Jalessa Blackshear said the City of St. Petersburg’s charter dates back to the 1930s and is steeped in Jim Crow Era laws.
BY NICOLE SLAUGHTER GRAHAM, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Back in 2017, Jalessa Blackshear made several trips to and from her great uncle’s house with her then three-year-old daughter in tow. At the time, she lived in Harbordale, and her great uncle lived in Bartlett Park.
With her toddler strapped into a stroller, Blackshear had to cross 22nd Avenue South, the often congested, four-lane road between the two neighborhoods. The trek, she said, felt dangerous.
“There were no crosswalks in that area, and 22nd Avenue is a busy street,” she explained.
Like so many other people in the Harbordale and Bartlett Park neighborhoods, Blackshear took their chances because they had to get across the street. But Blackshear wanted change.
At the time, she was studying at St. Petersburg College, and her political science instructor, Tara Newsom, encouraged her to become more civically engaged.
“What I see in Jalesssa is this beautiful, smart, persistent critical thinker who just needed someone behind her,” Newsom said, citing that Blackshear has long been ahead of the curve on issues facing cities like St. Petersburg.
Newsom cited Blackshear’s work with Eco Village, which was then looking into tiny homes as an affordable housing alternative long before tiny homes reached mass appeal.
Blackshear said Newsom’s support helped her figure out how and where to focus her energy in the community: city hall.
“Dr. Newsom took me down to City Hall to speak in my first public forum,” Blackshear said. During the 2017 public forum, she brought up the fact that there was no crosswalk on 22nd Avenue South and asked the city to install one.
The answer she received, she said, was frustrating.
“Karl Nurse told me to start a petition, and I couldn’t understand why that was necessary,” she said.
What was the point, she thought, of canvassing her community for signatures for something that was so obviously necessary for public safety in her neighborhood?
Blackshear became a fixture at the open forums, advocating for her community on issues such as access to quality food, safe voting accommodations and affordable housing.
She often said it felt like every time change was near, she found herself at a stalemate with city council.
“At first, I took it personally,” she said, “and then I realized that this is bigger than me. These people are doing their jobs, and that job is to uphold the city charter.”
The city charter, Blackshear said, is where the problem lies. The charter dates back to the 1930s and is steeped in Jim Crow Era laws. Blackshear found that many of St. Petersburg’s policies held within it are inherently racist. Even as the city tries to move forward, the charter holds equity at an unreachable distance.
Deep roots in her chosen city
Though she’s only lived in St. Petersburg since 2011, Blackshear has a generations-old connection to the city.
Her great-grandmother, Phyllis Blackshear, settled in Methodist Town in the early 1900s. Though Blackshear was born and raised in Cape May, N.J., she decided to come down to St. Petersburg to reconnect with her roots.
“It was a huge adjustment at first, and I actually clashed with my family,” she said. “I’m this Yankee moving down to the South, and the customs and culture here are different.”
It took a while to find her place amongst her Florida-based family members, but a new sense of purpose filled her when she did.
After being baptized by her uncle, Bishop Lewis W. Sherman, at Holy Christian, the family’s church, things turned around for her.
“It taught me a lot, and I got more connected spiritually.”
Blackshear’s family heritage in St. Petersburg, the support from Dr. Newsom, and a drive to make change keep Blackshear going when it seems like change is outside her grasp.
She’s recently started an organization called Tri-Partisan Canvas, a nonpartisan resident-led political platform focused on ending systemic oppression in St. Petersburg.
The organization just completed its first fundraiser, garnering $1,200. Blackshear’s goals for Tri-Partisan Canvas are vast, and she said she’ll need about $30,000 to bring those dreams to fruition. A second fundraiser is already scheduled for April 11 and Green Bench Brewery.
With the funds, Blackshear said Tri-Partisan Canvas would continue to advocate for St. Petersburg’s Black community year-round, rather than just from July to November when candidates are seeking votes.
She also hopes to start a stewardship program through her organization. The program will focus on three areas: local civic engagement for 14-17-year-olds, a family financial empowerment course, for which she’s already secured a partner in First Home Bank, and a permaculture and creativity course.
Blackshear is confident the community will come together to raise funds, but she’s not letting money stop her from getting to work now.
“Right now, we are installing free art/voter education boxes in neighborhoods that are voter deficient,” she asserted, noting that the education boxes have already gone up in the Lake Maggiore and Palmetto Park neighborhoods. The Warehouse Arts District has agreed to contribute to the distribution of these boxes as well.
The work has just begun
Thanks to guidance during a conversation with former police chief and Methodist Town resident Dr. Goliath Davis, Blackshear dug into city policy to figure out how to sway the city to make a move on the crosswalk project.
“I pulled the policy and found that in the city’s Complete Streets Resolution, the location I was advocating for (22nd Avenue South) was supposed to have a crosswalk and a dog park,” she said.
On March 8, four years after she stood in front of the city council members during the public forum, she was invited to the site to watch the installation of that crosswalk.
The work, she said, has just begun.
“When I step into City Hall, my ancestors back me,” she averred. “I have a daughter who is being raised here. My legacy continues here. I have the responsibility civically and morally to say something when I see something wrong.”
To reach Nicole Slaughter Graham, email firstname.lastname@example.org