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Joint Center - Once Bastion of Black Political Research - Now Pressing to Survive by Hazel Trice Edney

 

May 25, 2014

Joint Center - Once Bastion of Black Political Research - Now Pressing to Survive
By Hazel Trice Edney

 overton spencer
Spencer Overton

(TriceEdneyWire.com) – The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, esteemed as America’s foremost think tank for Black political and economic research, is struggling with financial problems so serious that its political arm has been gutted and its interim president is working for free.

Spencer Overton, the center’s interim president/CEO, is on sabbatical from his job as a Georgetown University law professor. He assumed the interim presidency in February after the departure of Ralph Everett, who was president for about eight years. Upon Everett's departure Dec. 31, Dr. Brian D. Smedley, director of the Center’s Health Policy Institute, assumed the interim presidency briefly until Overton was announced. But Overton, who was also a member of the Joint Center’s board, recently confirmed in an interview with the Trice Edney News Wire that he took the position with no salary. 

“No, I am not on salary,” Overton confirmed in a brief interview after participating as a panelist for a Capitol Hill event early last month.

When asked previously about the financial state of the Joint Center, Overton had responded guardedly in an email saying, “The recession has affected various organizations. People of color face significant challenges, however…there is a clear need for a think tank that focuses on policies that affect people of color.  I think if we focus on the challenges of real people, produce high quality policy solutions to those challenges, maintain responsible internal practices, and clearly communicate the value of our work to potential supporters, we will grow and thrive. There is much work to do, but I’m excited about the future.”

Overton has spent the last three months meeting with people who have been affiliated with the Joint Center over the years, seeking advice and help. Despite Overton’s public silence on the state of the organization’s financial affairs, long-time Black political researcher David Bositis, who recently left the organization because of its financial woes, was not as subtle. 

“They’re having money problems. Basically right now, they’re a health group,” said Bositis, who researched Black politics for the Joint Center for 23 years. “They’re trying to hold on. And they’re not under water from the sense that they’re not closed. I mean they are still open, but the political part of it… politics is not being emphasized anymore.”

Bositis said the health research is extremely important, but Black political research - such as tracking the growth and decline of Black elected officials, voting trends, positions on issues - is still equally as needed, he says. 

“I’ve been involved in all sorts of legal cases on voting rights and redistricting. The thing is you need that research to provide information for a lot of the court cases,” Bositis said. “I’ve been talking to a variety of people in terms of where we go from here.”

Overton led the Political Law Studies Initiative at Georgetown and served as a member of the first Obama campaign, transition and administration. But, ironically, he said nothing about political research in an emailed response to questions about his vision from a political perspective. Instead, he referred to health policy as a “traditional strength.” 

Founded in 1979, the Joint Center, for the first 15 years of its existence, was actually the Joint Center for Political Studies. JointCenter.org now says the “Joint Center uses research, analysis, and communications to improve the socioeconomic status and political participation of people of color, to promote relationships across racial lines, and to strengthen the nation’s pluralistic society.”

Other sources close to the Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan non-profit have expressed deep concern about the organization’s finances and future. They include the Center’s former 30-year president, Eddie Williams.

“I’m very concerned,” said Williams, who assumed presidency of the Center two years after its founding. “I have a meeting coming up with the new president to get some perspective on that,” he said of the organization’s financial woes. “I won’t speak for the President. I think he would agree with you that you need more information about some of the issues affecting the Black community whether it’s politics or health or whatever. But, it takes money to do that. And I don’t know but I think they have lost money. That’s my understanding.”

Word began to circulate about the Joint Center’s financial problems shortly after the departure of Everett in December. In addition to Everett and Bositis, at least seven staff members have left the organization since late last year, sources confirmed. 

The Joint Center’s financial contributions largely come from foundations, corporations, government contracts and individual donors as well as fund-raisers like dinners and luncheons.  The organization’s gala dinner is coming up June 25. U.S. Senator Cory A. Booker, former Newark mayor and first Black elected to the Senate since Barack Obama, will receive the Center’s highest award, the Louis E. Martin Great American Award, named after the legendary journalist, presidential confidant and co-founder of the Joint Center. Other recipients of the Great American award include Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; U. S. Reps. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and John Lewis (D-GA.); civil rights leaders Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Muhammad Ali, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Ambassador Susan E. Rice. 

The Joint Center’s Board of Governors include such political heavy weights as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and political scientist Dianne Pinderhughes of Notre Dame University. There is also heavy corporate representation on the board including Robert R. Hagans, Jr., vice president and CFO, AARP; A. Scott Bolden, managing partner, Reed Smith LLP; Frederick S. Humphries, Jr. vice president, Microsoft; Freada Kapor Klein,  trustee, Mitchell Kapor Foundation;  Reed V. Tuckson, M.D., chief of Medical Affairs, UnitedHealth Group; Robert Raben, president, The Raben Group; Anne Chow, vice president, Premier Client Group, AT&T Global Services; and board Chair Barbara L. Johnson,  partner, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP.

Among the associates that Overton has sought for advice is Dr. Elsie Scott, former president/CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, who raised millions with the CBCF’s annual dinner.

“I’m very impressed with his commitment to try to raise the funds and keep the Joint Center moving and preserve the rich legacy,” says Scott, who confirmed she met with Overton two weeks ago to discuss fund-raising strategies. “It’s going to be a hard hill for him to climb. But, I think that if anybody can do it at this time, I think he would definitely be a person who has the commitment and drive.”

Dr. Scott, who now heads the Ron Walters Institute at Howard University, says she discussed collaboration between the Joint Center and the Walters’ Center to seek funds for political research using the help of students from Howard and other universities to do exit polls and other surveys.

She said she also encouraged Overton to “really beat the bushes to see how many people that he knows who will support the dinner because they believe in him.” 

In the Feb. 11 press release announcing his interim presidency, a list of nationally known bi-partisan activists and public policy advocates praised Overton’s appointment. They included Sen. Booker; Benjamin Ginsberg, a counsel to the Bush-Cheney and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns; Harvard Law School professor, Charles J. Ogletree, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and Rashad Robinson, executive director, Color of Change.

Dr. Scott concluded that much weight will likely be placed on the amount of money raised at the upcoming dinner which would go toward “core support” like staff, upkeep of the building and operational funds to sustain them while they seek grant money, she said. “I think the dinner is going to be a major decision point for their board. If they don’t do well, the board is going to have to make some decisions.”

 
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