Linda Steele was named president of the reinstated Atlantic City branch of the NAACP in December, after the national headquarters suspended operations for several months because of infighting and discord.
Q: What are the prospects for black entrepreneurship in Atlantic City today?
A: Slim to none. And I’m hopeful that in the mayor’s address, he stated that they are looking at getting some funding that would help to turn that situation around. We should have been partnering with the county economic development to make sure small business opportunities are available and the red tape is not so cumbersome that it’s beyond anybody’s reach.
Q: How could these opportunities be made more widely available?
A: I don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to do a little research. There are other communities and states that already have these tools in place.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to have the initiative to want to go out and find out what these vehicles are, how their programs are working and just duplicate it where we are.
This is not rocket science. When you look at employment problems and the crime problems, let’s take unemployment. It’s high in New Jersey, but the neighboring city, a couple of weeks ago, Philadelphia, was in the news — they had a 40 percent minority participation in one of their building projects. And when they built their last arena that they just completed last year or two years ago, they are looking out for Philadelphia and minority participation. Atlanta did it, when they built their airport. People are doing it. And all we are doing in New Jersey is finding reasons why minority participation cannot take place, and that is unacceptable.
There is room at the table for everyone, and when you have a city with a minority base as large as Atlantic City, then you have to figure out, you have to be creative, you have to be industrious, and you have to figure out how to include that base and how you can turn this situation around.
Q: The NAACP is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. The passage of time and laws, as well as the changing nature of society has all but eliminated the most outward forms of discrimination. In what ways is the NAACP relevant today?
A: I think that the NAACP is as relevant today as it was in 1909. I think that when you look at the politics of this country and the disparaging news reports, it is evident and obvious that we have not moved beyond color in 2012.
And we have a system in place that impedes. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and I don’t think anyone will dispute that. Those distinctions are drawn along color lines as well, and so to even consider that an organization like the NAACP may not be relevant is unfounded.
The one thing that the NAACP struggles with is the political environment that has set up impediments to help foster a change in our thinking and environment and has put policies and legislation in place that foster old ideas and old feelings that have no place in a country like the United States.
Q: The U.S. Census has identified Atlantic City as one of the most diverse small cities in the nation. While the general perception of the NAACP is that it focuses on issues of importance to African Americans, the NAACP has historically been a multi-racial organization. What outreach to the local Latino, Caribbean, African and Asian communities have there been?
A: We have not done as well as we should, but I think that the opportunities are there, because when you look, a lot of the groups that come to Atlantic City are more comfortable, I believe, in staying within their own ethnic groupings.
But I think there are opportunities for inroads, and those inroads can be very beneficial to every group, because when you are talking about discriminatory practices, if you look at it today, it may be me and you might be sitting on the side watching and not having any input.
But tomorrow that same situation may be you, and so when people stop looking at it as segmented population sections, or whatever, and start looking at — we all have a lot of common problems and collectively those problems could be solved because the numbers are there.
The possibilities are endless and it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. It’s just about what is right, just, and fair for everybody. That everybody has an even playing field, that’s all anybody wants. So the NAACP is as relevant today as it was when it first started.
Q: Infighting at the Atlantic City NAACP branch was so severe three months ago that the national organization stepped in and suspended the branch. What happened?
A: The problem started with a management style and it escalated from there. Other factors did come into play that further eroded the situation.
Q: What do you mean by “management style?”
A: Well one leader’s management style is different from another. People are just people. Some people are heavy-handed in their manager style; other people are laid-back and a little more relaxed about it. But at the end of the day, if you are not in line with the bylaws in the constitution, these conflicts can rise to the level that happened in Atlantic City. And so we are trying to be very mindful that we follow the constitution and the bylaws of the NAACP.
And sometimes things get away from you before you even realize that you have been lax or not in step with what the goals and objectives are. Sometimes it’s comfortable, but in that comfort things erode and before you know it they have snowballed into the confusion and unrest that we suffered for the last year and a half, almost two years.
