OR Conversations is a weekly Q&A featuring conversations with local newsmakers.
Cynthia Harris runs her own nonprofit that empowers low-income and at-risk families to improve their lives through education. She’s a vocal advocate for the community’s most vulnerable residents and is running for the Orlando District 5 seat. She has served on the Brownsfield Committee with the City of Orlando, Orange County Sheriff’s Crime Prevention Committee, and the Black Advisory Committee at Valencia Community College. She also is the vice president of the Police Athletic League Orlando-Apopka and teaches tennis to area youth every Saturday at the John H. Jackson Community Center.
Orlando-Rising: You’ve said that affordable homes are not just places to live, but are also the building blocks of our communities. How do you propose to offer more affordable housing options to District 5 residents?
Cynthia Harris: We know what healthy communities look like and there are many success stories out there. The challenge is how to create one in our own place. As the next city commissioner, I would like to increase more financial measures on how to not only obtain home ownership, but how to maintain it. Our community needs support systems in place that have the same model that is put in place for at-risk youth and model it the same way to increase affordable housing that will also meet the needs of developers who want to build and the people who would like to own a place to call their own. No one should have to live in hotels while feeding their families with microwave foods and illegally cooking on hotplates. Families should not be restricted to fast foods and cold cuts or have to travel out of the area just to obtain it. Everyone should have healthy options to food, livable wage jobs to pay their bills and the ability to thrive in their communities that they love and choose to live in.
O-R: District 5 is in the midst of transition with the new UCF Downtown scheduled to open in the Creative Village in fall of 2019. How do think the new development will affect residents and future growth?
Harris: Gentrification has been a detrimental intrusion to the residents in District 5 and its surrounding area. Promises have been made to Parramore residents to come back home once the bulldozers have displaced its residents. However, the reality is that there is no intent for residents who can’t afford its high rises to return. Most residents received $20,000 or less for their properties to move or, if they were elderly, were preyed on by vultures who took advantage of them because they never had a true champion to fight their battle. Former Commissioner Daisy Lynum said so herself “give me two years and Parramore would no longer be black” As an elected official that shows the lack of respect for the residents who hired her to be the voice of this community. What I would like to see from this point, is UCF (my Alma mater) give back into the community that it assisted in gentrifying by offering educational discounts to its displaced residents who have nowhere to live with dignity but also afford them an education or some type of vocational training at a drastic discounted rate. Make more scholarship opportunities available and hire people in the community instead of outsourcing jobs to people who come other areas. The growth is beyond measure; however, we must elevate this growth with the people who reside here.
O-R: You started the nonprofit Carson-Chaney House to reduce poverty and homelessness, and increase medical care, health awareness, and education. Tell us why you named the organization after your grandmothers and how it’s helped the community.
Harris: Carson-Chaney is named after the two strongest women who impacted my life. Carson after my now 101-year-old grandmother who has had the opportunity to see the first African-American president as well as survive the Great Depression. She is wise beyond her years and I have learned so much from her and her resilience. Chaney is my grandmother who lived to be 93. She was a God-fearing woman and a preacher’s wife. She gave me tolerance to serve people and forgive even when they have pushed you to the limit. These women inspire me to serve and love the community I live in.
O-R: Describe how your career has helped prepare you for the city commission seat.
Harris: I have been afforded the opportunity to work in various fields that all coincide with each other. I started volunteering in the soup kitchen’s downtown when I was nine and have been serving in my community ever since. I believe that you never stop learning and should educate yourself in more than one discipline. I have worked and interned in almost every department within Department of Corrections from the prison system to probation and parole. I have been afforded an opportunity to not only work for mental health facilities but also assist in creating initiatives to assist mentally challenge clients to obtain bank accounts to sustain them in the community. I am a Mental Health Guardian Advocate and have advocated in behalf of clients to reduce or waive collection fees obtained while a client may have committed a crime when in crisis. I am one of two S.O.A.R. (SAMHSA’s SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery Technical Assistance) Trainers in Orange County, who trains case managers and attorneys to assist clients with benefits. I have a BS in Criminal Justice and 5 FEMA and 9 FDLE certifications. My experiences, education and training has afforded me an opportunity to put my skills to work.
O-R: If elected, what are your top priorities?
Harris: Community Policing- When we have a community who knows who is policing our neighborhoods, it reduces the tension and creates a sense of community
Jobs and Affordable Housing- This is not a blanket statement for me. I believe we need to amend the policies that have been put in place that has allowed our community to remain stagnant for so long. The days of low wage jobs must decrease. There is nothing wrong with working at McDonald’s however, we must have the ability to attract large corporations into our community that want to train the people who live here and not bring other people with them while we (our community) are still window shopping for these higher paying jobs.
Human Trafficking- We are so disconnected from our youth through the increase of technology that no one talks with one another anymore. We must learn the signs of our young ladies and men who are susceptible to exploitation and trafficking. They are our future, and we must do everything to protect our investment.
Environmental Racism- Currently the headwaters to the Wekiwa River are being destroyed by the Princeton Oaks development on W.D. Judge Drive in Orlando. State and federal laws are always constantly violated in Communities of Color because we are not financially able to fight the discrimination. More importantly we don’t understand why we are sick and it is often due to the toxic waste and disrespect to the most vulnerable residents in black and brown communities. We must be educated on the atrocities caused by governments who lack the integrity and respect to protect us but also participate in destroying us.