Sharon Gary-Smith and Donovan Scribes joined Portland NAACP leadership at what they describe as a turning point in the chapter’s 108-year history.
In October 2020, then-president of the Portland NAACP Elbert "E.D." Mondainé stepped down following a board vote for his immediate resignation. A week prior, the Portland Mercury had published a story detailing the stories of three men who alleged that Mondainé sexually and physically abused them when they attended his church, Celebration Tabernacle. Mondainé’s exit also followed growing concerns from NAACP board members about him making risky, unilateral financial decisions with the nonprofit’s funds.
At the time, both Gary-Smith and Scribes were part of an organization called Rise Up PDX that called into question Mondainé’s leadership. After Mondainé’s departure, NAACP members turned to them for guidance. In November 2020, Gary-Smith was elected by NAACP membership to replace Mondainé as president, and Scribes as the chapter’s vice-president.
With public trust eroded in the civil rights organization due to Mondainé’s financial decisions and abuse allegations, the chapter’s new leaders entered office with a clear mandate to leave the nonprofit better than they found it.
Now, at the end of their two-year terms in leadership, Gary-Smith and Scribes say they have met that goal—and then some. While they both plan on remaining active members of the local NAACP, neither will hold leadership positions in 2023.
On January 7, National Association of Minority Contractors of Oregon co-founder James Posey will enter office as the Portland NAACP’s newest president. Before leaving their posts, Gary-Smith and Scribes met with the Mercury to reflect on the past two years of repair work, the branch’s recent achievements, and what’s needed to maintain the NAACP’s relevancy in Portland’s racial justice movement. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
MERCURY: After you entered office in early 2021, what did you see as your top priorities? How did you rebuild relationships that had been strained under previous leadership?
SCRIBES: When I first encountered the NAACP, I knew about it in a general sense—that it was a huge civil rights organization that has made significant contributions to our community— but I didn’t know how relevant it was to us right now.
For younger people involved in our community, the NAACP wasn’t where we were looking to for support. And there were some young people that felt completely dismissed by the organization in general.So, being able to get in there and acknowledge that and say ‘We apologize’ was a big thing.
After I joined, [Gary-Smith] made space for me to bring those new perspectives in, through youth counseling, through our Black liberation committees, and our food justice committees… These things were all new to the NAACP. It was a big opportunity to get some new people into the fold that I thought were doing good work and see how it might pair with the NAACP.
GARY-SMITH: We came in wanting to restore a sense of trust—not in an individual—but in an organization that has existed here for 108 years. We wanted to embrace the opportunity: To acknowledge the fact that you don't always get it right, but you apologize, you go back, and you try to do it better. You don’t act like it didn’t happen when the evidence is all around us. We also wanted to rejuvenate the branch.
Like what [Scribes] mentioned, he came in and basically said, ‘I'm not sure if this place should be blown up and something else put in its place.’ It was important to hear that and not react like, ‘Oh that young person, they don't know what they’re talking about.’ I was a rabble-rouser, I was young, too. I know what it was like. Nobody handed me the torch, they said ‘Sit down and wait for us to give it to you.’ That's not how improvement happens, at least in my experience.
So we wanted to create a space for different ideas. Of course, we’d say, ‘It’s going to be messy sometimes, and you’re not always going to get your way. But we hear you, we see you, and we affirm that we have a right to different opinions.’
That wasn’t an environment that was allowed under Mondainé.
Board members kicked off an investigation into the NAACP’s finances in 2019. Has that process concluded? What have you learned?
GARY-SMITH: Yes, we’ve come to the end of our two year audit, and have made some pretty significant discoveries. It really shows the lack of integrity of those the NAACP trusted in the past. We will be releasing more information on the findings in the coming weeks.
What work have you done to improve trust and transparency in the financial dealings of NAACP moving forward?
SCRIBES: When I was first getting introduced to the NAACP, there were budgetary meetings being held all the time behind closed doors—financial decisions being made amongst a few people without quorum. Mondainé was often offering non-competitive contracts to different businesses, including Po’Shines Cafe (a business owned by Mondainé).
After we entered branch leadership, we created a basic system for how things had to be done. Even for expense requests as small as $200, we required members to fill out a form and have it reviewed by the treasurer before moving forward. We made major financial decisions in our executive committee—and those decisions had to be voted on. You couldn't just go and buy something because you were the branch president. All these things are reported back to membership, line by line.
It took time to get to the point we wanted to get to, and even then there were things that were challenging. Like being approved for grants and declining the funding because we simply didn’t have the capacity to execute. Chasing money can put organizations in a bad spot, if they don’t have the bandwidth to use it well.
What are the achievements you’ve made in the past two years that you’re most proud of?
GARY-SMITH: I’m most proud of the work we’ve done to restore the community’s trust. Restoration of trust is an ongoing process.
Another thing I’m really proud of is the significance of our being able to take stands for justice—whether that’s racial, economic, environmental, gender. These are things that we could make statements on and didn’t have to water down, we could be unequivocal about it.
What were some of those stands you made?
GARY-SMITH: Well, like commenting on the city’s budget process, and telling the city to stop talking about police as if they are the only option when it comes to public safety.