Q: People have described Atlantic City with the metaphor of “A Tale of Two Cities.” How has this changed in the casino era?
A: I don’t know that it has. I think that we are still struggling with that image. I think it’s a sad tale, because I think that when casinos were first voted down, the promises that were made were not kept and the gulf between the residents and the industry has not really shrunk in any meaningful way.
I think that, still, after 35 years, we have a long way to go. I think that there have been some improvements — housing being one of them, but I think we still struggle with educational components that we should be looking at that will enhance our employment workforce.
And what I would like to see and I think that the NAACP is going to be moving forward and focusing on is not the compatible parts of this scenario. We should not be adversarial. It would be easier if we worked together, because there are so many pluses on both sides and it doesn’t have to be an either/or.
From my personal point of view, I think that Atlantic City has always been a convention and summer resort destination, and I don’t think that we have really looked at the possibilities in that area, because we always focus on one or the other. Prior to casinos, we were a resort town and convention destination and when casinos came, we flipped to being a casino destination.
We have so many natural resources that we need to really promote both of them, because they compliment each other. We have things here that Pennsylvania, and some of the surrounding places, don’t share. And so it is important for us to really step it up and stop separating the two and learn how to blend these two industries so that would give us the best possible scenario because things that are happening here can be turned around.
Q: With the casino industry in a protracted slump, what has been your organization’s perception of the effect on the state and surrounding region?
A: I think that the state has erred in removing some of the controls for the casinos, and I am not saying that the casinos should be heavily burdened. I don’t think the casinos should be left to police themselves.
They have — the state has disbanded some of the tools that were used to monitor, so now that those tools are really not in place, and the casinos have the option of disclosing, fairly or unfairly, the practices that are driving their engine.
I think that the casinos enjoyed for many years the lack of any competition and so I find it very difficult to sympathize, because at the end of the day the residents of Atlantic City have not received the promise of the casinos, but the casinos have enjoyed the profits and the luxury that Atlantic City had to offer.
So now that things are not well for them, my sympathy is not deep for the casinos and it is not that I think we should be heartless, but I think in Atlantic City the political environment has given a lot to casinos and not received a fair share in return.
Q: What is the organization’s perception of the slump over the last several years?
A: We started feeling it in 2008, and it accelerated, and in that time period, we have seen people pulling back, because they don’t have jobs. Their focus is somewhere else. Their focus is more personal, rather than more community, and basically our focus is on the community because the things we are protecting are the civil rights of people in this area, and when you are struggling to feed your family and keep a roof over your head, you are not going to be looking at the larger picture, but you are more focused on your individual circumstances.
So it’s because the organization has gone through a difficult period in the last two years, we are also struggling to bring back those individuals to the membership and we’re trying to focus on, not looking in the rear-view mirror — we have to know where we came from — but looking forward to something more positive, and how that change will take place, and so our focus, as we bring people back on board, our focus is going to be the unemployment, which is high in Atlantic City and need not be.
No one can explain it. The economy is certainly a part in it, but they are still opening their doors every day and we still have a lot of people who have not been taken back and it’s hard to understand, because some of the casinos laid off, closed down or cut back, but as the economy has started to change, many of those people are not being rehired because of how many years they had in. There are a whole lot of different dynamics, so it’s very difficult because there are so many components to why Atlantic City is still suffering.
But employment is a key component to this, because when people are not employed, we are seeing crime go up, and crime (prevention) is an area that we are certainly going to be partnering with other organizations to make a positive difference to see if we can turn this scenario around.
Q: What is the NAACP’s perception of the Tourism District?
A: The Tourism District, when we looked at it, it has some positive components, but the one thing we do not agree with is how it was rolled out and presented.
There was never a partnership. There was only directives and laws changed. City Council did not have a part, or a significant part, really, in how this whole dynamic would roll out.
