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America may elect Barack Obama but it'll take more to stimulate black influence in Colorado Springs

click to enlarge Democratic candidate Chyrese Exline, while not favored to win her race, hopes the experience will help in building the foundation for her future political career. - LAURA MONTGOMERY
  • LAura Montgomery
  • Democratic candidate Chyrese Exline, while not favored to win her race, hopes the experience will help in building the foundation for her future political career.

It's in her brown eyes, her wide smile, that strange mix of jubilation and outrage, the look that comes when you've expected the worst and gotten exactly that.

Chyrese Exline takes her seat.

The debate at Penrose Library rumbles on, but Exline seems dazed. Even toward the end, when she takes the podium to plug her own candidacy for state House District 14, the smile hasn't left the corners of her lips, and her speech is short and slightly fumbled.

Earlier in the evening, Exline, 39, had been rolling her eyes in time as state Rep. Keith King, the Republican candidate for state Senate District 12, told the crowd that his involvement in establishing charter schools was positively transforming opportunities for local minority youth. Not buying it, Exline took to the mic and asked King if he would oppose Amendment 46, the ballot measure that seeks to obliterate equal-opportunity programs in the state. The question forced King to defend his stance against affirmative action, and in doing so, he stumbled, describing minority children as "colored kids."

Later, Exline commented, "All I saw there after that happened was someone who perceived themselves as the king, taking care of the little people.

"That's not equality."

Exline says she's facing her own silent battle with equality. She's running a campaign that few expect her to win, even though the Democrat insists she'd only have to grab the votes of Independents in her district, not Republicans. Last year, she just missed being elected to the Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Education. She says openly that being black doesn't help her politically.

"The Progressive Majority [political action committee] told me when I first ran for school board that it was three times harder to get a black candidate elected to office than any other candidates," she says.

That point is likely debatable. Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy says he thinks people at large in Colorado, and across the country, have been caring less and less about a candidate's skin color. He points to the election of former state Sen. Ed Jones, an African-American in mostly white District 11, and the 12 years that Wellington Webb served as mayor of Denver.

"Race just doesn't seem to be something which, per se, matters to a majority of white voters anymore," Loevy says.

And of course, 2008 may well go down as the year America elected its first black president.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy has forced the country to discuss frankly a subject that most tiptoe around. Obama has brought with him a window into black churches and a look at crude stereotypes. He has forced America to think about how much attitudes have or have not changed since the days of slavery, more than 140 years ago. His candidacy has meant a close examination of what it would mean to have an African-American enter our most revered hall of power.

But not everyone here sees the discussion as limited to one man seeking the country's highest office.

Local black leaders say there are still very real barricades in Colorado Springs for blacks seeking to influence their community and their government. Worse, blacks facing the challenges of leadership are in short supply.

There are no African-Americans on the Board of County Commissioners. No local African-American representatives now at the state level. Darryl Glenn is the only African-American on City Council, and Eric Drummond is the only black member of Manitou Springs' City Council (though he now has the distinction of being mayor). Even the District 11 school board, which represents one of the more diverse sections of town, is all-white despite the fact that three African-Americans, including Exline, ran for seats last year. And it doesn't seem that November will bring a fresh wave of diversity, with few African-Americans on the local ballot.

The business world is hardly more promising. In 2002, just 2 percent of Colorado Springs businesses were owned by blacks.

What's the holdup?

One could argue that blacks are simply a smaller minority here than in the country as a whole. While the 2000 U.S. Census found that blacks made up 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, just 6.6 percent (23,677) of Colorado Springs residents were black. The black population was half the size of the Hispanic and Latino community, which made up 12 percent (43,330) of the population, and has outsized the black community for quite a while.

This has historically been, and remains, a white community. In 2000, over 80 percent (291,095) of Colorado Springs residents were white.

But historically, blacks here have contributed heartily. In 1990, the late John Stokes Holley published his book, The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region: An Afro-American Chronicle, which revealed a rich history of black leadership from Republican Aaron Bailey, "the Colored Orator of Colorado Springs" in the late 1800s, to Floyd Pettie Jr., who was the first black elected to Colorado Springs City Council in 1969.

