2015 Unity Award Winners: Champions of Diversity

Meet our 2015 Champions of Diversity.

By Chelsey Lucas December 31, 2014

Photography by Barbara Banks


For the fifth year, Biz(941) and La Guia magazines are proud to honor the individuals and companies that embrace the range of humanity in our workplaces and community. They are creating an environment of equality, where every person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, cultural background and experiences are valued and contribute to the way we do business. This year’s winners have been bringing health care to underserved communities, ensuring immigrant workers’ rights, educating the disadvantaged and creating jobs for the hard-to-employ. They show all of us that such work leads to stronger companies, more successful organizations and a more vibrant Southwest Florida.



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"The best social program is a job."

“THE BEST SOCIAL PROGRAM IS A JOB,” says Eladio Amores, who has worked to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities since the age of 12, when his older brother became a quadriplegic and Amores became his attendant.

Last summer, after 14 years of volunteering for The Able Trust—a statewide nonprofit created by the Florida Legislature that raises money for programs like job-skills training, employer outreach and ADA compliance education—Amores was named its 2014 Volunteer of the Year. “During my chairmanship, we gave more money than at any other time, $2 million a year,” he says. (Among the recipients are Easter Seals, Goodwill and ARC-the Association for Retarded Citizens.)

The Cuban-born, Venezuela and Puerto Rico-raised Amores, 65, owned a consulting firm that trained companies on diversity. The “Pathways to Independence” training program he developed for Marriott International resulted in 3,000 people with disabilities gaining employment. He also spent 10 years with the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Amores recently joined Goodwill Manasota in the newly created position of director of employment services. He works with employers to hire people with “barriers to employment—disabilities No. 1, and also criminal records, or people who are coming off welfare, or young people who have no work experience but need a job,” he says.

“There’s a lot of myth, unfortunately,” he says. “[Employers] think because somebody has a disability that’s going to make their workers’ comp go up, or if they hire somebody then they cannot ever fire them; that’s not true. I do a lot to educate employers.” Ilene Denton


LEGAL WINNER Laura Safer Espinoza

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"It provides safe and humane conditions for the men and women who harvest our food. It's a new day in agriculture."

IN 2011, WHEN LAURA SAFER ESPINOZA became the first executive director of the tiny nonprofit Fair Food Standard Council, headquartered in downtown Sarasota, she didn’t anticipate that her organization would so quickly receive worldwide attention for its fight to protect farmworkers. But last fall the Fair Food Program won a 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Global Citizen Award. President Clinton stated that the program “is the most astonishing thing politically happening in the world we’re living in today.”

Espinoza, 61, is an attorney, retired New York Supreme Court Justice and lifelong social activist. She retired to Southwest Florida in 2010, after her husband told her to approach this next phase of her life like a candy store. “You’ll get to pick what you want to feast on,” he said.

The Fair Food Standards Council ensures that the hard-won rights of Florida’s 30,000 tomato pickers, recently won by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, are upheld. Those rights include an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they pick, clean drinking water and other basic decencies.

Espinoza and her crew monitor the treatment of workers in the field and do meticulous financial audits. In just three years of existence, their work is paying off in a big way for the agricultural workers who harvest Florida’s $650 million crop, and Espinoza is taking the campaign to other states.

“This is a beautiful partnership of workers, growers and buyers,” Espinoza says. “It provides safe and humane conditions for the men and women who harvest our food. It’s a new day in agriculture.” —Susan Burns


BUSINESS WINNER Zenith Insurance Company

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Ensuring diversity: Zenith employees Edwin Orama, Christine Mathis, Nikelia Belvin, Thomas Cummings.

ZENITH INSURANCE COMPANY, a workers’ compensation insurance company with offices in seven states, has been in business for some 60 years and has always had a commitment to diversity, says Ursula Nixon, vice president of human resources. But two years ago, the company decided to formalize its commitment to its 1,400 employees, 215 of whom are in downtown Sarasota, by instituting a diversity and inclusion program.

