PINELLAS COUNTY – In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., a group of community leaders in Pinellas County started this year off by being recognized for their work – and they’ve been encouraged to keep it up.
The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners announced that they gave a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day proclamation award to two organizations at their first meeting of the year this month.
Members of the 2020 Plan Taskforce was in attendance to receive the honor along with honorees James and Gwen Feazell, the founders of the Bridging the Achievement Gap (BTAG) program.
Pinellas County Commission Chairman Kenneth Welch was the presenter of the ceremonial proclamation, which is a statement signed by all commissioners recognizing significant activities, organizations or individuals in the community. This is the first time that a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day proclamation has been given.
Welch said there were a number of reasons why both the 2020 Plan Taskforce and the BTAG were highlighted.
“We were looking for organizations whose work reflected the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King in terms of economic empowerment [and] in terms of educational and academic achievement, and those two groups really personify that,” Welch stated.
The congenial ceremony began with an opening prayer by 2020 Core Team Member Rev. Louis Murphy, Sr. of Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. After the Pledge of Allegiance, Welch stepped up to introduce the Feazells and the co-founder of the 2020 Plan, Gypsy Gallardo. They were joined by several other 2020 anchor members including former City Councilmember Karl Nurse and Director of Urban Affairs Nikki Capehart.
Welch then read the proclamation, which thanked and honored both organizations for their work that exemplifies the goals of Dr. King, who “devoted his life to advancing equality, social justice and opportunity for all.”
The progress the 2020 Plan Taskforce and the BTAG program have achieved is certain. Both groups cover Pinellas County in two directions – 2020 works in south St. Petersburg and BTAG is centered in the north part of the county in Clearwater.
The 2012 Economic Impact of Poverty report showed that south St. Petersburg is the largest out of five high-poverty zones. However, late last year the U.S. Census released data that there was an intense decline in St. Pete’s African-American poverty rate, which fell from 34.9 percent in 2014 to 17.6 percent in 2016. That notable difference is due in part to the efforts of the 2020 Plan Taskforce.
Gallardo said it’s vital that we recognize many other groups who’ve contributed just as much to poverty reduction. “The city, St. Petersburg College, Pinellas Technical College, PERC, the Urban League, Pinellas Opportunity Council, all of these groups made the difference.”
The Taskforce is made up of over 100 organizations, including public and non-profit agencies, who work to make investments through an estimated 40 organizations to work with families to help them lift their incomes to above poverty line. The 2020 team aims to help 2,000 families grow their earnings by the end of the year 2020.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who adopted the 2020 Plan as a top priority within days of his first elections, credits “teamwork and the spirit of working together” for the recent progress.
“Last year, African-American poverty in the City of St. Petersburg reached an all-time low. This was an extraordinary milestone, but not one we reached alone. We are thankful for our partners in the county, and those at the 2020 Task Force for leading the charge,” Kriseman said. “We are humbled by the recognition given to us by the Pinellas County Commission.”
Mr. and Mrs. Feazell also gave their thanks to the board.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I, we have a lot in common, but we’ll just stick to two,” Mr. Feazell said at the meeting. “He was a good Christian and he was a good Alpha Phi Alpha man.”
Part of the fraternity’s mission is to achieve academic excellence and service for communities, and Mr. Feazell has held to that. He and his wife, who are retired educators, started BTAG 15 years ago. Mr. Feazell had just left the school district as a recruiter, working to increase the number of African Americans working for Pinellas County Schools. However, he wasn’t satisfied when he heard an alarming report.
The superintendent released his findings that at the time, more than half of African-American students in the area were failing the FCAT test – 57 percent to be exact.
As Mr. Feazell retired, he said he asked God to help him to change those numbers. He talked with his wife and together they started BTAG in the Largo area, with the idea of being surrogate parents who could provide the help these high school students and their families needed.
The Feazells were aided by teachers, the school system and their church, which provided a bus for transportation. After the students attended their regular classes, they would attend BTAG, where volunteer teachers gave one to two-hour sessions in math, English, Spanish, science and more.
Within their time as leaders, the program served more than 1,500 students who have gone on to many achievements such as earning their high school diplomas, attending colleges and universities and pursuing military careers. Last August, the Feazells retired the role of supervisor to the Greater Ridgecrest and High Point YMCA in Clearwater, who are continuing the program.
The positive work of BTAG may extend beyond North Pinellas. Mr. Feazell said some organizations are interested in taking this educational program into different cities, and he and his wife can show them how it’s done.
“They’ve touched so many lives in our community that we thought they were absolutely worthy of that first recognition under our MLK Day Proclamation,” Welch said.
For Welch, it was an honor and a privilege to give both these groups this much-deserved recognition.
“There’s not a whole lot of publicity, not a whole lot of money or pay, but when you’re talking about BTAG helping 1,500 kids in central and north county achieve academically or whether you’re talking about the 2020 Plan Taskforce helping create a $90 million dollar CRA that’s going to help folks in generational poverty, those are tremendous efforts that should be highlighted,” Welch finished.