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Room for Growth

“I need a nap!” It’s the second time she’s said it, but Gabrielle Magid will be getting no sleep any time soon. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, as the founder of Stronger Than Stigma brings her latest passion project into reality. The Living Room opened on May 1, with more than 300 people passing through the front door of 211 N. Laura St., Downtown. Weeks later, and the space has seen so many visitors that the door is broken. The wind blows it open periodically, but Magid’s had no time to attend to the hardware; she’s too busy attending to the people for whom The Living Room was conceived: millennials looking for a safe space to negotiate mental health.

Magid talks fast but with precision. Her performance background certainly plays a part. Gabby grew up acting in musical theater, and her current passion is for comedy, be it standup or improv. She was born Sept. 10, 1992, the only child in a Jewish family. The Bolles grad founded Stronger Than Stigma while she was a University of Florida junior. She envisioned a mental-health advocacy organization, but one that spoke to her generation.

“We started in 2013,” she told Folio Weekly, “a little bit before my 21st birthday. I, personally, struggle with anxiety and depression ... For me, that started in high school. It was a very dark time for me, but I always thought to myself that if I lived through this, I’d have to make sure nobody else struggled in isolation, like I did.”

Like many in her position, she didn’t feel comfortable sharing her pain with others, and that kind of repression can often be a recipe for disaster.

“It’s isolating. It’s really isolating to not only have the struggles, but to feel like you can’t talk about it with anyone,” she explained. “So, to me, that’s what I was longing for. I wish I’d had a community of people my own age, not just people, you know, older and wiser than me who could tell me ‘Oh, it gets better, kid.’ People actually sitting in the hall with me.”

Once she got to Gainesville, she began to feel more comfortable sharing her story, and she started reaching out to engage her peers. She was not entirely satisfied with the options that were available at the time.

“I started going to anxiety and depression support groups on campus,” she said. “They’re awesome. They’re filled with great people you would definitely want to be friends with, but the rooms were not packed—fewer than 10 people. All the students have access to free resources, but they either don’t know about them or they’re afraid to reach out for them. That is unacceptable. And they have gorgeous facilities, but they built them under the auspices of the stigma, so they’re in a corner of campus that’s not easy to navigate, and not easy to get to. Yes, you have your privacy, but at what cost? They’re also not getting to as many people as they would if it were in the middle of the quad.”

Then Gainesville suffered a collective trauma that would catalyze Magid’s efforts. On April 16, 2012, a student named Michael Edmonds Jr. jumped to his death from the upper level of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The 26-year-old was an athlete, but he suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition driven by body-image issues and exacerbated by an accident he’d been in two months earlier. He was hit by a car while riding his bike, and that took away his primary coping mechanism. The meds worked only sporadically, as is often the case, so he self-medicated with alcohol. He caught a DUI after crashing his bike early on a Saturday morning. Two days later, he was dead. He was thoughtful enough to make sure no one saw him do it, and he even called 911 first.

The tragedy resonated throughout the state, but nowhere more so than the UF campus itself. That was when Magid decided something had to be done. And something was done: Stronger Than Stigma was launched soon after. It wasn’t easy.

“At first, the original iteration was just a campus-wide campaign to tell students where they could go for help,” said Magid. “That was turned down. The dean told me to join something preexisting and make change from the inside. He also told me it was a great idea, and don’t let it die. I think he wanted me to graduate first, and then do something meaningful, but that just made me upset. I was heartbroken, and went about my business for another semester.”

A birthright trip to Israel helped clarify her purpose, and she realized that her vision for the project could not be contained within the city limits of Gainesville. Once Stronger Than Stigma (STS) took flight, it quickly got a major boost from a prominent backer: the Delores Barr Weaver Foundation, which provided the organization’s first grant. Many other corporate sponsors followed, including Baptist Health, the Community Foundation and even HBO. STS also received support from two families—the Rameys, based in Northeast Florida, and the Ploense family, in Illinois—who have lost loved ones to suicide.

“The people who love the people who struggle are also feeling isolated and helpless,” she explained, “so they need a support network, too.”

A 2018 TEDx talk brought Magid’s message to a whole new audience, expanding the group’s mandate beyond Northeast Florida. Ever since, Stronger Than Stigma has thrived primarily in the digital realm, augmented by physical outreach around the region.

The idea to create a pop-up event space literally popped up, fully formed but spontaneous. “It’s kind of a weird story,” she mused, “in that I can’t explain where the concept came from. I don’t know if it was a dream, or divine inspiration, but I think it was around December. We had some funding that we needed to spend, and it was just an ‘ah ha’ moment.”

