Skip to content
Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

Looking Out For The Lawn Crews

Written by:

PATRICK FRANKLIN KNOWS AS WELL AS ANYONE how appearances can be deceptive. As the President and CEO of the Urban League of Palm Beach County, Florida, he has gotten used to the surprise some people express when they learn the pioneering civil rights organization with its roots in the big cities of the North has a chapter along a sunny part of the Sunshine State’s Atlantic Coast, just up from Miami.
But disadvantage can be hiding in plain sight. For all the sand, sunshine and palm trees, life isn’t one long vacation for many people there, especially minorities who make up around 20% of the population. The area is anchored on a widely separated two-sided tourism economy that has visitors with money to burn at one end and many low-paid local workers scraping to get by on the other.
“Who serves those resorts, The Breakers and The Four Seasons and the Boca Raton resorts? Who’s doing the grounds work at all these 185 golf courses we have here in Palm Beach County?” Franklin asks. “They’re mostly Black and people of color that are working at all these establishments, that are working in the hotels and the restaurants, and you’re talking thousands of people,” he answers. “But they’re working at minimum-wage jobs. Most of them don’t even have a living wage job. It is expensive to live here.”
One eye-opening statistic he cites: Palm Beach County is the 10th largest school district in the country, with 85% of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches. Then there’s the average cost of a house in the county—$375,000. “A person that’s making $10, $12 an hour, a one-income family, or a two-income family making less than $30,000…what housing can they afford?” Franklin asks. “Very few. Low end housing is not plentiful.”
And that’s not the end of it. The public transportation system in his part of the world isn’t as robust as in metro areas like New York City or Chicago, he says, no “bus will be here every five minutes.” That can make it hard for people to get to their low-paying jobs from parts of the county where they can afford to live, which are often some distance from centers of work.
Put all those factors together with high unemployment, poorly rated schools and food deserts and that’s why there’s an Urban League chapter, one of around 100 local affiliates across the country. He’s led the program for almost 20 years now and says, “I wish one day that we can put ourselves out of business, but I don’t see that in my lifetime.”
In response to those needs, Franklin oversees Urban League initiatives that include creating affordable housing and helping would-be homeowners with home buyer counseling classes.
As one of the high-profile faces of the Black community in the county, Franklin has also found himself taking a leadership role in two other forums over the past 18 months or so—the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 response.
As co-chair of the West Palm Beach mayor’s task force on racial equality, in the biggest city in the county, he has hosted discussions and shepherded the creation of a series of recommendations for criminal justice reform. The proposals touch on everything from policing and banking to health and education because “we really tried to turn over all the rocks that presented with racial injustice and inequity.”
The coronavirus pandemic has produced concern and frustration. In the early days, he noticed keenly how most of the people lined up for testing “didn’t look like us”—they were whites. So he arranged for pop-up testing stations to be taken out into local Black communities. “People could walk up and get tested,” he says. “They could ride their bike. I had people in walkers, people in wheelchairs.”
When the vaccine became available, he hoped to see a similar interest, but not so much. “I am absolutely frustrated with the outcome that we’re seeing right now from my Black community, especially my young people, 30, 32 years and under who are refusing to get the vaccination,” he admits.
He’s heard all the reasons. It was made too fast. I don’t trust the government. I’m going to see the effects. And “the one that knocks me off my feet”: God hasn’t talked to me.
“‘God hasn’t talked to me,’ and we’re at a point in time where Black folks are dying at a rate three to four times higher than any other population or race around,” he says with exasperation. “I just get really frustrated with our young people who are standing back waiting. It’s not a matter of if you’re going to get it.”
Franklin has done what he can to encourage his own staff to get vaccinated, including PTO time, gifts, a salary bonus. “I’ve talked about it for months.”
“Black folks are dying at a rate three to four times higher than any other population.”
Franklin is proud of the Urban League’s heritage, dating back over a century to its founding by a white female philanthropist who wanted to help unskilled Black workers migrating from the rural South to the big cities of the North in search of jobs. Early supporters offered health and education services, and through the years local affiliates have responded to unique local needs, from running schools to community centers.
With the progress that has been made over the past 100 years, some young people might wonder what the Urban League should mean to them now, or what they might offer to it.
“The millennials got here because their parents were served by the Urban League back then,” Franklin offers. “I can’t tell you over my 20 years how so many people have come to me, ‘My parents got their first job through the Urban League.’ I look to my millennials as, how can you help me help these kids get through middle school and high school now, how can you be a good mentor… to those much younger than you that are, that are facing so many obstacles right now?”
I start with my parents; they laid the groundwork. I learned from my father the value of hard work and the work ethic. He always told me to get it right the first time, because if you do it right the first time and do your best, I can’t get nothing else from you, and I truly believe that.
I also look back on a mentor who was very strong in my life, a gentleman who passed away about five years ago: our first Black judge here in Palm Beach County, Judge Edward Rodgers. He took time to help me understand Palm Beach County and help me understand the people who he had grown up with there in the county. He would give me that call every now and then and say, “What are you doing? Did you think about this? Did you think about that?”
From an interview with Louis Carr
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.