Organization forms to keep black professionals in Miami

By Rochelle Oliver
South Florida Success Magazine

South Florida comes with an endless amount of sun and sand. But is the tropical backdrop enough to keep Black professionals rooted in Miami? The Black Executive Forum (BEF), an organization that focuses on keeping talented and highly skilled Blacks in the area, says it’s not.

“When I first came down here, Miami was pretty much a tough place for Black folks. The good-old-boys network was heavily in place,” said John G. Beckford, President and Chairman of the Black Executive Forum. Beckford moved to Miami in 1981, and he remembers what was missing. “What we lacked was something at a high executive level that could embrace Black professional folks.”
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The Black Executive Forum came to existence in 1995 – a sort of domino affect transpiring after Miami’s three-year-Black-boycott – a reaction to city officials giving Nelson Mandela a cold-shoulder-greeting, along with local Blacks wanting a fair share in the tourist industry, and in the overall community.

While there are other organizations that implement networking or volunteerism as a main platform, the Black Executive Forum’s emphasis is on creating a sense of belonging and connection to the community. At the Forum, a hand-picked group of people partake in the Batten Fellow program, named after the late CEO of Knight Ridder, and founder of the Executive Forum, James Batten.

Over a nine-week period, the Batten Fellow program incorporates a variety of business-orientated
workshops covering Networking, Team Building, Leadership, and Workplace Dynamics. Each week, a
panel discussion takes place with notable local Blacks, who’ve found professional success in South Florida while also establishing a rewarding and quality-filled life in the area.

Joel Eigege, Senior Financial Analyst at Ryder Systems Inc., has lived in Miami for three months, and is currently a 2006 Batten Fellow. For him, the organization has been life changing. “It creates a sense that I’m not alone,” said the Nigerian-born Eigege. In the last five years, he’s moved at least five times. And for the first time, he is actually at a place he can call home.

“Not so many programs are geared toward developing you as a leader, as a professional, and also developing you as a person who is influential in the community,” explains Eigege.

Being a Batten Fellow is not all about business. As part of the program, students attend receptions and
partake in other fun, cultural activities, like the Historical Black Miami city bus tour. One of Eigege’s
favorite events was when each Fellow was asked to bring in two of their favorite magazines. They were
given 20 minutes to make a collage that reflected who they are.

“I found out so much about people in the class. You never really get a chance to know professionals on a personal level,” said Eigege. Beyond the professional shell of suits and ties, Batten Fellows have the opportunity to connect on a human level as well.

Results such as Eigege’s prove the Black Executive Forum is making a difference in the lives of Black professionals. But is it enough?

“The tragedy in Miami is that we lose some of the sharpest Black professionals because they don’t feel
like they can make it in Miami, personally, and professionally,” explains Marvenia Fowler, Executive
Director of the Black Executive Forum. Fowler also supervises each event.

Numbers gathered from the Census Bureau, show that in the year 2000, Blacks made up 20.3 percent of Miami-Dade County, which is .2 percent lower than in 1990. In the year 2005, according to the census, percentages dropped even further to 19.7 percent. Why are Blacks leaving?

Unlike major cities such as Atlanta, DC, Chicago and New York, where vibrant, Black, middle-class communities exist, Blacks in Miami can feel at a social disadvantage.

“You can have a great job, but when you get off, you’re still not happy. Who loses? They lose out because they want to stay here, and we lose business-wise. The corporations are going to recruit people, and if Blacks don’t get the job, they’re going to give them to other groups,” said Fowler.

Up to this point, the Black Executive Forum has graduated over 180 Batten Fellows. To apply to be a Batten Fellow, all applicants have to be nominated by a corporation, or through a self-nomination process. Most of the Batten Fellows, board members say, are still living in South Florida.

Co-founder James Champion, who has lived in Miami for 21 years, has witnessed the shades of Miami change for the better. “When I see the alums going on and becoming Vice Presidents and stepping out on their own, that’s exciting,” said Champion. From a front row perspective, he can attest to the specific results of the Forum. “There’s better teamwork, synergy and understanding.”

The results are in: the Black Executive Forum is keeping professionals in Miami. Champion reiterates part of the message of the Executive Forum: “Blacks are critical to the success of this community. Latins and White folks do good things, but one should not exclude us. African-Americans have been here for a long time…and we’re here to stay.”

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The Producer

I produced and directed two commercials that aired online and nationally on Current TV. I produced and booked national guests for Miami Herald’s leading online show, The World Desk with John Yearwood. Through my production company, I developed online public service announcements including the Halloween Hoodie Campaign, which became a viral sensation and gained global attention. I have also worked for ION TV – the largest broadcast company in the world – where I wrote scripts for radio and TV broadcast.

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Rochelle Oliver is a Journalist with nearly 10 years of experience in creating captivating cross-platform storytelling. Among her many successes, she has successfully launched four news Web platforms for Tribune, one of the country’s leading multimedia companies.

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