By Sheryl Estrada
Naima Quarles-Burnley became president of the Spokane, Wash. NAACP chapter last month, replacing Rachel Dolezal, who resigned in an open letter posted on her Facebook page June 15.
Dolezal has been identifying herself as mixed race, partly Black. She left the organization when allegations about her racial identity being false began to publically surface.
Quarles-Burnley has been silent about replacing Dolezal until this week when she expressed her thoughts during an interview with The Spokesman-Review. When notified of her position changing from vice president to president she was recovering from a double-knee replacement. Quarles-Burnley admits she did not want to lead the chapter, but was compelled to do so anyway.
“I felt that I had to rise to the occasion,” she said.
In a short video explaining how she became interested in social justice and politics, Quarles-Burnley became emotional and fought back tears when speaking about Dolezal.
“I saw in Rachel maybe my younger self,” she said. “Passionate, involved, all-in for social justice … I saw somebody who I thought was totally dedicated to the causes for uplifting those who were disenfranchised or voiceless, or under-represented.”
However, she noted, “I feel that people of all races can be allies and advocates. But you can’t portray that you have lived the experience of a particular race that you aren’t part of.”
Quarles-Burnley grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. A graduate of Oberlin College and Antioch School of Law, she has worked across the country at institutions ranging from colleges to church ministry organizations. Her experience includes being selected as a church representative and monitor in South Africa’s first free election in 1994.
After earning a master of divinity degree from the Lancaster Theological Seminary in 2010, she relocated with her family to Spokane. Along with joining the staff of the NAACP, Quarles-Burnley has worked with school districts, churches and community organizations regarding inclusion of children with special needs, as her 13-year-old son has Down Syndrome.
Due to the Dolezal controversy, executive committee members have departed as the integrity of the Spokane chapter remains in question.
“I think it has hurt our organization because people are now questioning our integrity,” she said. “Not just the integrity of the former president, but the integrity of the organization a whole.”
Quarles-Burnley said she is committed to healing the chapter and showing the actions of Dolezal do not reflect the principles of everyone else.
In June, during her first interview after resigning, Today Show host Matt Lauer asked Dolezal the specific question, “Are you an African American woman?”
She responded, “I identify as Black.”
Dolezal refused to say that she had misled anyone, even though her parents and other relatives insist she is white and does not have Black ancestry. At the age of five, “I was drawing myself with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon,” she said.
Lauer asked when she began deceiving people, and she responded, “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as Black, or answering a question of, ‘Are you Black or white?'”
In addition to resigning from the NAACP, according to the Associated Press, Dolezal has lost her position as a part-time African studies instructor at a local university, was dismissed as a freelance newspaper columnist and is being investigated by the city Ethics Commission.