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Finally

March 4, 2011

Next week my regular, twice monthly column will go to print in Seattle’s Real Change Newspaper.  What I wrote is going to anger some people. Okay, probably a lot of people.  You can read the article below, but first I want to share something with you.

Writing about the State Auditor’s report on questionable spending by Seattle Public Schools and thus questionable contracts awarded to prominent Black organizations, businesses and individuals in and around Seattle has been an exhausting process. I know or am familiar with most if not all of those named in the SAO report.  I’ve even worked with and for some of them in the past.  I have friends, contacts and colleagues who have as well.  I’ve talked to and listened to a lot of people in the past week.  There has been a lot of disappointment, outrage, frustration and disgust expressed by Black professionals who are fed up and pissed off. Not a single one was surprised by the information revealed in the audit.

After a week, I took all of that information and all of those emotions and expressions from my Black community and posted it right here on the SV.

Why is it when a scandal hits a Black organization, agency or entity, it becomes CYA by any means necessary?  Do these people really think that flat denials of wrongdoing actually shore up the public’s trust and faith? Because it doesn’t.

The UL is walking a fine, fine line on this contracts issue. They say they had contracts which were approved by the school district. That’s true. But what about the integrity of those contracts?

They may have felt they were doing nothing wrong then, but in the face of the SAO’s audit, can they really, truly say they could have done nothing different in hindsight?  They’ve learned nothing? Seriously?

And these people are considered by the media and plain ol’ average everyday folks, to be the “leaders” of the Black community in greater Seattle.

Leaders who take no responsibility for this ugly mess.  Leaders who beg of us to stop focusing so much attention on the negative and move on.

But if we don’t focus on the negative, on the dirt, on the stinky stain we’ve all been smeared with thanks to a select few in “our community,” then who the hell will, because clearly it ain’t gon’ be the “leaders.” They’re too busy smelling the roses and thumping each other on the back and trippin’ off of hallucinogenics.

Yeah I said it. You gotta be high to look at this situation and think everything happened on the up and up.  If it were all legit the Superintendent wouldn’t be about to lose her job. The Urban League wouldn’t have felt they needed to go on the defense in that very sad display of solidarity.

Reader Jim Eddy Anderson took me to task in the comments section:

Plenty of black leaders and orgs in Seattle, both now and in the past, have not exhibited this CYA behavior under pressure. So to say that every time a scandal “hits a Black organization, agency or entity, it becomes CYA by any means necessary”, its inaccurate and untrue, and assumes all black people act the same way. And I have a problem with that assertion.

Jim, rightfully so, defended his position to another SV reader a few times. I read each of his comments and thought really hard about what I could say to help him understand where I was coming from.  I owe Jim a huge thanks.  If he hadn’t pushed back the way he did, I wouldn’t have had the bing-bang-aha! moment I had in writing my response to him.

It was the interaction with Jim that actually pushed me to write such a forceful piece for Real Change. Some folks are going to read next week’s article and accuse me of condemning all Black people, businesses and organizations. They’ll say corruption and the resulting CYA behavior is not exclusively a Black thing.  Here’s my explanation for next week’s article and my overall take on this disastrous situation, as I explained it to Jim:

Let me assure you, I am not saying this behavior is either a) exclusive to the Black community or b) something all Black people, orgs, agencies do.

What I am saying is there a Black orgs, agencies, entities in Seattle that have had related scandals that never made it to the front page of the Seattle Times. Why? Because those scandals were contained within the Black community by Black people. That is why I used the word “some” in the piece. I don’t speak in general terms about any group of people if I can avoid it. I didn’t say this happens every time a scandal hits a black org. I didn’t say this happens to all black orgs. I didn’t say all black people practice CYA in those instances. That may be what you read, but it is not what I wrote. Your perception of my words is not more authoritative than the actual words I wrote and the message I intended to send.

Also understand that when I write a commentary, I’m not just putting down how I as an individual feel. I didn’t “go in” on this situation (ie, write the commentary above) for nearly a week. Instead I observed. I listened. Not just to those directly involved, but those indirectly involved and impacted by it. There is a lot of talk in the Black community about this. Yes, there is a lot of talk everywhere about this, but I’m not addressing that here. I’m addressing what a growing number of Black people are feeling and beginning to express more openly than ever before; that this kind of scandal is constant and *we* as Black people overwhelming hide it.

Many feel that there is an “old guard” that is responsible for this kind of conduct. Until this latest incident, many in the community have felt powerless to take on said guard, for fear of being retaliated against or blacklisted (no pun). Those fears aren’t irrational or unfounded- they’re based on witnessing the experiences of others who have attempted to hold wrong-doers accountable.

