Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry lunched Monday with students from Lee High School’s “EVAC” program, a leadership class at the Westside school.
EVAC is the word cave spelled backwards; the name represents the students emerging from the issues that can affect children from at-risk environments.
One student, describing the concept, said it was a way toward empowerment. Curry, meanwhile, would like to see the program extended to the entire city over time, with the Lee students as mentors and leaders.
“The big goal is replicate it everywhere. Let’s pick some folks that need to see the light,” Curry said, offering to facilitate.
Ribault High and Ribault Middle may be the first expansion points for the program, which could be a tool in modeling class mobility to those who may otherwise fall through the cracks so familiar to Jacksonville policy makers.
“We look at the news, only see the bad stuff … the thugs and violence … if we can show the positivity,” one student said, there would be a counter to the negative imagery in the mainstream media.
“As a group,” added another student, “we’re beating the odds and accomplishing things.”
Curry started off the hour by relating to the students, noting that his background didn’t lend itself necessarily to being mayor, but that he had learned the same lessons they had to learn to get to the mayor’s office.
Students talked about their ambitions: an aspirant lawyer, an aspirant neurosurgeon, an aspirant dentist, and even an aspirant United States President were on hand.
Curry noted the importance of staying close to one’s passions, noting that even as a student at the University of Florida, he coached youth football — a trend that continues today, with his own son, who is a quarterback and a linebacker currently.
Coaching is not without its pitfalls. Curry got into hot water with parents at one point for “ranting and raving” on the field, a function of his trademark intensity.
The mayor also vowed to take the students to a Jacksonville Jaguars game … and host them in the skybox.
The mayor also discussed motivation, noting a podcast he listened to over the weekend about the subject of motivation, and tying it into the students’ own struggles.
“I love competing and I love winning, and I’ve learned to channel that into things that are good,” Curry said. “Hard work beats talent all day.”
Curry noted that he started off at a community college post high school: his grades weren’t strong in high school, yet “hard work and discipline” allowed him to become an A student in college.
When asked his vision for the city as a whole. Curry noted his “big-picture goal” is for a “city where every neighborhood knows we have equal opportunities, where young men and women know we love them.”
“I want a safe city with equal opportunity. That’s simple to state, but complicated to achieve,” the mayor noted.
“One City One Jacksonville means we’re all one,” the mayor noted, asking the students for input on his Jacksonville Journey initiative.
“We have to be very targeted,” Curry said of the program that is intended to prevent youth from falling into the behavioral patterns that lead to the criminal justice system.
Curry noted that, during the 2015 campaign, he learned about the disparities in the city — a lesson not lost on his children, who went canvassing with him on occasion.
“What we focus on is the reality we’re in right now,” Curry said. “Focus on what you want to achieve, where you want to go, and what you want to do.”
Curry discussed the difficulties of campaigning city wide.
“It was challenging. We’re the biggest geographic city. A lot of neighborhoods,” Curry said, “but I learned so much and I carry that with me every single day.”
Curry told a story of a 9 year old boy who answered the door and told the mayor about seeing his best friend shot in the street.
“My son never experienced that,” Curry noted.
During the campaign, Curry posed the question: “How many more kids have to die?”
The discussion continued past noon over Pizza Hut and cola drinks, ranging from TED Talks to after-school activities and YMCA access.
As is the case with these discussions, the students started off reserved, then the conversation became more natural as all parties adjusted to the conference room setting.
The program, said another student, “changes your mind … gives you hope.”
The students host roundtables and other events that offer concrete results.
EVAC students have met with everyone from former President Barack Obama to State Attorney Melissa Nelson, and that mentorship gives them hope that, despite the adversity they’ve faced, good things can happen.
Curry advised students to read biographies of historic figures.
“They wanted to win,” Curry said, pointing out that overcoming adversity is key to any of their struggles for greatness.