April 11-17, 2002
LET MY PEOPLE GO
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
The Christian Street YMCA in South Philadelphia has enjoyed a rich history and tradition of neighborhood good will for nearly a century. Its gymnasium has hosted basketball games featuring some of the greatest players in history, its meeting rooms have been used as think tanks for some of Philadelphia’s most forward-thinking intellectuals, and the thriving day-care center has grown into a vital community resource for more than a hundred area families. But these days the Christian Street Y is the battleground for an intense struggle for independence from its corporate entity, a battle that grows fiercer by the minute. The branch’s board of managers liken themselves to plantation slaves, picking the master’s cotton while dreaming of owning their own land. The obvious irony here is that the board of the YMCA that was founded by one of America’s leading abolitionists is now demanding its independence from the parent organization. The board members claim that their cries for freedom have been met with condescension, patronizing attitudes and an unabashed dose of racism. And at its heart, say the board members, the controversy boils down to the same reasons that plantation owners more than 140 years ago were reluctant to give up their cheap labor: money, power and control.
The Christian Street Y was founded by some of Philadelphia’s most prominent black citizens at the time, most notably William Still, who’s widely considered to be the father of the Underground Railroad. Born a slave, Still made his way to Philadelphia and established a profitable coal business. He used his house in Philadelphia as one of the stations on the Underground Railroad, documenting 649 slaves he shuttled to freedom. In 1859 he used the house to shelter some of John Brown’s men after the failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry; he helped them escape to the north and elude capture. The first black member of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, Still was also the driving force behind the campaign to end discrimination on Philadelphia streetcars, and he wrote extensively on civil rights. Still died in 1902 having laid the plans for an organization that would become a community hub, a place where kids would play during the afternoons and neighborhood organizations would hold their meetings in the evenings.
Photo By: Brian Hogan
Determined to bring Still's vision to fruition after his death, the founding group used various community buildings until a permanent site was found in 1914, a four-story building at 1724 Christian St. It was dedicated to the spiritual, mental and physical health of "Negro Men and Boys." The old building burned down in 1974, but through community efforts it rose from the ashes in the form of a brand-new facility built on the old site. For the past 10 years, Blondell Parsons has been executive director of the Christian Street Y, and she's the catalyst of the present cry for change.
Parsons says that, as an independent entity, the Christian Street Y could itself
take full advantage of donated and grant funding, thereby expanding its programs and services almost immediately. It could also save on management fees -- 15 percent of its $1 million annual budget -- that it turns over to the YMCA of Philadelphia & Vicinity, commonly referred to as "Corporate" by its branch members.
"We could go directly to funding sources ourselves and put the money to use in a matter of days, instead of just settling for the United Way funds Corporate throws our way. Right now we're just getting crumbs from the table, and the real food is placed just beyond our reach," she says.
Offering up an example of Corporate's stinginess is attorney and former School Board President Rotan Lee. Lee is a board member of the Christian Street Y, as well as Parsons' friend and unofficial legal adviser. Lee says that last year he personally wrote a proposal on behalf of the Christian Street Y for an $89,000 grant for his "Reading for Life" program from tobacco company Philip Morris. He says that the proposal was approved and the money was transferred to Corporate coffers, but that the branch has yet to see a dime.
"Corporate says it's looking to try to distribute the money to us perhaps sometime this year, but we haven't seen any of it yet," Lee says. "These are much-needed community resources, and we are constantly at the mercy of their timetable."
There's also the $5,000 gift from Verizon in 2000 that Parsons says was earmarked to update the branch's computer lab. She says that, two years later, she's still looking for the money. As late as last month, Christian Street Y business manager Carla Ortiz says she called Corporate seeking an explanation.
"I called in late February about the funds, and I was told they're checking on it and they'll get back to me," says Ortiz. "I called a week later and explained that it was important and we needed the money. I was again told they were investigating and would get back to me, but so far no one has called back."
Verizon spokesman Jim Reed confirms that the $5,000 was given to Corporate, but he says he doesn't know what happened after that.
