As a young, black male growing up in Pensacola, Justin Pierce looked up to Lumon May.
May, who coached Pierce’s youth basketball league, told him, “Whenever you go to school and make something of yourself, never forget where you came from.”
Pierced remembered those words.
He studied sports administration and business at Bellhaven University after high school—his tuition covered by his basketball skills. In other words, he went to school and made something of himself.
However, upon graduation, he was reluctant to return home.
He saw more opportunity in Jackson, Miss. than he did in Pensacola.
“As funny as it sounds, that was the first time I saw African Americans in business suits,” Pierce said. “The mayor was an African American. The chief of police was an African American.”
However, May’s words echoed in Pierce’s mind.
“It kind of hit me,” he said. “Too many of us were leaving.”
“What happens to the children [if we don’t return]? Who do they get to look up to?”
So, Pierce came back. He taught at a small, Christian school on the Westside, before taking a position with the Southern Youth Sports Association—the organization that sponsored the youth league he played in.
In 2009, he began working at the Fricker Center, which offers after school programs to inner-city kids in Pensacola. He ran the center for three years.
This summer, Pierce became the supervisor of inner-city athletics for the City of Pensacola—after May stepped down from the position to run for political office.
Pierce is optimistic about Pensacola’s future. “As a native of Pensacola, I’ve never been more passionate about my city,” he said.
“I love this place. I never wanna leave. I’m looking at getting a boat, so I can sit on the water and watch the fireworks.”
He said he is pleased by Mayor Ashton Hayward’s efforts to promote the city and excited about the revitalization of downtown.
Though optimistic, he also sees challenges. He worries about increasing crime and high dropout rates in the inner city. He said there needs to be more of a “village mentality” in offering support to inner-city youth.
“If they look out their windows and see negativity 24/7, how long is it before that negativity controls them and they get a sense of learned helplessness? We always got to stay positive and motivate these kids and tell them ‘you can be anything you wanna be.’”
“If we tell a kid ‘we can’t help you,’ guess who will say they can: the drug dealer, the person who will put a girl on the corner and those people won’t sleep, so we can’t either.”
He also said he worries that Pensacola’s best and brightest are leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
“It’s time [for our elected officials] to stop fighting and come together,” he said, “because if we’re losing our young talent, who’s gonna take your spot in the next 10 years? Who’s gonna be the next Ashton Hayward? Who’s gonna be the next Brian Spencer? Who’s gonna be the next Lumon May?”