Champions of Diversity

Meet the 2016 Unity Award Winners

Meet our 2016 Unity Award winners.

By Susan Burns and Anu Varma January 11, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

As our nation becomes more multicultural and our workplaces become more connected to the world, diversity and inclusion have never been more important. By 2050, no ethnic or racial majority will exist in this country. Employers who encourage diversity in all its forms are positioning their companies for growth. For six years, 941CEO, formerly Biz(941), and La Guía have been celebrating those who champion equality—whether it’s based on race and ethnicity, gender, ability, sexual orientation or cultural background.

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Photography by Barbara Banks

Jetson Grimes, Entrepreneur Winner

Jetson Grimes’ Creative Trend barbershop is more than a business. It’s a community hub where visitors stop by to invite “Jet” to a meeting, drop off pastries and exchange news, confide a secret or get a haircut from the man who has trained scores of area stylists, all the while working tirelessly to keep Sarasota’s Newtown a thriving African-American business community.

Grimes was born five blocks from where his store stands and graduated from Booker High School in 1958, as did his wife and two children, one of whom teaches there now. He became a businessman right out of high school. It wasn’t always easy, especially during the cocaine epidemic of the early 1980s when Grimes picketed dealers’ haunts and had his car windows broken and firebombs thrown into his house in retaliation. “I wasn’t going to let them beat me,” he says calmly. In fact, Newtown’s resilience is its own best reason for existence, he says. “I’ve seen African-Americans achieve in my own community; I’ve seen success,” says Grimes. “Our community needs to see that. Our kids need to see success and prosperity.”

Over the years, Grimes has organized nonprofits to help at-risk youth get tutoring, first-time homebuyers get loans, entrepreneurs set up shop and investors to come into the neighborhood. Thirty years ago, he began collecting images and video to document his beloved community; much of that was on display when Newtown celebrated its Centennial last year.

At 75, Grimes has no intentions to slow down. “This is beautiful—the community, the problems, the issues,” he says. “I get my rewards every day. It’s all fantastic. It really is.” 

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Bob and Joan Geyer, Education Winners

Thirty years ago, Joan Geyer volunteered with the Guardian Ad Litem program in Sarasota, shepherding through the court system vulnerable children who had been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment. One case involved a psychotic mother who couldn’t provide for her children and lost custody. Geyer says it would have been unthinkable for the state to have taken her own children away when she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer years ago and couldn’t care for them. Her anguish spurred her to search for a better way to support the mentally ill.

After years of research, she and her husband, Bob Geyer, the president of Sunset Automotive Group, heard about the nonprofit Vincent House in St. Petersburg. Founded in 2003, this program trains adults with mental illnesses for real jobs—the tagline is “recovery through work”—and has had remarkable success.  Last year, the Geyers purchased property off U.S. 41, south of Bee Ridge Road, and began making plans to start a Vincent House in Sarasota. Called Vincent Academy, it will be open to anyone with a diagnosis.

The program is not therapy, Joan emphasizes. It is vocational education with one-on-one support from staff who not only train clients (called members), but help them find a job and then train for the job themselves so they can work side by side with a member to transition them to the work world. The Geyers have committed to building a 7,500-square-foot facility, as well as supplementing the first year’s operations. The state’s Central Florida Behavioral Health Network has already committed $370,000 annually in recurring funds. “Every community should have one,” Joan says. 

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Junior Salazar, Nonprofit Winner

When Junior Salazar watched presidential candidate Donald Trump eject a Univision journalist from a press conference last summer, he channeled his anger. Salazar, 28, founded and is now executive director of the United Nations Organization (UNO), which helps “individuals fight for their rights and liberties in this great country,” he says. Last fall, UNO organized the first Minorities Citizenship & Voting Awareness Walk, which drew 200 people and registered 15 new voters. Salazar, whose day job is community relations manager for OneBlood, is also organizing a series of citizenship clinics this spring.

