The inaugural Emerging Leaders class graduate

Standing L-R: Micheal Shorter, Ashley Green, Caprice Johnson, Rafael Robinson, Dorian Johnson, Kristopher McKlendon; Seated L-R: Da’juh Sawyer, JaKevia Malone, Jennie Henry, Unisha Bullard, Mhariel Summers


ST. PETERSBURG — The inaugural class of 2020 Emerging Leaders Fellows & Interns program (ELFI) walked across the proverbial stage this past Tuesday to celebrate their graduation from a rigorous six-month development process. The program’s architects said ELFI was designed to help millennials and others under age 40 to reach new heights of leadership and impact.

The 2020 Plan, City of St. Petersburg Department of Urban Affairs and One Community’s Emerging Leaders Fellowship & Intern program engaged 11 young adults who expressed a desire to grow in community leadership. The class participants invested their time in monthly dialogue-based workshops with community leaders, a two-part leadership training by EMPACT Solutions and monthly community service and leadership experiences.

Director of Urban Affairs for the City of St. Petersburg Nikki Gaskin-Capehart took her turn at being the mistress of ceremony, and could not stop gushing about the young adults.

“These leaders have been engaged in personal development activities, historical deep-dives, very thought provoking presentations and conversations about the history in the city,” she said. “They’ve been equipped with the proper tools to be advocates and even agitators if necessary.”

Gaskin-Capehart said ELFI is an intentional succession plan for black generational leadership in St. Pete.

“We want to be able to pass the mantle and say that we are helping to build the legacies of those who’ve come before us by honoring and continuing to hold the torch high,” she said.

Senator Darryl Rouson stopped by on his way to another event to give words of encouragement to the inaugural class.

“You will not always be popular; you will not always be thanked. You must be able to withstand criticism and still answer to your heart, answer to your God,” Rouson said, adding that he challenges the class to take his place and others in the community.

Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch gave a strong warning to the graduates to be true to themselves because there are pitfalls around every corner.

“Folks are going to come to you with their own agendas,” he said. “You have to be focused on not being a leader for leadership sake, but a leader for the impact it will make on this community.”

City Council member Charlie Gerdes echoed Welch, saying, “You need to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and sleep with yourself when you lay your head on the pillow at night. If you’re not true to who you are, you can’t be a leader.”

L-R, Maya Hughes, Parris Lockley and Da’juh Sawyer

Each Emerging Leader stood at podium and showed the audience at the Manhattan Casino what they learned and the outcome of their hard work for the last six months. From delving into empirical data on black entrepreneurship in St. Petersburg from 40 years ago until now to a report on the 2019 Tallahassee Legislative Session where the leaders worked as a team to raise awareness of the economic inequities and disparities for African Americans throughout Florida, these young folks have already exhibited leadership quality.

Emerging Leader Mhariel Summers brought the room their feet when she broke the down the societal issues that plague black life in St. Petersburg and across the country.

“Open racism and racial discrimination have largely subsided, but the inequalities and inequities that they left behind are still very apparent in almost every dimension in black/white life. Yet today we have more entrepreneurs, higher education and a better infrastructure than ever before, so the challenge for us as leaders is to leverage these advancements to bridge the societal gaps.”

Rev. Louis Murphy Sr., senior pastor of Mt. Zion Progressive, gave the passing of the torch speech, although he was conflicted about the term.

“Pass the baton but stay in the race,” he preached. “I have no problem in helping them reach their potential, but I also think that we have to work together. We need the young folk and the young folk need us.  We need each other. This thing is too big for any one generation to try and tackle it.”

The young leaders recognized Pinellas County School Board chair Rene Flowers, community activist Gwen Reese, EMPACT Solutions CEO Elizabeth B. Siplin and Rev. Wayne Thompson for spending time and pouring wisdom into the class.

The evening ended with the class thanking program director Deborah Figgs-Sanders for digging deep and helping bring the leaders out in them. She took the time to call out each Emerging Leader by name and sung all of their praises.

“The diversity of the leaders and the minds and the intelligence that you see standing here,” Figgs-Sanders said chocking back the tears. “This is such a powerful moment for me. The memories and the experience I will cherish for a lifetime.” 

To learn more about One Community, a comprehensive plan for economic growth for south St. Petersburg, visit

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