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Jackie Robinson YMCA Vacancy Sparks Soul-Searching in Southeastern San Diego

The pending departure of the head of the Jackie Robinson YMCA has ignited a conversation among community leaders who say the organization – because of its long-standing role in the city’s historic black community, and because of its namesake civil rights icon – should be helmed by a black leader.

The Jackie Robinson YMCA / Photo by Megan Wood

For the first time in two decades, the Jackie Robinson YMCA is poised to select a new leader, and southeastern San Diego’s black community intends to have a say in the decision.

Michael Brunker, the organization’s executive director for 22 years, is leaving his position on July 1 to take on expanding the YMCA of San Diego County’s reach. His departure comes not quite two years after the Jackie Robinson YMCA unveiled a new, state-of-the-art $28 million facility on the land it has occupied since 1944.

Brunker’s departure has ignited a conversation among community leaders who say the organization – because of its long-standing role in the city’s historic black community, and because of its namesake civil rights icon – should be helmed by a black leader.

After the YMCA announced that Brunker’s longtime deputy director, Anna Arancibia, a Latina, would lead the Jackie Robinson branch on an interim basis, political consultant Herman Collins wrote an open letter to the organization expressing his frustration.

“The prospect that the Executive Director may once again be a non-Black is hurtful,” he wrote. “What is San Diego doing, erasing Black people out of existence?”

Since then, his concern has only grown. In an interview, he said he has been unsatisfied with the Y’s response to his letter, and that he’s gotten the impression the organization hopes it all goes away.

“It appears to be more of a corporate culture than a single issue related to the Jackie Robinson YMCA,” Collins said, citing reporting from KPBS in 2015 that found the organization’s executive diversity had actually decreased since it adopted a strategic plan to increase representation among its leadership.

Other community leaders share Collins’ interest in Brunker’s replacement, but there is not a unified view of how the YMCA should handle the vacancy. Some are not convinced the next leader must be black.

Ken Malbrough, a former deputy fire chief and political candidate who grew up going to the Jackie Robinson YMCA, said there are plenty of black people on the group’s board who will help find the next leader, and that he trusts their ability to choose the right person.

“It would be great if there would be a person of color there, because that stimulates our youth,” he said. “But if we want to make changes, we need to get more engaged than writing a letter – we need to participate. Maybe you should seek to get on the board, and that’s how you can facilitate those changes.”

He said Arancibia, who worked under Brunker for 16 years, would be a fine choice to take over the position long-term, if that’s what the board decided.

Collins said he was offered a chance to serve on the organization’s interview panel, which he declined. “I’m kind of stupefied at this point, why these folks won’t just have a dialog. I don’t want to fight – I really don’t.”

He said he wants to hear clearly and succinctly how the Y intends to make good on its diversity goals adopted in 2010, what the organization intends to do to ensure a successful search at the Jackie Robinson YMCA and other branches with executive vacancies, and some acknowledgement that there is a corporate culture problem that needs to be fixed.

The YMCA, for its part, has said that no decisions have been made and that it’ll launch an earnest search in January, when the position is formally opened, and that appointing the associate director into an interim position in the meantime is how the organization typically handles vacancies.

Amos Johnson has been associated with the Jackie Robinson YMCA since 1974. He previously served as its interim director, is on the board now and helped hire Brunker.

He said he “understands the sentimentality” of folks who see southeastern San Diego as a black community. But he said the movement of black people throughout the county (he now lives in Carlsbad) and the diversity of the Jackie Robinson YMCA’s membership mean it’s no longer fair for that view to dictate the organization’s leadership.

But the scrutiny on the organization’s decision-making, he said, is totally fair.

“I’ve been a lifelong civil rights activist, so I understand the sentimentality and I think if you take a step back you feel as if we’re going backward, in terms of civil rights progress, and employment is one of those areas,” Johnson said. “They’re calling attention to something that’s important and something we’re working on, and we can take the heat.”

The YMCA of San Diego County is the twelfth largest employer in the county, ahead of well-known corporations like Northrop Grumman, Sempra Energy and SeaWorld. Of its more than 5,500 employees, 33 percent are Latino while 6 percent are black and 39 percent are white.

“We know that our diversity is in our frontline staff, and the higher we go, the less diverse we become,” said YMCA spokeswoman Courtney Pendleton in an email.

That’s true. Of the organization’s seven-member C-suite, as Pendleton described it, none is a minority. The organization hired a diversity and inclusion manager in February 2017 to improve in those areas – the YMCA says there are 30 dimensions of diversity, of which race is just one.

“As of right now, it appears much of the story is focused on only one dimension,” Pendleton wrote. “Of note, there are more than 30 dimensions of diversity.” Other areas included in a “wheel of diversity” provided by the YMCA include body type, gender identity, faith, parental status and life experience.