The board is also outraged at what they consider Corporate's reluctance to come to the table for discussions of the Christian Street Y's independence, as well as subtle and not-so-subtle swipes by Corporate aimed at the branch's board and Blondell Parsons since the quest for independence began last fall.
To highlight what he sees as Corporate’s plantation attitude toward the Christian Street YMCA, Rotan Lee offers the multilayered story of the School Readiness Initiative (SRI), a lucrative contract for a Head Start-type family day-care program sponsored by the United Way. According to the United Way’s website, SRI is based on the principle that success in school equals success in life, and that kids who start kindergarten with good preparation perform better throughout their scholastic careers. SRI aims to improve school readiness through quality early child care and education, quality health-care education and parent-support services. Lee and the Christian Street Y’s board made it clear that they wanted that contract badly. They had the facility, they had the people necessary to run the program and, of course, they had a ready supply of needy families. Lee says the contract was dangled in front of them like a carrot; provided they were willing to give up all this silly nonsense about independence, the SRI program was in the bag. The board refused to knuckle under, and it pushed even harder for an independent Christian Street Y. The result, Lee says, is evident in a flurry of e-mails a few weeks ago between Corporate, the branch board and Parsons. Lee produces hard copies of those e-mails, and re-reads them with a dismissive snort before handing them over. They’re not friendly. The missives give insight into what Lee calls “a frightening mindset for a supposedly progressive, nonprofit entity like the YMCA.”
On March 25, Lola Rooney, YMCA of Philadelphia's day-care director, sent an e-mail to Corporate President D. Allan Shaffer outlining her reasons for not giving the program to the branch.
"I have been made aware of and given a copy of the presentation from the Christian Street Board of Managers regarding their independence' and quest for freedom' from the YMCA of Philadelphia and Vicinity," Rooney writes. "Having been given their resolution to support the School Readiness Initiative, I am gravely concerned about whether or not the program could thrive in a branch belonging to the black people. I am also concerned about whether or not the situation will turn volatile in nature, therefore having a negative impact upon this federal program."
Shaffer then forwarded this missive to Parsons intact the next day, sending a copy to Kim Roy, vice president of community services and Rooney's direct superior. He also added his own comments.
"Blondell," Shaffer writes, "in light of the ongoing turmoil between the Christian Street Board of Directors in regard to their demands for independence, I concur with the concerns voiced below by Lola and support her decision to not place the School Readiness program at the Christian Street Branch. Prior to being awarded this grant, Lola and I met with United Way officials who expressed their concern about the public accusations made by Rotan and the possibility that the situation could disrupt the School Readiness program."
Parsons then forwarded both e-mails to Rotan Lee and other board members, who were just a little upset. In an interesting aside, both Roy and Rooney are African-American; they're also the first African-American women promoted to executive positions at Corporate who Parsons or Lee can remember, and both were promoted to those positions this year, long after this whole thing blew up. Lee says that the fact that Rooney herself is one of "the black people" only adds to his frustration, and he said so publicly in an op-ed piece he wrote last week for The Philadelphia Tribune. He opines: "On those words, Black generations roll over in their graves. Meanwhile the man wins without firing a shot -- turning sister against brethren and laughing all the way to a main line sanctuary.'
For her part, Rooney says she was misinterpreted, but by this time the snowball had begun rolling downhill.
On the phone last Saturday, Lee is even more direct in giving his opinion about Rooney's ill-chosen phrasing.
"The issue is -- and, of course, I'm speculating here --is that the only reason anyone could be so misguided is some type of effort to curry favor," he says. "I can't imagine why any rational black person would use that type of rhetoric if not to justify her recent promotion by endeavoring to prove herself to be a team player.' She didn't have to send it, and Shaffer certainly didn't have to forward it. I think that says something in and of itself. His recent efforts to bring African-Americans into decision-making roles is a direct result of pressure brought to bear during this process. I think this is evident in the fact that he's held that position for more than 10 years and these are the first two blacks he's put in executive positions. I can't speak to Lola Rooney's motives with any certainty, but I believe the words speak for themselves, no matter who says them."
