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Voting rights group tells White House of major legal and policy issues facing Black Floridians

 Jasmine Burney-Clark, Founder of Equal Ground
Equal Ground Education Fund
Jasmine Burney-Clark, Founder of Equal Ground

Florida-based Equal Ground leaders discussed federal funding for HBCU’s, broadband internet access and impact of 'unsafe' state laws on millions of Black residents with senior White House officials.

A Black-led group of Florida-based civic engagement activists were invited to the White House this month to discuss several wide-ranging issues, including federal funding for HBCU’s, broadband internet access and the impact of new state laws on Florida’s 3.2 million Black residents.

Invited to the meeting with senior White House officials were Jasmine Burney-Clark, the group’s founder and consulting director, along with Equal Ground Board Member Jackie Lee.

Equal Ground has been a vocal critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration on voting rights, removing state attorneys from office and the teaching of Black history courses.

Burney-Clark spoke with WLRN’s Morning Edition Producer Natu Tweh about her meeting with senior White House officials.

On funding for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)

The White House says it has taken “historic actions" to support HBCUs with $7 billion that includes $3.6 billion through the American Rescue Plan, $1.6 billion in debt relief for 45 public and private schools, and $1.7 billion to help low-income students.

“The Biden administration understands that it has allowed for students to maintain their collegiate careers by providing additional funds for these college presidents, to help make sure students can sustain themselves when they're in these institutions," Burney-Clark said.

The funding is critical, she said, noting that three of the state's HBCUs are private so their state funding is limited.

On the expansion of broadband internet

The Biden administration announced last May that tens of millions of American families could reduce their internet service costs by up to $30 per month, along with other discounts, as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill that included the “Affordable Connectivity Program.”

“They [White House officials] have identified on the ground a program officer who lives in state, who works in community, who visits folks in rural neighborhoods and in hard to reach places, to identify ways for them to get broadband access up and created," Burney-Clark said.

On challenging ‘unsafe’ Florida laws

“We made the plea as Floridians that [help] needs to be swift, it needs to be just and it needs to be immediate."
Jasmine Burney-Clark

Burney-Clark said she told White House officials they want the Biden administration to challenge Florida laws Equal Ground views as “unsafe” for Black Floridians.

“Black folks in this state are in an environment where we are unsafe and there are laws that make it so,” Burney-Clark told WLRN.

READ MORE: Critics slam Florida's Black history lesson on 'benefit' of slavery

She noted that Equal Ground agreed with the NAACP travel advisory issued last May that warned potential tourists that recent laws and policies championed by the governor and Florida lawmakers were “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.”

The NAACP’s decision came after the DeSantis’ administration last January rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. DeSantis said the AP course pushed a political agenda.

DeSantis and Republican lawmakers also pressed forward with measures that ban state colleges from having programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as critical race theory, and also passed the Stop WOKE Act that restricts certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses. DeSantis defended his actions, saying "people want to see true academics and they want to get rid of some of the political window dressing."

“We made the plea as Floridians that [help] needs to be swift, it needs to be just and it needs to be immediate," Burney-Clark told WLRN of her message to White House officials.

Equal Ground v. DeSantis

Equal Ground has taken on the DeSantis administration on several major issues affecting Black Floridians.

They are among the plaintiffs challenging a Florida redistricting plan pushed by DeSantis, saying it violates the state constitution because it restricts the ability of Black voters in north Florida to pick a representative of their choice. The case is pending in an appeals court after a state judge in Leon County agreed with the plaintiffs.

Equal Ground slammed DeSantis for recently suspending State Attorney Monique Worrell — the state's only Black woman State Attorney, saying he “abused his power and undercut the democratic process in Florida.”

DeSantis’ office began investigating Worrell earlier this year after 19-year-old Keith Moses was charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Spectrum News 13 reporter Dylan Lyons, Nathacha Augustin and 9-year-old T’yonna Major. The girl’s mother and Spectrum News 13 photographer Jesse Walden were also shot. He then suspended Worrell from office in Aug. 4.

Shortly after the shooting, DeSantis’ general counsel said in a letter to Worrell that she failed to hold Moses accountable despite his criminal record and gang affiliation.

DeSantis also cited other cases, noting Worrell avoided minimum mandatory sentences on charges that included gun crimes, drug trafficking and child pornography.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Natu Tweh