I love the people, for the most part, who I meet, deal with, create opportunities, challenge, laugh with, and support. I love the environment, from the posh homes of Julington Creek and Green Cove Springs to the deep tradition of Murray Hill, Mandarin, Beaches, and Northside, to the many pockets of poverty found in streets from A Philip Randolph, to Phillips Hwy, to Southside, to Moncrief and the many neighborhoods which are diamonds in the rough. I love the nature, those dang palmetto bugs, roosters walking around, gangs of cats patrolling our shopping centers and even those jellyfish which keep me from swimming certain months. I love the opportunities for economics, for education, for veterans, for arts, for small business and of course for the aspiring entrepreneurs. I love our attention to youth, safety, health reform, human rights, and yes policing policies.
I can’t stand our lack of consistency, lack of focus, and lack of accountability. I look at all of the aspects of Jacksonville and what I believe I am in a position to say based on my life experiences and engagement in many aspects of our city; Jacksonville is a reflection of Baltimore’s Past.
When I moved here nearly 12 years ago I used to make a comment which many times was overlooked or seen as a quip; “Wow, Jacksonville to me is Baltimore 10 years removed.” It felt that way in 2003 as I navigated through the city council and worked to get a meeting with Elaine Brown who gave me wonderful guidance on who to connect with and who to avoid. It felt that way when I met with local black business people who were doing technology as I was and as I tried to paint a vision of us working together they spent time checking their phone for at the time the newfangled “text messages” and only paid attention to me when I said “I’ll get the check”. It felt that way when I used to ride in a used van to all parts of the city going into some of the roughest white, black, African, Asian and Latino communities to fix computers as the “Computer Spa Guy” competing with roaches, wannabe gangstas, multiple family households and debilitating relatives with drug issues to fix outdated computers. Sometimes I would go from charging $50 (a fair rate at the time) to charging enough to put gas in my vehicle or get dinner that night. I even remember a few times where I gave the client money just to stop their children from crying in the next room as I got their internet back up so they could search for a job or apply for assistance. And it felt like that when I would pitch ideas to churches, organizations, or influential people who were “making a difference” and receive a litany of reasons of why I should “wait until things change and come back to partner”. There were building additions which needed completion; a grant being applied for or in TWO cases, focus on taking some much needed time for self, “I am going on vacation for a month.” (I had never heard of anyone going on vacation for a month from their job until Jacksonville… sure others do it but I was astounded at the time)
As I refused to give up, took on the “rules of the game” and the “our way” of doing things. I begin to more and more take an approach in my mind of how I would do it in Baltimore years before. I found the key hub for the face of small business, at the time it was an inner city business incubator called Beaver Street Enterprise Center. I became the last entrant and opened my Computer Spa business there. I took the time to learn the various tenants. I created relationships with the ones that were serious and walked what they talked. I took note of those who kept the light on them but did much different when they were in the dark of daily activity. I went to workshops, classes, and learned how to make myself functional. I brought outside organizations to the center who were not there, 100 Black Men of Jacksonville started having meetings there. I helped launch the business of renting out unused space for events with my Jax best friend holding his daughter’s wedding reception there.
I pushed to challenge for opportunities for business winning a contract to train inner city citizens Microsoft Office at the Urban League, developing the program booklet for DW Perkins Law Firm annual event and the then First Coast African American Chamber’s 1st Annual Heritage Breakfast. I battled against politics and personal relationships to win the opportunity and successfully create the first ever website for 100 Black Men of Jacksonville, Jacksonville branch of NAACP and even the holy grail of non-profits at the time Fresh Ministries. I spoke at small churches even as larger churches told me I had to be a member to speak. I met with teachers at schools when principals told me they had too much work to give me 30 minutes. I watched and learned how to speak in certain rooms by shadowing Michael Bryant, being in the same room with Janet Donaldson, Kevin Monohan. I remembered lessons taught to me by those I was blessed to meet and gain knowledge from like Zig Ziglar, Kweisi Mfume, Joe Haskins (President of Harbor Bank in Baltimore), Raymond Haysbert Sr. (Founder of Park Sausages and Business Mentor), Eddie Murray, Mike Petroff (Baltimore City School middle manager who gave me knowledge on how to become a vendor when I knew nothing) Martin O’Malley (yes, the same one considering a run for President; I used to sit in meetings with him and debate community engagement when I was barely 30), Su Wood. Even my family members affected my thinking Michael Johnson, Barbara Wheeler, Tony Coles Sr, and of course Ethel Johnson (my grandma). I used to have conversations with Jackie Perry, then the office manager of Beaver Street, over a couple of 2 piece boxes and talk about what we would do if running a program. (One of the reasons I have so much respect for her cause I know her heart) All of these experiences became my key to achieving and pushing through the inertia of certain aspects of life in Jacksonville to gain a foothold and begin to foster relationships which allowed me to introduce and grow E3. Even my work experiences; working at Catholic Chariities and helping craft and secure the 2.2 million dollar grant for Katrina Aid Today. Working as the only black technology professional at a high tech firm and representing them across the country saving contracts and building a national curriculum for software training and implementation strategies. Becoming the first and last African American to hold the position of Manager of Education and Community Outreach for the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission managing the City’s race relations program. Each of these opportunities put me around some amazing people, strong minds, and in some cases future legends of public service. I saw how “intent versus impact” was so critical to making the right decisions. (I was taught this by one of the strongest advocates, and personalities, I have ever worked with Charlene Taylor-Hill) I learned that no matter how good you are at what you do you are still judged by the perceptions of others. (I learned this at Catholic Charities where I was judged by a background check which showed my being a part of an assault case…. the Director called me a potential risk without looking to see that the report listed me as a Witness to actions of another. Even after a letter from the States Attorney’s office acknowledging my role the Director refused to retract her public statement. I was let go after I petitioned the Archdiocese for equitable treatment… the day I learned that faith based does not equate to faith led) From all of this I learned how to make the right choices and move through the correct circles. This is what I watched my mother do in education. It is what I watched my father do, from afar and by hearsay, in business. It is what I saw the people I respected do in their social and advocacy work.