The words, his endorsement of them and any other aspect of the case were not a subject for discussion with Shaffer, reached by telephone in his office at the YMCA's Center City headquarters.
"I'm not going to talk on the record, and no one else here is going to talk on the record," Shaffer says. "I will tell you that we have no objection to meeting with the Christian Street board, and we hope to meet sometime in the future. That's all."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Judy Williams, vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, tells a slightly different story from Shaffer's. She says that United Way officials were not and are not concerned with the internal politics at the YMCA and didn't express any such concern to YMCA officials.
"Our contract is with the YMCA of Philadelphia," Williams says, "and we have no input into their site-selection process. It's completely up to them where to place the program. It's totally their decision, not ours."
Williams says the SRI program is still in its initial stages, and therefore not even the United Way has a dollar figure yet on what the School Readiness Initiative is worth to the YMCA. But she says that the United Way is confident in its relationship with the Y and looks forward to initiating the program under YMCA leadership.
Despite Shaffer's insistence that no one at Corporate would comment on the matter, Rooney returns a phone call. In her own defense, Rooney says her words in that e-mail were misunderstood and then seized upon by the board as in an effort to discredit the corporate office. Besides, it was an internal communiqué, she contends, and not intended for distribution in the first place.
"This was an internal memo from me to the company president," Rooney says, "and if Ms. Parsons was going to forward it, she should have asked. And about the branch belonging to the black people' line, I was only quoting Rotan Lee himself, when he presented Christian Street's plan for independence to the Corporate board. His exact words were that the branch belongs to the black people. I did not and still don't think that a federal program should go to a facility that favors any one group. I'm concerned with all children, not just the black ones. All I did was give my opinion, and now they're trying to make me sound like an Uncle Tom? I don't think so."
Rooney says that she's a former public-school teacher and a child advocate, and that she doesn't want any part of the political infighting.
"My focus is on children, and I don't have time to get caught up in this pettiness," she says. "Because of my Christian beliefs, I will hold my peace and let God fight my battles."
For the record, Lee says he said no such thing and that Rooney mistakes their call for black control of the YMCA branch as an effort toward some sort of black exclusivity at the branch. Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.
"I have never said that CSY belongs exclusively to the black people, in that meeting or any other meeting," he says testily. "In fact, 15 to 20 percent of Christian Street's membership is white, and there are whites who serve on the board. There is a marked difference between being black controlled' and being separatist. This is part of the miscommunication between us and Corporate, and I tend to believe that it's at least partially deliberate."
Lee gives the example of traditionally black colleges. If you were to go to the campuses of Grambling or Howard, he says, you'd certainly find some white students. While those institutions are controlled by black people, he argues, they are not exclusionary to white people. In fact, many white people thrive in that environment, as it should be, he says.
The idea of a branch of the YMCA seeking independence from its corporate entity is rare but not unheard of, says Arnie Collins, a spokesman for the YMCA of USA, the national headquarters based in Chicago.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"Each branch is a resource of its local corporate board, and it's entirely up to the local corporate board to decide the issue of a branch being given its independence," Collins explains. "I understand that it happens once or twice a year nationwide that a branch will petition its corporate board for independence. But we at the national level don't play any part in that decision. It's a local matter."
Bob Isard sits on the board of managers of the Christian Street YMCA, the “branch belonging to the black people.” Bob Isard, as well as a good number of the branch’s members, is white. A stout, middle-aged man with a broad open face and a Vietnam campaign pin in his lapel, Isard took great exception to those e-mails, and he fired off one of his own, as well as gave an impromptu interview in Lee’s office. He sent his e-mail to the other board members, as well as the Corporate officers.
"We have certainly reached a sorry state of affairs," Isard begins. "Unless I see a cogent explanation that leads me elsewhere, I can only believe that this is a naked attempt to cause" a programmatic and financial failure at Christian Street. He closes his e-mail with, "Shame on those who wish to destroy this community jewel and worse to those who will use racist concepts to do it."
