young of Bethel Community Baptist Church pointed out the stark fact that there are too many children committing crimes when they are suspended from school. When FAST raised these concerns to the school board members and asked for action, the Pinellas County School Board agreed to cut the number of days a student can be suspended out of school. But Young said that a letter from the superintendent has given the organization the feeling that the school board may not follow through on its promises.
“We intend to hold the school board members accountable for the commitments that they made to us!” she said. She encouraged the crowd to attend an upcoming school board meeting, underscoring the importance of being an informed vote as some school board members are up for re-election on Aug. 30.
Pam Smith of Holy Family Catholic Church proposed that FAST should continue to work with its sister organizations to get a bill passed that would ensure all the children in Florida would get equal access to a state civil citation, which provides an alternative to arrest. Support from legislators around the state is key she said.
“Since we started working on this issue two years ago,” Smith said, “over 2,000 more children have avoided lifelong arrest records and we have saved the state $9 million by keeping these children out of the criminal justice system.”
Rev. Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church said that as a result of FAST’s work in the past, the organization was able to get 1,469 new units of affordable housing in Pinellas County.
“This year we’ve added another 500 units of housing,” he said.