This may be a side of our community that you are not familiar with because it has been so hush-hush- but to say it plainly, corruption is rampant. Bold, underline rampant- probably everywhere, but I’m not talking about that- again, I’m talking about the Black community; the Seattle NAACP, the Seattle UL, CAMP, just to name a few.

There is a feeling within the community of “finally!” it’s all out in the open, “finally” we can talk about those “leaders” who sooooooo many don’t consider or respect or want as leaders, but who the greater Seattle area views as such. Perception is not reality in this case. The mask has cracked. It’s falling apart.

Let me speak candidly here. As a writer, commentator, reporter who is Black and has ties and ins to that community, I have in the past purposely not written commentaries or articles about at least 5 of the individuals named. I didn’t talk about them on the radio. Each time I knew about “incidents” involving them or the orgs they’re associated with, I had to carefully weigh the pros and cons. Telling a story about something or suffering the consequences of telling those stories. I have a family, I have children for goodness sake. Dealing with the crap that comes from speaking critically of prominent people in the Black community wasn’t worth it. If I were a full time writer for the Seattle Times or the PI or the AP- that would have changed the situation entirely. But I’m not. So when folks like me write something that makes people mad, you have a situation like the Deputy Mayor- who is Black- make a “friendly” call to your boss -who is a prominent Black business owner- and suddenly you’re out on your keester. Happens all the time in this community. I’m not the first, certainly not the last. You rock the boat, they toss you overboard, with no concern.

I feel like School Board President Maier right now; let me apologize for not putting the things I knew out there when I did. Because the truth is, I still would have gotten a lot of crap for it, and had to deal with a lot of stress…but then all of THIS would have still happened. It would have been worth it in the end. The truth would have won. That was my lesson as it related to the current situtation, and I’ve learned it.

There you have it. That was my bing-bang-aha! moment.  While expressing frustration at those who have convered up misdeeds in the past, I found my own culpability. The result? Next week’s article:

 

FINALLY

Real Change Newspaper 3/9/2011

Two weeks ago the State Auditor’s Office released a damning report detailing questionable spending of nearly $2 million dollars belonging to the Seattle School District by a former employee.  The scandal has implicated well respected organizations and individuals in Seattle’s Black community, who the state auditor says received money for work that either didn’t benefit the district or was never completed.

The Urban League of Seattle was paid nearly $600k, funneled through their Contractor Development and Competitiveness Center, which assists small, minority and women owned businesses to increase their competitiveness in the world of construction contract bidding with the district.

The state auditor found this money was used to benefit the social justice organization, but didn’t benefit the school district in any way.

The Urban League has tried to fight back. They’ve adamantly denied any wrong-doing. Acting CEO Tony Benjamin says the focus on this scandal is bad for the community, bad for “our culture” and bad for progress. He urged the media and all concerned to just move on. He said repeatedly that the reports in the news were based on nothing more than innuendo.

They are not alone in their assertions.   Seattle resident Eddie Rye is credited for leading the successful effort to have Empire Way renamed after Dr. King. He also received questionable contracts from Seattle Schools but said he was a victim of the district employee who awarded the contracts.

Charles Rolland was once our state’s democratic chair. Tony Orange is the former Executive Director of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs. Both are named in the auditor’s report. Both refused to answer a single question from the State Auditor’s office.

There are more. A virtual who’s who of the Black community, considered well-respected by city and state politicians as powerful movers and shakers in their own rights.  They’re often regarded as “leaders” of the Black community.

In this case, perception isn’t necessarily reality. There is a long-standing divide in the community over the conduct and integrity of some who are thought of as “Black leaders.” The public is just now learning what has been known but hidden for decades: corruption by well-known Black organizations and individuals in power is not the norm, but it is a reality.

The UL is walking a fine line when they assert they did nothing wrong. They want us to believe there is no scandal because they had contracts that were approved by the school district and they performed their contractual obligations.

But what about the integrity of those very contracts? Isn’t that what is at least in part, at question here? Of course it is. Any reasonable person can see that. It’s spelled out clearly in the audit.

So why are those involved –and their supporters- so adamantly denying problems? The Black community has a terrible habit of denying and hiding wrongdoing in the name of protecting the greater community.  They say the backlash, stereotypes and stigmas that come as a result of any scandal is simply too harmful, so the response is “deny, deny, deny.”  Anyone who dared speak out suffered swift retaliation. Ironically, evidence of this could be found at the Urban League press conference last week as the organization’s supporters shouted down and ridiculed community members who spoke critically of the organization.

It’s an approach which realistically does more harm than good.  If it’s well known that we won’t take those amongst us to task for their wrong-doing because we don’t want it to get out that there are people “doing dirt” in the name of the Black community (and worse, Black children), it gives room for people with less than honorable intentions to take advantage because they know they will not be confronted.  They wind up protected “for the greater good.”

Now folks within the Black community are saying “finally!” it’s all out in the open; we can talk about and hold accountable those “leaders” who so many don’t consider or respect or want as leaders. The mask has cracked. Finally.


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. The Spook Who Sat By The Door permalink
    March 4, 2011 1:43 pm

    But, do you think it’s really cracked wide open? As much as I’d like to think that this will serve as a “come to Jesus moment” for those who have been taking advantage, I don’t think Pottergate is enough – at least not yet. Maybe if folks keep digging and nosing around and we see how deep and how wide this thing goes. I’m worried that they’ll nail a few scapegoats and sweep the rest under the rug and it’ll be back to business as usual – both in the community and in the district.

  2. March 5, 2011 7:16 am

    Hey, hey now Spook, lol, I said it cracked. Wide open is another matter entirely, I agree!

  3. The Spook Who Sat By The Door permalink
    March 5, 2011 8:24 am

    Fair ’nuff. 😉

    You know, the other thing that bothers me about this mess is that these people are supposed to be role models. Maybe it’s too much to expect that every black person who attains a prominent position in the community can keep their nose clean – plenty of white folks have trouble with that, too. I’d like to believe that we’ve moved past a time when we admonished people to be a “credit to their race”, but it seems like there’s still too few role models that aren’t athletes or entertainers – maybe it’s just that the athlete’s and entertainers get all the air time. I dunno’.

    I recently found this ad: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tddwlsn/4480492626/ that has stuck with me since my childhood. I think about it as I wonder if somehow Bernie Madoff, Jeffry Skilling, and the like somehow got elevated to the level of hero in some people’s minds.

  4. The Observer permalink
    March 5, 2011 9:26 am

    Sable, good for you. I know this must be a gut wrenching experience for you. There’s truth, yet there is loyalty. Most people do not want to deliberately excommunicate themselves from a community with which they identify, especially for simply trying to have an honest conversation. I applaud you.

    Effectively, there are three black communities: 1) the “old guard” who still control much of everything; 2) the “new guard” involved in city-wide issues, but trying to gain their credibility among a quietly hostile “old guard”; and 3) those who see the situation as hopeless and don’t patronize the black community at all. I’m interested to see how all of this affects the silent tug-of-war between Black Community #1 and Black Community #2. When I saw the shenanigans of the “old guard” and tried to bring it up, people thought I was crazy. Then “I” thought I was crazy. Well, we’re not. It’s time to clear the air.

  5. Fly on the wall permalink
    March 9, 2011 8:35 am

    i was “there” when the Urban League wrenched the funding for the Contractors Resource Center (mission to assist minority contractors in making successful bids in the public sector as well as private) when Judy Nicastro and Heidi Wills were still on city council and yet to be ambushed by former gov roselline-uknow the strip club scandal. city council in its wisdom eventually defunded CRC at the benefit of the Urban League’s Contractor Development and Competiveness Center. when this was all in process, i went to Jefferson Woods, the Director of CDC at that time to ask him why no one from the CRC was fighting back. He was so angry and so incensed he would not dignify this blatant grab for resources to appear at city council with his hat in hand. He went on to tell me James Kelly and Charles Rolland had approached him to get his support for Mr. Rolland to take over his position once Mr. Woods retired. Mr. Woods answer was a flat out no. He didn’t tell me why Mr. Kelly and Mr. Rolland had earned his contempt.

  6. AR Woman permalink
    March 22, 2011 12:02 pm

    Hi Sable,
    I’m a wf antiracist organizer from NC (trained and/or done work with Crossroads Ministry, People’s Institute, IAF/CHANGE, Winston-Salem Foundation, the Neighborhood Institute for Community Leadership, and various other organizations). I’m fairly new in Seattle (since ’07), and have been trying to understand the racial dynamics of Seattle/King County/WA State. Thank you for your courage in writing this article.
    For what it’s worth, from my perspective the original, worst corruption is white racism, especially in the church (see the three-part film on Madrona Presbyterian’s website as a local example); but corruption among Black leaders does make the job of a white person attempting to speak antiracist truth to white power here that much more difficult. I’m wondering, where is the voice of Seattle’s Black faith-based community in this situation? If there’s even one pastor/imam, etc. willing to step out publicly with as much courage as you’ve offered here, I think it would go a long way. But maybe I’m just thinking like a Southerner here… 😉

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