“It’s time for us to come together.”
Dedrick Douglas, a Fort Myers High School senior with a commanding presence, clutched a microphone and addressed a packed crowd at the Quality Life Center last night.
And with that, a movement might have been born.
Quality Life Center founder Abdul’Haq Muhammed and his students formally pitched a proposal for a 1-cent sales tax referendum (adjusted from the 2-cent one he contemplated previously) that would generate money to help young people in Lee County’s neediest communities—neighborhoods like Dunbar, Suncoast Estates, Harlem Heights. Pennies for Community Progress, Muhammed dubbed it, estimating that the tax could generate millions—and also potentially save millions otherwise spent on incarceration.
It is not a Quality Life Center initiative, Muhammed stressed. To succeed, the concept has to be embraced by the entire community.
“Our role that we’re playing is to spark an initiative, to ignite a fire,” Muhammed said. “There is a dignity in us making an effort—not government telling us the direction we should take.”
About 100 people were there, including a number of community power players: interim Fort Myers Police Chief Dennis Eads; City Councilman Johnny Streets; psychiatrist and Quality Life board member Dr. Frederick Schaerf; career educator and community activist Frederick Morgan Jr.; Lee Memorial Health System President Jim Nathan; Lee County Tax Collector and Dunbar native Larry Hart; and Congressman Curt Clawson, who offered support but also praised the community for finding its own answers.
“I think that the solutions have to come from us and not necessarily from outsiders,” Clawson said. “The minute it does, somebody who doesn’t know our situation tells us what to do, what do we think? We think that person is condescending, right? I’m a firm believer that change has to be grassroots. … That’s not to say if I can’t help from a federal level I won’t. … But I’m cautious in terms of sounding like I’m telling other folks answers to problems that first of all I have not lived like you all and secondly haven’t taken enough time to understand those problems to the core.”
A tax referendum wasn’t the only idea introduced. Morgan, who used to run a mentoring program at Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern State College), announced plans to launch a similar community-based initiative.
The evening had started with the replaying of a news broadcast from late September—a day that saw four shootings and seven victims, including a 5-year-old and a 17-year-old—in Dunbar. And a day that may have given rise to a single word capturing the neighborhood’s mood. Hart articulated it.
“We cannot allow what has been happening in our community to occur. Somebody has to say, ‘Enough,’” he said.
For more information on the Pennies for Community Progress campaign, contact the Quality Life Center at 332-5187 or [email protected]. The next meeting will be held Saturday, Oct. 24, from 10 a.m. to noon at Quality Life Center.
Gulfshore Life is spending several months documenting the lives of teens and young adults in Dunbar and the people committed to helping them. Our reporting will culminate in a major, in-depth report to be published in mid-2016. Along the way, we offer periodic dispatches about our findings. For our previous posts, click here.