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Joyce A. Russell prepares to retire as Hillsborough African-American liaison

In the spring of 2006, demonstrators began organizing a rally that would take place at the office of the Hills­borough County Medical Examiner.

NAACP state officials and local leaders held concerns about the second autopsy of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who died after a violent encounter with guards at a Bay County boot camp.

The controversial case moved to Tampa after then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Hills­borough State Attorney Mark Ober as a special prosecutor.

However, officials for the medical examiner said its cramped office lacked the space to accommodate a large group. They argued that protesters could block emergency vehicle access.

NAACP representatives felt the office wasn't respecting their free speech rights.

Tensions grew.

In stepped Joyce A. Russell, the county's African-American liaison, who helped broker a compromise that allowed the protesters to gather across the street from the medical examiner's office. They arrived before 8 a.m. and stayed through the evening. The assembly proved peaceful.

Russell didn't seek fanfare for her role. She just did her job, as she has done repeatedly since being appointed to the position in 2000.

Only now, as she prepares to retire after 30 years of public service, does Russell reflect on such moments. As we sat outside of County Center because of a power outage Tuesday, she explained how the government liaisons must maintain integrity in the community while retaining the trust of their bosses.

However, she wasn't simply representing blacks.

"I worked for all of Hillsborough County," Russell said. "I just happened to have an expertise with the black community.

"I don't believe in dividing people. I believe in bringing people together. Government has to reach out to everybody and have the resources to connect to different ethnicities."

The county employs four liaisons: African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and disabled. In 2009, budget cuts threatened the ethnic representatives, but commissioners ultimately spared their positions.

Russell said given the county's growing diversity, the positions hold greater importance, not less. Although she's taking a well-deserved rest, she continues to believe in government's ability to solve problems for people both large and small.

A Clearwater native, she brought that perspective to the county in 1984 after two previous jobs, including three years with St. Petersburg Junior College. She took a pay cut to pursue her public service passion.

In 1992, as a manager in Aging Services, she received the county's excellence in government award, the county's highest employee honor, after she successfully lobbied to change a state law limiting the number of seniors who could qualify for an employment program.

There are other accomplishments on Russell's resume.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller lauded her for her volunteer work at the University of South Florida, where she reinvigorated an African-American advisory council and helped create an endowed scholarship honoring Israel "Ike" Tribble Jr., the first black president of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the leader of the Florida Education Fund.

Albert Coleman, who assumes the unenviable task of replacing Russell, credits her leadership for adding greater resonance to the county's annual Black Heritage Celebration.

Russell hopes to continue community work, with a focus on transferring the history and accomplishments of past county residents to the next generation.

With doctors giving Russell a positive prognosis in her battle against cancer, she plans to combine that work with a trip to Australia and New Zealand. She's drawn by the coral reef barriers and wide-open spaces down under, and she hopes to connect with aborigines.

Naturally, she still longs to bridge the divide between people of different cultures.

That's all I'm saying.

Joyce A. Russell prepares to retire as Hillsborough African-American liaison 09/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 4:30am]
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