Comments critical of the racial makeup of the workforce at Selby Gardens and Michael’s On East draw pushback from those organizations.
When City Commissioner Willie Shaw explained his vote against Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ master plan at a Nov. 5 meeting, he cited concerns about the traffic associated with the proposal.
But the majority of his comments at the end of the public hearing focused on a different topic: the racial diversity of project stakeholders.
Shaw said he was happy to see aspects of Selby’s proposal designed to engage with a broader cross-section of the community, including an initiative to promote workforce training for Sarasota residents and a program providing memberships to families in underserved areas. But he said previous promises to promote diversity in Sarasota, including those targeting residents in Newtown, located in Shaw’s commission district — have often failed to produce the desired results.
Shaw commented on the racial makeup of those involved with the master plan, including restaurant operator Michael’s On East and Willis A. Smith Construction.
“We’re not in it,” Shaw said, referring to Sarasota’s black population. “You said that you’re going to bring everybody into it. Where are we?”
In the wake of that meeting, Shaw’s comments have drawn pushback from the organizations he criticized. Michael’s On East published an open letter on its website calling Shaw’s statement that the company did not employ one black person “patently false.”
“Michael’s On East has been successful for more than 32 years because we hire incredible people who are qualified for their job, show up to work and are committed to excellence in hospitality, regardless of race,” Michael’s co-proprietors Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini said in the letter.
Through a spokesperson, Michael’s said approximately 30% of its workforce is nonwhite and that 15 families from the 34234 ZIP code in north Sarasota are working with Michael’s. The spokesperson did not provide information on the number of black employees at the restaurant.
Selby Gardens President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki acknowledged that Selby might have struggled to cultivate a racially diverse audience and workforce in the past, but she said the nonprofit had begun to work in earnest toward making improvements in that regard.
“We were heartbroken by those comments because we are committed to diversity and change in this community,” Rominiecki said of Shaw’s remarks. “We know that diversity is an issue throughout Sarasota, and change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re working hard to get more of the community involved on all levels.”
Rominiecki did not dispute Shaw’s statement that Selby Gardens employs one black person. She said 20% of the people Selby interviewed for jobs and 18% of the organization’s hires in the past year were people of color.
In 2017, Selby Gardens started its Family Togetherness program, which brings underserved children and families to the gardens for major events. The My Garden program, referenced during the public hearings on Selby’s master plan, provided 250 memberships to underserved families. Rominiecki said that was intended to ensure those families could come whenever it was convenient, rather than just for special events.
Selby Gardens is working in partnership with Newtown Alive to highlight the history of black workers on the Selby grounds. Newtown Alive consultant Vickie Oldham said there was an opportunity to acknowledge contributions Newtown and Overtown residents made to Selby Gardens through the master plan.
Asked about Shaw’s sentiment that diversity was a shortcoming for Selby, Oldham expressed optimism that the organization was working to improve itself.
“I’d like to give Selby the chance to be more diverse and inclusive,” Oldham said. “How could you not give an institution and agency the chance to do what has not been done before?”
Shaw did not respond to a request for comment. His remarks drew support from former City Commissioner Kelly Kirschner, who sent an email to city officials in response to an article detailing criticism of Shaw’s remarks. Kirschner questioned Selby’s motives in highlighting diversity initiatives as it sought approval for a major land use change, and he emphasized Shaw’s hope Selby would not reduce its focus on underserved communities once the city rejected the master plan.
Kirschner hoped Selby was genuinely intent on improving diversity. Still, he was critical of those upset with Shaw, whom he characterized as bringing to the forefront an aspect of the master plan conversation that had previously been left as subtext.
“I think we all have to recognize that white fragility is just as real as white privilege,” Kirschner said.
When she moved from New York to Sarasota in 2015, Rominiecki said she was surprised to learn how segregated Sarasota is. She said promoting diversity is a challenge for many community organizations, but she said it remains a priority for Selby.
“Change is not easy, but it’s something that we are committed to,” Rominiecki said.