United Way Suncoast Builds New Bridges In Tallahassee

United Way Suncoast education manager Michele Brown (center) joins other UWS team members and volunteers in a discussion with State Sen. Darryl Rouson.

   No one in the United Way of Florida contingent arrived in Tallahassee wearing construction hats. 

   Not a single person from the state’s various local United Ways brought blueprints to the state capital, drove up on heavy equipment or towed high tonnage cylinders across the city’s seven hills. 

   But they all came on Nov. 7 and Nov. 8 to build bridges with the politicians who make impactful decisions for Florida. 

   “It’s really about finding the commonalities,” United Way Worldwide state policy director Naomi Lett told the group as it prepared to engage legislators. “When we talk about your ability to build that bridge, you don’t have to understand politics or even understand how the legislature works. 

   “You just have to be an expert in what you do.”

Remove The Invisible Walls

   Lett challenged the 50-plus “experts” in attendance, including 15 team members and volunteers from United Way Suncoast, to find the person in each of the representatives, setting aside partisan differences. It’s key, she said, to removing the invisible walls trapping the community members United Way strives to serve.

   Led by United Way of Florida CEO Melissa Nelson and the guidance of RSA Consulting, representatives from more than 20 local United Ways heeded Lett’s advice and sought to remove the walls.

   The advocacy work of United Way of Florida and United Way Suncoast may seem lofty in its aspirations, but it continues to yield results. In 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation into law that increased or sustained support for early learning, affordable housing, KidCare expansion and United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

More Positive Policy Shifts?

   United Way team members left Tallahassee with strong indications that there will be more positive policy shifts emerging from the 2024 session. Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, sponsored the VITA bill and will do so again in 2023. He encouraged every day folks to support VITA through volunteering. 

   “The times in life when you feel best is when you’re helping others,” Gregory told the United Way group. 

   Rep. Traci Koster, R-Tampa, has her sights set firmly on enhancing behavioral health. That will including support for the children served by United Way Suncoast. Rep. Lindsey Cross, D-St. Petersburg, has added affordable housing to her agenda. All of these issues align with the United Way of Florida and United Way Suncoast consensus legislative agendas.

Don’t Be Silent

   United Way Suncoast team members also got a chance to meet with Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers (DeSoto), Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Rep. Karen Gonzalez-Pittman, R-Tampa, Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton.

   In the end, one of the biggest takeaways came from Sen. Jay Collins, R-Tampa. At the start of the day. Collins encouraged United Way members to get involved and tell elected officials where there are gaps in service.

   “As quiet professionals, that does not mean silent,” Collins said. “When you’re silent, others will speak for you. When you’re quiet, people wait and listen to what you have to say.”

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