TALLAHASSEE — The Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys held a public meeting last week to begin gathering research for its 2009 annual report.

Approved by the Florida Legislature in 2006, the group studies conditions affecting black males in Florida, including incarceration rates, poverty, drug abuse, death rates, school performance and health issues.
The annual report will contain recommendations to the state on ways to improve these disparities.

The Aug. 6 meeting, which took place at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, centered on economic disparities, the criminal justice system, education and foster youth issues.

The 19-member group had trouble maintaining a quorum of 11 for the duration of the eight-hour meeting.  Still, there was vigorous discussion on the subject of partnering with other organizations and next steps for the group.

“We’re all committed to identifying conditions that affect black males and we all want to alleviate those conditions.  Where we differ is on what is needed when,” said Chairman Anthony McCoy, 50. 
“We’ve identified a school district we may have some involvement with in the future, but developing partnerships may overwhelm [resources] right now.”

Community participants from Palm Beach County, Jacksonville, Panama City and Pensacola attended the event. The meetings are public and advertised on the state attorney general’s Web site, www.myfloridalegal.com, and the council Web site, www.cssbmb.com.

Any resident can come in person or join via teleconference, and there is usually time allotted for public discussion.

“We take these communications seriously,” McCoy said.

Broward College established a community-based council in June 2008 to partner with the statewide group.

The council has received strong support from the state attorney general’s Office, state Sen. Frederica Wilson, and state Rep. Perry Thurston of Plantation, among others.

“Rep. Thurston has been a great champion of the council and has pushed to make sure our recommendations are heard and attended to,” Vice Chair Torey Alston said.

Several of the three-year-old council’s recommendations have been incorporated into legislation, most notably the reform of Florida’s zero-tolerance law for schools.  The council joined other groups in pushing for changes to the overly punitive law in order to reduce the number of youth shunted to the Department of Juvenile Justice for relatively minor offenses.

The change was approved last session, giving schools leverage to treat a student with a water gun, for example, less severely than a student with a real gun. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill into law in June.

At 25, Alston is the youngest member of the council, a fact he said he feels aligns him naturally with its goals.

“There is a potential lack of economic engines in black communities—restaurants, commerce and the like—so we’re highlighting areas, like Broward, with a positive track record as a model for other cities to follow,” Alston said.

As chair of the council’s sub-committee on socio-economics, Alston said there are untapped resources offering financial and educational services that could help many communities, but the programs are often under-publicized.

He said hopes to change that.

Minority business development centers, NAACP economic education programs, community redevelopment agencies and chambers of commerce, as well as Florida’s Office of Supplier Diversity (www.osd.dms.state.fl.us) are all sources of information and empowerment for minority-owned businesses, Alston said.

“We hope business support groups read and embrace the report so we can improve the lives of black men and boys around the state,” he said.

Florida is one of only a handful of states with a committee studying the hurdles affecting black males, “and council members should be commended for serving in addition to full-time, demanding jobs as social workers, psychologists, attorneys, educators, and everybody taking on such a monumental task,” McCoy said.

West Palm Beach community activist Perri Demps, who regularly calls in to the council meetings, put it another way: “I’m crazy enough to believe that things can change.  If we can get the young people to hold themselves up high and raise their self-esteem, then these prisons and detention centers will be empty.”