But one board member, in a Facebook post, responded more directly to Collins’ concerns.

“At yesterday’s board meeting, we discovered the same passion felt by members of the Black community is also felt by members of the Latino and Asian communities who feel it is time for them as well,” wrote Dee Sanford. “Decisions cannot, and will not be based on the color of someone’s skin.”

Sanford’s post nods at demographic changes that have been underway in southeastern San Diego. The area became the home of San Diego’s black community due to red-lining and discriminatory housing policies that prevented black people from living elsewhere, but it has never been an exclusively black community. And in recent years, the share of the black population has been decreasing. During the 2000 census, 39 percent of the Encanto community planning area was Hispanic while 34 percent was black; 10 years later, the area was 50 percent Hispanic and 24 percent black. The area’s Asian population has steadily remained around 15 percent.

Steven Cooper, pastor of the Nu-Way Christian Ministries, argued against any focus on the area’s changing demographics.

The institution’s identity is right in its name, he said.

“Jackie Robinson suffered – having to hit a baseball while being called names, put off of clubs simply for being African American, moving house to house, being threatened with bombs. And then, we name this YMCA in his honor, and raise millions of dollars off of his back,” Cooper said. “This isn’t just about the YMCA, this is about the suffering servant of god, Jackie Robinson. Now that the YMCA has arrived, quote unquote, we want to put someone other than an African American in charge. That’s a problem. What if I were hired as an executive at the Chicano Federation? We’d have an issue around branding.”

The reference to the organization arriving recognizes Brunker’s success, including the building overhaul. The Jackie Robinson YMCA had just 2,000 members during that project’s ribbon-cutting; it’s now close to 7,000.

“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and all the people who learned to swim here, or who remember playing Pony League baseball before the 805 existed,” Brunker said. “I feel trusted – there’s no doubt about it.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Brunker is not black – although his departure has revealed that many in the community mistakenly assumed that he was. He is white, but has a dark complexion. He said people have incorrectly assumed he was black his whole life.

“I am what I am,” Brunker said. “I thank God for those of all races who have accepted me regardless of my race and ethnicity. I can’t project what they might think or not think. That’s the condition of the world today.”

But the realization can go two ways. On one hand, despite being white, Brunker’s leadership at the Jackie Robinson YMCA has been embraced by the community; he is on the board of the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a nonprofit in the area focused on economic development, and just last week was tapped to spearhead a search for a new principal at nearby Lincoln High School.

It also means that the organization has not been led by a black person for two decades, as many had thought was the case.

“I must say with full disclosure, I thought, without asking him, that Brunker was an African American,” Cooper said. “I took that for granted, and now I’m finding out he’s white. I think he’s done a great job and his new position is great – I might have been OK if he was an African American going into the Y’s leadership hierarchy. Now we have absolutely nothing.”

Regardless of who it ultimately hires, the YMCA stumbled the moment it announced Brunker’s departure by failing to reach out to the community beforehand, said Dwayne Crenshaw, who runs Rise San Diego, a nonprofit group that trains urban leaders and looks to partner with nonprofit groups that are active in urban communities.

The response from the YMCA, including a letter from the organization’s CEO to Collins that largely sidestepped the concerns in his open letter, was at best lacking, and at worst disrespectful, Crenshaw said.

“It’s been clear by the pressure and lack of responsiveness that the community process and community engagement should be happening now,” Crenshaw said. “I’m not a big fan of town halls — they aren’t productive. But focus groups, world cafe-style discussions where community feedback can be captured and reviewed and processed – that should be happening.”

Crenshaw said he’s certainly predisposed to want a black person to run an organization named after Jackie Robinson, but he doesn’t think a meaningful process can begin with a predetermined outcome. Brunker, he said, did a great job, and despite the misperceptions of his race, going forward there should be a clear understanding about leadership in the community.

He anticipates that the YMCA to launch a national search for Brunker’s replacement. But there are so many well-qualified people of color from the area, he said, that there’s no need.

“The YMCA is located in this multicultural community, and basically all of our institutions should be led by a person of color, regardless of who has led them recently,” he said. “The nonprofit sector on this front is no better, and in some respects it’s worse than many others. Everyone has seemingly bought into diversity and inclusion, but no one has figured out how to implement it.”

Barry Pollard, a longtime resident and community leader who runs the nonprofit Urban Collaborative Project in the southeastern area, said he doesn’t believe that the new director must be black.

Having recent black elected officials who were not sensitive to the specific concerns of the black community, he said, showed that it isn’t enough to “have someone who looks like us.”

But he’s convinced that the YMCA has not done enough to engage the community, and it needs to re-engage if it’s going to be successful.

“You can’t dance with everybody, but you’ve got to dance with somebody,” he said. “I don’t want somebody in there that is black but dances to someone else’s beat. I would rather someone who dances to the beat, and it would be great if they’re black.”

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