MBSK initiative moving forward

Ken Irby and Leah McRae



ST. PETERSBURG – Last month’s Childs Park Neighborhood Association monthly meeting featured a community conversation with two city officials addressing the education gap between black students and their white counterparts and keeping black and brown children out of jail.

Director of Education and Community Engagement Leah McRae and Director of Community Intervention Kenneth Irby stopped by to address issues and give updates on the plans the city have for helping at-risk youths off the street and in school.

Recognizing the need to address education on a city level, Mayor Rick Kriseman responded to the Tampa Bay Time’s “Failure Factories” series by hiring Leah McRae last Oct.

Since then, she has worked with students, families, faculty, as well as community groups and leaders to advocate on behalf of St. Petersburg’s public schools. She also serves as a liaison with the Pinellas County School Board and other governmental bodies influencing education policy.

Irby’s position was created after seven young men lost their lives to gun violence in the final weeks of 2015. Working in community outreach for 33 years, his job now calls for him to create and coordinate solutions so that our city’s youth will not fall prey to the dangers in the street.

“I want full disclosure on the front end, on the topside… I don’t have a million dollars,” said Irby, referencing the monies Mayor Kriseman allocated to address the problems of gun violence.

In 2014, President Obama introduced his campaign My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership of the United States Federal Government to promote intervention by civic leaders in the lives of young men of color to address their unique challenges and to promote racial justice.

St. Petersburg took President Obama’s campaign and expanded it to include young women in addition to young men, ages 12-24 in their program My Brother’s and Sister’s Keepers (MBSK).

“When we talked about developing the program, we didn’t want it to be a top down solution. In order for it to be sustainable, it needs to come from the community.  It needs to be a grassroots effort. Everyone needs to have input into what solutions will look like,” said McRae.

Explaining the inner workings of the new program, she said they have formed three committees: education, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness and role models and mentors.

“Those committees are charged with building programs that will address opportunity gaps with black and brown young men and women in St. Pete,” she said.

Heading up these committees will be Erik Smith with mentoring and role models, Gypsy Gallardo leading the workforce readiness portion and Dr. Tonjua Williams at St. Petersburg College will oversee education.

“They will be calling on members of the community like you to come together and meet with them and talk with them and have discussions about what are the solutions to the problems that exists in our community,” she said.

Irby gave an update on the “Not My Son” summer campaign, which is a grassroots community outreach marketing campaign and intervention effort to assist African-American male youth and young adults (12-24 years of age).

Falling under the umbrella of MBSK, each Friday officials and concerned citizens canvass a targeted area going door-to-door in the community to spread awareness of the problems and how to prevent them. The campaign runs through the end of Aug.

“One of the things that everybody in this room has to come to terms with is that we have to get out of our comfort zones and make connections,” said Irby. “To build stronger communities we have to build better relationships.”

Citing statistics, Irby said that one in two black boys in America is likely to be from a single parent home, and one in four Hispanic boys.  He said young men growing up without male guidance is one of the reason they are not learning conflict resolution, which leads to violence.

As a product of growing up in a single-parent family, he knows the value of having a coach, a deacon or a schoolteacher step in and offer guidance. He said this program offers resources from the city, the police department, the parks and recreation department and educational sources.

Under the MBSK initiative, a program called Crossroads Cohort of Champions was also created. They are looking for 100 young, black men in the community between the ages of 12-24 who are not already in a program or receiving resources.

Their needs will be assessed; whether it is getting them certifications to move on to another career, providing them with workforce readiness skills or entrepreneurial opportunities, this program will cover it all. Participants will also be provided with role models.

The program will not just offer intervention into their lives, but also resources for their families.

“That’s a big challenge. We keep working with kids and then sending them back into contaminated environments thinking: ‘Well, they’re going to go back and their mamas will help them,’ but we need to help mama; we need to help their siblings,” said Irby, who mentioned that the mayor and deputy mayor have embraced this strategy.

Irby said they are assessing current programs and if they are not performing, they will be cut.

“Dollars are precious,” he said. “We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

They both stressed that these programs must be sustainable across administrations.

“…we need to make sure that the city, with the support of folks like yourself, is invested and committed to a long-term strategy,” said Irby.  “The city didn’t get here overnight. This has been a long-term period of neglect and lack of resources.”

The next Not My Son canvassing activity will be this Friday, Aug. 12 at 7pm. People will gather at Unity of Midtown Church, 511 Prescott Street S, and spread out into the Campbell Park neighborhood. For more info, contact Rev. Doral R. Pulley at UnityofMidtown1957@gmail.com or log on to stpete.org/mbsk.

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