Op-Eds and Commentaries

Working to preserve a community — and lessons of civic engagement

Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published: August 5, 2015

During my recent visit to the Tampa Heights Junior Civic Association, Tampa Heights matriarch Lena Young-Green recounted her experiences watching the devastation that has come under the guise of urban renewal in her neighborhood. Young-Green has lived in East Tampa for almost 35 years and is now engaged in a grassroots campaign to stop the Tampa Bay Express expansion plans that threaten to leave the THJCA demolished in its wake.

Young-Green said she and her late husband moved to Tampa Heights "to be in a place where [their] children could experience the richness of African-American culture," and because they wanted to give back to their community.

The current location of the THJCA came out of an agreement several years ago with the Department of Transportation to mitigate the dislocation of homes and businesses when the construction of I-275 cut directly through East Tampa. Sitting inside the THJCA at the corner of Palm and Lamar, you can hear cars whizzing by on the expressway alongside the center. Young-Green said that every freeway expansion is "chewing up" more and more of the African-American community at the urban core.

Now, the THJCA, which has been the centerpiece of Young-Green's work over the past decade, is threatened by yet another freeway expansion, and the need in the community couldn't be greater. Yet she is taking on this battle without her greatest ally this time, because Young-Green lost her husband last year only a few blocks from her house when he died while being detained by police after suffering a diabetic seizure.

Still, she has continued to plug away to make the THJCA a centerpiece of her community. THJCA has everything you could want in a community center, from an organic garden, a state-of-the-art playground designed by national nonprofit KaBoom, meeting rooms, a stage for performances, nearly completed recording studios and a promised professional kitchen to be built by Richard Gonzmart, owner of Ulele and the Columbia restaurants. Ironically, even as plans are being considered to bulldoze the THJCA, the amount of progress that has been made in completing the community center is nothing short of miraculous. Lights are turned on, the smell of freshly laid wood wafts throughout the center and the offices are ready for occupancy.

Young-Green, a community engagement champion, has worked with University of South Florida faculty, staff and students for years to leverage the expertise and even the sweat equity of this major research institution just a few short miles away. She regularly meets with community groups to encourage them to partner with USF as THJCA has. As she said at a university-community matchup event sponsored by the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships attended by USF faculty and community representatives, "we don't have to stand out there by ourselves." She told attendees that USF faculty, staff and students are ready, willing and able to work in tandem with local organizations to improve our community.

Over the past several years, USF faculty, staff, and students have come out in droves from almost every discipline across the university to volunteer time, money and expertise. Young-Green said USF has dedicated thousands of hours in work to the THJCA.

She laughed as she said they save the big jobs for the athletes ranging from track to golf to football, because, as she said, "They are not timid, and they will go to work." And the Sociology Department has adopted THJCA as the community organization they wished to assist. Sociology faculty and students have spent evenings and weekends painting walls, hanging lights, and tutoring local young people at the center.

In the process, USF students have learned about the importance of community activism and neighborhood revitalization. Now, all of those crucial lessons of civic engagement are poised to be a distant memory. What message does that send to young people about getting involved and making a difference when a decision made thousands of miles away could sweep away the hopes and dreams of a disadvantaged community?

Young-Green looked around the center wistfully. "Every day we got up and we did what we had to do as a part of an obligation to give back, and today as I look back, I would do it exactly the same way again."

If you want to learn how to help save the center and other neighborhood organizations, go to http://stoptbx.sunshinecitizens.org/.

Bonnie Silvestri is director of strategic communications in the University of South Florida Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships.