Scherwin Henry: An action verb running for the Gainesville City Commission

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Scherwin Henry is an action figure. Even at age 67, he is a verb in a world full of nouns.

Most politicians and elected officials want to sit at a table, discuss differences, hear their constituent’s viewpoints and then form committees, study the issues, and in a couple of years break ground.

Henry would rather act.

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It’s not surprising for a man born and raised in Gainesville during its segregation period. In an environment like that, there isn’t a lot of time for quiet contemplation and reflection.

I met Henry at the Genesis Learning Center, a charter school that serves students in East Gainesville.

“He’s running about 10 minutes late,” his wife Charmaine tells me, and then keeps me company for a few minutes while also dealing with a couple of crying children, and reviewing her classroom’s work.

Quotable

“Being a city commissioner doesn’t define me. This is the community I grew up in… and for over 20 years, I’ve been working with groups to bring on change in this community. I’m a person that’s about getting things done.”

Mrs. Henry, as she is known at Genesis, is the principal of this school and a teacher. She stresses the importance of reading and praises me for becoming a writer. She’s created an impressive and important school, right on the frontlines of bringing quality education to students in a community that can fairly be described as underserved.

Now, in its 20th year, Genesis is a K-3 public charter school, utilizing the educational technique referred to as “looping,” which is the practice of a teacher moving with their students to the next grade level, rather than having a new teacher at the start of the following school year. “It creates a cohesion between students and teachers that has proven over the years to have improved outcomes,” says Mrs. Henry.

In many ways, that’s also how Scherwin Henry approaches his service to Gainesville. Through thick and thin, he stays with these residents, still teaching, serving, and making things happen.

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Still looping for Gainesville.

After a few minutes with Charmaine, Henry shows up and introduces himself. “Let me show you around,” he says and takes off down a long hallway… showing me the inner workings and students of Genesis.

Henry is a candidate for the Gainesville City Commission – At-Large, Seat #2. He served on the commission previously for two terms as the District 1 commissioner from 2006-2012.

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“During that time, District 1 experienced a major economic development event with the opening of the Wal-Mart Super Center,” Henry tells me. “That brought 450 new jobs to East Gainesville and the district.”

As we continued the tour, he continues to talk about his time as a District 1 Commissioner.

“I was also one of the first to speak about Wild Places and Public Spaces (WPPS),” he said. I was one of the first voices in support.”

WPPS is an initiative, voted into effect in 2016, and started in 2017 to extend the Alachua County Forever Program to acquire and improve environmentally sensitive lands to protect drinking water sources, water quality, and wildlife habitat, and to create, improve and maintain parks and recreational facilities in all cities and the county.

Henry was clearly proud of his work on the city commission, but for him it was a platform for action, not a destination or a title.

“Being a city commissioner doesn’t define me. This is the community I grew up in… and for over 20 years, I’ve been working with groups to bring on change in this community. I’m a person that’s about getting things done.”

He continues to answer my questions, but his pace is frenetic. Finally, we arrive at a small classroom, sit down on two chairs and a table designed for children, and I officially begin the interview, which is more like a vision cast of Gainesville, past, present and future.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Quotable

“The citizen’s hopes will be raised, and the expectation will be there, and then when the opportunity presents itself… there’s always some excuse as to why it can’t be done and for decades that has been the mode of operation. Fear rules when it comes to deciding to do something major in East Gainesville.”

Henry’s vision and goals for Gainesville are not too different than this current city commission; however, he does not believe their pace to make those goals a reality is rapid enough. Certainly not at the Henryesque pace I experienced during the tour.

He’s also skeptical that the true vision in Gainesville flows from the commission, but rather from the University of Florida.

“There are things that I have a vision for that I’m not hearing at this time from the city commission that I feel are important to the future viability and growth of our city. For years… really decades, we as a city have been a little lazy and what we’ve done is attached our fortune so close with the university that we haven’t really created a vision of who we are as a city. Basically, we allow the university to set the course, which we will take. My belief is that we should have goals, ideals and a vision as to who we are and where we want to go. Gainesville is changing, and we’re no longer the sleepy university town we used to be.”

Henry’s plan for Gainesville begins with utilizing what he believes are potentially booming areas – the downtown and East Gainesville.

“To move Gainesville forward, my priorities on the city commission would be work to expand the economy, targeting downtown and East Gainesville redevelopment,” he writes on his campaign website. “We must develop policy that supports small and medium-size business development. We must increase the city’s revenue streams.”

In our interview, however, his passion and frustration over this issue expand and become a more candid assessment.

