A Conversation with St. Pete Equity Leader Meiko Seymour
Local equity leader Meiko Seymour is an executive pastor at Pinellas Community Church, CEO of St Petian magazine, a City of St Pete Public Arts Commissioner, host of the podcast The Altitude Collective, a Race Equity Listener (REL) for the Foundation for Healthy St Pete, the District 8 Charter Review Commissioner, and now, the reason Juneteenth will officially be a St Pete holiday.
I have known him for the last year as we have served as RELs. In that time, I have learned so much from him about how to “do” equity in a more authentic and inclusive way. On June 3rd, I had the honor of watching Mayor Rick Kriseman present the Juneteenth proclamation, possible because of Seymour’s efforts. Seymour took to the podium to give an inspiring speech, reminding citizens and elected officials of the work still needed to make the sun shine on all equitably.
Hillary: Why did you decide to advocate for the Juneteenth proclamation?
Meiko: Yeah, good question. I believe that Juneteenth should be recognized as a national holiday. I think it’s way too important of a remembrance marker in the story of the African American, that we should be telling that story and remembering it as a nation, and obviously, that’s a little bit harder to do… there have been national conversations around for many years. But, you know, I really believe if you’re going to effect change, you start with your locality. And so my thinking around Juneteenth being recognized, I thought, ‘Okay, well, let me start with the city of St. Petersburg. And, see how it goes.’ I think a city as progressive as ours, we, in so many ways push forward on things that many cities struggle to do and to have conversations around. And so, I wanted to take the opportunity that’s afforded via the different conversations around equity and race and justice happening in the city. I wanted to take this same kind of moment to, you know, leverage and push for a recognition of Juneteenth. The other reason is that, that there are so many people who don’t know about Juneteenth. And having it proclaimed, having it be a proclamation, the city puts it at a level where more and more people can learn about it, can dive into what the Emancipation Proclamation was all about and how the word spread to the enslaved peoples, especially in the south. And people don’t know about it. People don’t know that history. And so, I think once you can get some of these histories notated or recognized at kind of the governmental level, kind of brings a new space of listening, a new platform to be recognized by the citizenry.
H: Yes, I totally agree. And I feel like Juneteenth is like, this really old holiday? Like, since 1866 officially. And we’re in 2021 still trying to get people know what it is.
M: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because when you think about Juneteenth, you really have to think about Texas and the fact that the word of people being freed didn’t reach them until that point, and in some cases, two years after officially legally being freed. And there are many states in the south that officially recognize their specific date. Florida, ours, technically is in May, is when the state recognizes that moment of the people being free via the President’s Proclamation. But because of each state has its own date, it’s important to kind of coalesce all of them into one moment. Not that we were not recognizing the individual dates for the states but to rally around Juneteenth as a theme, as a… I don’t want to say moment, but as a… How do I say it… just celebration. It’s much more than June 19. It’s a celebration of being free and a celebration of Blackness. And I think it’s really important to recognize that regardless of whatever the specific dates are for the slave states.
H: I definitely agree with you. Emancipation Day for Florida is May 20th, but Juneeteeth is more recognizable and having everybody all over the place at the same time coming together to have that same feeling and celebration in the same moment is really powerful... Was there anything else you wanted to say?
M: Not only did I write my speech, but I wrote the actual proclamation. So, that effort was one where I needed to learn how to write a proclamation because I didn’t know before, but the other is, I just think Juneteenth is also about being seen. And that’s what I really wanted to convey through the proclamation and through my speech is like it’s a moment, and I wish that we could be seen 365 days a year. I feel like that’s the goal. But for now, Juneteenth is about us being seen in all of our Blackness and all of our culture and our shades. It’s about being seen, and I really hope that Juneteenth in the future for the city of St Pete is about expressing culture, inviting people to experience that culture and to celebrate that culture. That’s what I hope, that it continues to grow and build and become.
H: Of the equity work you are doing in our city, what work are you most proud of?