Executing her plan did not take long. “It seemed too easy,” she explained. “It was almost too clear of a plan. But everyone I ran it by thought it had legs to stand on.” Once she made the decision to go for it, the next step was to scout locations. There was no shortage of options, but given her target market, it made sense to situate the organization somewhere in the urban core. She reached out to a realtor friend, Matt Clark, who wised her up to the space on Laura Street, previously La Cena restaurant.

Magid is also passionate about projecting a positive image of her generation, which has been unfairly maligned in popular culture. She defines the core mission of Stronger Than Stigma as “mental health advocacy for millennials, by millennials.” That’s one reason she turned to Clark, also a millennial, to find the space. “Nobody believes in our capacity to create change,” she said, “but when we’re motivated, we’re hella motivated.”

Renovations began the first week of April, and work continued even after The Living Room opened. Magid tapped a variety of up-and-coming creators to develop the aesthetic. The bulk of the design work was done by the Castaño Group, led by Kedgar Volta. “I pitched my concept to them, and what you see now on the walls is how they brought that vision to life,” said Magid. “I can’t imagine it any other way.”

Other design elements were provided by Raymond D. Scott and others. Much of the physical labor was done by The Mission Continues, a local volunteer organization that taps into our veterans community to do public-works projects; this was a crucial point of overlap, considering how vastly underserved veterans’ mental health issues have been, particularly in a military town like Jacksonville.

It’s a clean, well-lit space designed to stimulate thought and facilitate conversation. Nearly every inch of visible space is maximized to project messages of introspection and self-care, with bright colors and bold fonts on every surface. The upstairs alcove, accessible through a narrow staircase, is home to an installation designed by Volta's Castaño Group and featuring candid conversations, recorded by Jamie Armstrong, with people about their mental health struggles. These are played back on continuous loop through a series of Victrola-like cones mounted to the wall. The bottom level is set aside for a performance space, and the front area is festooned with couches—a literal living room.

A true pop-up, the space is open for only one month, so Magid and her crew have made sure to stack the calendar with as much activity as possible. There’s something going on almost every day. (Folio Weekly helped with this weekend’s programming.) The resulting schedule reflects the diversity of their movement, with acts that span the spectrum of performance art in this community.

In its short time Downtown, The Living Room has quickly settled into the neighborhood, with other local businesses rushing to help support the project. Just around the corner, The Volstead launched a new craft cocktail called “The Living Room Sofa,” comprising Giffard Pamplemousse, Cloosterbitter, Smoked Chili Hella Bitters, basil and blackberry, and two types of gin (St. George Dry Rye Reposado and Uncle Val’s Restorative). A portion of the cocktail’s sales are kicked back to Stronger Than Stigma.

The Living Room closes on May 31, coinciding with the end of Mental Health Awareness Month. What happens next is anyone’s guess, though Magid plans to reboot the project in other locations in the area. Her ultimate goal is to set up another Living Room in Austin during the 2020 South By Southwest festival. Before all that can happen, though, she needs a nap.

Politics
Something Is Rotten in St. Johns County

When Michelle O’Connell’s body was found on September 2, 2010, there was ample reason to suspect her boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks. The 24-year-old single mother had, after all, been killed in Banks’ St. Augustine home and with his service weapon. What’s more, Banks had allegedly been drinking that night, and O’Connell was reportedly preparing to break off their relationship. No matter. The deputy’s brothers-in-arms duly arrived, summoned by Banks himself to what he claimed was the scene of O’Connell’s suicide. After a perfunctory investigation, Sheriff David Shoar rubber-stamped the boyfriend’s version of events.

It was a breathtakingly brazen assertion of omerta, and it didn’t sit well with many in the community—or state authorities. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened its own investigation and challenged Shoar’s conclusion, suggesting O’Connell’s death was not suicide but homicide. The mystery has also been scrutinized by national media over the years, with reporting in The New York Times, PBS Frontline and ABC’s 20/20.

Yet the cause of death remains, officially, suicide. And Banks remains on Shoar’s force, even as the sheriff suffers more scandals. In November, SJSO finance director, Raye Brutnell, was arrested and charged with fraud and embezzlement. Shoar learned from his mistake; this time he referred the investigation to his counterpart in Polk County, thus avoiding both the apparent conflict of interest and state scrutiny.