“Our downtown is ripe for development to bring in jobs. Bring in retail… and the East Gainesville community is a missed opportunity to bring in jobs and housing that will give families that step up to live the quality of life they desire. But to make this happen; it’s going to take the will of the city commission to do it. For decades, promises have been made concerning investing in the eastern part of our city. The citizen’s hopes will be raised, and the expectation will be there, and then when the opportunity presents itself… there’s always some excuse as to why it can’t be done and for decades that has been the mode of operation. Fear rules when it comes to deciding to do something major in East Gainesville.”

He’s also perplexed at the lack of progress made from the Gainesville airport.

“Why is it we have the airport in our community, but we have not experienced any economic growth from having that asset in our community? If you go to other cities and look around their airport, you see warehouses, restaurants, hotels… we have nothing even resembling that around the Gainesville airport, nothing.”

On his campaign site, Henry addresses diversity and racial equity, and the need to change that path.

“We must also invest in the human capital of our city. Our residents, especially our youth need jobs. Our city must embrace diversity, inclusion, and tolerance to reach our full potential. Gainesville is a city undergoing change. I do support the city’s diversity and equity plan.”

However, in his interview, he is again far more passionate on the subject, and far less supportive of the city commission’s effectiveness.

“We just celebrated our 150th year as a chartered municipality. But even after 150 years there are places that look unchanged from the last 50 years, and that is utterly ridiculous and we as a city should be embarrassed that it still exists in our city… and I don’t hear anybody displaying the passion for change that needs to come about… and that’s why I’m running for the At-Large seat, because it gives me a larger canvas in which to paint our city. To visualize. To set our city on a path that all citizens can benefit and not just a few.”

Henry may seem to be critical of progress in Gainesville, and the challenge of racial, social and economic equity, but he comes to that skepticism from experience. Born in 1952, he saw firsthand what most of us have only heard stories about, or seen black-and-white photos of, or watched in documentaries or in a movie narrative.

To him, black and white has an entirely different meaning.

“Well, we don’t have the black-and-white fountains we had when I was a kid,” he said with a laugh when asked what has changed since his youth.

“We had to go to the back door to buy hamburgers because we weren’t allowed to go to the front. There were places we could go in like Woolworth, but they wouldn’t let you sit at the lunch counter. That was well-known throughout the South. We didn’t have integrated theaters either. We had the Rose Theater. The white population had two theaters, including the Florida Theatre.”

Quotable

“We just celebrated our 150th year as a chartered municipality. But even after 150 years there are places that look unchanged from the last 50 years, and that is utterly ridiculous and we as a city should be embarrassed that it still exists in our city.”

And unfortunately, the racism of the 50s and 60s did not stop at the front of a restaurant, a theater, or water fountain.

“Certain areas were not safe at night for African Americans,” Henry said. “It was dangerous for you to be caught in that area, because ignorant people would want to do bodily harm to you.”

Ironically, integration finally came to Gainesville in the late 60s – just in time to ruin Henry’s senior year.

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“My senior class was the last one at Lincoln High School… and in those days, it was seventh grade through 12th grade… so your cousins and aunts and uncles knew about your progress… they knew your family. Graduation was celebrated in that community. We had ceremonies, and every kid looked forward to the day when they would graduate and be the feature of the celebration. But then we got the news that they were going to close Lincoln High School. We actually invited the school superintendent to speak, and in 1969, he told us that Lincoln was not going to be closed… but when we came back from Christmas break in January of 1970, we found out Lincoln was closing. Our first day at Gainesville High School was in February 1970. Just like that, Lincoln was gone. To have all of that snatched from you, to be sent to an environment where you were unwanted was painful.”

But there was a bright spot for Henry at Gainesville High, that actually may have been his early introduction into politics.

“I had a teacher named Mr. Lowe, who taught current events. Even as a kid I loved politics and history. I loved social studies, and so being in Mr. Lowe’s class really kind of eased the tension for me somewhat. He was the first one who challenged me to think about politics. In his class, he and I would get into discussions every day. He would look forward to me coming to class and he would bait me sometimes… but he enjoyed debating with me, and he was the first person who ever said that I should get into politics. And I heard him… but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But later as I became involved in community activism, and before I made my first run at the city commission, I saw him at McDonald’s one day and I was able to share with him that his prophecy was coming true… that I was running for city commission. He was the bright light in all that turmoil at that time.”

And now Henry is a reflection of that bright light in Gainesville. A looper for the city and the community he loves.

Photos courtesy of the Scherwin Henry campaign.

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