alison-austin-bruyning_web.jpgMIAMI — What began as a community-driven initiative intended to revolutionize the way children and families in Liberty City receive social services has been revised and removed from the 42-year old agency that was instrumental in its creation.

State Sen. Larcenia Bullard, whose sprawling, multi-county district includes a portion of Liberty City, sponsored legislation in April that stripped away the original board of directors of the Magic City Children’s Zone and expanded the project’s geographic boundaries beyond Liberty City, much to the chagrin of community leaders.
Alison Austin, director of the Belafonte Tacolcy Center in Liberty City where the zone began last year, said she regrets not having taken advice given to the group by Geoffrey Canada. Canada is founder of the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, after which Miami’s version is patterned.

“In many ways, sometimes you have to get whacked on the side of the head to listen,’’ Austin said. “It was Geoffrey Canada’s advice that said keep government out of it.  It was sage advice and we didn’t hear it because we really thought that our approach was partnering with government.”

A year ago, Gov. Charlie Crist signed legislation that created The Magic City Children’s Zone, a 10-year pilot program that was to transform the Tacolcy Center into the headquarters of a new initiative that would organize efforts between public and private social service agencies.

The 2008 state Legislature approved the program, allocating $3.6 million for the program’s first three years of operation, or $1.2 million per year.

In 2006, the group paid a visit to the hugely successful Harlem Children’s Zone in New York and met with Canada, that organization’s founder, to gain a firsthand accounting of the program’s operation and determine how it could be replicated in Miami.

Included in the contingent that traveled to New York were former state Reps. Marco Rubio and Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall; Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson; Austin; H. Leigh Toney, executive director of Miami Dade College’s Carrie P. Meek Entrepreneurial Center; and local attorney Marva Wiley, who serves as legal counsel to the original initiative.

The group’s initial excitement about the project has now turned to frustration.

In a May 12, 2009 letter to the editor published in the Miami Herald, Toney wrote:

“…state Sen. Larcenia Bullard, whose district includes portions of Liberty City, proposed legislation that would thwart change and continue the victimization of Liberty City.
Children's Promise Zones — S 2470 — removes the current board of the Magic City Youth Zone, ousting PTA parents, students, colleges and community organizations.”
On April 28, Senate bill 1276 passed 37-0. The House voted 113-1 (with state Rep. James Bush dissenting) on an amended companion bill April 27.

The new legislation placed the zone under the state Department of Children and Families, and renamed the zone as the Children’s Initiative. It also reappropriated the $3.6 million away from Tacolcy, also placing it under DCF’s control.

Bush said the new law essentially violates the original structure of the Magic City Youth Zone, the Liberty City initiative. He said he wanted to support the legislation “because it had some good stuff in it.”

But, he said, he couldn’t support it because of the Senate language added, at Bullard’s request, to get rid of the zone’s boundaries, abolish the board, and take actions that he said were disrespectful of the previous board.

Bullard said her only intention was to save the $3.6 million that the Legislature had allocated to the project in 2008 from being returned to the general revenue fund after she was informed that the bill would not survive “because we have 30 individuals on a new board and they had not had 501c3 status.”

Bush questioned Bullard’s claims and expressed dismay that Bullard did not discuss the project or any concerns that she had about the project with him before submitting the bill, since he represents the area.

Bush also questions Bullard’s claims that the money would have been returned to the general revenue fund.

“When I checked with both the House and the Senate appropriations to ask if that would affect the dollars, I was told ‘no’ because the money was already [allocated] in 2008… and would not have been affected,” Bush told the South Florida Times in a telephone interview.

Bush said he had no knowledge of Bullard’s intention until notified by the board, which he said, “did not have any input and did not know that they were being cut out of the equation.”

One of the sticking points has been the differing perspectives held about the purpose of the Magic City Children’s Zone’s board. From the community’s perspective, the board was to have been representative of the community, in part to give voice to a neighborhood keenly aware of its issues and vested in determining its own solutions.

From Bullard’s perspective, the board was virtually powerless to secure funding and shape its own future.

Of the Harlem version of the zone, Bullard said, “Their whole objective was find people who were going to bring money in too, that’s why they were successful there in New York.  When that was observed by those analysts in Tallahassee, they said, ‘My goodness, who are these individuals?” Bullard said, adding “When you have a board, you want to have a board that is going to be influential.”

Bush countered that the board members are perfect for the initiative and that Bullard’s assessment of the board’s effectiveness is disrespectful and an insult to the community.

“H. Leigh Toney. Brilliant. [Alison Austin] Tacolcy director, brilliant young lady. T. Willard Fair, brilliant. Some of the most brilliant minds in Miami who know the plight of our children,” Bush said of the board’s composition.

In his April 24 letter to Bullard, Bush explained that while the Harlem Children’s Zone current board is instrumental in securing the millions of dollars necessary to run that program effectively, it began with a small, community-based group.

“The HCZ phenomenon as we [know] it now was borne of an initiative that began with empowering the tenants of a single building who were being subverted by a small group of intimidators who preyed on their perceived helplessness. The success achieved in the first building was replicated to another building into a block. The block became a series of blocks. The series of blocks became The Harlem Children’s Zone.”

In response to reports that the Magic City Children’s Zone failed to secure non-profit status by the November 2008 deadline, Austin agreed.

The Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, a private, nonprofit corporation whose mission is to fund and support early intervention programs that improve the health, education and lives of Florida’s at-risk children and families, oversaw the Children’s Zone.

“Fundamentally, we allowed the Ounce of Prevention to determine how and when that [non-profit status] would get done because they pretty much said that this was something [they] would do,’’ Austin said.  “In hindsight, that was not the best decision to make.  It was simple enough that we should have taken the initiative to do it ourselves.”

In its 2008 annual report on the project, one of the responsibilities listed for the Ounce of Prevention Fund in its oversight of the Magic City Children’s Zone was to “Ensure Magic City Children’s  Zone  Not-for-Profit  incorporation  papers,  including  an  IRS 501c(3) application,  are  properly  filed.” 

Discomfort between Ounce of Prevention Fund and Magic City board members is apparent in the report authored by the Ounce of Prevention Fund. In the report, the OPF was critical of the space Tacolcy designated for Zone activities, calling it “grossly inadequate.”

The report also indicated that two of the board members are  “angry  that  they have been, in  their  opinion,  marginalized by  the  mandated  involvement  of  the  Ounce  of Prevention  Fund.”

Bush said the board members’ anger is justified.

“This person [from the OPF] is being paid to come here and dictate and boss and handle these board members in such a way that is not right and not fair,” Bush said, taking serious issue with the organization being selected as the fiscal agent to oversee the project.

“They don’t even live in this neighborhood,’’ Bush said. “Why is it that the OPF is put in the Legislature when you have fiscal agents in this county that can do the same work and provide the same kind of services?’’

Photo by Khary Bruyning. Alison Austin