New strategies emerge to address disparities

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Gainesville For All study groups announce priorities to fix long-standing problems

A new set of priorities to reduce inequities was presented by Gainesville For All at a community forum Tuesday at the Thelma Boltin Center downtown.

Jim Lawrence, director of the initiative, emphasized to the gathering of about 100 volunteers, community leaders and citizens that the recommendations published in the GNV4ALL Blueprint 4 Change Phase 2 booklet are not just words on paper.

"We need to bookend this," Lawrence said. "We are going to have a laser focus on implementing our recommendations."

A partnership between The Gainesville Sun and the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, GNV4ALL was established in 2016 to deal with disparities in education, health, housing, employment, transportation and criminal justice that often fall along racial lines.

The recommendations come on the heels of the recently released "Understanding Racial Inequity in Alachua County" study commissioned by seven Alachua County organizations that found less than 28 percent of black third-graders in the county are proficient in reading, compared with about 60 percent of Hispanic and about 75 percent of non-Hispanic white students. Five teams that have focused on different aspects of disparity presented their recommendations during a video presentation at the meeting.

Education Team Chair Deidre Houchen, an educator, researcher and writer who focuses on historic black educational experiences in the United States, talked about how closing the achievement gap between blacks and other students must be addressed from a historical perspective.

The raw feelings older blacks in Gainesville have about the closing of former all-black Lincoln High School almost 50 years ago is something that sticks out to her when conversations about the achievement gap arise, Houchen said.

There needs to be a commitment from the entire community to close the achievement gap, she said.

The Education Team recommended that equity and excellence for all students be made a public priority. Other priorities include reducing segregation in school populations, courses and programs. The team called for an increase in school officials' training to enhance their knowledge about how to effectively teach students from different cultures, especially black students.

The Criminal Justice Team recommends low-level offenders not be kept in jail if they can’t afford bail, more pre-arrest options be made available and other programs and funding resources be secured to deal with people who have mental health issues. It also recommends decreasing the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers when it isn’t necessary.

Some of the recommendations made by the Families and Jobs Team include establishing a voter-approved independent children’s services council to address the needs, especially early childhood development needs, of newborns to children 18 years old and to establish job-readiness programs at underused community centers.

Some of the Housing and Transportation Team recommendations include developing a community land trust affordable home ownership program, building a micro-house community for the chronically homeless population, increasing the frequency of bus service in east Gainesville and providing free bus fare to impoverished residents.

The Health Team recommendations focus on making oral health care more accessible for impoverished families and individuals. Dr. Frank Catalanotto, chair of the health team and a professor in the University of Florida Department of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science, said dealing with oral health care disparities can be addressed by training and hiring more dental health therapists, who are supervised by trained and licensed dentists.

He said 1.4 million children in Florida didn’t visit a dentist last year and more than 168,000 people statewide went to hospitals to be treated for preventable dental issues.

The meeting concluded the second phase of the initiative that began with Phase 1 in late 2016. Several recommendations from the first phase have been implemented, such as the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department halting the arrest of minors 12 or under for misdemeanor offenses and the School Board of Alachua County hiring an equity director to find solutions to close the racial achievement gap in the county, which is among the highest in the state.

One member of GNV4ALL, UF professor Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, has a long history of participating in grassroots initiatives established to make a difference in the communities they serve. She expressed excitement about the implementation stage of GNV4ALL.

"I’m optimistic about what we are going to do moving forward," said Simmons, who participated in the Freedom Fighters arm of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement in the 1960s . "I know more about the education committee, and we are combining our efforts with the Alachua County Black History Task Force to make sure our recommendations become a reality."

Barzella Papa, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, also expressed her excitement about the next stage of the initiative.

"I am thrilled to be moving forward with implementing the recommendations," Papa said. "So many times groups meet and come up with plans, but don’t put their plans to work. It’s good to know we’re not going to do that. It’s time for us to get to work."

The Sun established GNV4ALL following several state and national reports that ranked Gainesville as among the worst cities for racial disparities, and soon after the shooting death of teenager Robert Dentmond, who was killed by local law enforcement officers after threatening suicide with a weapon that turned out to be a soft-pellet toy.

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