The late Rev. Milton E. Proby, known as a civil rights activist, was eulogized by the naming of Milton E. Proby Parkway near the city airport. Fannie Mae Duncan's downtown Cotton Club was so famous for attracting customers of all races that the "Everybody Welcome" diversity festival was named in her honor. There was Leon Young, longtime city councilor and the city's first black mayor, albeit briefly (after Bob Isaac's retirement). And Norvell Simpson, still lively at age 77, has been a strong community leader and was the first African-American to serve on D-11's school board.

"I'm very, very proud to say that I was able to open the door for some African-Americans," Simpson says.

Because of people like him, presumably, it's a little easier for an African-American leader to hold office. There are also groups and programs designed to train the leaders of tomorrow: El Pomar Foundation's Emerging Leaders Development Program, the Black Leadership Forum, the African-American Youth Leadership Conference. (See "Where to turn," p. 28.)

Yet, few local African-Americans are stepping up to the plate as prominent community leaders.

As the nation becomes more inclusive, is Colorado Springs being left behind? Where are our future black leaders? What's stopping them?

A lonely world

Colorado College looks so picturesque on days like this. The grass lush green, the mature trees bright orange and yellow, the sky blue, the sun warm, with a light breeze blowing past the front of Armstrong Hall. Courtney-Rose Harris, 20, has ditched the casual college duds today in favor of dress pants and a black blazer.

She hurries down the concrete path, signs in hand, huge smile spread across her face. She slips out of her heels, digs her toes into the grass and gets to work ramming a series of "No on 46" signs into the lawn.

Harris calls this event "a rally," but only three others will join her. Two will leave early. Her friends, African-American students LaTia Walker and Marie Blanc, and Asian-American student Esther Lee, come bearing homemade paper banners, which they comically struggle to tape to bushes and small trees.

The girls seem to know at least half their classmates who pass by. They call to them by name. They are white kids, but also African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans. The students are receptive to the message, but they don't join in the rally.

click to enlarge Courtney-Rose Harris (left) and friend Marie Blanc get the word out against 46. - LAURA MONTGOMERY
  • LAura Montgomery
  • Courtney-Rose Harris (left) and friend Marie Blanc get the word out against 46.

"This campus is very ... " Walker begins.

"Run by women," Blanc finishes.

The girls giggle.

Later, their point seems proven. Harris calls out to a young black man, a friend.

"You gonna vote 'no' on 46?" she asks.

Silence.

"You know what 46 is?" she chides playfully.

He hangs his head and mumbles, "No." Then he grabs the flier and scurries away.

It seems amazing that Harris stays, even after Walker and Lee leave. But this young woman was groomed for politics. She is the daughter of Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the Colorado Springs branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She was involved in a movement for equality before she was old enough to understand what the word meant. Besides, she says, this is important.

"With this initiative, it's so personal," she says. "It's kind of a personal attack against me, as a woman of color."

Harris is one of the most active young African-Americans in town. The double-major college student holds down several jobs, and is co-chair of CC's Black Student Union, an NAACP branch member and has volunteered in the Obama campaign. She says she has great hopes for the future of local African-American leadership, but that's tempered a little by what she sees day to day: So many smart young blacks saying politics is someone else's problem.

She and Blanc, all alone in the grass, keep smiling. In the background, a large banner flaps. On it, an outline of a person is filled with words like "African-American," "Handi-capable," "Asians," "Queer," "Muslim." In big letters at the top, the girls have printed: "Have you seen me?"

Bridge-building

According to many local black leaders, from college kids like Harris to those who have spent decades here, standing out often means standing alone in Colorado Springs.

After leaving the Air Force, where he reached the rank of colonel, James Stewart settled here with his wife, Shirley, in 1987. Stewart worked for a company with a military contract for a while, but then he and Shirley decided it was time to start their own business. Stewart sought the help of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce in the early '90s.

