Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker dreams of endless prosperity for East Gainesville’s Black youth.
Following Duncan-Walker’s leadership, the City Commission plans to bring a cultural arts center to East Gainesville as an effort to support at-risk youth and Black residents.
The proposed center aims to provide arts and cultural programming, workforce development, skill cultivation and after-school activities resources, according to a January 2022 General Policy Committee meeting presentation.
"I'm putting it forward because I have seen it save lives," Duncan-Walker said.
Before working in policy, Duncan-Walker previously taught theater at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Miami. A cultural arts center can serve as an alternative to crime for East Gainesville residents, she said, combatting ongoing issues afflicting the community, like gun violence.
“Our children don't know who they are,” she said. “They're not being shown positive images. They don't have the opportunity to be diverted from penal systems into therapeutic arts environments.”
There has been an overwhelming increase of governmental oversight on Florida’s education system, such as the rejection of a preliminary pilot version of the College Board's Advanced Placement African American Studies course in January.
The Eastside center will serve as a safe space free from legislative restrictions, where chronicles of the Black experience can thrive, Duncan-Walker said.
“Our young people are dealing with a lack of understanding of who we are as Black people,” she said. “There is a gap that can possibly be filled by telling that story because it's not being told in a full and robust way.”
Duncan-Walker also highlighted the correlation between the arts and traditional education.
Duval Early Learning Academy went from a D- to A-rated public school after the introduction of a fine arts magnet program in 2002. The magnet program has since been terminated, causing a fall in the school’s rating, she said.
The City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department hosted a community engagement workshop dedicated to collaborating with locals on the vision for the center at the Historic Thomas Center May 31.
Although city staff advertised the event as a way to “help shape the vision of a cultural arts center in East Gainesville," Parks Recreation and Cultural Affairs Director Roxana Gonzalez announced the center had no set location during the recent workshop, raising concerns among residents.
Gonzalez misspoke, Duncan-Walker said, as the center's proposal highlights East Gainesville as the intended location.
“It has to be in East Gainesville,” she said. “It has to be accessible to the most vulnerable populations who need it the most.”
Although the center mainly seeks to aid youth and Black people, Duncan-Walker said, individuals of all cultures and backgrounds will benefit from a visit.
The city recruited consulting practice AMS Planning and Research to conduct a feasibility study that will help identify possible locations and funding resources for the project.
Potential financial pools include nonprofits like the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce and city funds. It is still uncertain when construction is expected to begin and whether the center will be a brand-new building or an existing structure, she said.
East Gainesville activists and community members are also showing support for the proposed cultural arts center.
Essence Thomas, a 24-year-old UF dance graduate, founded The Against All Odds Movement Project, a grassroots initiative seeking to empower and heal East Gainesville’s at-risk youth through arts education and involvement.
Earlier this year, Thomas helped survey issues in the East Gainesville community and artistic initiatives that could be beneficial for a study conducted by SPARC352 and the UF Center for Arts, Migration and Entrepreneurship.
As she went door to door, she heard similar stories from parents about ongoing gun violence within the community and a lack of access to arts and culture resources for youth, she said.
“They want to send their kids there and know that they'll be safe,” she said.
Outside creative resources, Thomas would like to see the proposed center provide mental health counseling, food insecurity resources and educational seminars to locals.
“It would benefit them because then they have this one hub where they can continue to write their own history,” she said. “The arts are a gateway to allowing youth to find their strength through adversity.”
The center should also be staffed with East Gainesville residents to create jobs within the community, she added.
Porters Quarters native Faye Williams, the 69-year-old founder of nonprofit M.A.M.A.'s Club and longtime social justice activist, is thrilled to see plans for an Eastside cultural arts center, but she is disappointed in how long it has taken to get the effort off the ground, she said.
Williams hopes the city holds future community workshops in East Gainesville to better engage with the impacted community, especially Black residents, she said.
“If you're talking about having something out East you’ve got to include Black folks,” she said.
East Gainesville resident Sharron Key, a 40-year-old staff accountant and mother of four children, thought the arts can serve as an outlet to help youth build the confidence to overcome learning obstacles in subject areas like math and science, she said.
“It opens up their imagination,” she said. “It shows them that there's something else they can do.”
Key also believes arts and culture education can help bring communities together, as our country continues to navigate a culture of division.
“The arts center will bring friendships because you're standing right next to your brother or sister — that's what you become when you're on a team or when you're in a safe place,” she said.
A second community engagement workshop will be held later this summer to help gather input and shape AMS Planning and Research’s feasibility study, Gonzalez wrote in an email.
The study’s findings will be presented to the City Commission in late 2023 or 2024, she said.
Contact Amanda at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.
Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande.