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Say What?

‘Way beyond Rodney King’


Heading up the local chapter of a major civil rights organization wasn't something Joe Brown ever set out to do.

But when Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., the most recent president of the Greater Rochester Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, abruptly departed for South Carolina in November to care for ill family members, Brown was his go-to guy.

"I never wanted to be leader of the Greater Rochester NAACP Chapter," says Brown. "I really wasn't interested in being the voice, but I think God gives you responsibility at certain periods of time."

Brown doesn't plan to seek the post of president again when his term expires in two years. Still, given his day job as an organizational development consultant who often works with companies on diversity issues, it's tough to imagine a better navigator for the local NAACP's transition.

Brown's life story reads like a history of the civil rights movement. Originally from Harlem, he came of age as a college student at the historically black Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina in the early 1960s. Those were times when students --- especially African Americans from southern states --- had a lot to lose by joining the movement, Brown recalls. (The recent murder trial of former Klansman Edgar Ray Killen has thrust the enormity of those risks starkly back into the public eye.) Down the road in Greensboro, another student named Jesse Jackson was garnering headlines for the first time. Back in New York, Brown put in a stint as an assistant commissioner for economic development for the city at the same time JFK Jr. was working in that department.

These days Brown's voice conveys a sense of authority and of wisdom gained over the years, but also of his deep abiding passion for justice and civil rights, which time hasn't diminished.

City Newspaper sat down for a broad conversation with Brown about his new job. Following are edited excerpts of Brown's comments on a handful of topics.

On moving the NAACP organization from within the church, as it was under Goff's leadership, and into the community:

Historically this chapter's leadership has always been pretty much pastors. And that's a good thing. Some of my best friends are pastors. So I don't think that's a bad thing. However, I do know that there are people who are challenged beyond their ability to embrace the church. Who are going through some things and who need help, but because it's located in a church they find it hard to talk about the things that are challenging them.

So this gives us the opportunity to move ourselves out of the province of a church and become more community connected while still being strongly aligned with men and women of faith. I think we're going to be that much more accessible to a broad cross-section of folk, being positioned in the community but still connected to the church.

On changing the public perception of the NAACP:

People only see us publicly dealing with issues that can be abrasive. While we are still going to do that, we need to step up some of our more proactive programs. We have a program which is the Afro-Academics, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympicsand it's a local, regional, and national competition for minority students to be able to kind of challenge each other in terms of projects from those various venues very much like they do athletically. So we're going to be more involved in that.

We're talking about putting together programs for providing some services and support to families of men and women who are incarcerated. To try to work on some transitional programs for that particular group.

On broadening the NAACP's scope, specifically to include Rochester's Hispanic community:

One of the critical things that we're talking about doing is reaching out beyond African-Americans for membership and for involvement. We need to engage across race, ethnic, and cultural lines long before there's a problem. The problems that we have are natural and inevitable; we are going to have problems. Diversity creates problems, because it creates conflict. Diversity has to do with difference and similarity at the same time.

In the minority community we have an elephant sitting in the room that we don't want to talk about. The fact is that African-Americans and Hispanics don't necessarily walk hand in hand. Often times we share the same community, the same apartment building, the same neighborhood. Yet there are some places where we step on each other and offend each other. We need to begin to have a conversation about how we share the same turf and the same community and work through our conflicts.

One of the vice presidents of the NAACP is a Hispanic, with the primary responsibility of spurring that conversation between African Americans and Hispanics. What is it that we do that keeps us from being able to be more collaborative?

We need to work on how we can assist each other in helping to support the development of an African-American Puertoriqueño or Puertoriqueño African-American young man who can handle the great substance of who he is and not confuse him. There's got to be a way of doing it.

On the challenges he'll face during his tenure:

The challenge for me --- because I plan to pass it on --- is to build leadership. There are some bright energetic young men and women in this town who desire to create the beloved community. And we talk about the beloved community but we've never quite defined it, nor have we strategized how we'll arrive there. And I think there are some vibrant young folks who want to do that. My challenge is to provide them with the opportunity to position themselves and serve through various committees and what have you. Build that membership. Create revenue streams that provide events so we can have community engagement.

There's a lot of stuff we could do to have the ongoing conversation about how we function collaboratively in the beloved community. That we be able to participate and that we not just pass each other as isolated little silos; that we have real interaction; that we can begin to have those kind of conversations not when in crisis, but naturally. So I know you before our kids get into a problem, and based on our relationship we can work through very difficult problems.

This thing is way beyond Rodney King --- "can't we all just get along?" No, we can't just all get along. We must work very hard at trying to create opportunities for us to engage, not in spite of our differences, but within the context of our differences. Conflict is a natural and inevitable piece of our need to be interactive and to stretch beyond our comfort zone. Conflict should be embraced as an opportunity.