And telling political groups that, if they want to come to the table with us to talk policy, we want legitimate conversations with some outcomes other than sound bites. That was especially startling to the police union [the Portland Police Association] who, we know, runs the police. To say we won't sit with them until they’re talking about legitimate community safety for our people and our children, like they give to people in the west hills.
This is a big reversal from the past. In 2018, the NAACP was giving four months of free rent to move into the Lloyd Center in exchange for a deal Mondainé agreed to—which essentially helped the mall and police target young Black people accused of shoplifting.
[Editor’s note: According to Scribes, this project was originally called “Project Bootstrap '' but never left the draft stage due to pushback from Scribes and others at the NAACP. Per Scribes, the program intended on sending NAACP representatives into public high schools and mentor predominantly Black students about the effects shoplifting has on corporations. “It was corny and offensive,” says Scribes.]
It was a real turn for the NAACP to no longer be in these strange relationships and deals made by Mondainé
Holding people to account is what the NAACP has done historically. Naming the harm. Taking a stand. We spoke out in support of the Charter Commissions’ proposed changes, and said that the current form of government is no longer working for us. I’ve never seen such dysfunctional government, the fighting, the infighting, the bowing down before the Portland Business Alliance.
We also became collaborators with other branches in the region—like Salem and Vancouver. Even if they led on other issues, we were there at the table to support them. That was different than in the past, where it was just one person sitting and only serving his self interests.
We don’t take stands that are partisan, we didn't hug on the mayor or an individual candidate, but we told people how different issues on the ballot could impact us. We told people, “here’s why this matters for our community.” We have been able to empower people, as opposed to only being around a candidate because we have a relationship that is self-beneficial.
What I’m proud of is that we stayed through it, thick and thin. It was hard and harsh at times, and the revelations were painful. And yet we stayed, because of what we believed in.
SCRIBES: The biggest thing to me in the two years was something that wasn’t initiated by me or a NAACP member, it was Intisar Abioto and her family trying to return Beatrice Morrow Cannady’s home to the Black community.
[Editor’s note: Cannady was a civil rights activist in Portland, helped found the Portland NAACP branch, and served as editor of The Advocate, a historic Black newspaper in Oregon. In September, Cannady’s home went up for sale, and Abioto and her family partnered with NAACP and several other civil rights organizations to purchase the home to preserve its legacy and turn it into a space for advocacy and community-building. However, another buyer’s offer was selected before theirs.]
Like I said earlier, there was a point where I thought our Portland NAACP may not need to exist if it was a hindrance to the community. I’m very far from that statement now. When Intisar called on us and we were able to step up and say, ‘This is part of our collective story, we should have access to this home,’ it felt like the best use of this position in the past two years. We were uplifting the community in a powerful way.
How do you measure your ability to rebuild trust in the NAACP branch? What does that look like?
SCRIBES: I think, for all the gains we've been able to make, that brings trust. Like our commitment to financial transparency, and building precedent around policies and systems. I hear from the community really positive stuff about our changes.
What’s unfortunate is that two years can go very, very quickly, and now you have a new NAACP administration that’s going to come in. We don’t know if that new team will choose to use the systems that we put in place, or choose to act on relationships that have been built, but we’ve tried to make it easier for them to carry it forward.
GARY-SMITH: Yeah, we hope they make sure self-interest doesn’t play into leadership decisions again. Let me tell you, it’s easy, it’s sexy to be courted and wanted by the state and local government. It’s very seductive. But when I’ve been approached to sign off on something, I always say, “Let me ask several other people first.” I always try to name folks, younger folks doing some real stuff. In the past, we got so involved in the community where other organizations were actually leading on issues. But it doesn’t always have to be us. You have a real opportunity here to give space for new leaders in our community.
How do you see the Portland NAACP branch continuing to stay relevant in years to come?
SCRIBES: When you think of the history of the NAACP and civil rights movement, it’s easy to forget that these things didn’t take place that long ago. And that these movements are dictated by young people. That's not to say young people do all the work, but you need young people in the building and helping to steer where you’re going. I think that will continue to be important for the Portland NAACP.
I hope that when young people are advocating for certain things in their community, that people who are in positions of leadership at the NAACP will listen and help. Example: When we took office going into 2021, the city was flooded with people calling to defund the police. That wasn’t the official stance of the national NAACP. But we in Portland had so many young people out here saying this is where we needed to be. What we did [at the NAACP] was make sure that voice was heard and amplified through our platform. I think the power of the NAACP is really the platform.
Like [Gary-Smith] was saying, there’s no shortage of people knocking at our door. Everybody wants the NAACP logo on something or have the NAACP come out and speak, whether its tech companies or schools or politicians. So it's up to us to decide how to wield it. I think if people veer toward positions that aren’t in line with the movement of progress, then you’ll lose people. That’s not to say there aren’t people who will stand beside you on status quo positions. But in terms of relevance, it will cause the NAACP to drift further and further away from young people.
GARY-SMITH: I agree completely—youth are our future. I also believe the branch must continue to collaborate intentionally with different organizations so we can address more issues—like housing and health care and the environment.
We laid a floor under this branch and the next leadership—they can choose and have the right to go whichever way they want to. But I hope they’ll remember that we cultivate a presence, because we stand for the advancement of colored people. When we stand we all stand, it doesn't matter about my individual opinion. The practice of justice is hard and sometimes painful, but it’s always worth it.