And so as a taxpayer in A.C., I don’t know that the state has run its business in such a positive way that they can afford to come in and determine what Atlantic City should be doing for, you know, and how can they run it. I think that communication has played a significant role on how everything has rolled out, and the residents of Atlantic City have had a lot of their home rule taken from them and this did not — this is just the end result of many years of inroads because there are a number of authorities that are in Atlantic City. You have the (Atlantic City) Housing Authority — well, the Housing Authority was created by the city, but you have the (Atlantic City) Expressway Authority (now the South Jersey Transportation Authority), and you have CRDA (the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority).
There are a number of authorities, and all of these entities play a significant role on how Atlantic City has to function because they are mostly tax-exempt entities and they hold properties, and they control certain dynamics, and so these are things that need to be looked at and they are things that possibly may create lawsuits that even though the city cannot take an action against the state, it does not prohibit residents from forming a group, or coming together to protest the takeover of a certain section or part of the city.
And this enlarges or furthers the perception of the “Tale of Two Cities.” It is not a perception any longer. It is a reality.
Q: Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford has called the borders of the Tourism District similar to “apartheid” in that it codified many of the boundaries of the black-segregated neighborhoods. But at the same time, the district excluded other residential neighborhoods that have been historically white. Do you agree with the mayor’s assertion? If so, why, and if not, why not?
A: I do. And the map is self-explanatory. I think that when the state is looking at Atlantic City, their position should have been a more cooperative and helpful role as opposed to a takeover role. For a city that is 48 blocks long and possibly 20 blocks wide, there is no reason why a collaborative effort between the city and the state could not have produced a better result in 35 years.
And to set a part of the city apart, and particularly the prime part of the city, and just almost in a protective-type manner, when you have residents opposed, that’s why he says maybe “apartheid,” or he likens it to something like that because this throws Atlantic City back to the Boardwalk Empire-type era or even earlier than that.
When the black neighborhoods were where workers lived who helped to build the city, but they were excluded from the pleasures from the Southside, or wherever the borderlines were, and we haven’t moved far beyond that, and that’s a sad, sad tale. So I have to agree with the scenario he presented, because it is true from our perspective.
Q: What role do you see blacks and other minorities playing in Atlantic City in 2012?
A: I think that in Atlantic City we can still play a significant role. But we cannot afford to be passive any longer, because that passive attitude has not served us well. We have a lot of very talented people that have come from Atlantic City and wanted to come back here, but couldn’t find a venue to do that. And so that is going to be one of the focuses of the NAACP.
Our primary focus right now is on membership, but we are still looking at ways to partner with, and venues to partner with other groups in this area that are going to foster the kind of environment that encourages people that are born and raised here and go off to school to have a place to come back to, and we need to find those jobs and those opportunities.
We need to look at the economic development arm of it. It’s not all about the casinos hiring people and providing jobs. But a healthy community has an economic tool that helps people start small businesses.
Years ago, Atlantic City had a wonderful minority population of businesses. We had a wonderful white population of business. We had Atlantic Avenue that had a lot of different shops, high-end, and medium-, low-end. These are the things that make a city healthy, and when you relinquish that power to one industry, the casinos helped to suck the life out of Atlantic City because they had everything enclosed in their domains.
And it was difficult for people who stay here to maintain a livelihood and keep their businesses open, and as a result that is what we have on Atlantic Avenue now.
We don’t have high-end stores on Atlantic Avenue. We use to have The Francine Shop, Homburgers, Polly’s Dress Shop — we had several millinery stores. We were a community, and we don’t have that, and you depend on just one industry, and when that industry hits a bump, everybody feels it, and the bump is not just a little bump, it’s one of magnitude because that’s how they react to it.
So there are a lot of dynamics here and Atlantic City is still worth the time and effort. We can be so much more than what we are, but we are going to have to now fight for it. We cannot sit back passively and expect the CRDA come up with the solutions to our problems because a lot of the members of the CRDA don’t go around the city and the neighborhoods to see how things are happening.
