Academic, economic development leaders react to civil unrest, protests

The following open letters to the community are offered by leaders at the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, the University of South Florida, and St. Petersburg College in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent riots and non-violent protests that have rocked the Tampa Bay region and cities across the nation.

Craig Richard, President and CEO of Tampa Bay Economic Development Council

As our communities react to yet another senseless death of a person of color, I feel compelled to share my thoughts as a Black man, a father, and a CEO of a business association.

As someone who has experienced death threats for being the first Black executive in an organization, stopped for DWB (Driving While Black), followed around by store security, called everything but my name, and endured many other indignities that have been locked away in my subconscious, I understand the rage and frustration of the protesters.

As a father of two intelligent young Black men who has had difficult conversations about what to do in the event they are stopped by the police so they can come home safely or how they feel when they see a Confederate flag in the neighborhood or in a public place, I understand their anxiety and uncertainty.

And as the CEO of this EDC, I also understand we are in a position of leadership, and we have an obligation to move our community toward inclusive economic prosperity. However, what good is prosperity without justice for all? If you are like me, when posed with a question or problem, I go right into solution mode. However, as my wife tells me often: “Sometimes, I just want you to listen.” I believe this is one of those times.

Therefore, I encourage you, as the leader of your respective organization, to seek understanding and listen with compassion to the voices that have not been heard. Then I ask you to take action by demonstrating that you listened and understand in a manner that is unique to you. Finally, I ask that you seize this opportunity to create positive and lasting change.

USF President Steve Currall

Steve Currall, President and Professor of University of South Florida

I believe I speak for the entire University of South Florida community when I express our deep sadness over recent events in Minneapolis and around the country. The deaths of two black men, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, should prompt us to pause and think about how racism impacts all of our lives.

Although neither of those individuals was affiliated with the University of South Florida, events such as this have a powerful impact on people of every background and in every community.  The impact is magnified in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so badly shaken us all.

As we work to help each other understand what has happened -- if we can ever truly understand -- I find myself reflecting on the Principles of Community we aspire to at USF;  to treat each other with respect and dignity, refrain from displays of inappropriate anger or intimidating conduct, shun epithets or abusive language, find effective means to disagree, and to persuade and to inform through dialogue.

For our students, faculty, and staff, I want to remind them of the resources available through the university’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and the USF Counseling Center. I urge you to seek out their support.

I believe we must support and care for each other during times like these and not forget that each of us is empowered to stand up to injustice whenever and wherever it occurs.

Dr. Tonjua Williams, St. Petersburg College

Dr. Tonjua Williams, Ph.D., President of St. Petersburg College

My heart is heavy over the act of brutality that occurred in Minneapolis, Minnesota last week, and the subsequent protests that began peacefully, but have in some cases turned violent in recent days. I know you are hurting, too. We grieve with the families and friends of those lost through recent senseless acts of violence and everyone across the country, and in our own local communities, who are affected by these horrible events.
At St. Petersburg College we value the sanctity of all human life. We honor diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. We denounce racial injustice, classism, sexism, gender bias, religious persecution, and bigotry in all forms. We believe all people should be treated with dignity and respect. In standing firm on these principles, we show the world that we are committed to equality and opportunity for all people, all the time.
I am proud and humbled to be a part of our SPC family, a rich tapestry of people of many races, ethnicities, religious affiliations, gender identities, sexual orientations, political beliefs, and physical abilities. This diversity, which is a true reflection of our community, makes us stronger.
At SPC, we are uniquely situated to be a part of the solution to the deeply disturbing issues we are facing. Our institution can provide a voice for disenfranchised and marginalized individuals by acting as a convener and supporting respectful discourse to affect change. The very premise SPC is built upon -- providing equity and excellence in education for all -- provides the foundation for us to listen to one another, learn from each other, and teach others.
As we struggle to comprehend the horrific images we saw play out in Minnesota, and in so many other communities over the past several years, our hearts and souls are strained by acts of injustice and inhumanity.
It is said that a house divided cannot stand. We must unite in our efforts to spread awareness of social injustices, use kindness to bridge differences and work tirelessly to find solutions to move our country forward, peacefully. Let us work together to be the change we want to see. I pledge to be a part of the solution, and I hope that you will join me.

The above missives were first published as open letters to the community from the leadership at the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, the University of South Florida, and St. Petersburg College.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.