M: Strangely, I do a lot in the space of equity serving our city, and I look at as kind of servant leadership. That’s at the core of who I am. And so, I’m going to serve in whatever capacity that’s presented. And to answer the question, I think I’m most proud of the work that I’m doing to make equity conversations and decisions more invitive. We all should be in the work at all different levels and spaces. And it’s not just left up to what we may call equity professionals, because in so many ways, there are those who can probably tell you more solutions to their issues, then those who have a professional background in equity. And so, I think my brand of this work can be nerve-wracking; it can be scary; it can be tense; it can be full of drama, and it can be hard, but it can be work that all of us can engage in at whatever level. I’m really, really proud of that. That kind of brand. Because, you know, it’s the old adage if you want to do something fast, you do it alone. But, if you want to do it really well and go really, really far, you do it together. And I think a group of people can do a thing or one person can do a thing. But how much more can we increase the capacity of the work by involving more people with different lived experience with different perspectives? Through the work that I do, I am creating that. I’m saying the equity conversation is hard, and it can be daunting, but it is for everyone to have.
H: I am processing the answer because I think that I believe that in theory. I think it’s inspiring to watch you practice it in reality. You know, we’ve talked about this, but just the ways that I’ve even seen my own practice grow, because of learning from your brand.
M: Oh, that’s good to hear. Yeah, it’s difficult in the sense you often, and I’ve talked to you about this before, but you often have to put yourself in really difficult situations. And uncomfortable situations in order to create buy in. And a lot of the work is iterative. And a lot of the work is person-by-person, year-to-year and takes a while. You can shout it from the mountaintops, for sure. But a lot of times what I’ve noticed is that equity work right now that’s being shouted is so grand. It’s bigger than me; it’s bigger than the individual can grasp and hold, and you’re left wondering. Everybody’s shouting, “we need equity, we need equity, we need equity.” But for the individual, it’s like, “Well, I don’t, what can I pull from that that I can make actionable right now.” And then especially if you come from a background where you’ve never had to think about it, you’ve never had to think about the inequities. And so, then you’re like, “Oh, well, this is a new word. And every time I hear the word, it makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong. And I don’t even know if I’ve done something wrong.” Or the other is, you can have people that look like me who never who have never thought about the word equity, but live out all of these things because they live within the systems that create inequities. But they’ve never put language to it. And so, you can run for political office and say that you’re all for equity, and blah, blah, blah, and think you’re speaking to your constituents. And constituents are like, “I don’t even know what that means. But what I do know is I still can’t buy a house, or I still can’t get a job because of the color of my skin, or, you know, I wasn’t able to afford to go to a four year college, and I have no vehicle to get to the technical school, that’s three miles away,” and you know, all of these things, we’re essentially talking about the same thing, but the divide is the language. And so sometimes it really is creating spaces where you can, one-on-one, teach what the word means, and on the other side, also teach how you may be contributing to the inequities. It’s both and, my brand is I am not just having conversations around or with people who may be creating or perpetuating inequity. I’m also having conversations with people who live within the systems that are inequitable, and I’m trying to also teach them and learn from them. Hey, the next time that that happens, I really want you to press in on that. And I really want you to maybe consider thinking about things this way. In order for you to take that next step. So it’s all of that together. And yeah, I’m really proud of establishing that kind of brand.
H: In your interview with The Catalyst three years ago, you were asked WHAT IS ONE THING YOU WISH YOU KNEW ABOUT YOUR WORK 3 YEARS AGO? At that time you said, “That bravery costs you a lot. Not everyone will come with you on your journey. Not everyone will agree. However, you will have to answer to yourself for the decisions you decided not to keep because you were afraid of what others would say.” How would you change that response with a post-pandemic/2021 lens?
M: I probably would say now that it definitely will cost you. And it will cost you more than relationships, which is what I was getting at then, but it will also cost you. Because if you’re doing this right, you kinda carry it in your bones and so there are body aches at night. And so, I would say, be intentional about your health and your mental health. Because you’re going to need a reservoir that you can pull from when things are really, really difficult. And I would also say to that question, be careful who smiles and who wants a piece. Because not everybody is in it for pure reasons. And you will run the risk of being used.
H: So you alluded to something I want to wanted to ask, as well. How do you practice self-care?
M: Yeah, I’m glad you’re asking that actually. I think anytime that you’re involved in this kind of work you have to, and I think the younger me would not even know, and I think a lot of us would not know, five years ago, maybe because it wasn’t always talked about in kind of the town square that is being talked about now. But several things that I do.
