As I’ve watched the scenes of anger, pain, discord and violence across the country the past few days, I’ve tried to identify ways to contribute to the solution and the way forward. There are many that I hope to pursue, and one of those is to be more proactive and public in my appreciation for black individuals and leaders making a difference.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with and observe many incredible black leaders in Polk County over the years. I wanted to highlight a few as a way to hopefully heal our community in a small way and to take a small personal step toward a more intentional way of sharing the burdens of my neighbors.
The names below are by no means an exhaustive list. We are blessed with many, many black leaders in official and unofficial positions impacting our community. That’s a major reason why I’m confident in Polk County’s ability to come out of this stronger and more united. We have a track record, especially in recent years, of diverse leadership committed to working together to solve our problems and create a better future for all. My hope and prayer is that trend continues.
Without further ado … here are some of Polk’s finest:
Gow & Kay Fields
Talk about a power couple. Kay has served faithfully on the Polk County School Board since being first elected in 2002. She is also president/CEO of Girls Inc. in Lakeland, a nonprofit committed to improving the lives of girls in grades K-12. I’ve not always agreed with her on some of her school board positions, but I’ve always been impressed by her conviction and absolute commitment to do what she feels is best for the kids of Polk County. She is a tireless advocate who puts her words into action.
Gow was a member of the Lakeland City Commission for 22 years, including four as mayor from 2010-2014 (doesn’t seem like it’s been that long ago). He has been a small business owner through his insurance and financial services firm. I always enjoy seeing him at the 4-Ball golf tournament; he’s a very good golfer. My first experience with Gow was when I was the preps editor at The Ledger and he reached out gracefully inquiring why I wasn’t giving more coverage to the Kathleen girls basketball team, which was having a great season (his little nudge worked). His thoughtful leadership and dedication have made a lasting impact on Lakeland government.
Polk County’s superintendent of schools since 2016, Byrd recently announced she plans to retire. That is a loss for our county and for our kids. I’ve not had the opportunity to interact with her on an individual level, but I’ve seen her present in person and followed her impact on the school district. She has a deep passion for kids, and her results have been undeniable – an increase in the graduation rate from 69.4% to 81.2% and the overall grade of the district improving from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’ as just a couple of her many accomplishments.
McGriff has been the boys basketball coach at Bartow High School since 2002. He has won two state championships and was Florida’s Coach of the Year in 2020. He’s also simply one of my absolute favorite people that I got to work with while at The Ledger. The 2010 championship team, which I had the privilege to cover, sucked me in as a fan thanks to the culture McGriff built and the respect that I had for him and how he built the program. Coach McGriff’s energy is contagious, and he deeply loves his players, his school and Bartow. He demands that his players not only excel on the court, but in the classroom and in the community. I left every interview or game when I covered him and his team feeling inspired, and I’ve always admired his clarity of mission for where God has placed him and the people he is called to serve.
Currently working in the communications department of the Polk County School District, Merissa was a colleague of mine while at The Ledger. She actually gained national acclaim for her work reporting on the murder of Abraham Shakespeare, the local lottery winner who was tragically killed by someone who took advantage of him and his winnings. Merissa was a standout reporter then, and she’s since used her skills to make a difference through her work in local government. She is a past recipient of the Polk Emerging Leaders award, and is a fierce (or should I say Violet Fierce, for those who know her) advocate for all things Polk County.
Another local leader with whom I’ve not had the chance to interact with personal, but I’ve always respected how he has taken seriously his responsibility to represent the citizens of his district. He has served on the Lakeland City Commission since 2010. His leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, in particular, has been impressive. Walker asks tough questions and isn’t afraid to make controversial decisions if he believes they are the right decisions.
Anyone who enjoys the revitalization of the Massachusetts corridor of Downtown Lakeland (Haus 820, Collective at Mass Market) and is excited for the future development of the city has Travis to thank for much of the progress. She is the director of community and economic development for the city, and previously oversaw the community redevelopment agency that made so many strides with property redevelopment north of downtown. In my brief interactions with her and in watching her present, I’ve been impressed with her depth of knowledge and passion for moving our community forward.