Zeriah Folston is focused on two values as he acclimates to his new job with the City of Gainesville: collaboration and compassion.
Gainesville’s City Commission voted Aug. 19 to appoint Folston as the city’s interim director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion. The office works to improve Gainesville and its businesses through promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, Folston said. It provides residents with resources on ADA, small business help, renters rights, nondiscrimination policies and a space for people to file equal opportunity complaints.
Folston is an Alachua County native. He grew up in the city of Alachua and attended both Santa Fe College and UF. His dream was to create his own nonprofit organization, inspired by his grandfather’s words of wisdom.
“There are three things that God cares about,” Folston said his grandfather told him when he was younger. “People, people, people.”
To follow through with his dream, he originally started majoring in nonprofit management for a master’s degree at the University of Central Florida. But a meeting with Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. — before he was elected as sheriff — convinced him to change his major to public administration, setting him on the path to public service.
“He gave me all the great reasons of why I could combine my desire to help people and be a public servant to maximize the potential to help as many people as possible,” Folston said.
Folston has worked in many facets of Alachua County’s government. He interned for a city manager, worked as a budget analyst, and was the assistant supervisor of elections.
His newest role was unexpected, he said, but he applied because it aligned with his passions.
“I was like, you know what, ‘I should throw my name in the hat,’” Folston said. “I have a grasp of the policy aspects of what this job requires, as well as the passion and just the consideration for others.”
Nearly five weeks into the job, Folston said he is sensitive to the transition between the previous director and himself, who resigned due to low pay and a toxic work environment. He said he’s meeting with his staff members to assess the culture of the office and check in.
Mayor Lauren Poe said he voted for Folston in this job because of his previous experience with the city, where he worked as a policy director. This position helped him gain experience all across municipal government, Poe said.
Poe said he looks forward to Folston’s work on developing the city’s racial equity plan, which will look to combat racial, gender and economic disparities by focusing policy and budgeting on those issues. The plan is new to the Office of Equity and Inclusion and something the office is working on drafting now, Poe said.
“When we make decisions as an organization, we understand that by doing this, this will help us reverse a long, long historical trend of racial inequity,” he said.
It is unclear when a permanent position for the office will be considered, as the city is focused on filling other charter officer vacancies such as city manager and city attorney, Poe said.
Rather than everyone creating their own goals separately and coming together to compromise, Folston said he believes in creating ideas together, which is something he refers to as synergy.
“We’re at the table together,” he said. “...We create something together that’s better than what we could’ve created on our own.”
The office is also working on distributing American Rescue Plan Act money, where $34 million of federal funds will be used to address negative economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting public health. The commission gave community members an opportunity to chime in on how the money should be spent in May.
Plans for how the money will be distributed are in the works, but Folston said he looks forward to providing opportunities for nonprofit organizations to apply for funds. He said he wants to give the community more time to give feedback on how to spend the money.
“Other communities aren't offering an opportunity for community neighbors, nonprofits to be able to participate and receive funding,” he said “We want to make sure that this process is as equitable as possible.”
After working in different positions all throughout Alachua County, Folston said he is excited to embody the mission of Gainesville’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and focus on unity.
“Having lived in the community and worked in the community, I see so much good in us,” Folston said. “What we do together can be so much greater than what we try to do alone.”
Contact Meghan at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @meggmcglone.
Meghan McGlone is a UF junior majoring in journalism and English, and this year she’s the City and County Commission reporter. In past years, she’s served as the University Editor, the Student Government reporter, and other positions. Her favorite past time is eating gummy worms and reading a good book.