One I practice Sabbath, more specifically the Jewish Sabbath, and Sabbath just means to rest. In kind of a biblical context, it’s the day of rest, which is Friday at sundown through Saturday at sundown. And that’s an intentional time where I disconnect. I disconnect from devices; I disconnect from any kind of work. And I engage in only the things that will bring me rest and that will rejuvenate me. So that could be if I feel like I want to spend the day scrolling on Instagram. And that’s going to bring me rest, I will do that. I’m not necessarily legalistic about the activities. Where I am staunchly kind of legalistic is around there are no chores. So, we don’t do the dishes; we don’t do any kind of laundry; we don’t even grocery shopping. We won’t do that on Sabbath. It is also a day where, you know, I drink coffee a little bit slower. I read a lot on Sabbath, especially in the mornings. I read a poem, usually. And I ruminate on the poem pretty much all day. If you were around me, you wouldn’t know. But I’m thinking about it the whole time. I do that intentionally because I want to. It’s a way for me to focus my mind. Because sometimes, even though you’re taking the day off, your mind wanders to, ‘oh gosh, next week, I have this thing.’ And so the poem actually helps to bring me back to a place of spaces, ‘I’m just going to be here and be now.’ I ruminate on scriptures. Usually there’s like a verse or two. My wife and I have probably our deepest conversations on Sabbath because there’s nothing else. We’re not rushing off to do anything. In some Sabbaths, we will wake up, and we will eat breakfast, and then we will go back to the room, and we will go to sleep, and we will just sleep the rest of day. Each Sabbath looks very different depending on how we’re entering Sabbath. But what I have found is that having a day of rest whether you want to call it Sabbath or whatever, having a dedicated day of rest intentional day of rest, not just a day where you’re like, “I’m not doing anything,” right? Like, I plan my Sabbath, or I plan my days off, what you will find is that you have a lot of energy to reenter the week. So, my my work week starts on Sunday. And so I’m like, “I’m ready. I’m ready to get going.” I have found that I have increased my capacity, all of the things that I get to do here in the city, and in my job and all the things because I dedicate a day to rest.
The other things I do in terms of mental health is I have a really tight knit group of people that I can vent to, and they understand the difference between venting, and “I need your help.” So that’s really important. I’m rooted in my spirituality. So, I have spiritual formation practices that keep me grounded. Reading for sure. And worship. And finally, I have not had a session in a long time I need to, but I do have a life coach that I talk to and that kind of stuff.
And I know that sounds like a lot, but it’s depending on the week, you know, I do one thing or the other or mixture of some of that stuff. But it’s important because you pour so much out in this work and again, with the brand equity work that I tried to engage in. I just think it’s important to do so with transparency and authenticity and honesty. And a lot of times that requires a pouring out of self, like a lot of self. I’m going to let you into my world more than I probably would for something else or some other work. And because I’m doing that, I have to make sure that I’m kind of built up, I’m kind of in the best space to be able to absorb whatever your reactions may be as we engage.
H: What is the Charter Review Commission? Why did you get involved in that work?
M: A city’s charter is akin to United States Constitution. It is the backbone of how we govern ourselves as a city. And so, it has provisions and mandates in terms of how our city council is made up and who can run and how do they run? And when do they run? Same for our city mayor, who can run, when they run, what are the lengths of their term, how many terms can they have. It also spells out of boundaries of the city. It talks about what each charter officer does, so things like city administrator, city attorney, the city clerk. In terms of the St. Pete’s charter, it provides specific language around our waterfront and parks system in the city, and what we can and cannot do, and how to do the things we can do with our parks in terms of sales, and use, and renting and all of those things. And so, it’s our guiding document and everything else that we do in terms of codes and ordinances here in the city is filtered through the charter.
And so, The Charter provides that every 10 years, a group of citizens, eight members, one per district that are appointed by that city council representative, plus a person who is appointed by the mayor gets seated as The Charter Review Commission. And currently in The Charter, they take up their work no later than the last Monday of January that 10th year to look at and review the city’s charter to make or to propose amendments to The Charter, whether that means changing something that’s already existing in The Charter or adding something to the charter or taking something out of The Charter. That process lasts until the end of July, mandated by the charter. And any amendments that The Charter Review Commission comes up with agrees upon those amendments will go to the citizens of St. Petersburg via a ballot at the next election. So, The Charter Review Commission reviews, proposes, sends to the residents via the ballot. The residents then have the final say as to what they want or don’t want added, changed, or taken out of the city’s charter. And that’s why The Charter Review Commission exists.
