9/28/1997- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As the first anniversary of the disturbances that rocked St. Petersburg last fall approaches, Times columnist Bill Maxwell traveled to Miami to interview a man who has spent his life helping African-Americans and dealing with racial injustice. T. Willard Fair, for 34 years the president and CEO of the Greater Miami Urban League, has built a reputation throughout Florida for his results-oriented approach, his political pragmatism, and his passionate advocacy for inner city children.

Fair, 58, has confronted some of the problems said to have sparked the unrest in St. Petersburg. And he has his own views on how to deal with them. He’s a vocal critic of black-on-black crime, and has worked closely with Miami Police, often personally informing on those who commit crimes in Liberty City, one of the poorest black communities in the nation. He has provided money to build homes for poor families headed by single mothers. He has helped build the state’s first publicly supported charter school, a school in Liberty City that is using his educational approach to try to turn around the lives of inner city children. Coming from a family of self-made entrepreneurs, Fair advocates self-sufficiency, disparages self-destructive behavior and questions many of the federal programs that other black leaders see as panaceas.

What follows are edited excerpts from an interview conducted earlier this month.

Q: What’s your philosophy of education, and what do you say when people tell you that Liberty City kids cannot learn, that they’re victims of the so-called pathologies of urban poverty?

A: I told my board of directors back in the late 1980s that we ought to provide the leadership in the “last revolution” for black Americans. We called this revolution the “development revolution,” meaning that we’ve got to reach more deeply inside ourselves and do for self.

During the history of black folks, there’s been two significant revolutions. First was the legal revolution headed by black lawyers who understood that if black America was going to achieve equality, laws would have to change. The culminating activity was Brown vs. Topeka (in 1954). After Thurgood Marshall argued successfully that separate is unequal (in public education), Jim Crow laws began to tumble off the books.

In 1955, with Rosa Parks, the “civil rights revolution” began. The culminating activity was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then the 1965 Voters Right Act, then the 1968 Fair Housing Act. With all this legislation on the books, we had a golden opportunity to begin to pursue the American Dream.

But between 1964 and 1994, came three decades of abysmal neglect of children. Our black leaders were unable to cut the umbilical cord with the past and go forward. The next revolution has to be the development revolution, one that is unyielding, that focuses on education.

The key to success is not caught up in our skin color or in our past. Or affirmative action. It’s whether or not we can compete in the labor market. We must be prepared. And the only way to be prepared is to go to the public education system. We’ve got to add value back into education. We’ve got to make black families understand that if their children get educated, they can be whatever they want to be. It doesn’t mean that there’s no vestiges of racism. That will probably always be the case.

Still, we’re moving forward at the Urban League. We’re leaders in educational reform. We, therefore, had to be a leader in establishing Florida’s first charter school. We are acknowledging that, first, there is something wrong with public education. Second, instead of complaining and waiting for somebody else to correct the problem, we must figure out what has to be done within the system _ not outside the system.

Third, we’re looking for solutions that work, ones that make public education work for black kids who come from poverty, from disinfranchised families, from neighborhoods of violence and crime.

Q: What about the so-called pathologies of the inner city? Are they holding these kids back?

A: Pathologies be dammed. We keep making up all these excuses. Some of our greatest black scholars came from terrible economic circumstances. What has happened is that we have placed value on the wrong things and have allowed the pathologies to become real. If you define them as real, they become real.

If you believe that black children who live in a certain neighborhood, who come from certain kinds of families, cannot learn, then you will give them a school where they cannot learn and provide them with teachers who don’t have the credentials or the certification to teach them. You will give them an inferior curriculum.

Smart is something that you get, not something that you got. We should be spending all our time making sure that every child in our community understands that there are no shortcuts to success _ that the key to success is education. We’re not doing that.

Q: You talk a lot about “underutilized assets.” What does the term mean?

A: When we don’t challenge children to reach their fullest potential, when we assume that certain people cannot do certain things because of the color of their skin or because of where they live, we cheat them out of their potential. If we would exploit all human beings to their full potential, bring out of them the best of their talents and abilities, imagine where the world would be today.

We have only rewarded the genius of white people. What would have happened if we would have rewarded the genius of all people? How many more Frederick Douglasses would we have had? George Washington Carvers? We haven’t done that. There’s a whole wealth of people who are underutilized. All you’ve got to do is visit the inner city to see what I mean.

Q: What do you mean when you say that life for children, especially black boys, in the inner city is based not on cooperation but on competition?

A: One reason that we have not solved some of the major problems in Liberty City is that we don’t understand the culture of this community. Because we don’t, we approach the problem and the solution from our own middle-class, Judeo-Christian philosophy and value system, which says that things work best when people cooperate, when they try to reach a consensus.

It is just the opposite in a community where people are striving to be identified. In a cooperative environment, ideas are paramount. But in a disenfranchised environment _ where there is an identity crisis _ the person’s identity, the sense of self, is paramount. Therefore, identity gets raised through competition.

When you cooperate and come up with an idea, nobody knows whether or not you were more dominant or less dominant. In a competitive environment, dominance means everything. It’s: “I’m the fastest guy on the block. I can rap better than you. I got more babies than you.” It’s an identity crisis that is caught up in racism. In Liberty City, if you don’t understand that, you can make things worse instead of better.

Q: Are you saying that teachers in Liberty City are using the wrong paradigm _ the cooperation paradigm?

A: Yes. That’s why they hardly ever reach the kids. I was at our charter school yesterday, and we were using flash cards in math. You should have seen those little shorties when I started keeping score. They were excited not about how many they got right _ that’s for the teacher _ but how high that score will lift them in the eyes of their peers on the playground.

