Black Voices

More perspectives on the crisis in African-American leadership

Damon Hodge

"Are you trying to get excommunicated from the black community?"

"People aren't going to think a black person wrote this."

"You sound white."

The Weekly's January 8 feature on black leadership has generated some racially polarizing responses. The article focused on Gene Collins, Marzette Lewis, Joe Neal and Louis Overstreet.

Two responding African-American activists were willing to go on record—one an accomplished activist trying to get his groove back, the other, an upstart with tremendous upside. They agree that black leadership needs to be improved, but their empowerment methods differ.

Sherman Rutledge

"Everybody in that article and in black leadership has done mean things to people … The old leadership must go."

Know this about Rutledge: He ain't trying to win friends.

Just north of Washington and Rancho, on Tumbleweed Avenue, Rutledge is sitting in his cluttered living room, awaiting his wife; they're in the process of setting up an office for Strengthening America's Communities, the youth-oriented national organization he's been involved with since his 2001 ouster as general manager of KCEP 88.1-FM.

"There are so many issues that aren't being talked about that the article didn't address," he says.

For starters, it didn't broach political corruption. White politicians aren't the only kickback-happy elected officials. When Clark County School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia used a racial epithet on a KCEP show, Rutledge says black leaders sought to leverage Garcia's slipup for some future payoff. Ditto on casino diversity.

"You can't talk about casino diversity, then go back and ask for perks," says Rutledge, referring to NAACP national officials who were alleged to have scored comps from MGM Mirage. "The old guard wants to be dominant, and if you don't align with their thinking, you won't be in the inner circle. I didn't go along with their program. There is no reason that with black politicians in state government and city government that West Las Vegas should be the worst place in the state."

As KCEP's chief, Rutledge opened doors—airing community-oriented programs, hiring interns, sponsoring conferences for black students and using the station as a bully pulpit (urging casino investment in minority communities, recruiting imprisoned gangsters to tape PSAs calling for peace on the streets, lambasting the media for linking KCEP's urban format to violence in West Las Vegas)—and amassed a list of enemies. By 1999, even the local NAACP wanted him out.

Nor did the article highlight black expectations, Rutledge said. The $50,000 that Caesars Entertainment gave the Urban Chamber of Commerce for a new building? Would've been something to celebrate in 1994—the Westside was still rebuilding after local violence sparked by the Rodney King acquittals. "In 2004, we should be getting $500,000 or more."

And media bias needs to be addressed, he said—how come positive things aren't published?

"The media didn't highlight the successes at KCEP: graduating 135 students [from the internship program; several alum on are local radio stations]; the student achievement conference drew 850 students."

For his part, Rutledge says his nonprofit group is committed to developing the next generation of leaders. Its first conference is set for February at the Excalibur.

"A leader creates opportunities for people to achieve their dreams, hopes and aspirations," Rutledge says. "They can only do this by taking chances. We're taking chances on young people."

Steven Horsford

Young (30), energetic, articulate and focused, Steven Horsford, chief executive officer of the Nevada Partners/Culinary Training Academy, represents the future of black leadership. So says … everybody.

To evaluate his sway, just connect the dots: tied to the Culinary Union, one of the city's most powerful entities; linked with Big Gaming because the academy is training the next generation of hospitality workers; political connections.

Then there's the story told by the plaques and framed pictures in his West Lake Mead office, yards north of Zion Methodist Church—political aristocrats like Harry Reid and John Ensign and thank-you's from groups like the Dr. Martin Luther King Committee, Leadership Las Vegas and Last year, he took over as Nevada's national committeeman for the Democratic Party, replacing former Sen. Jim Bilbray.

So why is the Clark High and University of Nevada, Reno graduate the most powerful black leader you've never heard of?

By design.

"You don't have to be vocal as a leader. I'm blessed to be in the position that I am at the age I am," says Horsford, recruited from a public-relations gig in 2001 to oversee the $8 million marriage of nonprofit Nevada Partners and the Culinary Training Academy.

Downstairs, his three years of work is at play: Nearly a dozen CTA students prepare and serve meals in a restaurant adjacent to the front office. (The center also assisted workers left jobless when Binion's Horseshoe closed.)

"I think the story offered the opportunity to comment on how the vision needs to be bigger than individual people, bigger than elected officials and community groups. Many of the issues we have as blacks are the same issues everyone is concerned about."

Underscoring that point, he points to polls showing that education, health care and jobs are top concerns among all Americans. "If you agree these are major concerns, then we can focus on sub-issues," he says, like subpar facilities, a dearth of quality teachers and fewer resources in West Las Vegas schools.

Horsford sees value in having veteran black leaders around. When fighting for change, you can't have too many voices. He wishes he got more feedback from the vets.

That West Las Vegas hasn't prospered along with the rest of the city has as much to do with citizen apathy as political impotence. Blacks must vote, get involved in civic issues, agitate for change and be more lenient on African-American leaders.

"We need to be more careful about criticism of our politicians," says Horsford, who got his first political experience interning for embattled lawmaker Wendell Williams; it pains him to see the media debacle his mentor's life has become. "They are sacrificing time, money and family to serve us. Sure, they will make mistakes, and we must hold them accountable. But we shouldn't tear them down to the point that we ruin their ability to make a living."

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