Still, scrutiny in the O’Connell case continued. The 2010 death was being actively investigated by a private detective as recently as Jan. 31, 2019, when said sleuth, Ellie Marie Washtock, 38, was found dead in their St. Augustine home, victim of a single gunshot wound. Washtock was in regular contact with O’Connell’s mother, Patty O’Connell, and had requested records relating to the O’Connell case in August 2018.

To forestall state and possibly federal intervention, Sheriff Shoar again invited a neutral but presumably friendly counterpart (this time the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office) to handle the investigation, which is now starting to bear fruit. On May 6, the Putnam County Medical Examiner’s Office announced what many already suspected: that Washtock’s death was a homicide.

This is a promising sign that we will not see another rush to cover-up. Putnam County assures that this is an ongoing investigation—a homicide investigation—but we don’t believe that a neighboring sheriff’s office is the appropriate authority. What St. Johns County needs now is a law enforcement agency with the means and the mandate to put the pieces together and deliver justice for both Michelle O’Connell and Ellie Washtock—before more blood is shed. We know now that a murderer is at large. Since the FDLE recused itself from the Washtock investigation early on, it might be time for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to intervene.

Categories - Main
Through the Wire

Up there in Baltimore, State Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s efforts to purge some 4,790 marijuana convictions from Maryland’s rolls has met what she and others hope is only a temporary roadblock. She began this process on Jan. 30, announcing that day she would also cease prosecution of all marijuana possession cases, regardless of the amount seized. “Prosecuting these cases has no public safety value,” she wrote, “disproportionately impacts communities of color and erodes public trust, and is a costly and counterproductive use of limited resources.” The arguments she makes are familiar to activists around the country, who’ve long inveighed against racial and class disparities at play in the enforcement of drug war protocols, dating back well to the previous century.

Mosby’s desire to vacate these convictions, which originate as long ago as 2011, was blocked late last month by district and circuit court judges, so it’s back to the drawing board on that particular point. She does retain full authority to handle existing cases, however she sees fit, which looks to be not handling them at all. She would send first-time offenders to a diversion program, which has proved reasonably effectively at reducing court costs and preventing cases of recidivism. But a criminal record will no longer be a factor in how these cases are managed, though it must be noted that she intends to continue prosecuting those alleged to be trafficking the stuff.

Catherine Pugh, Baltimore’s chronically embattled ex-mayor, expressed solidarity with Mosby in a statement issued at the same time, situating her stance as part of a larger pushback against the gun violence that’s wreaked national havoc in recent years. “It’s important that we look at commonsense approaches to laws governing personal possession of marijuana,” she wrote, “as cities across the nation have done on the East and West coasts, including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Reno.” Also note: California took the lead on this; LA and San Diego had already vacated thousands of nonviolent possession convictions in the past year or two.

“The effects of these failed policies have been especially dire for cities like Baltimore,” goes the January statement, “where for decades, we’ve criminalized what is now nationally considered a public health crisis.” Thanks to shows like The Wire, the narcotics scene in Charm City is probably what most Americans think of first when these issues are discussed. The show is one of the city’s proudest cultural exports, but it did give way to a broader perception of the community, which is actively trying to counter. Mosby’s moves are powerful steps in the right direction, and she’s paving a way which many of her peers are likely to follow in the months and years ahead.

Pets
Pets Like Me: Burton

A routine interview with a mouser went wildly viral when Grumpy Cat told a journalist that catnip was boring.  You just never know what’s going to come out of a cat’s mouth. So when I scored an interview with Burton—who spent eight years with Folio Weekly editor Georgio Valentino—it seemed like the perfect chance for the two of us, as different as night and day, to have a friendly tête-à-tête.

The man who would be editor adopted Burton as a kitten from a family in Wavre, on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. He was the runt, small and delicate—but what he lacked in size, he made up for in sheer elegance. Young Master Burton and his daddy were inseperable. Until the day came when Georgio’s homeland beckoned, and Bertie needed to be re-homed.

 

Davi: What’s the best prank you’ve ever played on someone?

Burton: I’d wait until my mommy and daddy curled up under the covers, then I’d pounce.

 

What’s your best feline feature?

My salt-and-pepper fur and Olympian calm give me an air of great gravitas, but when backs are turned, I’m just a playful little fellow.

 

What artist or band do you plug when someone asks for a recommendation?

In my youth, I learned to appreciate Nico’s Desertshore and anything by Vic Godard. Daddy used to play his own music, too. Oh, those were days!

 

What have you’ve tried that you’ll never try again?

