The following first appeared in the Regarding Race newsletter, a biweekly look at race, identity and culture issues in Tampa Bay from engagement producer Monique Welch and other Times staffers. To subscribe and receive it in your email inbox every other Tuesday, click here.
It is no secret that the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP has had a tumultuous, and at times, drama-filled past.
Esther Eugene is ready for a fresh start.
The 45-year-old business owner and native of St. Pete’s Childs Park neighborhood is the incoming president and is excited to re-energize the chapter. She replaces Maria Scruggs, who stepped down after five years to vie for Ken Welch’s District 7 seat on the county commission.
“I saw a need, and I was ready to fill the need,” she said.
The chapter has suffered since it left its headquarters at 16th Street and 15th Avenue S, she said. The branch has not had a physical location in about five years, but Eugene hoped to change that.
“(Then) it was known as an organization where a family who is experiencing economic or legal challenges can walk in the door and speak to a person. And I think that when we got away from that, we lost something within our branch.”
Her mission is to reinstate the branch as a go-to resource in the community once her new NAACP duties begin Jan. 1.
She steps in during a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color in Pinellas and community unrest following a string of shootings. The latest, on Dec. 2, has been a hot topic after a Facebook video circulated showing St. Petersburg police officers shooting and killing a man linked to a 2019 homicide, hitting him 38 times.
Ashley Green of the Tampa Bay Area Dream Defenders said the incident “represents a police failure, a systems failure and a community failure.”
Eugene felt the same way after seeing the video. She wondered why Black people are typically not given their right to due process of law when questioned or arrested.
“If I’m innocent until proven guilty, then why am I treated like a criminal at the gate,” she said.
“So my question has been and continues to be, at what point would this young man have no longer been deemed a threat? I think that 38 shots is excessive. I think the need to get up on a car to shoot down was excessive. The question, however, is will it be deemed excessive?”
Eugene supports city leaders’ efforts through the “Enough is Enough” campaign to condemn gun violence, and since the shootings, she has been active in community discussions and meetings aimed at devising a strategic solution. A plan hasn’t been formalized yet, however one goal is more community policing.
Eugene believes education and training is required for both the community and law enforcement. Everyone needs to understand expectations around how to interact.
But ultimately, she believes the solution lies in young people and making sure they are included in the process.
They need to be at the table, she said, “voicing their thoughts, lending an ear and a voice to what needs to take place in our community.”
Eugene owns a company called All Administrative Solutions, LLC, which provides business and administrative support to small and mid-sized companies and organizations. She works regularly with Black-owned businesses and nonprofits.
Her election has generated buzz in the community, many rallying in support, although she said some have pointed out her inexperience leading a prominent organization. But Eugene believes that could be an advantage.
“It’s okay to be inexperienced, it’s okay to come with fresh ideas, and it’s also okay to come with what I like to say is outside of the status quo,” Eugene said in the Zoom interview.
Watson Hayes, the president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, said he has known Eugene for roughly four years. He said he is confident she’s the right person for the job after seeing Eugene question political candidates at a recent community forum for the NAACP. She organized and led several such forums for the NAACP before she was elected as the president in this past November election.
“She took that job seriously and did a good job, so I certainly see her being the president of the NAACP being very positive for the community,” he said.
Hayes said it’s evident that the NAACP felt confident in Eugene’s leadership capabilities since many people from the organization encouraged her to run.
“Leadership is just that, providing leadership to an organization and a group of followers,” Hayes said. “You got followers, then you’re a leader.”
Eugene said she’s not jaded or distrustful of others. She expects the branch will move forward in a collaborative fashion.
“When people say you’re inexperienced, what I say to them is, I’m not inexperienced when I fight for my people.”