“This is my city: St. Pete Stories” A community conversation

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The City of St. Petersburg is diligently working toward its mission of a seamless city. One way to bridge the gap is through communication, and what better way to get to know your neighbor than to hear their story firsthand…so to speak.

St. Petersburg College housed the gathering at their Allstate Center, located at 3200 34th St. N, where community members flocked to see what this new experience was all about.

Your Real Stories Productions formed back in 2011 as a way to encourage people to listen to one another, despite their differences in background or their varying opinions. It all began with the movie, “The Help,” and of course the launching of the website, yourrealstories.org, where snippets of community members’ stories would be broadcast.

The focus was on the limited job opportunities available to black people and how it affected both them and their families. Over 40 brief yet powerful interviews were conducted as they left the opening night showing of the movie, and were later contacted to sit for longer interviews.

Today, the movement has broadened and it’s no longer solely a web-based activity. As part of the “This is My City” campaign, four community members from various walks of life agreed to be interviewed. From there the interviews were then transcribed and passed on to local actors who portrayed them to an audience last Thursday.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin, Candi Purdue and Bishop Preston Leonard sat in the audience as brief snippets of their life were acted out for the community to see. Some stories produced laughter; others caused those watching to shed a tear or two.

Local actor and director Christopher Rutherford portrayed Mayor Kriseman’s story.

“My experience during my lifetime has always been that people are uncomfortable with something that they’re not familiar with,” said Kriseman through the actor’s performance. He recalls living in a predominately Jewish community in Detroit, his family befriending the Catholic family who moved in a few houses down. “We were very close,” he recalled.

Then at age nine his family moved to St. Petersburg where he attended Pasadena Elementary, Azalea Middle and Boca Ciega High School after the riots were subsiding and during a time when race relations seemed to be getting better.

Kriseman remembers growing up as the only white kid on a basketball team full of black boys. He didn’t make the team himself, but was a trainer of sorts due to his unwavering enthusiasm for the sport. He recalls an epiphany the more he hung around with kids from other races and even upon seeing a concert at a gay bar with his sister.

Eventually he realized that people are people no matter their race or sexual orientation, but upon the initial integration, he admits to noticing the obvious difference. “At first it was unusual or uncomfortable until you realize we’re all the same, love is love.”

Deputy Mayor Tomalin remembers her childhood as being blessed. A huge family for support, her mom was one of 15 children and Tomalin always had some 200 family members to engage with.

“Every day was a slumber party, it was awesome,” Andrida Hosey, the actor portraying her said. Tomalin was raised with the feeling that the world was open to her and she could accomplish anything. “Since being a very small child I was into possibilities instead of expectations, it’s just the way I’m wired.”

The deputy mayor revealed she felt instantly connected to her husband from the very moment she met him at the St. Petersburg Times. Both reporters, she knew he was her soul mate and pursued a courtship. Three years later, they were married and although Tomalin doesn’t recall much of a backlash in marrying a white man that is 15 years her senior, she does recall there were many discussions with family members that took place.

“They were concerned,” she said through the actor’s mouth. “They wanted to protect me from unnecessary hardship that they thought I would probably experience with that choice.”

One of those hardships was the fact that her husband had to choose his friends a little more carefully and perhaps defend his choices a little more often. But the payback is that their children have witnessed a new generation where boundaries are overlapping, the lines are not so clearly drawn.

Bishop Preston Leonard of Christ Gospel Church also sat for an interview. Although a man of God, the Bishop had no qualms about telling it like it was…like it still is for some.

Portrayed by actor and owner of Studio@620 Bob Devin Jones, Leonard’s story took the audience back to old St. Pete.

He recalled a life of struggle as he worked for Pinellas Lumber Company for as little as $1.35 an hour. He recounted having to train white men who would later go on to make more money than him and even now when they are retired and receiving social security.

Although he was doing a job of a manager and when people needed information they came to him, when he asked for $1.50 an hour he was told that he was the highest paid black person in the company and if they raised his pay they would have to raise all of them.

“When I went to get my social security, it predicated on what I had made. Those whites I trained made twice my salary. They had twice as much money to live on. Now when we get to social security, their social security will come out twice as mine,” he said through Jones.  “I’m still being punished.”

Not only was Leonard punished, but so are his children and grandchild. “They can have something to leave as a legacy to their kids and grandkids. Most people don’t think about this, but it’s a reality. I’m still being punished.”

Candi Purdue tells of a different type of discrimination that she has been burdened with. The right to love how she wants. In January, she was finally able to legally marry her partner Delores. A right that was denied them time and time again throughout the years.

As she sat in the audience watching as Roxane Fay portrayed her on stage, Purdue was overwhelmed and at times brought to tears.

Her story depicted the joy she experienced upon being granted that little piece of paper that signifies such a huge step forward for mankind. A step in the direction of acceptance. But even though she is hopeful of a new era in the way people think and view gay relationships, she too will never forget the discrimination she has felt at the actions and words of others.

She can’t forget having to fight to see her partner when she was in the emergency room. Only spouses could be admitted and at the time since Florida didn’t recognize gay marriage. Now she is happy to know that’s a situation that will never happen again. But just because the law says it’s all good from a legal standpoint, it doesn’t mean the discrimination will stop immediately.

Audience members were encouraged to break off into groups and share their own experiences good and bad.

More real story gatherings are scheduled to take place throughout the city in the upcoming months. New stories will be depicted at every showing.

Scheduled dates are as follows: July 21 at J.W. Cate Recreation Center, Aug. 27 at Lake Vista Recreation Center and Oct. 13 at Sunken Gardens. All showings are from 6-8p.m.  For more information, check out yourrealstories.org.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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