“Zenith’s diversity and inclusion policy goes beyond gender, race, age and sexual orientation to concentrate on the individual,” says Nixon. The company’s statement is powerful: “We particularly value diversity of thought.”

Zenith’s Diversity and Inclusion Councils include members from every level of the company. Every employee goes through training to build trust. Zenith employees receive paid time to volunteer at the All Faiths Food Bank, and the company partners with Easter Seals of Southwest Florida to provide work experience for high school students with disabilities and learning challenges. The company also has sponsored NAACP events and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Such efforts have led to an increase in company bowling leagues, baseball teams and a greater mingling of employees.

“We care what you do, but it’s how you do it and how you treat others,” says Nixon. “People come with different backgrounds and experiences. It’s their normal. We want employees to appreciate everyone’s journey and challenge their own assumptions.”

All of this, of course, is good for business. “We pride ourselves on our service,” Nixon says. When employees feel cared for, so do customers. — Molly McCartney



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“At the beginning, I thought I was the only one who wanted to see diversity on our cultural landscape."

FOR ACTOR-PLAYWRIGHT-DIRECTOR Nate Jacobs, founding the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe—one of only two professional black theater companies in the state—back in 1999 was a natural outgrowth of both his theatrical background and his passion for mentoring youth. Now, celebrating its 15th anniversary, WBTT enjoys a building that has been completely paid for, a sellout season of shows, dedicated board members and “graduates” who’ve gone on to perform on Broadway and around the world.

But for years the troupe struggled, playing in whatever spaces they could and often barely paying the bills. About five years ago, when Jacobs was close to giving up, he gained a new CEO and board president—former bank president Christine Jennings and former Asolo artistic director Howard Millman. The two helped the theater achieve financial stability and widen the audience for its productions, which focus on African-American playwrights and the African-American experience. (Both have now stepped down and a new executive director, Richard M. Parison, Jr. recently took the reins.) “At the beginning, I thought I was the only one who wanted to see diversity on our cultural landscape,” says Jacobs, 55. “But I’ve been convinced the entire community desired the same dream. Our theater is successful because we are able to attract the black, Jewish and Hispanic community to our board of directors, advisory board, event committees and to our shows and events.”

And, he points out, “WBTT has been a catalyst for getting African-Americans to come to the theater. No other theater organization in town hires and trains actors of color on the scale we do.” — Kay Kipling



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“My respect for the average working guy is immense."

GROWING UP POOR in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, Joe Gonzalez says he was “a ricocheting bullet moving through space.” His Cuban father and his Croatian mother divorced about the time Joe was born, and he spent many hours hanging around the bar where his mother worked.

The turning point came when he passed the test to enter a parochial high school where he learned discipline and began socializing with kids who planned to go to college. Gonzalez eventually earned an accounting degree and worked as a financial analyst and later a globetrotting design specialist.

In 1990, he bought a lawn maintenance company in Venice now known as ArtisTree. Gonzalez, 66, took the company from a four-man mow crew to a 250-member workforce serving Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties. Annual revenues are now about $17 million.

Gonzalez believes in providing opportunities for his employees. “My respect for the average working guy is immense,” he says. “Look at how hard they work, raise their kids and try to advance. These people are the backbone of my business.”

ArtisTree’s robust recruitment program puts Hispanic workers in managerial and foreman positions, women in management roles and people over 50 in a variety of jobs. The company conducts a number of employee appreciation programs, including an annual safety-training barbecue where account executives prepare and serve lunch to the crews.

Gonzalez is especially proud of his “Thank A Landscaper” campaign to raise awareness of landscape workers, who are often viewed as a faceless commodity. “They make it possible for the homeowner to have a beautiful lawn,” he says. —Molly McCartney



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"I've always loved trying to help people grow."

NEIL PHILLIPS IS THE FOUNDER, CEO and principal of Bradenton’s Visible Men Academy, an elementary-level public charter school started in August 2013 that caters to boys from low-income families. The school currently serves students in kindergarten through fourth grade, with plans to add an additional grade each year through eighth grade. “We start with the premise that traditional methods of educating boys from this demographic are failing, [and seek] to creatively deliver a school experience that effects different outcomes,” Phillips says. The school currently serves 105 boys, 51 percent of them African-American, 39 percent Hispanic, 7 percent white and 3 percent Asian.