He says the secretary wouldn't let him past the front desk. At the time, he explains, the Chamber was interested in big business, not small business, and certainly not minority-owned business. Fed up, Stewart founded the Black Chamber of Commerce in 1993 to cater to black business owners in the city. He still runs the organization, which now has around 60 members and a mailing list of about 400.

Stewart started his business that same year. Infant Graduated Child Care Center eventually grew into the largest child care business in the Springs (it's since closed), but Stewart says he struggled at first. No one wanted to leave their children in the care of blacks. He ended up hiring an all-white staff and keeping an office in a separate building.

"In order to grow the business, there was no visible black presence," he says.

Stewart, now 66 and owner of Technology Vectors Inc., has contributed mightily to the community. He's chaired the boards of Ent Credit Union and the local United Way, and served on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the board of the local Economic Development Corp. He currently chairs the board of the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs (set to open two years from now) and serves on the Independent's board.

Over the decades, he's built bridges. Now, for instance, he has a "great relationship" with the Chamber that once turned him away. Stewart says he's broken down "filters" or people's automatic assumptions and judgments about him. For instance, he says, if he wears a suit, one of the filters disappears. (Stewart, by the way, lives in a house valued at about $1 million and owns his own plane.)

"The name of the game is to minimize those filters, and one of those filters is race," he says. "I'd love to be in that category that says 'professional male,' not 'professional black male.'"

Exline thinks the only way to break down stereotypes is to be present. She purposely puts herself in situations where she'll be the only black. She goes to Chamber meetings, not Black Chamber meetings. She joins committees ignored by other blacks. She shows up at functions like a recent dyslexia conference, where she was the only African-American in the room.

Along the way, Exline's developed coping mechanisms. She can sense when she's being examined from a distance, when people are trying to decide "what kind of black person" she is. Often, she'll approach them, big smile across her face, and start chatting away. If they squirm? Well, it's all the more amusing.

Most of the time, she says, whites express their discomfort in another way by going above and beyond to welcome her.

"That's an opportunity, the way I look at it," she says.

Now she can give leaders who stay within those insulated white circles a chance to meet a black person a woman with a college education, a health-care professional, a small business owner, a wife and a mom.

"If you're not outside your circles, you'll never change their minds," she says.

City Councilor Darryl Glenn, 43, has spent his entire life outside the "circle." He grew up here, the only child of an Air Force dad and an Army Reservist mom.

"When I grew up, the number of minorities that were around in my neighborhood was small," he says.

The people who influenced Glenn most as a kid were his white neighbors. The military, with its system based more on merit than race, helped shape his view of the world. That continued when he left Doherty High School, where he was one of few blacks, and attended the Air Force Academy en route to a military career.

click to enlarge Darryl Glenn wants more youthful and minority representation in local government, and he feels paying City Council more would help. - LAURA MONTGOMERY
  • LAura Montgomery
  • Darryl Glenn wants more youthful and minority representation in local government, and he feels paying City Council more would help.

Glenn is used to fitting in, but he says that doesn't mean he can somehow forget that he's black when he's standing in a room of white peers.

"You have to be blind not to notice it," he says. "It's one of those things: What do you do about it?"

Get used to it

You probably know who Henry Kissinger is. The 1973 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate served under President Richard Nixon as national security adviser and secretary of state, and managed to weather the Watergate scandal.

He was a major figure in American politics for a generation.

Kissinger's brother, Walter, enjoyed a successful career in top management, and has a couple homes in the Pikes Peak region. Being a regular in the area, Walter Kissinger and his wife, Genie, developed a long friendship with James and Shirley Stewart. So it was hardly surprising that the Stewarts were invited to the Kissingers' annual shindig at their ranch in Divide last month. About 40 to 50 people showed up and, as usual, the Stewarts were the only blacks in the room.

"You'd be surprised how many of these locals from up in the hills said, 'How do you know Walter, and why are you here?'" Stewart recalls.

