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McKenzie River Gathering (MRG) Foundation’s former executive director, Roberta Phillip-Robbins, left, with Sharon Gary-Smith, right. Gary-Smith retired from her role as the executive director of MRG in 2016. She became the first African American woman to run a philanthropic foundation in Oregon in 2011. (Courtesy: MRG Foundation)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 25 November 2020

Saturday brought an entirely new leadership team for the NAACP Portland Branch, and what many members hope will be a new chapter after a rocky couple of years.  

The branch’s president-elect is longtime activist Sharon Gary-Smith, who was chosen as the NAACP Portland’s nominee and ran uncontested. Among other accolades, she is the former McKenzie River Gathering Foundation director and former Vice President of the Urban League in Atlanta, where she had the ear of then-governor Anne Richards. 

Gary-Smith told The Skanner she plans to often lead “from the side and from behind” as she attempts to reunite what she and many others in the local NAACP see as a fractured organization. 

“We will be in the reconciliation business at first,” Gary-Smith said.

“We will be in the business of rejuvenation, restoring people’s faith and spirit and trust.”

Demanding Accountability 

Of the 1,096 NAACP-Portland Branch 1120 members eligible to vote, 241 cast their ballots online during an eight-hour window on Nov. 21 through online elections platform OpaVote

On Sunday, the organization announced Tamia Deary as 1st Vice President; Donovan Smith as 2nd Vice President; Natalie Rush as Secretary; Rhyan M. Hills as Treasurer, replacing incumbent Michael Harper; and Sheila Harris as Assistant Treasurer.

All but Harris are officers at Rise Up PDX, an organization that formed this year to respond to and challenge the NAACP’s prior leadership. 

Elected as at-large members of the NAACP-Portland executive committee are Rosa Colquitt, Lily Copenagle, Susan Elliot, Cynthia Fowler, Michael Grice, Albert Lee, Daniel Portis-Cathers, Leesha Posey, and Beth Woodward. All but Colquitt are executive committee members-at-large at Rise Up PDX, also often referred to as the Accountability Group. 

“Accountability Group members believe that angry outbursts, belittling and bullying, disrespectful language, and threats have no place in NAACP meetings,” the AG’s mission statement reads. “We believe that all members should be able to ask questions, and receive answers, about the financial and leadership decisions made by the chapter leadership.”

“We knew there was a lack of accountability, decision-making that didn’t was not coming before the membership, and questionable behaviors around our financial management,” Gary-Smith told The Skanner. 

Issues of Money, Misogyny and Abuse 

A year ago, The Portland Tribune reported that some members were criticizing Mondainé's decision to expense $5,000 without prior approval for a trip he took with an assistant to the NAACP national convention in Detroit the previous summer. Current at-large member of the executive committee Rosa Colquitt reported that Mondainé became aggressive when she questioned his need to book first-class plane tickets for NAACP-related events.

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According to public records, total revenue for the branch that year amounted to $30,000, and Mondainé collected a total of $4,800 in compensation for his work with the organization.

Meanwhile, Gary-Smith was appalled by what she saw and experienced as a corrosive atmosphere in the NAACP Portland branch. She calls Mondainé’s leadership style “dictatorial.”

“There are a number of women, unfortunately, who had experienced (Mondainé’s) behavior and his attempts to condemn and to isolate, to be angry, to be in-your-face,” Gary-Smith told The Skanner. “I personally, and so many other women, we experienced his wrath, if that’s what you want to call it. Which for me is certainly not the mark of a leader. And so we knew there was something about his not wanting us to participate, to be officers.

"There were women who were officers who were summarily dismissed from their positions.”

Elected NAACP Portland president in 2018, Mondainé had been dogged by allegations of organizational and financial mismanagement for much of his tenure. His reluctant resignation in late October was forced by a bombshell investigative report by the Portland Mercury earlier that month, which vetted and printed multiple accusations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse by Mondainé from former parishioners at Celebration Tabernacle Church, where Mondainé is still listed as senior pastor. 

“The blowback, the explosion around this seriously investigative report, while that was so overwhelming to me, while it was painful to imagine, it was about the people who say they suffered and they were credible in their stories,” Gary-Smith said. 

She added, “We weren’t running against (Mondainé) and his legacy. We were running for the NAACP to be what it can be, should be, and will be.”

The Path Forward 

But now Gary-Smith is only looking ahead. 

“This is an unusual situation,” she said. “We need to get a hold of our assets. We’ve got a president who has resigned. We had no vice president. There’s nobody there, hardly. How do we go in, how do we secure things, how do we start planning for business? Because things don’t stop, just because people come and go.”

Among her priorities going forward is the younger members who she fears were alienated by what she witnessed as Mondaine’s dismissive approach to them.

“How do you train and learn at the same time?”

Gary-Smith considered. “I love to listen to younger people.”

She struck this tone during Rise Up PDX’s live webcast last week, where the topic of discussion was “NAACP: What’s the Point?” It is the first of a series of hour-long live conversations her group is hosting on Facebook and calling ‘Critical Convos.”

Gary-Smith also has a keen eye focused on the opportunities for police reform under the newly passed Measure 26-217, which was framed to create a new law enforcement oversight committee with more clout. 

“I was one of the first appointees by the mayor to the (Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing), and I’m probably one of the first to resign,” Gary-Smith said. ‘The proof of whether or not what we’re trying to do is making a difference is, what difference has it made?”

She is encouraged by the Portland Police Association's strong objections to the measure.

“I’d love to say they could come to the table,” Gary-Smith said. “But when they unilaterally say they’ll have nothing to do with any negotiations, and claim that we’ll all be a danger, and do sick-outs -- I think they call it the ‘blue flu’ -- that’s intimidation. And the only time that they claim they want to sit at the table now is when these efforts have gone forward and start taking away from their power. This is the first time I’ve heard they want to negotiate.”

As Gary-Smith prepares for a leadership transition that will dovetail with the new American presidency in January, she reflects on the chaos of what her branch had become -- and why she and her colleagues were not willing to walk away.

‘Nobody could quite figure it out, because the NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the country, and Portland’s is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi,” Gary-Smith said. “I wasn’t just going to let it go that fast.

"I said ‘No, this is my NAACP’ and I realized that I was not alone...

"The common denominator was, we don’t want that we don’t want a dysfunctional, drama-filled organization that is a historically powerful organization for the justice that we all seek.” 

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