“[Trump] has awakened those who, in a normal election season, may not vote,” he says. “I want to get them to feel like their voice and opinion matter.”

Born in Bradenton and raised in Mexico until he was 4, Salazar and his sisters grew up poor. When he was 9, his father committed suicide. He credits his mother’s strength for getting him through the subsequent dark times. “My mom has been my backbone,” Salazar says.

Salazar was one of the first in his large family to graduate high school and to earn an associate’s degree. He’s working on his bachelor’s now. He has volunteered in his community since eighth grade and won the Governor's Point of Light Award, the Bright House Youth Service Award and the President's Call to Service Award. He has served on the board of America's Foundation for Suicide Prevention and in 2014, was elected president and chairman of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m truly blessed to have experienced so many things,” says Salazar. “Anytime I’m blessed, I’ve been able to pass those blessings on and put everything I can into it.” 

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Linda Harradine, Legal Winner

Growing up in upstate New York, Linda Harradine worked in a nursing home, tutored kids in a juvenile facility, and eventually earned a master’s degree in social work. She’d realized that all the people she helped had unresolved legal issues, so law school became the natural next step.

“As lawyers, we hold the keys to the courthouse,” says Harradine, executive director of Legal Aid of Manasota since 2001. “You can go in as your own attorney, but it’s not a level playing field. Attorneys understand the rules. We can do things no one else can.”

Harradine has been a fixture at Legal Aid of Manasota since 1998, when it consisted of four people in a tiny office helping people from all walks of life who couldn’t afford legal counsel remain in their homes, regain custody of their children or obtain crucial cancer treatments. In 2014 alone, the nonprofit handled 1,710 cases, and pro bono attorneys donated 6,502 hours of time valued at $1.3 million. Last year, Harradine also oversaw a space-doubling expansion that enables more attorneys to volunteer. And using a recent grant from the Patterson Foundation, the organization is now developing a business plan to provide document preparation services for those who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but still can’t afford legal fees.

Harradine believes in cooperating with other agencies, those helping domestic violence victims for example, or veterans. “It doesn’t make sense to work in a silo,” she says. “Diversity has to be a running theme. It’s vital that everyone in a community recognizes we’re all different in some ways.” 

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William Carter, Health Care Winner

William Carter saw firsthand the ravages of HIV when a favorite uncle was diagnosed in the mid-1980s. He decided that if he ever got an opportunity to help someone with the same disease, he would.

Carter understands hardship. In his youth in Connecticut, despite being an engineering college graduate and Army veteran, he found himself living out of his car and in a friend’s basement. He refers to the experience as a “chance” to understand how easy it is to get there.

“Anything I can do for someone else is a necessity for my own spiritual growth,” says Carter, whose day job is as prevention/intervention specialist at First Step of Sarasota, but who spends the rest of his waking hours as HIV clinical coordinator for Genesis Health Services. Late into the night, Carter can be spotted driving around impoverished neighborhoods, homeless camps and parks, distributing literature about AIDS prevention and HIV awareness, counseling those who have been tested and urging those who haven’t to do so. “I’m stuck on the help wagon,” he chuckles. “But there’s just so much fulfillment.”

Carter also helps organize a gospel explosion/health fair to coincide with the seven times a year that a day is dedicated to anything to do with AIDS/HIV. He credits some of his devotion to being from “a family of overachievers,” but also to understanding that AIDS/HIV is a problem that affects all of society. In fact, he says that recently, he has seen more HIV-positive results coming in from the relatively affluent.

“We’re talking about a disease that doesn’t discriminate,” says Carter. “It doesn’t stay on one side of race or ethnicity lines. It’s a people problem.” 

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Michael Donald Edwards, Arts Winner

Michael Donald Edwards, producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, was a teacher in his native Australia, and he remains one still.

