Retirement from 35 years in corporate America suited Bruce S. Gordon, 59, just fine. Then he got the offer he couldn't refuse: the call to head the country's oldest and largest civil-rights organization. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wanted him as its new president and CEO. He stepped up, fully prepared to get back to business. Faced with a budget shortfall, stagnant membership, and now, the need to protect the basic human and civil rights of those residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he finds that the mission to revitalize the NAACP is more critical.
ESSENCE: What made you want to come out of retirement to take on this huge job?
Bruce Gordon: I love my people. And if you love Black folks and the opportunity to lead the NAACP is presented to you, you take it.
ESSENCE: In the public's eyes, you're seen as a successful business executive and not as a civil-rights figure. Do you feel that this will affect your ability to lead the NAACP?
B.G.: I take exception to my not being seen as a civil-rights activist. Those who say that have a narrow definition of civil rights. What I did in my career prior to the NAACP was walk in a door that activists from my parents' generation got opened for me. And once I moved into the corporate sector, those same issues around employment, like fair treatment and equal opportunity, needed to be pursued in the workplace. So I simply view myself as a civil-rights activist who did it in a different place.
ESSENCE: Talk about the NAACP's priorities.
B.G.: Internally, my priority is to establish financial stability, ranging from balancing budgets to building membership. And I want to broaden the membership base to include a younger demographic. We need a stronger presence of young people, not only as members but also as leaders of the organization.
We need to work with all people of color. People sometimes say we should change the name because "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" is not contemporary. I don't agree with that. The brand has been around too long and is too valuable to change. And the term colored people, I guess in today's terms would be people of color. And I think that people of color have lots of things in common.
I want the NAACP to become the source of leadership on those issues that we choose to address-whether it's health-care disparity, unemployment, prison reform or criminal-justice reform, voter empowerment or education. I want us not to be just about things that we are against. I want us to be very articulate and very progressive about things that we are for. I want us to be proactive, not reactive.
ESSENCE: What do you feel are some of the key issues facing those affected by Hurricane Katrina? And what lies ahead?
B.G.: Hurricane Katrina's impact is long-term for the victims who must put their lives back together. I hope that by November, people would have returned to some degree of normalcy, at least in terms of their day-to-day lives, recognizing that there's much more to be done. As we rebuild communities that have been destroyed, we need to make sure that they accommodate the people who lived there. If, in the process, we rebuild New Orleans and don't create jobs for those who were displaced by Katrina, then we'll pass up one more golden opportunity to address the unemployment rate that's always been higher among African-Americans. If we rebuild Biloxi and Gulfport and don't allow minority businesses to participate in the process, it would be a big mistake. It will be very important for the NAACP to monitor the recovery process to, in fact, make sure that no one, consciously or subconsciously, violates the civil rights of the victims of Katrina.