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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

New leader brings skills needed

By Mary Stamp

As the only one of the three vice presidents remaining in the 96-year-old Spokane NAACP in June, Naima had the background in community activism, caring sensitivity and leadership acumen to become president when Rachel Dolezal resigned June 15 amid concern that she is a white woman who represented herself as black.

Naima Quarles-Burnley reflects on responsibilities of NAACP Spokane.

“Naima” is Swahili—a mix of African languages and Arabic—and means “gentle strength.”  She chose her name in the 1990s, when she dedicated her life to follow Christ.

It’s what Spokane’s NAACP needed: gentle strength.

Naima said Rachel brought energy to the NAACP as president and reorganized committees.  Many students who joined under her leadership, however, have pulled back.

Despite some loss in membership, the NAACP has gained 30 new members since then.  Many came in response to Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal’s call for people to stand with the NAACP, Naima said.

“We seek to re-involve students based on a commitment to our cause of working for justice,” Naima said.

“I have spent time answering questions about how this could have happened, and restoring credibility with government and community entities,” she said.

At the first meeting after Rachel resigned, the NAACP offered a public forum, a “Community Conversation: Moving towards Healing.”  They talked about issues and answered questions, encouraging continued conversation, which Naima hopes will go on in small groups to address such questions as:  What is race?  How does race shape how we experience life?

“Anyone can be an ally or advocate, but it’s hard to speak for people without living their experience,” she said, aware that not all people of the same race experience the same things, because of varied skin tones, personalities and circumstances.

For example, Naima said that when she went to South Africa in 1994 to observe the election of Nelson Mandela, she felt solidarity and kinship with South Africans.  Many there believed African Americans had experienced apartheid with laws that separated them from other races.  South Africans patterned their protests and nonviolence on the U.S. civil rights movement.

“We came to say that God wants justice in South Africa,” Naima said.  “We did not know, however, what they experienced deep in their souls, but we could be allies and advocates.

Naima had been involved during her studies of political science at Oberlin College in urging the university to divest from companies doing business in South Africa.  “I understood alliance, but didn’t speak for South Africans, even though the cause was dear to my heart,” she said.

Later, despite danger and threats, she went for three months with an international team through the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Monitoring Program in South Africa.  She was on the staff of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church’s Department of Overseas Missions in New York City.  The team worked with the South African Council of Churches to “stand by believers who wanted to bring a new day to that country,” she said.

She helped with the pre-election, election and counting processes, and saw Nelson Mandela elected as president.

Naima, who grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., graduated from Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., in 1984, after graduating from Oberlin.

For seven years, she worked with Neighborhood Legal Services in Pittsburgh on civil cases for the poor for fair housing, employment, protection from abuse, bankruptcy and entitlements.

Her involvement in Pittsburgh with Bethany Baptist Church’s mission ministry led her to lead short-term ministry outreaches in Mexico. Naima’s love for cross-cultural ministry culminated in her taking a two-month leave of absence to work with the Ministry of Hope in Liberia, West Africa.  She led Bible studies and shared Christ’s hope with government officials and people in rural villages.

“Returning, I wanted to use my legal skills to help mission groups and do cross-cultural ministry,” said Naima.

In 1994, she began doing mission training with Ambassadors Fellowship in Los Angeles, leading groups to Mexico, inner city LA and Spain.  That led her back into the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, in which her maternal grandmother was a minister.  She served with the national church in mission, traveling around the world to assist with development and outreach projects.

In 1997, Naima met Larry Burnley, who was with the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Disciples of Christ (DOC) Global Ministries, also in New York, at an assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  In 1998, they went as newlyweds to the WCC’s eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

When the UCC-DOC offices in New York closed, Larry moved with the UCC to Cleveland. Naima worked five years with the UCC refugee ministries. 

Larry returned to higher education, developing Diversity Affairs at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.  While nearby Harrisburg was 25 percent African American, the suburb where they lived was five percent.

Once she found childcare for Thulani, their three-year-old son with special-needs, Naima worked at the college’s Agape Center, designing orientation and a friendship family program for international students.  She led a group of faculty and staff to do cleanup and rebuild in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and trained them on Southern culture.

She told them the Confederate flag is scary, because it “represents slavery, and hatred of and violence against African Americans.”

In 2010, Larry’s work to promote diversity in Christian higher education led them to another less diverse area, Spokane, to work at Whitworth University.

Naima at first cared for her parents, who moved to Spokane, until their deaths, and has served as local outreach coordinator for the Seattle-based African Americans Reach and Teach Health Ministry.

“As in other cities, I sought to be involved in the NAACP, as had my parents and grandparents. It’s one place to connect with people of color beyond the church,” said Naima.

She became one of three vice presidents.  Two had resigned before the controversy last spring related to Rachel’s identity.

There also were concerns about the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission and alleged falsification of hate mail in Coeur d’Alene and here, Naima said.  Then came the explosion of media coverage.

“I sought to address concerns in a unified way,” she said.  “It was a politically charged time.  We felt community input and interaction were important.”

Since then, communities of color have helped interview ombudsmen candidates, and that process is still under way.

Other issues have emerged.

The NAACP is concerned about four deaths—compared with one or two a year—in three months in the jail. One this summer was an African American.

The NAACP seeks a voice in criminal justice reform through the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, which had 35 applicants for two council positions. 

“We want to populate its subcommittees with people of color so our voice will help shape criminal justice in the future,” she said.

That council has received a McArthur grant to design a proposal for up to $2-million-a-year for criminal justice reform. Spokane was chosen because it had the highest racial disparity of incarcerated persons of the 20 applicants who received grants across the United States, she said.

“We seek reforms to reduce the length of stay, the number of people and the racial-ethnic disparity of those who are incarcerated,” she said. 

The NAACP hosted an “Employment Bootcamp” in August to help job seekers sharpen skills.

“When people are not employed, they do not feel connected with the community,” Naima said.  “We want people to be productive citizens.”

The Spokane NAACP Branch is hosting the Alaska, Oregon and Washington State Area Conference Sept 18 to 20. 

It will hold its 96th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet at 7 p.m., Nov. 7, at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, featuring lobbyist and policymaker Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, as speaker.

The local branch is recruiting new vice presidents. Current committees include education, economic development, health care, criminal justice, political action, Freedom Fund Banquet and membership. 

Over the years, the Spokane National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Branch #1137 has had a commitment to ensuring the political, educational, social and economic equality of all people. 

“It is committed to advocacy for a society in which all individuals can have equal rights without discrimination,” Naima said.

For information, call 209-2425 ext. 1141, email or visit

Copyright © September 2015 - The Fig Tree