On the ground in North Tampa: What more is needed?

Ross Fabian, president of MidFlorida Football and Cheerleading, is no stranger to the challenges and opportunities in troubled neighborhoods.

Fabian has lived, worked, and volunteered in the University Area of north Tampa for 20 years, where he and his wife Sonja, who works at Moffitt Cancer Center, raised their children and have seen the investments and subsequent changes over the years driven largely by the University Area CDC.

They live just a block from the Harvest Hope Park that opened in 2017 and frequent it to walk and to meet up with friends, so they often see elders gathering for conversation and children and families out playing games, team sports, and enjoying the use of playground equipment.

“The one thing I notice is that there’s nothing for the teenagers, 15 to 17,’’ Fabian says. “If you’re under 14, yes, there are lots of things to do. But if you’re too old for those programs and not old enough to go to college or get a job, there are very few options other than to hang out with your friends and potentially get into trouble.’’

While the UACDC provides a great variety of classes, entertainment, healthcare, and social services for people young and old, including family services, more attention needs to be given to providing resources dedicated to older teens, he says.

The situation is much worse in other neighborhoods around central Florida that don’t have the benefit of the CDC.

“Youth programs in the inner cities are almost non-existent,’’ he says.

Mid-Florida Football and Cheerleading provides sports-related activities for children and teens, ages 4 to 16, and is able to reach thousands across the state, but Fabian is the first to say that sports aren’t the answer for every child. Additional services, programs, activities, mentoring, etc. are lacking in too many places.

Certainly, he says, the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCAs do lots to reach kids and teens in the neighborhoods where they exist. But teens and kids too young to drive and too young to ride public transportation by themselves often live way too far to walk to such facilities, swimming pools, basketball courts, etc. So they aren’t able to partake and can’t join sports leagues or get paired up with a mentor or find the kind of influences that traditionally keep teens headed in the right direction toward becoming productive adults.

“No offense, please,’’ he says. “But a lot of people and organizations seem to be getting and giving grants to serve low-income families but the youth who need the programs most aren’t seeing the results. The only exception is in the University Area.’’

The University Area CDC is also one of the few organizations that are actively engaged in attracting developers who are building a variety of affordable housing, from what he observes in his travels around the state to some of the poorest neighborhoods where he sees how and where low-income families are living.

The University Area CDC’s work north of Fletcher Avenue has been successful, Fabian says, “because they listen to the people and they take action. Action is what matters. They meet you where you are. They embrace you with love. The love they show … is something else. That is the key. And I’m not just saying that. It’s real.’’

“If you could figure out how to bottle what they have there and share it with other neighborhoods -- the ideals, the vision. They get it. It would be far better for everyone.”

Still, seeing what happened in Tampa during the May riots following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis is painful and hard to understand. 

“It hurts me to see what happened’’ at University Mall and to small businesses along Fowler Avenue, Fabian says. “The reason it hurts me? I don’t condone it. I don’t support it. But I can see why it happened. … We’ve been protesting since 1968, but too little has changed. Some days, I think nothing’s changed. Nothing. When are things going to change? When do we [Blacks] get to sit at the table.’’ 

“Everybody says they want to do something,’’ he continues. “But only the University Area CDC really does anything’’ as an action plan designed to change the neighborhood for the better. 

Beneficial change, Fabian points out, isn’t easy to achieve. Often, people living in poverty don’t really trust outsiders. Too many have experienced outsiders drop into their neighborhood, make promises, spend a little time and money, and go away when the challenges seem too great.

In addition, families living in poverty are forced to move often by circumstances beyond their control. Landlords fix up a property by doing things like removing linoleum and sanding hardwood floors, and then up the rent from $600 or $700 to $1,000 or more a month with little or no reason or notice. A family that’s already struggling financially can’t begin to pay an extra $300-$500 more per month, so they move. 

“Recently we lost a family with a teen I had been working with since he was 4. It hurt my heart,’’ Fabian says. “Their rent went from $600 to $1,000 and they couldn’t afford it, so they moved just like that to Ocala.’’  