The reaction to Shirley was even more appalling. Genie Kissinger was swamped, so Shirley decided to lend her old friend a hand in the kitchen. A guest came up to Shirley and asked if she was the maid.

"My wife was pissed," Stewart says. "That happens all the time. You have to recognize ignorance and know when to say enough is enough, and know when to be tolerant. Because tolerance leads to education."

The Kissingers had a talk with their presumptuous guest.

Exline says she got used to subtle and obvious discrimination in school and college, and a chilly initial reception from her white husband's parents. She took it in stride, she says, because getting angry doesn't change anyone's mind. But it was harder when it came to her two children.

By any account, Exline is an excellent mother. But she's been faced with special challenges. When her daughter was 22 months, the child began to read. She was a bright kid. Actually, she was a brilliant kid.

Exline's daughter has an IQ of 185+. She went to the University of Pennsylvania last year at the age of 15, making her the youngest African-American girl ever to attend an Ivy League school.

Meanwhile, Exline's younger son is dyslexic.

For both children, she often talked with teachers and principals, and frequently changed schools and programs. Exline joined endless school district committees. This was her introduction to politics.

She was assertive, and she taught her kids to be assertive, too. Her 11-year-old son carries forms Exline typed for him to school. When he feels he's been treated unfairly, he fills one out and has the teacher sign it. Then, if his mom wants to pursue the issue, she can use the form as evidence when she's speaking with the principal.

"That's the only thing they're afraid of and will respect," Exline says.

Her son's school was apparently ready to gloss over one of his classmates repeatedly calling him the n-word. But not after he pulled out his form. The girl was suspended.

Exline says she tries not to take such incidents to heart.

"I've learned not to get mad," she says.

For Harris, who walks CC's campus fully aware that her race makes her stand out, the feeling is pressure.

"A lot of students of color feel this way almost tokenized," she says. "You, in a sense, represent everyone from your race ... it's kind of 'all eyes on you.'"

Even Glenn, who seems more at ease with the situation, feels pressure to be a role model for young people.

"I hope that being here, that's kind of paving the way for other people that typically wouldn't consider this," he says. "They may say, 'Hey, this guy did it, maybe I can, too.'"

Into the future

Glenn likes to tell his constituents that it's great that they're interested in national politics, but they should be thinking about who runs their city and county.

"We are a home-rule city, and if you're not involved in local politics and some of the policies that are being made you know, the issues that are impacting your quality of life whether or not you are safe in your home; whether or not you have a transportation system that you can rely on these are all decisions that are being made by local government officials," he says.

Yet, he adds, it's always the same people (mostly Caucasians) volunteering for city committees, always the same people influencing the decision-making. Other people believe they're powerless, so they are. But it doesn't have to be that way.

"Case in point this is local government at its finest," Glenn says with a sly grin. "When we had the ordinance with the whole pot-bellied pig issue, I mean, that just shows you how an issue from grassroots made its way through the process. Here's an individual that had a legitimate concern, wanted something done and challenged her elected officials to make it happen."

In case anyone has forgotten the pig incident of 2006, City Council changed city ordinances to allow residents to keep pet pigs within the city limits. Funny, sure. But, Glenn says, "It meant something to that person."

And that, essentially, is Glenn's message to the black community: If it means something to you, get up here. Run for office. Volunteer for committees. Make your voice heard.

click to enlarge James Stewart says if Fort Carson was ever closed, the city would have no diversity. - LAURA MONTGOMERY
  • LAura Montgomery
  • James Stewart says if Fort Carson was ever closed, the city would have no diversity.

"There is that natural rub, on whether we should be doing more as a governmental entity to reaching out to the minority community, but there's also a responsibility from people who have the ability and desire to take an active role in the community and break down those barriers," he says. "We need trailblazers in this community that are willing to put themselves out there."

Stewart believes the problem is part white, part black. Whites need to give committed blacks a chance to excel. Why, he says, aren't we doing everything we can to keep skilled soldiers who come out of Fort Carson looking for a civilian career, in the community? That diverse population could build a strong, capable workforce and draw new business.

