“We need to be seen, heard and listened to.”
By Bobby R. Henry, Sr.
In the group of people that I met with was minister of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Gary Mcnealy; Mary Evans, a retired educator; the mayor of Belle Glade, Steve Wilson; the mayor of South Bay, Joe Kyles; the city manager of South Bay, Leondrae Camel; the former commissioner of Clewiston, Janet B. Taylor; and founder of Glaze Lives Matter as well as an advisor for Glades Live Matter, Katia St. Fleur.
Glades Lives Matter (GLM) is a community based organization that was started in 2016 as a way to give a voice statewide to the Glades. GLM represents South Bay, Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahokee, Okeechobee, and Moorehaven. This organization was formed from situations that has been brewing over the years concerning the misinformation and education about the sugar industry in the Glades, more particular that of U.S. Sugar.
In regards to some of the hateful and derogatory statements that were being made towards the Glades, I found out very quickly that the information and topics that I had discussed with U.S. Sugar were some of the focal points that GLM has been fighting for a while.
“Let’s not get it twisted. Sugar will always be an important aspect of this community and if anybody tells you anything different that would be wrong.” That statement from Mayor Wilson set the tone of the meeting.
There were no punches being pulled. The atmosphere was something that I had not read about in articles. The citizens of the Glades are well informed. “The water that flows out of the farms is cleaner than when it comes in, yet some people will have you believe that U.S. Sugar was pumping dirty water back into the Lake. Oh, they don’t even back pump”. This is how knowledgeable the citizens are and that came from Rev. McNealy.
Mayor Kyles, who was employed at U.S. Sugar for almost 30 years and was a business representative for the union, talked about how some athletes from the area get things all messed up and then he said, “You know how it is that athletes who come from here in great shape competing in combines and go on to play professionally. How can they do this if they have health problems? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Then they bring their sons to play football for schools here. Now you tell me who would subject their families to bad air?”
One area of noted concern was the workforce. When we spoke about the training offered and the technical support from U.S. Sugar in trying to reinforce the workforce with their academy, there was concern. Mayor Wilson wanted to stress the point that folk needed to talk openly and honestly because Black youths didn’t wanna have anything to do with it (farming). For them, it was like insulting them.”
However, when city manager Camel painted the picture with the analogy of a sinking boat in reference to Black students not wanting to farm, it was clear. “It was farming then; however, now it’s about agriculture and that we needed to be honest. We have a hole in the boat, but I’m going to say that the whale sank my boat”.
Ms. Evans and Ms. Taylor pointed out how students need the vocational training and not all students were college material. “A student who left to go to Edward Waters College came back the next semester and begin to work for U.S. Sugar. Everybody is not going to college”.
How do you create a workforce for those who are not interested in farming? It has a lot to do with how young people perceive that they are seen.
“Farming has a negative connotation. The seeds have already been planted, NO FARMING let’s be honest African Americans are not gravitating towards farming, said Mayor Wilson.
Even with the loss of three or four sugar mills which means fewer jobs, the citizens are concerned that if U.S .Sugar goes so does life as they know it.
Jobs and housing work hand-in-hand as you need a job so you can get housing. City manager Camal can see the vision of growth for the area, however; the growth needs to be such that it wouldn’t push others out. “I need Sister Campbell to be here. I don’t need for her to be pushed out, yet some people may be able to afford $300,000 homes. We need the $80,000 homes. If we’re not careful gentrification will come in and we will lose.” It was noted by Rev. McNealy that they had approached U.S. Sugar concerning housing some years ago and there was something proposed but nothing has transpired.
The need for inclusion was a point that was stressed by getting Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University and other HBCUs involved by allowing U.S. Sugar to understand that there are Black people who can do those higher level jobs.
“Diversity in senior leadership we are extremely passionate about it and allowing them to see that we are capable and qualified with every degree needed from a BS to a PhD.” Again City Manager Camel is on point with the vision of the group.
Reverend McNealy continued to stress the point that they [citizens] have to get involved more and continue to put the concerns and issues before U.S. Sugar. “They have shown us that they are willing to work with us, but we cannot fall asleep at the wheel.”
Most noted during this conversation for me: it was obvious that this group wanted the truth to be told. Yes, there are problems; however, they agree that U.S. Sugar is not perfect but they recognize that as neighbors and to be a good neighbor they have to help.
GLM’s very first battle was in Tallahassee fighting Senate Bill 10 during the legislative session 2017. SB 10 threatened to take away land and put mills out of production. That would have completely destroyed the economy and taken away hundreds of jobs.
Ms. Taylor spoke to the community coming together to fight to tell their story. “Members of the community decided that no one else would serve as a voice for the Glades but the Glades and from then on Glades Lives Matter has been responsible for taking over 200 residents of the Glades to Tallahassee including over 50 students. Since 2016, GLM has also distributed more than $20,000 in scholarships to Glades students because COVID that had to be stopped, but will be back in full swing.
“As much as farming has changed and there is a focus on agriculture, it is an obvious and extremely passionate subject for those who live in the Glades. Even though technology has changed and the farmers are riding around in air-conditioned tractors and everything is almost animated and they are finding ways to bring in more technology, we still have to rely on people, and we need to get our people ready,” emphases Mayor Kyles.
The people of the Glades are welled informed, highly active and refuse to allow anybody to threaten their lives .their livelihood and their existence in any way shape form or fashion. From economics to environment to healthcare to education to the leadership from the legislators to municipal government, community activist, ministers even the children are involved in moving the Glades forward and holding U.S. Sugar and anybody else accountable to their actions.
GLM has served as the voice for the Glades since 2016 and continues to be a conduit between elected officials throughout the state of Florida and the people of the Glades. Their mission at GLM is to continue to educate the residents about the issues concerning their community and educating the rest of the state about the issues concerning the glades.
Please do it for yourself go over to the Glades take a tour and find out for yourself just what is really burning on the Muck. This was truly an eye opener for me thank to to all those who made this possible.