“You have to understand that all these many years, people have been struggling,’’ Fabian says. “So now they tend to only trust people like me, people who’ve been here and lived here and made a difference here. That’s especially true among that age group of youth 15 to 17. They don’t trust anybody. They’re forced to go to school up to a certain age. But after school? All the youth programs are for kids 14 and under. There’s  nothing for those 15 to 17 to do.’’

Sports, he says, can play a small part in fixing that.

“If you can bring them in with sports, you can get them the other services. Sports is just the hook,’’ Fabian says. “In an ideal world, other services would include mentoring, tutoring, counseling, classes for music, art, dance, etc. Early intervention is even more important. These youth need a lot of guidance.’’

But in most neighborhoods, the only services for older teens are for “when they get into trouble,’’ Fabian says. “They get sentenced to those services, so they see them as a punishment rather than as an opportunity.’’ 

And, if they don’t access such services through the courts or elsewhere?

“The girls are just as bad as the boys. They’re smoking weed and selling drugs at 14-15. There’s nothing for them to do,’’ Fabian says. “They’re listening to rap music, drinking beer, and hanging out. There’s nothing else they know. Soon, the young man becomes the head of the household if you know what I mean.’’

And if they quit going to school or get sentenced to a trade school or another alternative school as punishment for being a dropout or a delinquent, “they get lost. Nobody seems to care. They lose hope.’’

The consequence?

“When you look at the looters seen on the security videos, the people who broke into those stores and stole stuff [following the peaceful protests], that’s the group I’m talking about. The youth are the looters, for the most part.’’

So how do we as a community fix this? How do we create a system of equity that includes everyone, so no group of people feels left behind? 

“A plan of action is OK. It’s a good start,’’ Fabian says. “But you have to go to them. It takes guys like me to go into the inner cities and be present. Not just for a visit. But to be there every day.’’

“You can come out and promise to give people something to make it better, but that’s not good enough unless you stick to it. Remember, they are living in poverty every day. They are struggling every day. They go to work every day. But they can’t get out. They lose hope. When you leave, what happens then? When you leave, there’s nothing for them either. Bad stuff happens.’’

As for police-community relations in the neighborhoods served by the University Area CDC, Fabian says, “we’re fortunate because relationships have been built over decades so we don’t have a problem here. People here respect the police. The police respect the people. The precinct here in the University Area has been here for a long time. We see them all the time. They’re in the neighborhood every day. They know the people. They don’t target anyone. It’s beautiful here. Very respectful. Sure, in policing, there are going to be some bad apples. But, overall they do a fine job. If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.’’

If you want to help in 2020, in this election year, Fabian says, think about who in the community is actually doing the work that matters. 

“Ask yourself, are you investing in the politicians, or are you investing in the people getting it done?’’ Fabian says. “Invest in the people on the ground, the people who have boots on the ground. Invest in those people. That’s where you need to put your money. They are working hand-in-hand with residents and communicating among people. If everyone could understand that and would fall in line behind them, it would make a real difference.’’ 

Ross Fabian is president of MidFlorida Youth Football and Cheerleading, which coordinates leagues in 19 Florida counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Orange, Hardee, Sarasota, and Manatee. 
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Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is a community leader and award-winning journalist with more than four decades of experience reporting and writing about the Tampa Bay Area of Florida. She serves on the boards of the University of South Florida Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications Advisory Council, The Institute for Research in Art (Graphicstudio, the Contemporary Art Museum, and USF’s Public Art Program) Community Advisory Council, Sing Out and Read, and StageWorks Theatre Advisory Council. She also is a member of Leadership Florida and the Athena Society. A graduate of the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism, she won the top statewide award for editorial writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors while at The Tampa Tribune and received special recognition by the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists for creative work as Content Director at WUSF Public Media. Past accomplishments and community service include leadership positions with Tampa Tiger Bay Club, USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy (WLP), Alpha House of Tampa Bay, Awesome Tampa Bay, Florida Kinship Center, AIA Tampa Bay, Powerstories, Arts Council of Hillsborough County, and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Diane and her husband, Sandy Rief, live in Tampa.