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Q&A with Dr. Kanika Tomalin

January 17, 2024


Community Voices

Q&A with Dr. Kanika Tomalin

As we move meaningfully along the margin of excellence that defines great, world-class cities, we are well positioned to realize our greatest possibilities for commerce, culture and community. Resilient and progressive, we’re a charming coastal oasis defined by big ideas and innovation, Collectively, we preserve and honor our history while constantly evolving to create new opportunities that reflect the best of the people fortunate to call this awesome place home.
- Dr. Kanika Tomalin, President & CEO, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg  

Describe the cultural identity of St. Petersburg. 

St. Petersburg is a vibrant and inclusive community, packed with adventure and discovery. We’re pure Florida paradise, sun and sand with a thriving arts scene, world-class museums, walkable neighborhoods, award-winning restaurants, and the rich resources that our university and colleges provide. As we move meaningfully along the margin of excellence that defines great, world-class cities, we are well positioned to realize our greatest possibilities for commerce, culture and community. Resilient and progressive, we’re a charming coastal oasis defined by big ideas and innovation, Collectively, we preserve and honor our history while constantly evolving to create new opportunities that reflect the best of the people fortunate to call this awesome place home.

How did we build or earn this identity? 

In St. Petersburg we’ve been dealt a winning hand of the many differentiating determinants that define a world-class city. Great attributes such as wonderful weather, beautiful natural spaces, a bustling local arts and culture landscape, great university and educational offerings and civic engagement at the highest levels have been masterfully managed by strategic leaders who are passionate about our city and share a common call to serve. Our culture has been forged with great intention. It capitalizes on our natural assets and fuels an audacious and ambitious vision for all that is possible for our people.

Through foresight and the generosity of philanthropic titans, we’ve been fortunate to attract world-class museums and collections such as the Dali Museum, the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as the Chihuly Collection. Our renowned institutions of higher education give us a deep pool of local talent, professionals, creatives, and entrepreneurs who are thought leaders and standard bearers in their respective fields. We’ve worked diligently to attract sectors for economic growth that brim with opportunity for high-skill high-wage jobs, and through inspired placemaking we’ve created spaces for our community to come together to explore and enjoy our local resources. As a city we’ve been favored with good fortune, but our wonderful way of life can be mostly attributed to generations of intentional planning, strategic leadership and a community that cares.


Are there things that threaten this identity? 

The biggest threat to our celebrated standing as a progressive paradise is the undeniable truth that while we may strive toward equity, it is not yet achieved. Data tells us a story of deep and unearned disparity – where the average life expectancy of a resident of Snell Isle, a predominantly and historically white and affluent neighborhood, is 16 years more than the average life expectancy of a resident of Campbell Park, a predominantly and historically Black and working-class neighborhood. It’s our work to rewrite this story.

Much of the disparity that plagues our community is borne of hundreds of years of biased-based barriers and systemic racism. It manifests in everything from education to housing, healthcare to employment opportunities and growth. But, there is great news and a promising future for St. Pete’s efforts to build a stronger, more equitable community! Every sector: from public to private, not-for-profit to community has come together to prioritize equity. And while systems change doesn’t happen overnight, significant change can happen every day. And, here in St. Petersburg, it does.


What steps can we take to ensure we preserve the best parts of this community - the things that make us unique? 

St. Pete is rich in history. As development continues, we must take care to preserve the elements of our past that define who we are as a community. And, it is important that the consideration around what matters enough to be preserved and protected includes the diverse perspectives and lived experiences of everyone who shares our city. When evaluating our community’s historical assets such as homes, schools, churches and centers of culture and community, it is important that we understand what such places meant to the trailblazers who built them – and what their preservation will mean to generations yet born. The stories we share and the spaces we hold sacred show the world who and what we value; we must approach our city’s growth and preservation with an intentional mindfulness that reflects our commitment to equity, opportunity and the great people of our past who stewarded our city before us.

