As the first African-American mayor of Florida’s largest majority-black city, Shirley Gibson has single-handedly taken a city known for its crime and dilapidation and turned it into a nationally acclaimed metropolis.
From policing the portentous streets of Miami to becoming a political powerhouse, Gibson is the epitome of dynamic. She’s fearless but God-fearing, a forthright, problem-solving virtuoso with a history of patience, fortitude and professionalism under her belt, along with a Master’s degree in pastoral ministry on her wall. But the numerous accolades she has earned throughout her career don’t begin to compare to the passion she holds for the advancement of the people in her city, Miami Gardens.
Miami Gardens, which rests in the heart of Miami-Dade County, has come a long way, from an unsuccessful incorporation attempt in 1996 to becoming the home of the Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins, the 2007 and 2010 Super Bowls and the city’s annual Jazz in the Gardens concert, a two-day show that attracts thousands of music lovers from all over the country.
However, the journey toward the city’s redevelopment and restructure wasn’t simple. With many of the areas facing significant issues, from serious socioeconomic discrepancies to struggling school systems, it would take more than an aesthetic approach to build this city into a distinguished mecca. As a leader, Gibson was very much aware that the negative elements would influence the city’s image, and the work that needed to be done to rebuild Miami Gardends.
“We had so much work to do. In my path of advocacy, I’m just someone that likes to get things done, and I wanted them done right and fair, and wanting that meant I needed to be willing to work hard at it,” she shared.
It was that hard work which led to the successful incorporation of Miami Gardens in 2003. A city with a population that is 76 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic and 2 percent white, according to the most recent Census, faced more than its inherited poverty-stricken status. Gibson’s mission was convincing developers and prospective business owners that there’s real worth in Miami Gardens. She can recall having to address the fallacious perception that Miami Gardens was just barren territory and convince others that growth and prosperity could, in fact, be born and thrive in the area.
With Starbucks and Wal-Mart finding a home along the city’s central corridor, one can state ‘mission accomplished.’ But Gibson believes it will take more than big businesses to make Miami Gardens a success story. “There’s ownership on every level in this city, and that’s what helped us be successful. We have the diversity of people who are elated to attach themselves to this city,” Gibson stated.
However, beyond the vivacious personality of its gleaming landscapes and effervescent palm trees, there lies a darker side of Miami Gardens. The city’s long-standing reputation for violence, and its surging crime rate, has made establishing order a daunting task for the city’s police force, who face everything from robberies to assaults to petty crimes. Just a couple of weeks ago, a dead body was found in the front yard of the Miami Gardens home of rapper Rick Ross; the case is still under investigation. It is these moments that can be discouraging to Gibson, although so many positive initiatives exist within the city.
“Anytime we had something occur that wasn’t positive, we in turn get feedback that is so difficult to overcome and it puts us all the way back to square one,” Gibson said, “I’m about overcoming that negative image we have in predominantly black communities, among the tremendous amount of great things that we do.”
Annual music concert put the city on the map
The just-concluded 7th Annual Jazz in the Gardens concert reinforced the fact that the city has become an international musical haven, hosting an extraordinary blend of well-renowned, legendary artists, including Patti LaBelle, Mary J. Blige, Ramsey Lewis, Gladys Knight, and many more.
Under Gibson’s leadership and vision, music lovers from all over the country flock to Miami Gardens annually to be a part of this mega event, which helps the city’s progression by providing local job opportunities and exposure for the city’s small businesses. Bill Diggs, President and CEO of the Miami-Dade Chamber, has always been a strong supporter of the event and its positive impact on the city.
“This event has definitely put this city on the map. Mayor Gibson will leave behind a tremendous legacy. In reality, an event like this brands the community on a global scale, which I think is important when you’re talking about furthering economic development of the city. It brings that sense of value to Miami Gardens, ” Diggs said.
Still, while the event sells out every year, not everyone sees its worth. Some residents have criticized the city’s decision to spend so extravagantly on such an event, claiming it’s a misappropriation of assets.
Queen Brown, resident of Miami Gardens, CNN Heroes nominee, and a passionate anti- violence community advocate, doesn’t see the value of this lavish celebratory event in the community, and believes the city could so much more with its resources. After the murder of her 24 year-old son in Miami in 2006, Brown dedicated her life to community advocacy and the betterment of the youth in America.
“This city is faced with a lot of violence,” Brown said. “I think we need to focus on those things that are vital to the survival of the community. The amount of resources put into this event every year would be better used if we just focus on our youth and families and all of those social issues that are causing our young people to go astray.”
“Yes, the celebrations are joyous,” Brown added, “But outside of the decorated palm trees that lead up to the venue, we are losing children to gun violence and record robberies and murders. To me, Jazz in the Gardens is more of a ‘Jazz in the Memorial Gardens.’ We are out there dancing, having a good time, but what about investing in our future? What about investing in our children? We don’t seem to have the money for these things. But we have the money to hold this multi-million dollar event every year. We need to find a better way to use our resources and save our children. We need to find a better way to serve our community.”
Gibson understands the arguments and meets the critics head-on.
“I tell people candidly, you think you know how much we actually spend on this event but you really don’t. Based on last year alone, the total investment on the event was about $2 million, with the city spending only about $150,000 overall,” Gibson said. “However, we never as a city had $2 million just sitting there at our disposal. We simply front the dollars and seek sponsorship, vendors, ticket sales, etc. Many people refuse to understand how minimal of a financial burden this event has on the city.”
Critics aside, Gibson says she stands committed to building a better tomorrow and improving the quality of life for the residents of Miami Gardens. Beyond her perseverance, she says it was always the respect she has for herself and for the people she serves that has brought her the most humility.
And Gibson has three lessons she shares with those seeking the secret to her success: make sure you know the weaknesses and strengths of your community; bring in high caliber individuals and allow them to do their job; be able to communicate to your constituents what it’s going to take for you to rise to the level of their expectations. After that, Gibson says, be focused and committed, and certain that your leadership has to be above reproach, open, fair, and above all, respectful.