African American business leaders discuss Tampa Bay race relations

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — African American business leaders from the Tampa Bay area will discuss current race relations and racial tension within the community on Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. 

The virtual and interactive panel is open to the public. It will be hosted and moderated by Bridgette Bello, the CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth magazine and Rick Homans, the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.  

According to Bello, the catalyst for their discussion titled “Listen to Learn and Lead: A discussion with African-American community and business leaders,” was not only the death of George Floyd in late May but the conversation is also a result of a recent article written by Brian Butler, the CEO of Vistra Communications. 

“I think it’s pretty obvious why the conversation is so relevant today,” said Bello. “This conversation came about, partially because of an article that ran this weekend from Brian Butler, who’s one of our panelists, talking about how he was treated by police in the past and that really hit me hard. Brian was my cover in March of 2019. He’s been a friend for 15 years. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life and it just broke my heart,” said Bello. 

Butler, a former Army officer and now president and CEO of his own company, details his own experience as an African American man and the decades of racial profiling he endured. 

Honest conversations about the African American experience, just like Butler’s, is what Bello hopes to discuss during Thursday’s forum.  

“As of now, we have 520 people who have decided they want to be a part of this conversation. So  I think there’s an appetite for change,” said Bello. 

Participants in the panel discussion will include:

“Our audience is purely the decision-making audience. You can see evidence of that in the questions that they’re asking because they’re saying ‘as business owners, as CEOs, how do we make a difference? What can we do right now, to make a difference?’ [The conversation] won’t be world focus, it will be Tampa Bay focus but Tampa Bay’s part of this world and it’s the part that we can affect and make change in. So that’s really the plan,” said Bello. 

“Recent events have caused all of us to look within ourselves and our community and ask: What can we do to change direction? Through this timely conversation, we’re seeking insights and practical guidance from some of our community’s most respected African-American business leaders,” Homans added. “This conversation can be awkward and uncomfortable at times, but it’s absolutely critical that we open our ears and listen, so we can respond in a positive and productive way.” 

Thursday’s discussion is open to the public. To register for the event, click here

To learn more about Tampa Bay Business and Wealth Magazine, visit them on social media or their website.  

UPDATE 6/4/2020 4:30 PM:

The Zoom webinar discussion, “Listen to Learn and Lead: A discussion with African-American community and business leaders’ began at 4:30 p.m. Within 5 minutes of the panel starting, over 450 people had joined to listen-in on the timely conversation.  

“I wish we weren’t having this conversation” said Brian Butler, CEO of Vistra Communications. “I am a black father with a son and I worry about him everyday. I know this is hard but it is was hard in Selma, it was hard at the March on Washington, but I also know that making a difference starts with individuals. It starts in our homes and it starts in our circles.”


Each panelist began by introducing themselves and explaining their own personal experience dealing with racism in America, particularly the strained and tumultuous history between African-Americans and law enforcement.

Hugh Campbell, co-founder of AC4S Technologies recalls being pulled-over along South Howard Avenue in Tampa.

“I got pulled over by a local police officer. He asked me what was wrong with my car?I thought that was an odd question, but I said nothing officer. He asked me step out of the car. He asked me if I had been drinking, which I acknowledge I had one beer at the first stop we were at and we were on our way to another location. I was very honest. He wanted to do a field sobriety test,” said Campbell. “I passed it with flying colors. No issues with license or registration. I was obviously very respectful. As I was turning to leave, he dismissed me. I chastise myself for getting myself into this type of situation. As I did, the police officer, essentially bum rushed me, chest-butted me and spit in my face. He pointed his finger several inches from my nose, was yelling at me at the top of his lungs ‘what did you say?’” 

Have race relations gotten better in the Tampa Bay area in the last 10 years? 

This question was asked by Bridgette Bello, the CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth magazine and directed towards Bemetra Simmons, the chief strategy and operations officer at United Way Suncoast.

“From my viewpoint, I think that we are working to get better. I don’t think that we’re where we want to be,” said Simmons. “The fact that we had 600 people sign up for this today says that we want to be better at this, that we don’t want to be where we are today. So, in the in the eight years that I’ve been here, I definitely see improvement. I mean, you see various programs and organizations that are working very hard at this tirelessly, day in and day out. I definitely think that we have a long way to go. But we’re certainly not where we were when I moved here eight years ago.”

Do you believe there are gaps between black and white American’s in respect to education, jobs, income and health? 

The question, asked by moderator Rick Homans, the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, was directed towards Butler. 

“When you read about a school in Hillsborough County that’s lagging behind the others. I challenge individuals to go in that school and try to figure out why. I believe that too often we forget… that we can do things as individuals to help change the circumstances of these people,” said Butler. “You know, how many the incarceration rates? You know, I think unemployment rate is probably 14% in Hillsborough County right now. I would bet that it’s over 25% for African Americans maybe higher. You look at the COVID rate across the country, and you see where those deaths came from. Those deaths didn’t just come from just COVID. They came from people that don’t have access to good health care. They came from people that don’t have access to good jobs, good food. They live in food deserts.” 

Is the States education system equal? 

“There was a statement that was put out this week by the Florida Education Association that said that our state’s education is separate and unequal. Is that true in your opinion? And if so, how do we fix it,” asked Bello.

“Many African Americans don’t have access to the better schools or the better programs that would help them succeed. And so I would probably say that the divide has gotten even worse with COVID as we add digital and technology pieces in there for achievement, it just, it just further divides the haves and the have nots,” said Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College. “Students of color, specifically African Americans are left behind. And when you start behind the start line, it takes a lot more effort to get through the race.”

Is the Confederate Flag a symbol of hate or heritage?

“I’m wondering how you feel when when you drive past one of these memorials and see that huge flag flapping in the breeze,” asked Homans to the panelist.

“The Confederate flag for me, represents nothing but pain,” said Simmons. “There are modern day hate groups that use the flag, use a confederate flag to advocate their hate message. I don’t see heritage, I just see pain. I know people use it as an oppressive system.”

As business owners, how do you change the dialogue of race relations in the Tampa Bay area?

“I think is important for all businesses to reflect what they expect. That means you need to have diverse staff. There are still too many organizations that have not either been able to hire a person of color or have not thought about that. I think you need to have some folks on your staff who are minority and I think that they need to be in some of the more middle to high level management positions not just all on one level, the lower level,” said Williams.

“As leaders as business leaders, if your organization does not have affinity groups, start them.
If you do have them, attend them. Go and not to go and participate but to go into listen, to hear what other diverse employees in your organization the same. What are some of the things that they like about the culture of your organization? What are some of the things they find challenging about the culture of your organization as a minority participant in that culture,” said Simmons.

Closing remarks:

‘Listen to Learn and Lead’ concluded after an hour with panelist reflecting on what brought them together in the first place: The death of George Floyd.

“You know, with the George Floyd incident, part of the tragedy was, what if one of the other officers and merely gone over and said ‘hey, man, that’s enough. Get off his neck.’ So, as you go back into your communities and your businesses, organizations, all those things, I will challenge you, are you going to be that one person that says, ‘hey man, that’s enough,’” said Campbell. 

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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