Saving the haven

by bethanybump

Dunbar's impact on the community is shown in the news. © Bethany Bump

Preston Fagan knew African-Americans who would walk down to the Onondaga County Office Building in Syracuse to sign up for social services. Many would get there, and turn around at the last minute without going in for the food stamps, day care or medical assistance they needed. The problem, he said, was they felt stigmatized.

“Whenever they went down there, they felt people thought they were only there to get welfare or to do some begging,” he said.

That’s why the Dunbar Center on South State Street is so vital to the community, said Fagan, who served as president of the 92-year-old nonprofit’s board of directors on and off from the 1980s until 2003. No one feared being unfairly judged at Dunbar, he said, because the center provided so many varied services.

With Dunbar currently facing a major funding cut and administrative reshuffling, alumni have rallied to support the center and its historical roots in the community.

In July, the center will no longer receive $200,000 in funding from United Way of Central New York, about a quarter of Dunbar’s budget. Dunbar’s executive director Sharon Jack-Williams resigned several weeks after the cut was announced. Louella Williams, former president of the board of directors, is temporarily filling her role.

Fagan, 59, president of Syracuse-Onondaga County NAACP, attended Dunbar as a teenager. Growing up in nearby Camillus in the early 1960s, he lived in a largely white neighborhood and attended school with few black peers. That’s where Dunbar played an important role for him.

“I was a regular there. Personally, it was an outlet,” Fagan said. “I met a lot of youth that I would normally not know otherwise. So, this kept me in touch with a lot of youth that I probably would not have come in contact with.”

Fagan remembers a jukebox at Dunbar that kids had to insert a quarter in just to activate. Once their song started playing, it would spit their quarter back out.

“It was a good social life and it was a positive social life,” he said. “You weren’t hanging out on the streets. There was always a meeting place.”

Merriette Pollard remembers inadequate resources and sources of major funding were Dunbar’s main issues, as well, during her six years as executive director until 2002. “There’s also the stereotypes that you get when you run an agency that’s predominantly African-American,” she said. “There’s a feeling that you cannot deliver what you say you’re going to deliver.”

But Pollard, 64, said Dunbar serves a target population that won’t be able to get the services it needs if Dunbar weren’t around. In addition, they won’t go anywhere else.

“It’s a place where individuals can come and feel a part of the community,” Pollard said. “They feel more comfortable because of what Dunbar stands for. It’s a community agency owned by the community.”

During the late 1970s and early 1980s Dunbar began to change its mission from a recreation center to a social service provider, when the Southwest Community Center in opened down the road on Syracuse’s South Side.

Fagan said he knew people in the community needed social services, but for some reason weren’t getting them. So he and other Dunbar members polled residents of the community. They found that people were afraid to go to the county building. Dunbar soon gave them another option.

“I think the people who come to Dunbar and use the services won’t go to other places,” Fagan said. “They’re comfortable dealing with Dunbar because it’s in their community and they know that Dunbar was always there for them.”

Looking back, Fagan said Dunbar gave him the focus needed to pursue a career. He had no desire to go to college after high school. But the importance Dunbar placed on education and getting a decent job gave him the push he needed to go into banking. After 25 years in banking, he retired and returned to Dunbar to serve on its board.

“I feel it gave me something and it made me realize that I needed to give something back,” Fagan said. “And I guess I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Mary Lockett joined Dunbar’s board of directors in 2001, where she served for seven years. She was upset, but not surprised, when she found out about the center’s financial problems. Dunbar was the place to be. Though the oldest center, she said she thinks it’s one of the best in the city because she’s seen the work they do there.

“If these kids didn’t have Dunbar you wonder where they would be,” Lockett said. “How about their parents that are working? Do they give up their jobs to try to be home with their children? It just benefits the family all the way around. The children have a safe haven in the center and the parents are able to work.”

Lockett, 65, said she’s spoken to people in their 40s and 50s who grew up in Dunbar. They told her it was the thing to do after school. It kept them off the streets and gave them different activities to participate in.

Lockett said she knows Dunbar is beneficial just by watching the children and the people who come in and out of its doors.

“I have talked to seniors who just love being there,” she said. “I have seen the children with their smiles and their laughter. I’ve walked in there and seen them in classes and they were learning and they were happy.”

Louella Williams, interim executive director as of Feb. 11, said along with a reorganization of Dunbar’s board, Dunbar’s alumni have come through to help out the struggling nonprofit. Several new members of the 7-person board are alumni from the Friends of Dunbar Committee.

“They’re people who have served and excelled in their various professions,” Williams said, “and they have come together now to really be an asset and fundraise for Dunbar.”

Williams said Dunbar can meet the challenges ahead with the community supporting it.

“My take on this if you really look at it, is sometimes we look at the glass as half empty or half full. I view it as an opportunity for growth. It caused a lot of people in the neighborhood to ask, ‘What can we do?’”

Pollard, former executive director of Dunbar, and her husband, William, have worked in higher education for 42 years. Up until Dunbar, her life was fulfilling. But at Dunbar she would get to know a diverse community, she said, and serve students who would later thank her.

Most memorable for Pollard are the families Dunbar helped with its adoption services. Whether it was certifying a family to be a foster family, or facilitating an adoption, knowing she was taking a child out of the welfare system was all that mattered, she said.

“I felt like I was giving back to my community in a way that people really benefited from,” Pollard said. “People appreciated the services that they received and they would come in and access the services — maybe not in the way the grants wanted them to. But Dunbar serves the population. We cannot allow that agency not to be able to make it. And I hope that other people would also step up to help keep its doors open.”

You can also view the article in print format here (page 12).