When Spokane’s NAACP President Naima Quarles-Burnley talks about Rachel Dolezal, she cries. It’s not dramatic. Her soft voice doesn’t break. And the tears are barely visible. But she does cry.
“I saw in Rachel maybe my younger self,” she said. “Passionate, involved, all-in for social justice. Sometimes sacrificing self-care, sometimes sacrificing family, sometimes not wanting to compromise, or often looking for ways to demonstrate as opposed to discuss.”
In June, Quarles-Burnley replaced Dolezal, who resigned amid allegations she had lied about her race. She will finish out the remainder of Dolezal’s two-year term.
Quarles-Burnley didn’t want to lead the chapter. When she got the call in June that officially moved her into that position, she was recovering from a double knee replacement. The first couple of meetings were held in her home, to accommodate her recovery.
Additionally, Quarles-Burnley is caring for her 13-year-old son, who has Down syndrome.
“I felt that I had to rise to the occasion,” she said.
The Spokane chapter of the NAACP is still recovering from the Dolezal episode, which made national headlines. The executive committee has been gutted by a series of departures, and there are outstanding questions about the viability and integrity of the chapter.
Quarles-Burnley is well aware of all of this.
“I think it has hurt our organization because people are now questioning our integrity,” she said. “Not just the integrity of the former president, but the integrity of the organization a whole.”
Quarles-Burnley said she is committed to showing that the actions of one don’t reflect on all.
Some say she is just right to help repair the damage. Where Dolezal was loud and visible, Quarles-Burnley is soft-spoken. Where Dolezal was a highly anticipated newcomer, promising quick change, Quarles-Burnley is a veteran of the civil rights movement and has a more measured approach.
“I think she is exactly what they need,” said Darci Ladwig, the president of the Spokane County Special Needs PTA, which Quarles-Burnley founded. “I think that she takes everybody in and is really a good leader. And her background is really impeccable.”
Quarles-Burnley grew up in New Rochelle, New York. From a young age she was immersed in a multicultural milieu. In middle school she witnessed police throwing a young African-American woman through a storefront window for shoplifting.
“At that point I began to realize that those who are of African-American race and who are low-income are often disenfranchised in the legal system,” she said.
That was her first glimmer of a law career. While at Oberlin College, Quarles-Burnley immersed herself in the politics of equality. After she graduated in 1980, she attended the Antioch School of Law. She spent seven years practicing law in Pittsburgh for a pro-bono law firm representing the poor and vulnerable.
During that time Quarles-Burnley’s interest and involvement in her church grew, culminating eventually in her selection as a church representative and monitor in South Africa’s first free election in 1994.
“I was there to see Nelson Mandela come to power,” she said. “And that was putting my two worlds together, my interest in politics and my passion for social justice through the church.”
In 2010, she earned a master of divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary and moved to Spokane with her husband and son.
Quarles-Burnley joined the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in some ways simply to find connection. She found a community in flux.
Previous NAACP presidents did good work, she said, but often the energy and focus was streaky. That seemed to change when Dolezal was elected president last November. But that does not excuse Dolezal’s actions, Quarles-Burnley said.
“I feel that people of all races can be allies and advocates,” she said. “But you can’t portray that you have lived the experience of a particular race that you aren’t part of.”
Now Quarles-Burnley wants to focus on repairing the damage and moving forward with work already put in motion by previous chapter presidents.
“She will be a treasure for any organization that has the privilege of having her,” said Brian Holloway, the director of the Spokane Arc’s advocacy and family support division. Holloway has worked with Quarles-Burnley in the support of children with special needs.
Quarles-Burnley said the first order of business is filling the holes left on the executive committee. Then she wants to continue to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. Additionally, she said the chapter needs to prepare for the Alaska, Oregon and Washington NAACP area conference, which will be held in Spokane this fall.
She also hopes to build on the focus and energy created by the Dolezal scandal.
“In Spokane I see the diverse races joining together for the cause of justice,” she said. “I’m really encouraged by that.”