In 2019, after 89 years, Miami Shores elected the first Black woman to sit on its Village Council. In fact, Crystal Wagar automatically became mayor because she was the top vote-getter. Two years, later, two more Black women — one who now is the new mayor — have joined her on the five-member council, along with a gay white man. This is a welcome evolution.
“I think we had something to do with that,” said Roni Bennett. A Shores resident, Bennett, a former tech businesswoman in Silicon Valley, co-founded South Florida People of Color, an organization created specifically to make sure that leadership — elected and appointed — better reflected the demographics of the city. Bennett, at the time, was campaigning for a Hispanic candidate, who did win a seat on the council.
Bennett is one of five women in Miami-Dade County to win an unrestricted grant of $20,000 from the national Black Voices for Black Justice Fund. Through the fund, major donors — including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation and the Kresge Foundation — are investing in Black leaders and Black-led organizations that address racial disparities in healthcare, employment, education, justice and voting. Desmond Meade, of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in Orlando, who continues to push Florida to acknowledge that ex-felons have the right to vote — something denied them until very recently — is another grant recipient.
That five of the winners are from Greater Miami is a testament to the depth of racial inequities that plague this community and the smart, fresh talent organized around eradicating them. Local recipients, in addition to Bennett, include Wakumi Douglas, of the S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective; Ebony Johnson, of The Resource Room; Diane Robinson, of Yard Girl Productions; and Monalisa Weber, of Probation Station. They are among 55 individuals from across the country to win these grants.
Bennett’s organization goes deep in uprooting racial inequity in this community, far beyond the proverbial asking people to hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
South Florida POC uses books on race, racism and history to jumpstart conversations among diverse residents. It created Unity 360 Community Race Dialogue; it hosts “Awkward Dinners,” where feelings are raw and the discussions are real. It has expanded its reach through diversity, equity and inclusion workshops in California, New York and Wyoming.
“We brought everybody together to have those discussions about the racial and ethnic cultural divide,” she said. “It becomes more of a brave space. We meet people where they are.
“It’s a long journey.”
To that, Ebony Johnson, a fellow grant recipient would say “Amen.” She created The Resource Room 20 years ago in Miami Gardens.
“I’ve been very dedicated to advocacy, making sure children of color get opportunities. We’re raising Black leaders.”
Johnson left teaching to run the Resource Room community and childcare center, which operates out of five sites.
She gives it to kids straight. “We have to change policies and change the narrative to combat police brutality,” she told the Editorial Board. That’s why she is grooming them to become elected officials, lawyers, judges.
“Those are the fields that will make a difference, that will relate to our growth,” she said. “They need to breathe, talk, be exposed to all the opportunities that will keep the doors open to them.”
Despite the big themes, however, she realizes it’s often the little things, mundane to others, that too often stand in the way. “You don’t ever get an opportunity to get unrestricted money to help kids with little things. This will help with scholarships. This can help a ninth-grader with an internship get a bus pass.
“It’s a long-term approach.”
Of course, pursuing truth, justice and the American way should not have to be a long, long journey. Sadly, it remains so. And current efforts to stifle Black access to the ballot box, to restrict protests injustice and other racist policies will only make it longer. However, Greater Miami is nurturing strong advocates to take the lead, and that’s encouraging.