What I learned from all of this was how to see cycles. A city puts money into their downtown waterfront and stadium areas at the same time that they neglect the neighborhoods surround these landmarks. No after school programming for youth, no initiatives to foster the growth and continuity of neighborhood businesses and local “anchor institutions”, no presence by city officials when times were tough to advocate and consistently support the needs of those who put them in office… not just 4 weeks out before an election with a cookout and church visits. Policing which targets “problem areas” with a demographic of people of color or more often low income. Policies which allowed people to be moved from homes, creating high vacancies of buildings and homes. Refocusing of public services like street repair, landscaping, litter control to increase the rate of degradation of communities while creating pristine subdivisions in more affluent parts of town. Quiet deals and partnerships which allowed organizations to come into the city and acquire land, property, and tax credits to create “programming” which will bring back the communities with a budget was more heavily about administrative costs then actual services. Seeing the have nots move out and disappear leading to a decline in the people who visit downtown waterfront. (They were the only people coming because the “haves” would not visit the new landmarks because of safety concerns or lack of things to do) The areas all declined as did the downtown core around it becoming ghost towns after dark and on weekends. Subways and Quiznos closing at 5pm due to lack of business. Only the bars staying open past 10pm. And then the resurgence; people buying up property and rezoning. Professional sports investing in the infrastructure. Commissions and task forces being developed to create a new downtown slightly to the left or right of the true downtown. Thoughts of expanding the waterfront to create a new mecca. A refocusing of sports and bringing in visitors to our City as a prime destination. Campaigns speaking on the refocusing on safety and economics. The overall sense that things will only change with “new blood” because the established, read old money, won’t let go without a fight. Our youth being incarcerated, our families being torn apart further, incidents of police brutality and actions of impunity by some officers (and their superiors) of the same who are sworn to protect and serve even as their peers attempt to show why the police are worthy of our respect and support as they run for the highest position to affect change.
I now challenge you to decide… what you just read. Was I talking about Baltimore in the 80s and 90s or Jacksonville in the 00s and today? Harbor Place/The Landing, Camden Yards/Everbank Field, East Baltimore/Eastside Jax, John Hopkins/First Baptist, Fells Point/Riverside. I could go on and on naming people and organizations. As I contemplate how E3 will amplify its voice in Baltimore, and we will, I look at the voices still to be heard here.
I am not going to outline ways to make a difference. I have some believe me. When I started talking about entrepreneur ecosystems and cooperative economics it became the cry of others not doing anything even as some I connected with, like Dr. Robinson of the Chamber actually embraced it. When I started talking about breaking down silos I saw it in the quotes of others who just built up their silos even as others like NE Florida Healthy Start and Jax Small Biz Helps are moving with a purpose.
I no longer want to provide sound bytes for others of low moral fiber to commandeer. What I do want is to spur thought and hopefully open the eyes to some sitting on the sidelines. You know what is being done. You understand how you can make a difference. You have talents and abilities to create change and matter. I ask you to do as the citizens of Baltimore this past week, come together (not in violence but in purpose) and attack issues. Let your voice be heard by voting. The outcome is dependent on you not on your absence from the process. Let your voice be heard at the schools where your loved ones attend. Make your church practice what they preach. Hold organizations to the letter of their mission and celebrate those who are doing real work as quickly as you hold a light onto those who are running a game with public monies. Respect the public servants who are attempting to represent their districts even as you send a message to those who have held office without conviction by putting them back on the street. My focus is on aspiring entrepreneurs and helping them build their businesses and become leaders in the communities where they do business. I am using all of my God given talents and abilities to do this. I make mistakes, I make history, I make it through. I am imploring you to figure out how to do the same.
If you can see how I see Jacksonville as a reflection of Baltimore’s past I hope you will see how our action can help avoid our future being similar in events to what we just witnessed up north. Let’s break the cycle… Please, I need your help.
-Anthony Butler is the National Director of E3 Business Group Inc. and CEO of Eagle Soaring Management Inc. You can send direct comments to email@example.com