A woman with a reputation for working well with people hopes to revive flagging membership in the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP after nearly a year of turmoil that culminated last month in the ousting of its president.
Former Vice President Alva Sheppard-Johnson said she is eager to re-establish relationships with community groups that felt alienated during Wayne Jearld's tenure as president. She also wants to refocus on past priorities, such as education and voter registration.
Sheppard-Johnson, who was a teacher and high school counselor for more than 30 years, said she is committed to finishing out Jearld's term, which ends at the end of this year, but has not decided whether to continue beyond then.
"I think just changing the leadership will make a difference," Sheppard-Johnson said. "Once people feel better about its leadership ... they will come back."
Former Annapolis Alderwoman Cynthia Abney Carter, who said she stopped going to meetings because she "couldn't deal with the leadership," said she'll come back now that Sheppard-Johnson has taken the helm.
"She is a very conscientious person who does want to make things happen," Carter said. "I will work with her as much as I can."
The board of the national civil rights organization voted Jearld out Feb. 16, finding that he had violated the chapter's constitution by missing meetings, although members said the real reason was his abrasive leadership.
In August, seven months into his term, three of the 19 executive committee members he had appointed had resigned, and the chapter's committee asked the national office to begin impeachment proceedings. Members said his temper and confrontational style had stalled the chapter's progress by harming its relationship with other organizations.
Sheppard-Johnson, a retiree who lives in Arnold, plans to fit in her new role with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People around her schedule as an adjunct instructor at Sojourner-Douglass College and as a substitute teacher. She said her top priority is improving minority students' performance on the High School Assessment tests because, starting with this year's juniors, students will have to pass the basic skills exams in algebra, English, biology and government, or achieve a combined passing score, to earn a high school diploma.
"This is of grave concern," Sheppard-Johnson said.
Sheppard-Johnson was the NAACP representative on the negotiating team and advisory committee working on the 2005 memorandum of agreement on closing the minority achievement gap. The federal Office of Civil Rights and the county school system brokered the agreement in response to a class-action federal lawsuit that alleged that minority students were unfairly being ushered into special-education classes too quickly and disciplined disproportionately in comparison with their white peers.
"She's been a great advocate in the community, a supporter of children, a teacher," said Carlessa Finney, the county school system's equity director. "She's very well respected by all the people that she works with."
Last week, Sheppard-Johnson appointed Mikio Manuel as chairman of the NAACP chapter's education committee. Manuel said the committee intends to reach out to organizations to support established programs, such as GED classes and job training offered to high school dropouts by the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Annapolis.
Ed Greene, executive director of the OIC, said he knows Sheppard-Johnson well from his time as a counselor for the Education Talent Search at Anne Arundel Community College, where she was a counselor from 2002 to 2006.
Sheppard-Johnson said the chapter is also planning to join forces with the Black Chamber of Commerce to host a two-day session on homeownership to help combat predatory lending in the black community. She also is planning to host a voter registration and membership drive next month.
Membership in the NAACP chapter hovers around 350 people, although the 64-year-old organization had as many as 3,000 members in its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s. Sheppard-Johnson said that she has had a handful of renewals since Jearld's ouster. She said she did not have a number in mind in terms of improving membership. She said she is more interested in cultivating active members, rather than reaching an artificial number.
"Lots of people say they're members and don't keep it active," she said.