In 2015, the Spokane chapter of the NAACP became the butt of jokes internationally after its leader was outed as a white woman who’d been posing as black for years.
Membership declined. Morale dropped.
“People were jumping ship,” said James Wilburn, a longtime NAACP member who once served as chapter president.
A year and a half later, the NAACP’s membership is growing again. At least in Spokane, you’re more likely to hear the group mentioned because of the work it’s doing, such as sitting down with Spokane Public Schools to work on the disproportionate impacts of out-of-school suspensions or holding candidate forums before the election.
That’s in no small part thanks to Phil Tyler, the energetic man who took over as president in June. Tyler, 49, has extended an olive branch to a diverse group of people and organizations, many of whom haven’t traditionally gotten along with the NAACP.
Mostly, he invites people to have coffee and asks them what they think the NAACP does. He wants to collaborate with groups wherever he can, even if their goals don’t totally align with his or the organization’s.
“In order to truly be an organization that’s fighting for civil rights and social justice for all, we need to include all,” Tyler said.
He also talks about his vision, which is broadly focused on civil rights, not just rights for black people.
“I want to change the narrative from black and white. When we do that, we silence our Native American brothers and sisters, our Muslim brothers and sisters, our LGBT community,” he said.
Tyler is building on the work done by Naima Quarles-Burnley, who took over as president following the resignation of Rachel Dolezal.
Quarles-Burnley worked internally to mitigate some of the damage Dolezal did while remaining involved in community events, like the at-times controversial hiring process for a new Spokane police chief.
When she moved across the country in June, Tyler stepped up. About a month into his presidency, the nation was rocked by high-profile police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Mississippi, followed by the killings of five Dallas police officers who were escorting Black Lives Matter protesters.
Tyler put together a Black Lives Matter rally that mourned the deaths of the black men and the officers on the steps of the Spokane County Courthouse. When a protester interrupted the event, yelling, “All lives matter,” Tyler started a conversation with him.
Perhaps because he used to work as a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy, Tyler believes he can help create dialogue between the police and groups that have historically distrusted them. One of his goals is to convince community members that not all cops are bad, and show officers that having high standards for police and condemning misconduct doesn’t mean being anti-law enforcement.
“It’s not either-or, it’s not zero-sum,” he said.
That attitude has earned him praise from law enforcement locally. The Spokane Police Department plans to work with Tyler to review the results of ongoing research on racial profiling and implement any suggested changes.
“He has an amazing ability to see both sides of issues and to find resolutions when sometimes it seems there are no potential resolutions,” Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said.
The group’s work goes well beyond law enforcement. Currently, the NAACP is pursuing grants to expand health screenings for HIV and other things for which many poorer people don’t seek care. Tyler said he hopes to set up health fairs at community centers next year where people can come in and get screened for a variety of conditions, with referrals to health care providers.
NAACP leaders, including Tyler, have also participated in the Every Student Counts Alliance, a group of about a dozen local organizations working with Spokane Public Schools to reduce out-of-school suspensions and arrests by school resource officers, both of which disproportionately impact students of color.
Fred Schrumpf, the district’s coordinator for restorative practices, said the dialogue has led the district to rewrite its discipline policy, which has reduced school suspensions significantly over the past three months. That change was the work of many people and organizations, but Schrumpf said the dialogue between the NAACP and district has improved under Tyler.
“He has brought a higher level of community engagement and leadership,” Schrumpf said.
Tyler has been the public face of the NAACP, speaking at rallies and events like the recent community gathering to paint over a racial epithet spray-painted on the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center. But he’s quick to point out the behind-the-scenes work done by his executive board and other NAACP members.
“He empowers us to come forward and do what we can,” said Deborah Rose, an executive board member who’s been with the NAACP since 1977. “He has good connections. He knows how to mobilize people, he knows how to create good partnerships.”
Tyler’s approach has earned some pushback. Some older and more conservative members of the local black community have objected to health initiatives like HIV screening, which they still associate primarily with gay men. And some members want the group to take a more adversarial approach, pushing for change from outside.
Wilburn said there has been disagreement about tactics and the best approach to change dating back to at least his presidency. He remembers some members who wanted to rock the boat more, but believes Tyler’s approach is the right one.
“Building partnerships is the best way to address changes that we see need to be made instead of trying to be adversarial,” he said.
Tyler’s plan is to keep navigating divides with good faith, dialogue and what he calls “patient urgency” for change.
“I think community engagement is a marathon and I am not a runner,” he said. “The tortoise beat the hare because he was the most persistent, and that’s what I intend to do.”