Born to Lose

Created after the 1980 riots, the Metro Miami Action Plan was supposed to level the playing field for blacks. What happened?

About two dozen men and women are assembled around a conference-room table in a small building on the campus of the Southeast Fisheries Science Center on a Friday morning in late February. Even though pictures of endangered turtles and a plastic cast of a 300-pound tuna hang on the wall, this is not an environmental meeting. Nonetheless there is a certain irony to this workshop being held at an agency that strives to prevent species extinction. The group gathered here today, the Metro Miami Action Plan (MMAP) Trust, has been endangered almost since the day it was born.

Yet despite MMAP's threatened status, it has stubbornly managed to hold on to existence for more than a decade and a half.

Billed as a "community's commitment to itself," MMAP was created in 1983 to do nothing less than eliminate the disparities between the black community and the rest of Dade County. After fifteen years of questionable success and frequent criticisms, the county's Audit and Management Services Department investigated and released a blistering review of the organization on July 31, 1998. The audit painted a picture of an organization adrift, highlighting administrative mismanagement, lack of strategic planning, and most important, deficient financial accountability. MMAP never tracked hundreds of thousands of dollars given to community-based organizations to learn if the money had produced any meaningful results. Auditors also observed an employee in MMAP's downtown office asleep and another often idle, reading newspapers.

The findings have helped land MMAP on County Manager Merrett Stierheim's list of errant departments. (Along with MMAP, stalking the hall of shame known as the Manager's Watch are nine county departments and agencies including the parks and recreation department, the aviation department, the building and zoning department, the water and sewer department, and the corrections and rehabilitation department.) An assistant county manager is currently conducting almost weekly meetings with MMAP administrators in an attempt to get the agency to implement reforms.

The audit is not alone in making this a treacherous time for MMAP. A 1992 ordinance gives the county commission the opportunity to eliminate MMAP, which has had an average annual budget of $2.5 million, in the year 2001. And county commissioners are watching. "The organization is on notice to correct matters," says Terry Murphy, chief of staff for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Millan, who has emerged as a critic of MMAP (Millan would not comment for this story). Time appears to be running out for the group. But don't count MMAP out. In the past when critics came gunning for the organization, it always dodged the bullet.

Today at the strategic planning session, under the gaze of a mounted fish, business consultant Donna Ginn is urging board members and staff to confront, and then move beyond, a sixteen-year-old dirty but open secret: MMAP was set up to fail. The agency was never given the resources or the assistance to accomplish such a lofty mission, some say. Instead it became a relatively inexpensive way to appease the black community, or at the very least, its political leaders.

"It was never designed to do anything, so whether it did anything has never been relevant," says T. Willard Fair, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami. "Politically it is very significant; from a county budgetary point of view, it is absolutely insignificant."

To become relevant MMAP must reinvent itself, Ginn tells those at the strategic planning session. "You have to ask yourself as an organization, what is the truth that you don't want to face?" she prods.

Ginn says she senses MMAP board members and staff operate defensively, out of the constant fear their days are numbered. She tells them it is not enough just to survive. "What is driving you as an organization is the need to justify your existence," she suggests.

"What drives me is the condition of Miami-Dade's black community," retorts Sherwood DuBose, MMAP's president and CEO, who has been with the organization since 1986. It's a condition of inequality and despair that has yet to improve measurably. Miami-Dade County's black community is among the poorest in the nation; statistically Liberty City and Overtown lag far behind in almost every indicator, including employment, income levels, and education. The poverty, the lack of home ownership, the school dropout rates, inaccessible health care, and the scarcity of black-owned businesses are what MMAP seeks to change, DuBose asserts.

To its credit MMAP has funded, through minor monetary awards, a raft of programs, groups, and conferences that can be labeled successes. A grant of $500,000 in two parts, the first of which came in 1996, helped establish a credit union in North Miami-Dade that after a little more than a year of operation has 840 members. Another $50,000 over two years funded a program to provide clothing, education, and medical services to women struggling to get off welfare. Sonia Jacobson, executive director of the Coral Gables-based Suited for Success program, acknowledges the grants were just a drop in the bucket in her annual budget of more than $500,000. But it was $50,000 her organization didn't have to scrounge to find.

For L. George Yap a $100,000 grant that MMAP gave his Leasa Industries Company in 1996 at the urging of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek saved his business at a time when he could not make payroll and no bank would loan him the money. "It kept the business going," Yap says. "That is why we are in existence today." The 58-year-old Jamaican native employs more than 65 workers, many of whom were previously on welfare or in prison. He has long been one of the few tenants in the Poinciana Industrial Center in Liberty City, a state enterprise zone that was also designed to lift the black community out of poverty, but has yet to make much of a dent.

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