Incoming NAACP chairwoman found her voice early

Baltimore Sun

Roslyn Brock was trying to decide between running for president of the student government at Virginia Union University and pursuing another position at the historically black college in Richmond. She called home to Maryland for advice.

More than two decades later, her mother remembers the conversation.

"My comment to her was, 'If someone came to the campus looking for a voice, would they ask an individual who's chair of a particular group or ask for the SGA president?' " Eladies Sampson said this week. "I told her, 'If you want to have a voice, that's where you need to go.' "

Brock's victory in the student government election gave her a voice that she has used ever since, both in her professional life as a health care administrator and longer - and more demonstratively - with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Over the weekend, the Baltimore-based organization elected Brock, a longtime member of its national board, its next chairwoman.

The 44-year-old Elkridge woman will replace Julian Bond, a notable figure in the civil rights movement who is stepping down at age 70. With the 2008 appointment of Benjamin Jealous, the organization's 37-year-old CEO and president, Brock's election represents a generational shift that NAACP leaders hope will attract new and younger members.

Brock and Jealous are the youngest to hold their positions in the 101-year history of the organization.

"What [we] have an opportunity to do is to reignite that energy and vibrancy in the organization as we begin that first year of our second century," Brock said this week before flying to Los Angeles to take part in the NAACP's annual Image Awards on Friday.

"We are the inheritors of the struggle and progress of hundreds of thousands of famous and faceless individuals who believe that American society can be better for all of us. Both [Jealous] and I are beneficiaries of that. It's now time that the baton is passed to a new generation of leaders to take this organization the next mile of the way."

Her job will be to sell younger Americans on an organization that critics say has lost its relevance - and much of its political influence - over the past two decades amid membership losses in the hundreds of thousands, financial debt in the millions and the larger question of whether it has outlived its usefulness.

Jealous believes that Brock, who was born in Florida but moved to Prince George's County as a child, is up to the challenge.

"We have great hope in Roslyn to emerge as a transformative, historical figure in our country's history," he said. "Throughout her career, she continually focuses on the crises of today and the victories of tomorrow. She is well-respected in her own right and will become a household name quickly."

Brock credits Bond and former Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams with being "beacons our community, in our struggle. If it were not for them and the sacrifices they have made, there wouldn't be an NAACP. There would not be a Barack Obama. I would not have been afforded the opportunity to become chairman."

Still, Brock spoke of taking a new approach as chair.

"I believe that the organization cannot continue just to state what we're against. We really have to say what we're for, and offer some tangible solutions about how to solve problems," said Brock.

Toward that end, Brock is reaching outside the African-American community, educating those unaware that along with historic figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the organization was founded largely by what Brock called "progressive white Americans" and others "who wanted to do something about that quote-unquote darker race.

"It's not just for African-Americans to be talking about change," she said. "We invite many individuals - whites, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans - to come and join our movement and become members of the organization and inheritors of the American dream."

The NAACP has changed since its founding. In its heyday, Howard University political scientist Lorenzo Morris said, the organization had a "more progressive" civil rights policy and legislative orientation. "It did not retain the progressive part of its orientation," said Morris, who would like to see the organization more involved in urban affairs. "It seems to have taken a back seat on political issues, trying to always be within the range of fairly moderate American policies."

Brock says that her professional background - she is vice president for advocacy and government relations at Bon Secours Health System Inc., a chain of Catholic hospitals, nursing facilities and other programs based in Marriottsville - makes her particularly sensitive to those who are struggling to find affordable health care.

"We're challenged by the questions that are on many Americans' minds now when they have to grapple with the issue," Brock said. "We want to include everyone, not just people of color, who feel they have been locked out and fallen through the cracks in a prosperous society."

It has been something Brock says she has been trying to do since she joined the NAACP's youth college council as an 18-year-old freshman at Virginia Union. She was attracted by the vibrancy of an organization that was using students to help elect L. Douglas Wilder, a Virginia Union graduate, as the country's first African-American governor.

"They were having registration drives, they were having political forums, they were inviting individuals to the campus to talk about what was happening in politics and in the broader community," Brock recalled. "It was exciting."

One year later, Brock was elected as one of seven junior members of the NAACP's national board, a position she held for six years. When she turned 25, Brock was elected to her first three-year team as a regular board member, a position she has held ever since.

Within the organization's 64-person board, it is said to be virtually impossible not to pulled into one faction or another. In what is believed to be a first for the NAACP, Brock was elected by a unanimous vote.

Alice Huffman, a board member since 2002 who acknowledges leading one of those factions in her position as California state chairman, said Wednesday night that she threw her support to Brock because of Brock's long-standing involvement in NAACP activities, as well as her age.

"Knowing the NAACP and having observed the NAACP from a secondary role gives you a leg up on anybody new who would be elected," Huffman said by telephone from Los Angeles. "She has a strong appeal to the younger generation than most of us. What image do we want to put forth? She has a high level of trust within most people in the organization and if you start out with trust, you can't go wrong."

Jealous, who was selected after Bruce S. Gordon's tumultuous 19-month tenure ended after conflicts with the board, compared Brock with Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who was sworn in this month as mayor of Baltimore after years on the City Council. "It just pays to know how the body operates," Jealous said.

Said Brock, "You have to understand, I have been a part of the board for 25 years, they have watched me grow, they have watched me develop, many of them have mentored me and invested in me."

Ruth Coles Harris has known Brock since she was a freshman in one of her business math classes at Virginia Union. She said that she would have been more surprised had Brock's career not turned out the way it has. Harris remembers looking at a yearbook long after Brock graduated magna cum laude.

"She listed as her goal, 'To become a successful health care administrator,' " Harris recalled. "Some people have others define their goals for them. She had some well-defined goals to begin with - both short-term and long-term. I remember whenever she came to class, she was well prepared."

The two have stayed in touch over the years, exchanging Christmas cards, visiting when Brock gets back to Richmond. When Harris retired, Brock was instrumental in raising money for a scholarship in her former professor's name. Harris isn't surprised at how much a part of Brock's life the NAACP has become.

"When she became involved in something, she would be totally immersed," Harris said. "She's a very focused person."

Nor did it surprise her mother that Brock, the oldest of three siblings, is now in this position.

"One of the things about Roslyn that people sort of cater to is that she's strong-willed, she's direct, she's always asking, 'what, where, when, how?' Those are questions that even as a youth she was always wanting to know," Sampson said. "One of the things I know ... as her mom is for someone to tell her something she can't do.

"If somebody says, 'You can't do that, you're too young. You can't do that because you're a female,' then her goal is at that point, 'I will.' "

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