- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - After nearly a century of existence for the Greater New Haven Branch of the NAACP, Dori Dumas shattered the glass ceiling this summer, becoming the first elected female president of a chapter that was established in 1917.

Now several months into her term, Dumas, 50, said the critical issues facing people of color are employment opportunities, home ownership and transportation.

“Transportation is a huge issue in the city. A lot of people in New Haven have to go outside to get jobs (and) the issue is getting there and then getting home,” said Dumas. “…There are just not a lot of jobs in New Haven.” she said.

Dumas, a city native and James Hillhouse House School graduate, served as first vice president of the organization before being elected to the branch’s top seat in June.

She replaced outgoing president Jim Rawlings, who stepped down a year into his fourth two-year term to tend to other causes that were dear to him.

Rawlings said Dumas will do “a wonderful job” because she is prepared to lead the New Haven organization. The branch organization has more than 800 members.

“The issue of civil rights is not going away. It’s much more sophisticated in terms of the challenges we have in urban America, but Dori has been groomed for this (work) and she has tremendous respect in the community,” said Rawlings.

Last March, the branch released its “Urban Apartheid” report, a data-driven document that detailed startling economic, educational, health and other disparities between white people and those of color in the region.

Dumas said working to close the education gap will be a primary initiative in her first term.

“I’m putting together a new education committee and we’ll be (working) with Dr. (James P.) Comer to really try to make an impact in our communities,” she said.

“We’ve met with Mayor (Toni) Harp, the superintendent of schools, and presidents of area colleges,” Dumas said. “I’ll be sitting down with the experts in the field to see where the NAACP can have impact, so we can move together as a community.”

While some organizations struggle to maintain membership and volunteers, Dumas said, the branch has not lost its footing in the community.

“We’re working harder than ever, we’re getting flooded with calls for our help and support,” said Dumas, who is also a graduate of Albertus Magnus College, with degrees in business and economics.

“It’s like anything, people complain until they need us; we’re the first one they call,” she said. “We just want to find solutions.”

Shawna Woodard, the branch assistant secretary, said she’s always known Dumas to be in a leadership capacity.

“She’s a natural born leader, and what I admire most about her is her motivation. She is not motivated by personal interest or ego; she’s motivated by working in the parameters of the organization and the parameters of her leadership position,” said Woodard, who has been with the branch for more than 15 years.

“A good leader is not driven by self-interest or ego; that’s Dori,” Woodard said.

Dumas, who has been a member of the organization for 25 years, said one of the successes of the branch is the Community Impact Mortgage Program, a partnership between the branch and First Niagara Bank.

Home ownership is a critical element of building wealth and legacy for people of color. “And we are answering that call for the community with our program,” she said.

The program assists each qualified urban home buyer by providing up to $10,000 in a forgivable loan for a down payment and closing costs. Qualified buyers also will have access to education and financial fitness workshops, as well as individual consultations and assistance.

Voter registration drives are another area of success for the branch.

“We’ve always had a very strong impact with voter registration. Not only getting people to register, but educating them and getting them out to vote,” Dumas said.

According to a Quinnipiac poll, likely voters say Republican Tom Foley would do a better job with the economy and state spending, putting him ahead of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy by 6 percentage points in the contest for governor.

Other political analysts see the race as a toss-up.

Regardless of the political party preference, Dumas said, people of color have to cast their ballot.

“This governor’s race is very critical for people of color. We’re nonpartisan, but people need to clearly look at the issues around jobs and education and the candidates’ platforms they’re supporting,” she said.

“This race is going to matter,” she said. “Things can change depending on who is in office for people in urban communities; we really need to pay attention.”

Dumas acknowledged that there is no official black political agenda, but said, “We all (people of color) have the same issues and things that we’re concerned about and paying attention too.”

The Register reached out to the candidates for an opportunity to discuss their urban policy with voters in New Haven at a community forum, but schedules didn’t permit it to be held.

Long time Dumas friend and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister and lawyer Elicia Pegues-Spearman said one of Dumas’ challenges will be continued pressure for civic and community engagement.

“Voter registration is always key to our community (as is) understanding why being involved in the political process makes a difference in the community,” said Pegues-Spearman, who’s the International Leadership Fellows Committee chairwoman of the sorority.

Pegues-Spearman said Dumas’s best qualities are her dedication and the courage of speaking on issues that may not be popular.

“She has the spirit of community service. It’s the appropriate time to use her experience in this role,” she said.

Last month, members of the New Haven Fire Department and Dumas expressed frustration to the Board of Fire Commissioners over Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Egan, after the branch accused him of discrimination, violating health privacy laws and mishandling a personnel investigation.

Eagan has been placed on paid administrative leave.

“My leadership will try to be proactive rather than reactive. We rather work on things we can clearly see and make improvements right away before they become a problem,” said Dumas.

She said finger-pointing is not good enough.

“When we know that the faculty of schools, the police department and fire department are not looking like the community it serves, we’re proactive and willing to hold those organizations/agencies accountable,” she said.

“We just don’t want to talk and point out the problem; we want impact. We are at the table helping make decisions, because most times the people who are making decisions about our life don’t look like us, and that’s unacceptable.”

NAACP State President Scot X Esdaile said Dumas has been a solider in the branch for many years.

“It’s well-deserving and so far she has done an outstanding job and I’m proud of her,” said Esdaile.

While Dumas is the first woman elected as Greater New Haven branch president, she is not the first woman to serve in the post. Rolan Young served a year as branch president in 2000. Young, elected as first vice president, succeeded Roger Vann when he left the top post.

Esdaile said Dumas will have to face the challenge of a male-dominated role.

“The civil rights community is dominated by males, historically. It’s going to be interesting to see a female at the helm of leadership, but if there is anyone that can do it, it’s her,” he said. “She’ll make her mark as a civil rights activist in the largest branch in the state.”

Rawlings said she shouldn’t face any challenges as female president.

“If she wasn’t a known entity, it would be different. But across the state we have a pretty good representation of females that are branch presidents,” he said.”Dori has been the backbone of the organization.”

Woodard said Dumas will not get any push back as a female.

“In any other situation, I would say yes. But Dori has been a prominent face for the organization for years and has earned the respect of all members,” she said.

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