Nikki Gaskin-Capehart is an alum twice over. Graduating in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she returned to USF’s St. Petersburg campus nearly two decades later, this time with a day job as director of urban affairs for the city of St. Petersburg, to earn a master’s in Liberal Arts.
Since 2014, Gaskin-Capehart has overseen a department that focuses on “enriching the lives of residents through investment in people, places and programs.” What began as a one-woman team has expanded to a staff of four, providing skills training, job placement and youth mentoring opportunities for hundreds of families in the community.
We talked with Gaskin-Capehart to hear about her route to heading up the Department of Urban Affairs, the biggest challenges for eradicating poverty in the city and her most memorable experiences on campus. This interview has been edited for length.
For those who may not be familiar, what does the city’s Department of Urban Affairs do?
When Mayor [Rick] Kriseman brought me on in 2014, we assembled together an advisory groups and worked with other community groups that helped us chart a course for urban affairs in our city, with an emphasis on neighborhoods that have been underserved traditionally. Out of that work came a focus on four areas for our city: opportunity creation, nurturing families and neighborhoods, connecting through cultural affairs and being a catalyst for commerce. We were very intentional in creating opportunities for community development, both economically and educationally. And we wanted to make sure there was an economic engine felt in south St. Pete that has been felt in downtown and other areas of the city for years.
How did you get involved in this sort of work and what was your route to eventually becoming director of this department?
I feel that I was able to bring my whole body of work and experience to this position. Throughout my whole career I have worked in those four areas that my department focuses on. I started out in community development banking working with and helping small businesses and entrepreneurs. I then went onto get experience in non-profit management, ran my own business and also worked in the federal legislative arena for two congressional members before coming to this role.
You have been director since 2014. What do you see as some of the department’s biggest accomplishments during that time?
There are two that really stand out. The first is getting our south St. Pete Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) established in 2015. We worked diligently with the city’s Economic Development Department to get that CRA started and to secure funding for investment in the community. By establishing a tax increment financing district, we were able to reinvest tax dollars into the CRA for programs that support families and revitalize commerce in an area determined by the county as blighted.
The second is our My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper Initiative, which many think is just about mentorship for young men and women, but is really a comprehensive wrap around support program for families. Through this initiative, we not only mentor young people, we provide workforce training, entrepreneurship training, job placement and certification; everything a family needs to feel supportive as they lift themselves either out of poverty, attain educational goals, and/or begin to develop generational wealth. Many programs focus specifically on the youth, but if the family is struggling, it will impact the youth and their ability to thrive. Through the program, we have had parents who started businesses and obtained better jobs while their children have gone on to graduate and attend college and the military.
And we have also created the My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper network that works with coahes, advisors and mentors, providing them the support they need in their roles, including professional and entrepreneurial development.
What do you see as the biggest challenges today when it comes to creating both job and educational opportunities while eradicating poverty in our city?
The biggest challenge is the willingness of people to change their mindset around achieving what they want for themselves and their family. So much of the success of these programs is dependent on taking advantage of these resources and sticking with it. Another major challenge is the systemic barriers that exist and making sure barriers that disproportionally impact Black people are addressed. These barriers can keep people from even wanting to try and pursue opportunities when they feel defeated. We don’t want them to constantly feel like they need to jump over hurdles to take advantage of opportunities.
You are a native of St. Petersburg and have seen a lot of change over the years. What’s special about this place?
There is a unique vibe to St. Petersburg that is infectious. There is both an eclectic and homey energy to the city that draws people in and makes them feel comfortable. Even with the challenges within the city for the Black community, many have an affinity for living here, of feeling connected. For me, there is a love I have for the city that will always keep me connected to it. There is a really rich culture and heritage to Black St. Pete.
Not only are you an alumni, but once again a newly minted graduate, receiving your masters this spring. What do you remember most about your experience at USF’s St. Petersburg campus and how it has shaped you for your future success?
When I was an undergraduate, my most memorable experience was my time with Project Thrust. Reverend Wayne Wilson was in charge of this initiative that supported Black students at USF. I came to USF from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, a historically Black college and university. I was accustomed to a more supportive academic and engagement network for African American students before I came USF. It was great to go into this program where the Reverend was able to provide that support. We had fashion shows, activities and I developed really close friendships. Not sure what my experience at USF would have been like without Project Thrust.
For my graduate experience, it was my masters’ research project that focused on Black women trailblazers from the Burg. My advisory team of Lillian Dunlap, Karin Braunsberger and Christa Remington helped me develop this video project and allow me to share the experience of three generations of Black women trailblazers. I’m so excited to have done this work that promotes the sister circle movement and newfound societal focus on Black women. This project was the best experience of my grad matriculation and allowed me to pull all of it together. These women were able to achieve at a very high level despite the barriers that they faced. I can’t wait to eventually show it to the public.