Pâté au Riesling. Yuck.

 

What about you will make you famous?

I have a lovely little voice.

 

If you had the world’s attention for 10 seconds, what would you say?

Meow.

 

Tell us about you perfect day.

Sleep, play, cuddle, repeat.

 

What’s been your most difficult challenge in life so far?

Mommy and Daddy left one day, and they never came back. Luckily, they’d introduced my brother Nacho and me to a loving family of humans and animals in the lush north of Luxembourg. There’s a beautiful garden. It’s cat heaven. But what I’d give to be back on the Avenue Henri Jaspar with my old man!

 

Whether you call it people saving pets or pets saving people, the story’s the same. Pets make a difference. But adverse events can happen to anyone. You may have the strongest commitment in the world to your pet, and he may show you dedicated love, but if life circumstances change, then re-homing that pet is the most responsible, kindest decision.

Being forced to find a new home for a pet is one of the most difficult situations for pet owners. Not only is the process tough, but the whole situation is super-charged with emotion. Taking the time to find an appropriate home for your pet is the healthiest considerate thing to do.

Burton was given to a new home because his family loved him, not because they didn’t want to love him anymore. Even though he’s a happy cat, frolicking in the greenery at his new digs, he remembers that loving family in dreams and reminisces about the old days—and sighs.

Cooking
Bob White’s Wild Call

I’m proud of myself for sticking to my guns and not being tempted to pump out a holiday-themed column. That doesn’t mean, however, that I can resist the temptation to follow current trends because, hey, I’m trennnnndy, and though I’m usually apolitical, I do enjoy the entertainment value of some of our politicians. Especially those who become the butt of multiple jokes, such as former Vice President Joe Biden—he’s always good for a few hilarious memes. He reminds me of my other favorite political comedian—former Vice President Dan Quail. For those of you too young to know, or too old to recall, the ex-veep is mostly remembered for his goofiness. But that’s not why I’m a loyal Dan Quail fan. It’s not his silliness—but his name. I’m a big fan of his last name: Quail. I bet y’all saw that coming. I LOVE QUAIL! (And, yes, I know it’s spelled Quayle. It’s funner my way, doncha think?)

I first encountered the admirable little birds when I was a small child visiting my grandparents on their western Pennsylvania farm. There, I was delighted and fascinated by the mysterious animal continually crying out “bob white, bob white!” The only explanation I ever heard from my facetious grandfather was that the bird was called Bob White and liked the sound of its own name.

It wasn’t until many years later at culinary school that I learned whole story. Bob White was the name of a type of quail! Who knew? I had just been introduced to the intoxicating pleasures of quail consumption, I was all the more fascinated.

The “bob white” sound these clever birds make is actually the male’s mating call, heard only in the spring and summer months. Quick translation: “Hey, baby, I’m the real Bob White, much cooler than that feeble dude over yonder!”

Over the years, I’ve prepared quail in myriad ways and the result has always been memorable. Have I mentioned that I love quail? These cute, diminutive flavor bombs are by far my favorite game bird. They’re all dark meat, which is slightly sweet, slightly gamey, slightly chewy and, when cooked properly, juicy, succulent and delicious. The most important fact to remember when preparing quail is to NOT OVERCOOK THE BIRDS. They’ll get tough and dry—what a sad waste of nature’s gift.

My favorite way to cook quail is grilling—no, wait … hot smoking them … no, stuff and roast ’em … uh, wait a sec … fry them … mmm, bone ’em out, sauté the breasts and braise the thighs … no. Well, I can’t decide, but whichever method you choose the taste will be amazing. Try this smoked tomato chutney as a side, and call me BOB WHITE from now on.

 

Chef Bill’s Smoked Tomato Chutney

Ingredients

• 1 tsp. cumin seeds

• 1 tsp. mustard seeds

• 1 cup onion, small dice

• 1 Tbsp. ginger, minced

• 2 garlic cloves, minced

• 1 jalapeno, seeded and small dice

• 2 Tbsp. sugar

• 1 tsp. curry powder

• 1/2 tsp. turmeric

• 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped

• 16 Roma tomatoes, smoked, medium dice

• Salt & pepper to taste

 

Directions

1. Toast the cumin and mustard seeds in a pan until they pop. Add oil, turmeric and curry powder, toast 1 minute. Add ginger, garlic, onion and jalapeno, sauté.

2. Add sugar, melt. Add tomatoes, season. Simmer 15 minutes.

3. Stir in cilantro, adjust seasoning.