Phillips, 48, is a former pro basketball player, a Harvard graduate and an Aspen Institute Educational Entrepreneurship Fellow who has been involved in minority economic imbalance and social justice issues on the national level. He developed an after-school Visible Men program in Washington, D.C., and, after moving to Sarasota-Manatee and taking note of the region’s impoverished student demographic, opened VMA in Bradenton. “I’ve always loved trying to help people grow,” he says.

Visible Men Academy uses a three-pronged approach of academic excellence, character development and aspirational goals to inspire its students. Uniquely, the school has recruited African-American and Hispanic professional men to volunteer as role models. Only a year into the program, the first classes have reported impressive gains in reading. Only 17 percent of the boys entered the school reading at grade level; by the end of the year, more than 70 percent of the student body had reached that reading benchmark.

“We’re an intense learning environment,” Phillips says. “If you’re fighting them every day about engaging, it’s time wasted. But if they’re stimulated and engaged they can see their own progress in real time.” — Chelsey Lucas



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"Everyone deserves a healthy start."

AS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of Healthy Start Coalition of Sarasota County, Shon Ewens, 40, understands that the earlier someone positively impacts a child’s life, the better the chance that child has of becoming a successful adult. “I wanted to be part of that change,” she says.

Healthy Start programs begin at pregnancy, teaching women of all ages and walks of life how to care for themselves and raise healthy, productive children. But the disparity in birth outcomes between the advantaged and disadvantaged has always been difficult to navigate. Ewens is especially proud of the Save My Life program, which provides free prenatal and postpartum support for African-American families. It’s the first and only program in Sarasota County to concentrate on this population.

Although most Healthy Start Coalition programs are government funded, Save My Life depends entirely on private contributions. The budget last year was $43,000.

The program has been remarkably successful. In 2005, in Sarasota County, there were 23 deaths of babies more than 20 weeks old per 1,000 deliveries for African-Americans compared to 4.8 deaths per 1,000 deliveries for Caucasians. During 2012, the fetal death rate dropped to 7 per 1,000 deliveries for African-Americans compared to 5.5 for Caucasians. Infant mortality also declined for African-Americans.

Each year, Save My Life reaches 200 women, giving them and their children the support and skills to live a healthier, productive life. “Everyone deserves a healthy start,” says Ewens. — Molly McCartney



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"It was a turning point to stand up and say, 'I'm gay.'"

FORMER SARASOTA CITY COMMISSIONER Ken Shelin was a 2012 Unity Award winner as part of the Sarasota County Bar Diversity team. This year, we honor Shelin as our Alumni winner for his ongoing work to win rights for the LGBT community.

Shelin, 75, who recently earned cheers when he stood up at a Sarasota Bar diversity event and said, “I’m Ken Shelin, I’m a Sarasotan, and I’m gay,” in 2012 convinced the city of Sarasota to establish a registry of domestic partners so that unmarried couples of any sex have the same basic rights, such as participating in health care and end-of-life decisions, as their married counterparts.

Then Shelin took his crusade on the road, persuading Venice, North Port and Punta Gorda to enact similar ordinances. He’s currently in talks with Manatee, Lee and Collier counties as well as Bradenton and Naples. Recently he successfully lobbied the city of Sarasota to amend its ordinance to include transgendered individuals. In addition, he’s chair of Equality Florida, which is dedicated to equality for Florida’s LGBT community.

Shelin says he understands that winning legal rights won’t prevent all discrimination. But attitudes are changing. “It was a turning point for me to stand up publicly and say, ‘I’m gay,’” he says. And then there was his daughter’s recent comment before he and his partner visited her in Connecticut where same-sex marriage is legal. “Why don’t you get married here?” she asked. “I’ve been with my partner for 38 years,” says Shelin. “I never thought I’d hear that.” — Susan Burns

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