Terrance McWilliams is one of the better examples of minority talent transferring from the military to civilian life. When he retired from the Army in 2007, where he was the command sergeant major of Fort Carson, McWilliams wasn't sure what he was going to do. Then he was approached by William J. Hybl, chairman and CEO of El Pomar Foundation, who asked him to join the nonprofit.

"I never imagined I would end up here at El Pomar," says McWilliams, now director of military support.

McWilliams says he wishes there were more people like Hybl in the community, who would aggressively recruit retiring service members, especially minorities, into civic and leadership roles.

Some opportunities have opened up elsewhere in the city. Stewart points to the promotion of Fletcher Howard to police commander. Howard is the first African-American to hold the esteemed position in Colorado Springs.

Stewart says the black community should also start building foundations that could produce future leaders. First, blacks need a social outlet. A club, a museum, something that gives them a sense of place and a chance to communicate. The black churches, often the source of power in a community, haven't done a great job of filling that void, because pastors are too busy bickering among themselves.

"Churches are in disarray in this community," he says. "It's an understatement. There are no pastor leaders."

There are leadership programs geared toward blacks, but there's not the level of participation Stewart would like to see. People don't hear about the programs, he says, or they can't afford them.

Exline sees something else: a competitiveness in the black community.

"As soon as someone wants to take the initiative, there's always someone who wants to find something wrong with them because they wanted it first," she says.

In the meantime, she says, when she sees blacks show up to voice complaints at, say, school board meetings, the voices are always random. People just want to be heard, and rarely stick around long enough or become organized enough to actually help solve the problems.

It's a lack of leaders. Especially young leaders. And here, Exline and Glenn echo each other. Each claims status as one of the youngest leaders in the black community, and each says they don't see anyone coming to fill their shoes.

Even Harris, groomed as she was for this world, doesn't know if she'll ever run for office. Doesn't know if she'll stay here. Doesn't know if any of her activist friends will ever run for city council.

"I always think about the energy represented in the civil rights movement, and what got these young people engaged and up in arms," she says. "We need a catalyst ... I think Obama is proving an inspiration to many, but what's going to happen after Nov. 4?"

She looks thoughtful.

"What are you going to be passionate about?" she asks. "What's going to inspire you?"

Back to the present

At first, it looks absurd.

About two dozen people, most of them black, many of them in business attire, sit in the audience facing 19 very white, squirming teenagers at a long desk. The seating arrangements give the kids an authoritative appearance, as though they're some massive, make-do school board preparing to enforce policy.

This is a meeting of the Black Chamber of Commerce. Stewart, founder and president, stands by the cloth-covered wall of the Hillside Community Center conference room, smiling amid the harvest-themed wall hangings, snapping pictures like a proud dad.

The kids, it turns out, are exchange students from Denmark, learning about American life through a program at Pikes Peak Community College. They have divided into teams to discuss different themes, like military and government. They are here to compare and contrast America with their own country a small, welfare-heavy and racially homogenous country known to have "the happiest people in the world."

Certain subjects seem to capture the audience.

A student named Malene tells them that 95 percent of children in Denmark go on to seek higher education for free. Completely unaware of how foreign this sounds to the audience, she goes on to lament, "but only 80 percent graduate."

Many of the men and women in the audience bend over in their chairs, their faces fixed in tight, stiff stares.

A student named Mia goes on to explain that the kids get paid to go to college anywhere from $200 to $950 a month.

The eyes of the audience seem almost pained. One woman remarks that she ought to move and finally get her education.

The audience produces slow shakes of their heads and raised eyebrows when a student named Anita explains that few Danish go to church.

The kids really show their foreign flavor when they talk about welfare. They say the Danish don't mind paying high taxes to ensure that everyone has enough, that people are more or less equal.

The crowd frowns at the taxes part, and offers an utterly blank stare at the equality part.

For a few moments, the silence is as heavy as history.

stanley@csindy.com

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