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Fiscal ills frustrate NAACP branches

Civil rights activists in local NAACP branches around the country are both resentful and resolute in the face of the national leadership's decision this month to cut staff by 40 percent and temporarily close regional offices.

On one hand, the branches consider themselves the foot soldiers in the daily battles against racial injustice. No matter what financial decisions are made at the upper echelon of the organization, branch leaders insist, they will continue that fight.

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Yet some local members have expressed frustration with the organization's leadership for being unable to manage financial troubles without resorting to such substantial - and embarrassing - cuts.

"Nobody likes to see this," said Lorraine Miller, president of the NAACP's Washington, D.C., branch. "The direction we take is going to be absolutely critical here. ... But does it say that there is not a need for the organization? Absolutely not. There is a need now more than ever."

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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is shrinking its national staff by attrition and layoffs - from 119 people to 70 - and closing its seven regional offices to cover three years of budget shortfalls. The Baltimore-based organization has tapped its rainy-day account to cover expenses to the tune of about $10 million.

The financial woes come as the 98-year-old organization is struggling to increase membership, raise money and find a leader with a vision of how to fight discrimination in the post-civil rights era.

In March, retired Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon resigned abruptly as the NAACP's president and chief executive officer after 19 months at the helm. Gordon said that while he hoped the organization would bolster its social justice programs, the NAACP's 64-member board vision was of traditional civil rights advocacy. Since then, terse words have been exchanged between Gordon and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.

Last month, NAACP leadership said plans to move the organization's headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to the nation's capital have been put on hold because of lackluster fundraising.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, said local units will be hurt by the closing of regional offices, which act as a conduit between the front lines and the administration in Baltimore. "I understand the move that has to be made, but that is our connection to the national; that is the bridge. You don't cut that out," he said. "We understand we are in troubling times, but I'm just not sure that's the best way to deal with it."

In the structure of the NAACP, the national office plays a small role in day-to-day activism, said Cheatham.

The NAACP has about 2,200 local units around the country and abroad. It's there that volunteers field phone calls from people alleging such problems as housing discrimination and police brutality, said Cheatham. These volunteers develop strategies for closing the achievement gap between black and white students, encouraging people to vote on Election Day and empowering communities troubled by violence.

Seven regional offices coordinate information and strategy between the local branches and the national office. The organization also has state chapters, which help mobilize local units. At the top are the NAACP president and other executives in Baltimore, who answer to the national board.

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Cheatham said the organization's annual convention next month in Detroit will be crucial for devising a sound financial strategy to cope with demand for NAACP services at the local level.

"We have financial challenges and some membership challenges, but the problems that our communities are having are critical," he said.

The current financial difficulties have highlighted long-held bitterness among some branches about how the organization conducts fundraising. For instance, when local branches have fundraisers, a portion of the money must go to the national office.

"Is there some grousing about sending that money to the national? Yes, but I think people understand we are a national organization," said Miller. "We are always concerned about the proportion we need to send that we work hard for and beg our communities for. I would be disingenuous to tell you no. In the final analysis, it's up to the national office to be prudent with the money we raise."

Charles M. Christian, a professor at Coppin State University and an expert on civil rights, said the organization's financial troubles might have a psychological effect on local units.

"To find the premier civil rights organization in distress and apparently not finding an easy way to resolve its problems ... is actually signaling a broken organization," he said. "And we as African-Americans in general don't want to see that. We don't want to see it because we don't have anything yet to replace it. It has to survive."

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Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who has followed the NAACP closely, predicts little fallout from the current troubles. He said that since the real work of the organization is done on the state and local levels, regional offices are unnecessary. The cuts are a responsible way to keep the organization financially sound, he added.

"In many ways, it's a duplication of function to have the state, the cities and the regional," Walters said. "It's an embarrassment of administrative riches. Some streamlining ought to be in order here."

Walters said the NAACP's cash flow problem is common among civil rights organizations. To come out of this, the NAACP needs a strong leader who can mesh with its board's vision and a separate fundraising effort to bring in money.

"This is a wake-up call," Walters said. "I think what it's telling us is the need for a professional approach to fundraising."

Willis Edwards, a national board member from Los Angeles and vice president of the NAACP's Hollywood branch, said he sees the troubles as an opportunity to energize the organization from the grass roots up.

"People are not happy about it," said Edwards. "But we have to know that everyone will step up to the plate. This organization has been around 100 years and will be here long after I die."

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kelly.brewington@baltsun.com


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