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Rays Social Justice Initiative: Corporation to Develop Communities (CDC) of Tampa

As we reported earlier this summer, the Rays response to the still-ongoing Black Lives Matter protests included donations to several area groups who contribute in various way to our Tampa Bay community, and in particular address the history of racial injustice that has marked our region.

This column features an interview with Ernest Coney, the CEO of the Corporation to Develop Communities (CDC) of Tampa. The CDC of Tampa was founded in 1992, and has long focused on housing and workforce development in the historically Black community of East Tampa. Mr. Coney, whose background is in public health, directs this organization with nearly two dozen employees.

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DRaysBay: The Corporation to Develop Communities (CDC) of Tampa founder, your mother, Ms. Chloe Coney, seems like an amazing person, what led her to create the CDC; what problems was she addressing?

Ernest Coney: In the late eighties, Chloe was enjoying a successful private sector job and living the American Dream.

One day she ran into an old neighborhood friend, while visiting East Tampa. Chloe asked the friend how things were going and the person began to discuss how the neighborhood has changed since they were young. The friend described how drugs and violence were beginning to take over. This planted the seed that would grow into a passion... to help transform and restore community pride.

At the time Chloe was attending a Bible College and was thinking about her thesis. She began to write about the Prophet Nehemiah and his burden to “rebuild” Jerusalem. Her thesis (based on Nehemiah 2:17) became the Nehemiah Project – Building Brick by Brick and Person by Person. This thesis became the work of the CDC of Tampa and Nehemiah 2:17 became our rallying cry to address poverty, high teenage pregnancy, drugs and violence in the streets, high unemployment and drop out rates, and disinvestment. “Come let us take away the reproach of East Tampa” became a clarion call for community engagement and economic development.

DRB: What is the mission statement of the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa? And can you lay out some of the services the organization provides and the impact the organization has already had?

EC: Mission is to create opportunities for people to build prosperous futures and vibrant communities. In 1992, when the CDC of Tampa first started, there was not a lot of leadership or organizations focusing on East Tampa. The community helped to define the programs and services of the CDC. We conducted a community survey asking what the community wanted.

The residents of Belmont Heights and Ponce De Leon [two Tampa Housing Authority projects housing some 1200 households, since demolished] discussed Job Training and Placement, Affordable housing, Youth Leadership/Academic Achievement, Entrepreneurship, and Healthcare.

The CDC of Tampa was framed as a comprehensive community development organization — providing Workforce development, Youth Leadership Development, Entrepreneurship Training and Micro-Lending, and Affordable Housing Development. In addition, the CDC of Tampa became well for its Drug and Empowerment Marches to reclaim the streets of the East Tampa.

Over the years CDC has brought close to $500 million in investment into low-income neighborhoods:

  • Youth Leadership Development – helped 11,000 youth matriculate to college; has helping our neighborhood high school graduation rates go from from 40% to 78%. We are now also focusing more on Career Prop opportunities for youth (F.I.R.E Academy, Girls Who Code, etc)
  • Workforce Development – provided 11,500 residents with job training and placement services. We have also created a vocational school to focus on short-term certifications and are beginning to create more pre- apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs.
  • Entrepreneurship – provided technical assistance and $1 Million in microlending, helping hundreds of micro and small businesses (no longer provide this service)
  • Affordable housing – developed 100+ single family homes, 377 rental units and 52,000 square feet of commercial space
  • Housing Counseling – created over 1,000 new homeowners and during the Great Recession saved 1,875 homes from foreclosure. We are a HUD certified counseling agency and package down payment assistance for the City of Tampa.

DRB: What does the relationship between the CDC and the Tampa Bay Rays look like, and do you have plans for this relationship to continue beyond financial?

EC: The Tampa Bay Rays are a tremendous asset to the community. We have historically partnered in several ways, mostly around them providing volunteers for our mock interview and resume writing workshops, as well as CDC of Tampa providing guidance on community engagement opportunities - such as investing in Belmont Heights Little League, donating equipment to Middleton High School, or nominating community heroes for Jackie Robinson Day.

This particular grant will help us to continue increase our scale and impact in the community by investing in our Workforce Development and Youth Success Center, as well as, strategies to help mitigate disparities in employment, academic achievement and business opportunities. Specifically the Rays will support our Career Prep strategies for youth –

  • Suit Up and Show Up – helps young minority males in high school to become career ready, obtain a new suit, and register for a summer job.
  • Sister Hood Summit – helps to introduce young women to the STEM field and management positions.
  • Tampa F.I.R.E Academy – introduces young minorities to the Firefighter, Police Officer, and Emergency Medical Transporter fields. The academy provides certifications and a lap top computer to the graduating cadets.

CDC of Tampa will also help to introduce micro and small businesses to potential procurement opportunities with the Rays. This can be transformative moment to help minority businesses to grow.

The funding will also help us to organize meaningful volunteer community events to continue to change the physical appearance and or educate our communities about services.

The initial relationship with the Rays was created based on a shared passion and vision to provide economic opportunities for residents and to help our communities to thrive. This type of relationship goes beyond just making monetary contributions. The Tampa Bay Rays are a true asset in our community as a physical asset, human capital asset and ability to create goodwill. All of these are ways for CDC of Tampa and the Tampa Bay Rays to stay connected and engaged in strategies to help our community and residents reach their full potential.

DRB: How will the Rays funding help the mission of the CDC?

EC: CDC of Tampa has always focused on helping residents to overcome issues of poverty; creating opportunities to build prosperity in their lives. This funding will help us to also be laser like focused on the most vulnerable and those groups with the largest disparities in employment, academic achievement, and minority and small business opportunities.

Additionally, community engagement and involvement are the strongest components of any successful transformational effort. These funds will help us to keep the community engaged in services, policy and volunteer opportunities.

DRB: The CDC serves everyone, but I know it’s long been a Black-led organization with particular focus on the needs of East Tampa, a predominantly Black community. The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have put an increased national and international spotlight on racial justice concerns. How has your organization responded to this moment?

EC: CDC of Tampa was founded in a community crucible filled with dreams deferred and a relationship of mistrust between the community and police department. CDC of Tampa partnered with the police to create the first community policing and engagement strategy in East Tampa. The program focused on changing police relations from patrolling to community policing (walking in the neighborhoods and getting to know the residents); coupled with creating opportunities to seed the spirit and aspirational goals of our youth. We have also always held firm that economic power is derived by having productive citizens - earning a paycheck, starting a business, owning a home.

Today we have a renewed our focus on asset strategies, to include a lens for race and equity. We have also began to help shape and address policies and ordinances that can help reduce economic disparities and improve safety in our communities. We have continued to challenge ourselves and our public and private partners to consider Race, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity in the work that they do, in procurement, in management and in the boardroom.