Talking about it in Lee's office, Isard is visibly saddened by the ugly turn the issue has taken.
"At first, I was certain it was just a matter of miscommunication by people of good will," Isard says. "But after following this for months, I can see clearly that this is a one-way street. Corporate has not been reasonable in their dealings with our board." He adds, "This is just the latest example," referring to the round of e-mails.
Another board member is state Rep. Harold James, whose district encompasses the neighborhood. James also received copies of the e-mail volleys, and he isn't hesitant to voice his displeasure.
"It just shows you the insensitivity we've gotten when dealing with Corporate," James says. "It's all about keeping us in our place. The neighborhood is changing, and Corporate feels the need to continue their control. I'm glad the media is bringing this out, because this issue really needs the light of public scrutiny. The board is being strangled by Corporate, and the bottom line is they're preventing us from fully serving this community with as many resources as possible. This is the way institutionalized racism works: to simply refuse people the right to self-determination."
And it's that issue of self-determination that the board says is critical to the survival of the Christian Street Y and the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood.
"The views of Corporate are in conflict, we feel, with the community's best interests," says Rotan Lee. "They're not really interested in the neighborhood, or even the Christian Street Y per se, but they're afraid of the precedent that could be set here. Wasn't it Gil Scott-Heron who said, First one wants freedom, then the next thing you know, the whole damn world wants freedom'? That's the active mentality we're dealing with here. And as opposed to coming to the negotiating table like professionals, they've come after Blondell personally, hammer and tong, in an effort to remove her influence and dissuade the CSY board from breaking off. Well, I can tell you that the board is foursquare behind the idea of independence and won't be swayed by political shenanigans or divide and conquer' tactics."
One of those tactics took the form of Parsons' annual performance evaluation.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"My management evaluations were in the high 90s for the 10 years I've been here," Parsons says, "and this year my latest evaluation was a 44. I appealed it, and they pushed it up to a 59, but I wasn't willing to accept that either. So I didn't sign the evaluation. They blame me personally for the actions of the board."
Part of the problem for Corporate, Lee says, echoing Harold James, is that the neighborhood is rapidly changing. There is a major redevelopment project under way, spearheaded by legendary music mogul Kenny Gamble. His Universal Companies' ambitious community vision includes 5,000 new homes, a retail and shopping center, a business center, a charter school, a construction company and an adult vocational school all within a few blocks of the Christian Street Y. And while these changes sit well with the local residents who praise Universal for cleaning up the long-neglected neighborhood, Lee says Universal's major presence in the community strikes fear into the hearts of the button-down types at Corporate. It should be duly noted that Lee isn't exactly a casual observer here. He also works with Universal as senior executive vice president and general counsel. He insists, however, that his ties with Universal and the Christian Street YMCA are not at issue. It's a matter of right, wrong and racial and religious perception.
"Because of Kenny's huge community involvement, Corporate fears a Muslimization' of the neighborhood," Lee says. "You look up and down the street and see men, women and children in traditional Muslim dress everywhere, you see the masjid right across from Kenny's house and security guards on the corners in kufis. Those kinds of images scare the less informed, and especially a traditionally Christian organization like the YMCA. But what Kenny's attempting here is to create a 21st-century model cities' program. He's revitalizing the neighborhood from within by building homes, eliminating blight and giving people skills and meaningful jobs. What job could be more meaningful than the rebuilding of your own neighborhood? This is one of the biggest undertakings of commercial capitalism through self-sufficiency that I've ever seen."
A walk around the neighborhood serves as a quick illustration. There is a large man in traditional Muslim clothing at the corner of 15th and Catharine chanting prayers in Arabic. Dozens of kids from the Universal Charter School spill out onto the sidewalk after school, dressed in their green school uniforms with traditional Islamic head scarves. Minutes later, the large man on the corner and several others pull out prayer mats, face east and pray on the sidewalk. Neighbors don't seem to mind the Muslim presence. They're just happy to see the drug dealers gone and the streets cleaner and safer, and they don't care who does it, as long as it gets done.