Edwards is behind [email protected], a popular monthly series at which participants enjoy cocktails, watch a current production, hear insights from Edwards, and listen to presentations from two local nonprofits of interest to the LGBT community. It began in 2009 when Asolo Rep was invited to be one of 150 theaters joining in a simultaneous live reading of The Laramie Project, the play inspired by the beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard. Afterwards, the theater hosted a community forum at which many LGBT activists spoke, and a notion was born.

“It grew really organically,” says Edwards. “We thought, wow, as a theater, we have an opportunity to bring people together from all different walks of life and discuss ideas of what it is to be a citizen. I’ve come to believe that as an active director, as an active involved citizen, part of my job is to build social capital, opportunity for everyone to be invested in the health and future of the community.”

[email protected] now has 128 subscribers, which Edwards attributes both to Sarasota’s sophistication and to the series filling a void. “Opportunities to get together are shrinking, but people still crave human interaction,” he says. “In theater, you’re going to hear what you think about life. You’ll be asked to walk in someone else’s shoes. You will be caught up in a suspension of disbelief in real time. You can tell I’m excited about this.” 

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Northern Trust, Business Winner

When Northern Trust senior vice president Steve Krause picked up an article about Trinidad and Tobago, he was intrigued. He realized that he didn’t have to go far if he wanted to learn more: A bank colleague hails from the islands.

“I began thinking about the diversity that we all bring to our relationships—backgrounds, religions, cultural heritage, families, work experiences, disabilities and more,” Krause says. “I wanted to know more about the people I work with every day. The better we know each other beyond what we do at work, the closer we become as a ‘work family.”

So in September 2013, Krause initiated “The Many Faces of Northern Trust,” a monthly brown-bag lunch program that invites colleagues to put on informal presentations about themselves.

“Each sharing is different from another,” Krause says. “Some people bring photos or family heirlooms, others have brought in traditions of their culture.”

Krause says Northern Trust’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is key to the company’s success. “Employing diverse people brings a proliferation of ideas and approaches and, ultimately, better products, services and servicing,” he says. “Valuing and celebrating diversity—in clients, employees and communities—distinguishes us in the marketplace. By fostering an inclusive environment, we elevate employee engagement, enabling our people to effectively contribute.”

“Many Faces” has become so popular that employees look forward to finding out who the next speaker is; encores have even been requested. “This has definitely brought us closer together,” says Krause. “Creating an environment that encourages people to ‘bring their whole self to work’ makes us better.” 

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Dr. Lisa Merritt, Alumni Winner

As a physiatrist, 2012 Unity Award winner Dr. Lisa Merritt has been devoted to improving the health of her patients. But for the last 25 years, in addition to her private practice, being a devoted mom to her now teen-age daughter and a caregiver to her parents, Merritt somehow has found the time to dedicate herself to leveling the health care playing field for the community.

As the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Multicultural Health Institute, she has used a grassroots approach to work with dozens of local organizations—the Center for Building Hope, HIV/AIDS Network of Southwest Florida (HANS), Genesis Health Services, Gulf Coast Medical Society, Jewish Family & Children’s Services to name a few—to eliminate the chronic and mostly preventable conditions of the uninsured and underserved. Her efforts have touched the lives of more than 25,000 Sarasotans, giving them the resources, support and knowledge to make smarter lifestyle choices.

Merritt sometimes seems to be everywhere—teaching at New College of Florida, creating a local scholarship program in elementary schools through colleges to create health care leaders, initiating a senior wellness program and conducting cancer survivor and caregiver groups. Her patients, students and healing circle participants have learned about cooking and nutrition, stress management, cardiovascular health, dementia prevention and caregiving. Her recent awards include the national 2014 Council on the Concerns of Women Physicians Award and the Sarasota County 2015 NAACP Freedom Award.

And now, Merritt is taking her advocacy and holistic approach to wellness to Manatee Rural Health Services as director of care coordination for special populations. “I can impact thousands of people’s lives and help design models for future health care delivery,” she says. “I love this work.” 

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