Don't mess with Vanessa Gaston, the new president of the Urban League of Portland.
Gaston Ñ an imposing 6-footer Ñ has a past that includes time in the military. For more than eight years she managed a legal defense department and a military intelligence brigade, and prepared curriculum and trained staff on legal and standard military regulations, both in Germany and at Washington's Fort Lewis. She was also saddled with the job of presenting complex legal information to military and civilian personnel.
But Gaston does not exude the no-nonsense desperation of a general under fire, nor does she present herself with the bulldog tenacity of a drill sergeant. In carriage and personality, Gaston talks and walks with the fineness and savvy of a Fortune 500 company president.
Gaston was, until recently, the associate superintendent at the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting, Wash.
After a careful selection process that took months, the league's board of directors, headed by Baruti Artharee, chose Gaston, whose training also includes a master's degree in education and social policy administration from the University of Washington.
'We needed someone with a solid background in organizational development and an acute sense of business management,' Artharee said. 'And she fulfilled those requirements.'
Gaston takes over from Democratic state Sen. Margaret Carter. To her credit, Carter sparked the often beleaguered league with sheer grit and exceptional fund-raising ingenuity. She was an ideal choice after the organization nearly suffocated three years ago in the wake of gross mismanagement of league funds.
Even with Carter's efficient legacy and a tireless board of directors, the league has not fully recovered from its financial 'quake.' Some of the advocacy programs that positioned the league to have a say in public policies and issues are still curiously absent.
'My intention is to start over again,' Gaston says. 'And to develop a strategic plan in collaboration with the community and the board, so we can continue to meet the critical needs of the people we serve.' Undeniably, the league needs a new road map.
That strategic plan should include a comprehensive set of steps to wean the agency from the financial whims of others, especially from government. Uncertain budget and political climates make this imperative. It should also contain mechanisms for building partnerships with community organizations and for public policy advocacy on issues that impact the league's vision of equal rights.
In addition to those challenges, the new CEO will need all of her training and military discipline to enhance the league's image among skeptics in the black community who think there have been too many jamborees and not enough achievement, too many speeches about league potential and too little evidence of its involvement in the community.
Absent any other effective civil rights organization, the Urban League of Portland remains the only credible and logical channel to ensure that poor blacks are prepared to meet the requirements for employment, housing and other opportunities. This is a great burden for an agency still reeling from the pillaging of its books.