The Universal Companies' headquarters is a former storefront on the corner of 15th and Catharine, just down the street from the boss' house. Past the small reception area and around a narrow corridor is the conference room, where Universal's chief executive officer Abdur-Rahim Islam promises his boss will show up momentarily. The walls of the conference room are filled with plaques and news stories about Gamble and Universal, all glowing tributes to the man and his vision.
Moments later, an unassuming-looking man enters. Head down and shoulders slightly slumped with his hands shoved in his coat pockets, one of Philadelphia's most famous citizens isn't immediately recognizable. He raises his head with a timid smile and offers a handshake. Gamble seems as though he consciously doesn't want to command the room, but he's a definite presence. Gamble, along with songwriting partner Leon Huff, gained fame and fortune in the 1960s and '70s as one of the music scene's biggest writers and producers, churning out an incredible string of top-10 hits and spawning "The Sound of Philadelphia." From The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" and "Love Train" to Billy Paul's classic "Me and Mrs. Jones," nobody cranked them out like Gamble and Huff.
Gamble could have taken his millions and scampered off to the Main Line, and no one would have blamed him. His old South Philly neighborhood was no place anyone would want to hang out, and a man of his stature couldn't be blamed for taking advantage of the luxuries and privileges that come with being a celebrity. But Gamble stayed put. His idea was to use his resources to transform the neighborhood from within, to make the working-class neighborhood look like the South Philly of his youth, before crime, drugs and despair had sucked the life out of the community -- women scrubbing the shiny marble stoops, kids splashing in the fire hydrant, old men playing checkers and arguing politics in front of the barbershop. He figured that if people were able to build their own neighborhood from the ground up, then they'd take pride in maintaining it. And if people in the neighborhood are out of work, why not put them to work doing that rebuilding? It seemed like a simple, if ambitious, plan.
"The devastation of this community was brought on by lack of education and lack of economic participation," Gamble says. "It is a prime example of the conditions in African-American communities all over the United States. The reality is that this is a poor neighborhood full of wonderful people. We can restore the viability of this neighborhood through the pride of self-reliance. What we're trying to do, and what we're finding success in doing, is we've been able to initiate a change of mindset. It goes to show you that it can be done. When a people are able to comprehend themselves and their environment, they can work to change that environment for the better."
A big part of the neighborhood when Gamble was young, he says, was the Christian Street YMCA.
"The Y was our safe haven," he says, "as well as a neighborhood institution. This is where direction came from. This is where manhood came from. There were dedicated men who acted as mentors and role models to us kids at the Y at almost all times. They gave us our social values as well as boxing and swimming lessons. The Y was literally the social and cultural center of the neighborhood, and I'd love to see it become that again."
On the current controversy over the Christian Street Y's independence, Gamble says he's an interested neutral party. The fate of the Y could play a part in his neighborhood revitalization project, so he says that, while he wouldn't try to dictate or predict what will happen, he's watching closely.
"The YMCA should do what it's chartered to do, which is serve the community," he says. "I don't know the people up there in Corporate very well, but I do know Blondell. She's an essential part of the fabric of this neighborhood and has the community's best interests at heart. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with more dedication to the people she serves than Blondell."
Whether or not the branch's board achieves its dream of independence, Gamble says he'll continue to do what he's doing. You can't control anyone's thoughts or actions, he says, and you can't let them control yours.
"This community is going to develop. That's the momentum we've started here," says Gamble. "Hopefully, the movement for change is strong enough that it would go on without any of us. But it would be wonderful to have a YMCA just like the one I grew up in. I don't know what's going to happen next, I just hope the parties involved can come to an equitable solution."
The only equitable solution for Rotan Lee and the Christian Street YMCA's board of managers is an independent Christian Street Y.
"The thing here is, the Christian Street Y is Corporate's boat, so we can't pick the direction or destination," Lee says. "All we're saying is we'd like a chance to steer for ourselves. By granting Christian Street its independence, Corporate wouldn't be kowtowing or caving, they'd be doing the right thing. We're strong, and our wings have developed. It's time to let us leave the nest and fly on our own."