A teacher has to understand this principle and not stifle the competitive spirit and use it as a teaching instrument and not penalize it because she or he doesn’t understand. So, part of education reform is retraining teachers. Preparation for being an effective teacher in Liberty City is not the same as is required in Coral Gables By-The-Sea.

Q: What are most effective programs of the Miami Urban League?

A: First, we don’t run programs. What’s wrong with the black community in South Florida isn’t the absence of programs. The infusion of programs does not solve problems. We are about what we call “transformation.” We look at “systems change” rather than “program delivery.” The first step for systems change has to be behavior and attitude change in the black community.

So, we try to implement themes that will impact on the behavior and attitude of the black community to help people mature enough to change. It’s called “Back to Basics and Beyond.” It is a clearly defined, comprehensive, wholeness approach where we take a piece of geography that represents the black community on the assumption that we can transform this community.

We focus on children and the adults who surround the children. Everything that is wrong with the children is vested in the values and attitudes of the adults in their lives. Much of our advocacy is the condemnation of inappropriate behavior and attitudes of the adults in the community. We will not allow anybody to suggest to us that people have a right to sell drugs because they are unemployed. We won’t tolerate that attitude in our community. Its very expression serves to destroy our community.

We make no excuses about people in our community who exhibit criminal behavior. They will not find sanctuary in our community. We will turn them in. We will snitch on them. We don’t want them in our community.

For example, a young man was raping young girls in Liberty City two years ago. My staff and I got his description, closed the Urban League and passed out fliers in the neighborhood. While we were passing out fliers, some of the brothers were saying, “Man, y’all gonna serve the brother up?” I said: “You’ve got to be out of your mind. He’s in our community raping our children, and you’re going to suggest to me that the appropriate attitude is to ignore it because he’s black.”

Until we can get people to think positively, you can’t talk about economic development. You can’t talk about economic development if there is still an acceptance of folks who steal. You can’t ask the police to stop being brutal when people in the street have no respect for the law.

There’s a whole set of bad attitudes that have become values in our community. The Urban League attempts to identify those negative values, flag them and challenge the community to change, and, in so doing, make sure that we define penalties for the continued expression of destructive behavior.

We have a strong relationship with the police department. We want them to enforce the law _ no more, no less. We want every law enforced. I don’t want brothers selling drugs on the corner, and I also don’t want them walking down the streets with a 16-ounce can of Budweiser. Both are destructive and neither should be tolerated where you’re trying to place value on education. We have to insist on acceptable behavior and attitudes.

Q: How do you go about changing attitudes and values?

A: How did your mama change attitudes and values? Folks know what to do to change attitudes and values. First, you define what is a value. Second, you define the expectation in the exhibition of that value. Third, you define dissatisfaction and penalties for not living up to the expectations of that value. Fourth, you enforce the penalties uncompromisingly.

That’s how the process has always worked. Our parents had a strong set of values. If you are honest and reflect on your life, you sense that you do some things and don’t know why you do them. You do them because they were couched into values of your parents. I know that I am frugal because my mother ingrained frugality in me. It’s all about values, transformation, self-sufficiency, controlling your own destiny, figuring out how to achieve in spite of external circumstances.

Q: Why is so much of your focus on single mothers?

A: We know who needs our services. Most organizations don’t do a critical analysis to determine their focus. The Urban League knows that 66 percent of Liberty City households with children are headed by single mothers. We must focus on them. It’s the new reality. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that our families have a father and a mother.

Q: What’s your opinion of Weed and Seed programs? Do you think that before a neighborhood can be fixed, you’ve got to remove the bad stuff first?

A: Absolutely. But Weed and Seed is government reaction. It has to be people reaction. It has to be a community attitude that all you bad guys are going to get out of here, that there is no fertile ground to plant new bad guys in here.

Q: Some blacks in St. Petersburg see Weed and Seed as a bad thing. Is that an accurate appraisal?

A: If St. Pete’s Weed and Seed does not have a concept of success built in and if the community does not support attitude and behavior change, then it won’t work. If it is simply tied to the fact that the police are going to come in and run the bad guys out without the community buying into it, it won’t work. It has to be part of the character of the community. You’ve got to have a new mind-set in the community in terms of right and wrong.

We don’t talk about why there’s a need for a Weed and Seed. It ain’t because of an absence of programs. It’s because of a preponderance of the wrong attitudes. I hear folks say that young blacks, especially males, have poor self-esteem. The problem is not poor self-esteem. The problem is lack of confidence.

Anybody who will leave home with a Buckwheat haircut, with nine gold teeth in their mouth, walking down the street with their ugly underwear showing ain’t suffering from low self-esteem. You’ve got to have great self-esteem to do that in public.

They do it because they can’t read and can’t speak properly, so they must find ways to hide their lack of confidence. We keep working on self-esteem, and the brothers keep getting worse because we are not working on building confidence. We need to help them feel good about their ability and reward them for doing well. We need to put value on being smart. Celebrate when they do well. When they make an “A” in school, we should make it sound like they have just invented a new formula to cure a disease. Let them understand that they have the talent and ability to be whatever they want to be.


We’ve got to make black families understand that if their children get educated, they can be whatever they want to be.


We make no excuses about people in our community who exhibit criminal behavior. They will not find sanctuary in our community.


The key to success is not caught up in our skin color or in our past. Or affirmative action. It’s whether or not we can compete in the labor market.


If St. Pete’s Weed and Seed does not have a concept of success built in and if the community does not support attitude and behavior change, then it won’t work.