I joined it because I thought what better way to try to write equity into our governing document. I mean, if we’re going to really do equity here in the city, why not start with our formation document, right? And it was really exciting to try to be a part of that, and that only happens once every 10 years. That’s a pretty long space between commissions. And I knew it was going to be intense work, and it is. And there’s a responsibility that you shoulder because you’re listening to your neighbors in your district, and you’re bringing to the forefront what they feel like they want to look at, and you’re listening to other people who may have some opinions and thoughts. And it’s really hard. I knew it was going to be hard, but it’s harder than I thought. Because I think equity work is hard by itself. And then when you add the politics to it, right. The city wants to do. The individual commissioners have perspectives and opinions. And you’re trying to build consensus with your colleagues. And you also know that even if you build consensus around an amendment, that amendment still needs to go to the voter. And hopefully, the voters see it the same way that you do. It’s a lot of thinking; it’s not just amending a document. It’s how do you also write it so that when it appears on the ballot, people can’t pick it apart, and they can actually understand what it is that we’re trying to do? And it not be misinterpreted, thereby, maybe not passing. So, there’s a lot of work that goes into it.
H: Yeah. I like it. I didn’t realize that much stuff is in The Charter.
M: I think that’s only maybe a third of the things that’s in there. Redistricting is in there. How do we do that as a city? Who sets the salary for the mayor? What’s the budgeting process? Kind of like overarching process. What is not considered charter work, which we often hear, are things like should we have complete streets? That’s not a charter-worthy thing. You would go to city council, and they would create an ordinance and that kind of thing. So, there’s a there’s a huge difference there.
H: In what ways do you learn and grow your understandings of race equity work?
M: So, I read a lot, like a lot. And I try to do two to three books a month, two out of three are around equity, race equity. I also within the work that I do, I am just surrounded by colleagues who are doing the same thing and so just kind of sharing of that research and articles and things like that keeps me in the current iterations of equity work, not just here in the city, but in the state and in the nation. I am very much a student of culture as well. And so, I watched a lot of documentaries, and vet a lot of documentaries through different filters. And I also attend a lot of workshops and do a lot of certification work to try to make sure that I’m not behind where the work is moving.
H: When people want to know who holds the biggest responsibility in doing this work in St Pete, how do you answer that question?
M: You do. I think we all have responsibilities and a part to play. I think sitting back and letting others in some situations, it’s appropriate. But I’m not okay with releasing my future, happiness, liberty to others. I’m not comfortable with that. And so, my endeavor maybe can be said as a little selfish too because I want to make the world really, really good for me. You know? And the bottom line is I get to help make it a little bit better for you, too. So I think my answer would just be you. Because we all have a part to play in that. How do you engage your employer around equity? How do you engage your friendships? You know, how do you tell your story? How do you tell them? Do you have language to actually tell your story in a way that can really illustrate what you’ve gone through? Are you are you an active listener? Can you sit and hold space for others to tell their own story? And then can you advocate for a thing in the spaces that you already hold? Because I think sometimes we think we have to be a politician or a government leader or have some sort of philanthropic organization, etc, etc. But I actually think that the fight really happens in our day-to-day, and it happens in kind of these nonromantic spaces, like your office or your workplace or your parking complex or your neighborhood. So, the person that holds the most responsibility for the most work, I think is… you.
H: In October 2018, I attended an Ibram Kendi talk speaking event at Eckerd College. During this event, he said, “The first step of being an activist is believing in the fundamental possibility of change.” How do you maintain hope and belief in this possibility of change?
M: I want to answer that in two parts. I love that question.
Number one, I am a Christ follower. And so, I just have hope. It’s just I see the world as it can be versus as it is. That’s my big statement. I choose to do that. Because the flip of that is it’s a dark place. And so, you know, Scripture tells us where there’s no vision that people will perish. And I like to think about it in terms of like, if you can’t see hope, how do you bring people towards it? So, I think that’s really important.
So, the second part of it is. I’m a really big believer in humanity. And I know that sounds really odd and really strange and I shouldn’t, right, and I’m not naive. But I do think that we are closer to one another than we think. And we’re closer to one another than media and politicians may try to get us to not believe we are. And I make space for things like ignorance. It’s hard, but I make space for that. Now, once you are educated. That’s a whole other story.