As we grow and evolve, we must also take care to preserve our people. More specifically, we must preserve and perpetuate robust opportunity for the full spectrum of talented people who call St. Petersburg home – or we can expect them to pursue opportunity in other places, and there, build a life and home. I am a proud fifth generation resident of St. Petersburg, one of many with deep roots planted firmly in St. Pete’s soil. As we continue to attract new (and very welcome) community members to our Sunshine City from across the country and around the world, we must hold space for the rich and diverse tapestry that our city’s existing residents have represented for generations. People are at the core of who we are and what makes this a great place to live, work and play. We must grow – but let’s do so with intention and equity.


Downtown has not always been seen as welcoming to every part of our community.  How can we ensure that everyone who lives and visits St. Pete knows that downtown belongs to them? 

St. Petersburg has been experiencing an incredible renaissance in recent years, driven by our vibrant arts scene, dynamic entrepreneurial culture, impassioned citizenry and visionary leadership. As we’ve grown, we’ve made thoughtful efforts to ensure that the spaces we create are welcoming and accessible to all community members and visitors. The St. Pete Pier is world renowned and packed with points of discovery at every step. We have vibrant public parks for people from all walks of life and trails and activities that promote the importance of fitness and an active lifestyle. This has not always been the case. We must continue to create opportunities that invite our entire community to enjoy our city’s offerings in ways that resonate with them. The physical places and spaces of our city reflect St. Petersburg’s progressive values and welcoming culture. Everyone, from our newest residents and visitors to those who have been here for generations, belongs in this city we love to call home. It is a truth that must be implicitly felt and expressly communicated in as many ways as possible.


St. Pete has earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index for the past 10 years. Are there intentional actions that have made this happen, or is it an organic [BG1] part of who we are? 

St. Petersburg’s perfect score on the Municipal Equality Index is the product of significant intention and effort to demonstrate our values of inclusive excellence in every way. As Deputy Mayor I worked with Mayor Rick Kriseman to achieve this score in 2014. The City has sustained this stellar performance for a decade! We knew, as leaders of this incredible city, that support for our LGBTQIA+ community is a fundamental requirement to our community’s highest function. It is a reflection of our values. And, most importantly, it is the right thing to do. Our commitment to create a more welcoming and supportive environment included policy advancements, practice changes, and elevated promotion of the unique quality of life in our community. Our administration created the position of LGBTQ+ Liaison to serve as a critical contact around LGBTQ+ issues, began raising the Pride Flag each June, expanded bereavement leave provisions to cover domestic partnership, deepened investment in our Pride celebrations and events, and so much more. Mayor Welch’s administration has continued this thoughtful work. We are heard by our words. We are known by our actions. Some simple actions, such as raising the Pride flag, provide deep affirmation of our entire community’s support and spirit of inclusion. Other more complex efforts, such as policy efforts to better serve our homeless and geriatric LGBTQIA+ community members move us to self-perpetuating systems change that makes us a more equitable community. It all matters. St. Petersburg’s Municipal Equality Index score reflects our intentional commitment to make St. Petersburg a supportive and welcoming community for all of our residents and visitors. We are proud of the distinction.

In your role at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, what do you see as our community's greatest threats and greatest opportunities for advancing racial equity and impacting health disparities that are part of our community and society? 

While all members of our awesome nation, great state, and beloved city area created equal, we do not enjoy an equal walk through life. Disparities in key indicators such as life expectancy, economic opportunity and stability, access to healthcare and quality education reflect that inequity. They also reflect a collective loss; we are all negatively impacted when members of our community are not able to reach their full potentials.

Thanks to intentional leadership, evidence-driven innovations, and the hard work of many, the last decade has delivered record-setting progress toward equity. Poverty rates are at a historic low. Educational outcomes steadily improve. And, employment opportunities continue to climb. This positive progress persists; however, much remains to be done. Fortunately, as a community, our collective will to create equity-driven change is one of our greatest strengths. Transformative change does not happen automatically, immediately, by accident, or in isolation. As we continue to advance racial equity to positively impact health disparities, we must continue to harness the power of partnership, planning, and people.

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