Just recently they (the CRDA) did come out with their master plan, where they went to different venues in the city and presented their program. But that is not their normal course of action, and they need to be more involved in the community because they can’t come from wherever they come from and determine how Atlantic City residents want to live, work and play. They have to understand that Atlantic City is a strange animal and they are not like everyone else, but they still want to have the things that make a community healthy. And that happens with jobs. With jobs, crime goes down. You have to have businesses that are able to survive, and there is no reason — Atlantic City has done it before and Atlantic City can do it again, and the NAACP is going to be a part in that. We have been meeting with — the (Atlantic City) Board of Education has a new initiative. They are putting out “Stop the Silence,” and we are going to be a part of that, and they are going across the city to the different civic associations because it is important for the residents of Atlantic City to play a more integrative part in helping the police solve the crime and to put the people who are committing the crimes where they belong and not leaving them on the street.
We are partnering with Connect the Dots to come up with the solutions to how people with a criminal past can re-enter our society. Because when a person commits a crime, there are those people who are repeat offenders, but a lot of it has to do with the system that is in place. If you do a crime and serve the time, you cannot get beyond that because every application wants to know have you committed a crime. There has to be somewhere for these people to go so they can get gainful employment and they can survive just like everybody else. If you offer them no options, the only thing they know is to go back to crime and that doesn’t serve any purpose for any society.
So we are trying to look forward to connect with those groups and organization that are looking to have solutions. We have been talking about the problems year after year after year and know we are moving forward and looking forward and talking about solutions and how we can accomplish it.
Q: What is the current membership level of the local branch of the NAACP?
A: About 120.
Q: Did membership increase or decline?
A: It did decline.
Q: From a high of what?
A: Maybe about 150. But when we actually talk about members and participation, they are two different things. We are presently looking back at our old listings to try to get renewals now and encourage people to come back and participate in our organization. And I think we are making some inroads, because we have a number of renewals taking place in the last two months.
So if we can show a more positive environment, people are going to want to come out. Nobody is going to want to come out to a meeting and waste their time. So we are about trying to focus on moving forward, and we are finished about talking about the problems, because we all know what the problems are and now we are focusing on solutions to those problems, and how to turn Atlantic City around and how to make sure the NAACP has a seat at the table, and is focused on there being equality for everybody. And so that is our focus right now.
Q: What are the goals over the next several months?
A: No organization can have an impact if they don’t have members participating. So our first and foremost is to reorganize our membership so that we have the kind of support we need to move forth with our goals. We are interested in moving forward, trying to make a change in the unemployment. And, as I said, we have partnered with other organizations who have not experienced the chaos and the confusion that we have just gone through, but who have their feet firmly on the ground, and we want to support those organizations until we get our footing and our foundation back in place.
Q: Once membership is established, what are the longer-range, medium-term goals?
A: We want to focus on the area of affirmative action, because it is our feeling that affirmative action, while it may have been watered down and diluted to a great extent, there are still some very real possibilities in that area and we need to address them.
It is very easy for state and city government to fall back on one or two cases that perhaps did not go well. But at the end of the day, it’s still about an equal playing field and how do we accomplish that. And so that is going to be one of the struggles because many of the agencies, whether it’s the BOE, the City of Atlantic City, or CRDA, deal with goals, and goals are fine, but they don’t accomplish anything, because if the goals are not met there is no reaction or any penalty and there should be something in place. There has to be some kind of language, because other places are doing it and if what we are looking at and what we are talking about, is our taxpayer dollars going to CRDA or Revel, our taxpayer dollars building schools where we are not participants, where trucks are coming from outside the state, outside of our general area. We have unions here, we have people that are standing in line, waiting for work and trucks are pulling in.
How do you justify or answer who is unemployed or can’t feed their family and they are paying their union dues and they are not getting their fair share of work? How do you justify that? There is enough room at the table for everybody to have an opportunity and I think that’s all anybody wants, is the opportunity.
If you give me an opportunity and I don’t measure up then that’s on me, but if I don’t get the opportunity then shame on you.
Contact Derek Harper: