Growing up, Corey Givens Jr. heard about how St. Petersburg used to be from his grandmother. She couldn’t go downtown after dark, she said, and her family was not allowed to swim at the whites-only Spa Beach on the approach to the Municipal Pier.
Now, two generations later, Givens is running for the District 6 City Council seat to represent the same downtown that his grandmother told stories of as a little boy.
St. Petersburg has come a long way since, but Givens says the city can do even better.
“The division and the racial divide back then I think is what encourages me to want to make my city a better place because I recognize that wasn’t very long ago,” said Givens, 25. “Although we’ve come far we still have even further to continue.”
Givens graduated from USF St. Petersburg in 2014 with a bachelor’s in mass communications. One of the courses he took was with Robert Dardenne, a beloved professor from the journalism department who died unexpectedly in 2013. In that class, his assigned beat was local government.
“When I got involved and started writing stories about that, I had this epiphany: I can volunteer on these committees, I can volunteer my time to try and make things better but at the end of the day the power is in the elected official. That’s where it all kind of started for me,” Givens said.
This isn’t Givens’ first time running in a local election. He ran for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board in 2012 and suffered what he described as a “tough loss.” During that race, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Givens had falsified his academic credentials.
He claimed that he had earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and was seeking a master’s degree at USFSP, but neither claim was true. Givens has since graduated with a bachelor’s from USFSP but the hiccup is far from forgotten.
“It’s definitely something I address every time I talk to people,” Givens said. “I was young, I made a very foolish mistake and it’s something I deeply regret. I don’t hold anyone else accountable except for myself.”
He said he has apologized to his supporters, family and the community.
“I’ve realized there are bigger issues ahead of our city than what happened with me five years ago,” Givens said.
Since then, Givens says he’s grown and is looking toward a future serving the city.
“I’ve gotten my degree and now I want to make sure other young people, especially African-American males, graduate from college as well,” he said, “That’s what our focus should be on, not a mistake I made at 19 years old.”
He says over the last five years he has learned a lot about St. Petersburg.
“I’m experienced, I’ve gotten those notches on my resume now,” Givens said. “I’ve been immersed in the work of my community. I’ve had the opportunity to serve with others and to listen to what our city wants and needs.”
Last time, Givens joined the race two months prior to election day without a campaign team, no funds and still attending classes as a USFSP student — which is a huge difference from how he’s running his current campaign. Givens said that he ran for the board only because some people in his community urged him to.
“It was a big sacrifice but I did it because I was approached by my former teachers and a group of parents who felt like the students and teachers needed a voice,” said Givens.
At the time he worked as a classroom assistant at Lakewood Elementary, one of the schools designated by the Tampa Bay Times as a “failure factory.” However, Givens prefers to refer to them as “challenged.”
His time working at Lakewood helped him establish a relationship with the students and parents that he hopes to represent on the City Council. If elected, he wants to put more money towards early education and helping those challenged schools.
“It’s sad when we spend money on a ferry service (to and from Tampa) but not on our children getting a good quality education. We have to think of our priorities as city leaders,” said Givens.
During his campaign, he hopes to interact with people at his alma mater and hear their opinions.
“We have one of our own running to be a voice for us, to be a voice on (the) City Council. When I say ‘us’ I’m talking students, faculty, employees,” said Givens. “We want to make sure we have that personal network, it’s always nice to have that plug — that person who’s there to be our listening ear when we have issues.”
Givens says he’s willing to listen to anyone’s concerns and will consider incorporating them into his platform. The issues he wants to stress are quality affordable housing, quality education and a strong workforce.
It’s important to Givens that he has an open door policy. He wants people with problems or ideas to be able to have access to him.
I’ve had the opportunity to serve with others and to listen to what our city wants and needs.
The Aug. 29 primary election is still months away, but there is already a total of nine candidates running for the seat of Karl Nurse, who will be stepping down because of term limits.
Givens worked on Nurse’s 2013 campaign and is set on taking his place. During the campaign, Givens said, he thought of Nurse as a mentor.
“I plan to succeed Karl,” said Givens. “Watching Karl balance being a family man, businessman a statesman — I think that meant a lot to me because that’s what I strive to be. It takes a strong person to be able to handle being in the public eye.”
Givens was one of the first to announce his candidacy in the race. He said the results of the presidential election led him to run.
“I felt like our country got comfortable and in many ways I was frustrated,” Givens said. “I thought protesting wasn’t going to get anything done. The only way we can move this country forward is if we organize and rebuild locally. It all came to fruition in that election.”
Last week, Givens held a meet and greet at the Chattaway for his 25th birthday. Throughout the night he spent time with his family and friends while reaching out to other members of the community.
His grandmother, Janie Davis, was among the crowd. She says he’d be a good fit for City Council because of his love of helping people — both young and elderly. She’s seen his passion for helping people while watching him grow at their church, the Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist church.
“He’s trying to help the communities stand together,” Davis said “He didn’t just get into this. Since he’s been a young adult he’s been working with people and for people.”
If Givens wins the election he plans to leave his day job as a senior administrative clerk at WellCare Health Plans in Tampa. He says he will take the pay cut to fully devote himself to the city.
Now, he feels that he’s ready to take on the job.
“That’s what it takes right now — somebody who is already engaged,” he said. “You can’t start the job not knowing where the issues lie. We need someone who can recognize those early on [and] come into the job on day one ready for the work ahead.”