Who is Glen Gilzean Jr., DeSantis’ go-to guy for African American History and Disney district?

Glen Gilzean Jr. is an important person in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida. And a busy one.

Here’s a sampling:

Gilzean is currently under fire for at least two of those positions. He has defended DeSantis and the African American Task Force for Florida’s new controversial African American history standards against claims that they whitewash history and require instruction that “slaves developed skills” for “personal benefit.”

And after he announced that the new district governing Disney World would be abolishing its diversity, equity and inclusion program, his former employer, the Central Florida Urban League, blasted his “betrayal.”

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Glen Gilzean Jr.?

Glenton Gilzean Jr.

Glenton “Glen” Gilzean Jr.’s grandparents emigrated from Jamaica. He grew up in the Lauderdale Lakes area of Broward County, Florida, and graduated from Nova High School, participating in on-the-job training and even spending a semester studying in Israel.

Gilzean, 40, holds a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from the University of South Florida and a master’s degree in entrepreneurship from the University of South Florida’s Center of Entrepreneurship.

After college Gilzean worked for U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, and then spent three-and-a-half years working for the Florida Department of Education as a regional field director. He left to form a nonprofit group called Educate Today and grew it into a multimillion-dollar organization but resigned from it in 2012 when then-Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gilzean to fill an empty seat on the Pinellas County School Board even though he had only lived in the area for two months at the time.

Gilzean was defeated in the next election, despite an endorsement from former Gov. Jeb Bush, but the next year Scott appointed him to the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees, which was also considered by some to be a controversial choice.

Gilzean withdrew his nomination in 2014 before he could be confirmed after the Herald/Times reported that as the vice president of advocacy and outreach for Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization in Jacksonville that managed Florida’s school voucher program, he would have to register as a lobbyist. State law prohibits university trustees from working as registered lobbyists and the Times/Herald verified that Gilzean had lobbied “at least six lawmakers on the issue.” In 2016, Scott appointed him to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission to select nominees for judicial vacancies.

In November 2015, Gilzean took over as head of the Central Florida Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League, when they were floundering under $1.2 million of debt, and brought them out of it in less than two years. He was made president and CEO in 2016 and was named one of Central Florida’s CEOs of the Year in 2019 by the Orlando Business Journal.

DeSantis appoints Gilzean to multiple Florida committees

In 2019, DeSantis appointed Gilzean to the Florida Commission on Ethics and reappointed him in 2022. In January 2020, Gilzean was appointed to the State of Florida’s Census Complete Count Committee, made up of different organizations encouraging census participation within their respective constituencies.

After initially shutting down the state when COVID-19 first became a pandemic, DeSantis moved to open things up again. Gilzean was named to a working group in his Reopen Florida Task Force.

Gilzean criticized for conservative leanings

Gilzean has worked tirelessly his entire career to further opportunities for Black people.

“Glen was a like a breath of fresh air to the Central Florida Urban League,” Board Chair Paula Hoisington told the Orlando Sentinel. “It was his love for community, his love for children, his love for just wanting to make it an even playing field for all of those that were needing a hand up, not a handout.”

“The way we are doing that is now through the three E’s: Education, Employment, and Entrepreneurship,” Gilzean told the Agents of Innovation podcast in 2020. “We believe the three E’s will really eradicate generational poverty.”

But his conservative political leanings and support of governors Scott and DeSantis have drawn criticism, especially as DeSantis is perceived by many to be diminishing Black people’s representation in government and depiction in school history courses.

In 2020, when Gilzean testified to the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice on community engagement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he stressed the importance of respect for law enforcement, something the Central Florida Urban League works toward with various community engagement programs like “Coffee With a Cop.” He blamed young people’s skepticism of law enforcement on “nefarious influences in the media and in the community,” with barely a mention of widespread law enforcement disrespect, violence, and the higher rates of killing of Black people.

Gilzean also endorsed the decision by DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to open classrooms in 2020 as COVID continued to surge in Florida, pointing out the number of Black-owned businesses that had closed due to lockdowns.

After Gilzean wrote a Black History Month editorial for the Orlando Sentinel in February supporting the state’s attack on the Advanced Placement African American History course offered to high school students, which Florida ultimately refused to use despite its popularity, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial wrote a letter to the editor denouncing it.

Gilzean’s view “does not reflect the position of the National Urban League or the Urban League affiliate network” about DeSantis’ “blatantly political effort to ban AP African American History” and “weaponizing white grievance,” Morial wrote. “[DeSantis] is flagrantly exploiting racial fears and perpetuating a warped view of the nation’s history, effectively thwarting efforts to end systemic racism.”

Gilzean has been a fellow or member at two conservative institutions, the James Madison Institute and the American Enterprise Institute Leadership Network.

Gilzean under fire for Florida’s Black history curriculum, Disney DEI

Most recently, Gilzean has received high-profile blowback in his role in two major DeSantis policies.

The Florida Board of Education was tasked to write a new African American History curriculum last year as it conflicted with the state’s new “Stop WOKE Act” which prohibited any teaching that could make students feel they bear personal responsibility, guilt, anguish, or “other forms of psychological distress” for their race; blocked instruction that suggested anyone was “either privileged or oppressed” based on race or skin color; required discussions about race to be taught in an “objective manner”; and banned any discussion “used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

Florida has been required to teach Black history since 1994 when the Legislature created the African American History Task Force. The task force was abruptly beefed up with DeSantis allies in June, with Gilzean as chief. The new curriculum was created by a different African American History Standards Workgroup largely made up of conservative appointees and was unanimously approved by the Board of Education despite protests and criticism from major Black advocate groups, community leaders, Greek-letter fraternities and the state’s teachers’ union.

Among the complaints were that the curriculum taught the benefits of slavery to the enslaved, suggested that the actions of victims of historical Black massacres contributed to the events, named significant abolitionists and landmark court decisions in favor of civil rights but not Florida’s role in resisting it, and showcased almost exclusively Republican leaders in the civil rights movement.

In May, Gilzean was elected district administrator for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, a board DeSantis had established to replace the one Disney World has used to govern its roads, construction permits, fire protection, water and waste collection and other infrastructure needs across 25,000 acres of property in Orange and Osceola counties since 1967.

Disney evoked DeSantis’ ire last year when then-CEO Bob Chapek criticized the governor’s Parental Rights in Education Act, condemned as “Don’t Say Gay,” by opponents, and vowed to stop political contributions in the state and work to repeal the new law. That kicked off an ongoing feud that resulted in Disney’s taxing district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, getting struck down and replaced by the governor’s hand-picked new board but not before Disney took back much of its power.

This week, Gilzean announced that the new district was abolishing its diversity, equity and inclusion programs, something DeSantis has long railed and signed legislation against, and he name-dropped his previous employer, the Central Florida Urban League.

“Our district will no longer participate in any attempt to divide us by race or advance the notion that we are not created equal,” Gilzean said in the Tuesday announcement. “As the former head of the Central Florida Urban League, a civil rights organization, I can say definitively that our community thrives only when we work together despite our differences.”

The National Urban League fired back.

“The National Urban League and our nationwide movement of more than 90 local affiliates are shocked and dismayed by Glen Gilzean’s betrayal of the values at the very core of our mission,” said Marc Morial, its president and CEO, in a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.

“His rejection of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion principles is a rejection of the Urban League Movement and the pursuit of racial justice itself,” Morial said. “We vigorously and emphatically reject any implied association with Mr. Gilzean’s current words or actions. His crass political expediency is all the more offensive given his previous vantage point to the harm he knows it will cause.” 

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