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Lakeland invites community to join discussion, address racism head-on

The city's mayor said this summer’s unrest gave him an opportunity to have frank discussions with members of Lakeland's Black community.

LAKELAND, Fla. — The city of Lakeland says it’s ready to take the next major step toward addressing racial tension -- an issue that has simmered there for generations.

The plan, called Lift Lakeland, is designed to break through racial barriers and level the playing field in areas like education and economic opportunity.

“It’s easy to dismiss if you’re not part of it,” Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz said.

The mayor knows you can’t fix a problem until you admit you have one. And Lakeland has a history of racism, he says, that can no longer be ignored.

“After you put all of your defenses down about why this, why that and history -- you can say, where are the holes? And what can we fail?” the mayor said. “And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Mutz says this summer’s unrest gave him an opportunity to have frank discussions with members of Lakeland's Black community.

And while it hasn’t been a perspective easy to hear, “What’s harder for me to hear is people who say that’s not true. When it is,” Mutz said.

So, on Oct. 29, the city will unveil phase one of Lift Lakeland – a multi-faceted plan to face racial inequity head-on by asking the public to weigh in during a forum scheduled for 6 p.m. at the RP Funding Center.

“That gives everyone who wants to a chance to say what about this, what about that? To try and get a phase 1 going that we get started with,” Mutz said.

Pastor Clayton Cowart, a community activist, says at times it feels as though Lakeland is stuck in another decade when it comes to race relations.

“Like we rewind and go back to the fifties and sixties,” he said.

Cowart hopes the discussions which are being called “Courageous Community Conversations” -- are a start -- not the end.

“Not just addresses and discuss, but implement these plans,” Cowart said.

The city itself plans to review its planned improvement projects for the next decade to see if they are as diverse as they need to be, create incubators and training, and engage clubs like junior achievement. The mayor says they will work with schools to foster more vocational training and encourage diversity within the city’s own staff.

The changes won’t come easy.

“And that’s all right,” Mutz said. “The good stuff that matters usually isn’t.”

“And I don’t expect it to happen overnight. But I certainly think that once we start toward positive change, and you see that,” Cowart said. “It gives you hope that we’ll have a better tomorrow.”

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