Dialogue: Bruce Gordon

The NAACP president and CEO on education, employment and the state of affairs for minorities in Hollywood.

In his 18 months as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bruce Gordon has led the organization in its 21st century civil rights movement with determination and vision. A former Verizon senior executive and MIT Sloan School of Management MBA grad, Gordon stands apart from previous NAACP leaders who were all politicians, civil rights activists or clergymen. His corporate experience in building infrastructure and membership -- as well as his moderate views -- were the key that brought President George W. Bush to visit the Baltimore offices of the NAACP in July 2006, the first such visit in Bush's presidency.Gordon, whose parents were civil rights activists, said from the beginning of his tenure that his focus would be on "economic equality," and he has done just that, as the issues related to civil rights have moved from the streets into the boardroom and, in Hollywood's case, the writers' room. On the eve of the 38th annual Image Awards, Gordon spoke with Debra Kaufman for The Hollywood Reporter about how the NAACP's goals are measuring up in the entertainment industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: As we approach this year's Image Awards, what is the state of affairs between the NAACP and Hollywood?
Bruce Gordon: This is the 38th awards ceremony, and certainly over the 38-year period, there's been a lot of progress. If you look at the diversity of casting in TV and motion pictures, the Academy Awards -- there is certainly an improvement in front of the camera. Our focus of late has been diversity behind the camera, with executives, showrunners, leadership in the production companies and studios. Showrunners are the ones who have the real clout in town. That's where we've placed most of our emphasis. We've had at least one series of meetings with all the guilds and the entertainment networks, and we've had some direct and deep conversations about the best practices. One thing that's clear to me is that we haven't spoken with the major agents, and they're a very important step of the process. Now, we're going to get into meetings with them.

THR: In what aspect of Hollywood has the NAACP been able to affect the greatest change?
Gordon: Progress in front of the camera is something we've been able to impact. The Image Awards have been successful at identifying accomplished performers whose work wouldn't have been recognized by mainstream awards ceremonies. We've given them their first recognition and made them more noticeable.

THR: What are the NAACP's hot-button issues right now?
Gordon: Two areas of particular interest to me are education and employment. We've always fought for equal access to quality education, and I'm stressing equal performance. (Our youths') graduation rates are 50% or less in the urban areas; that's a deplorable situation that has to change. Second is employment. The unemployment rate in our community is two to three times greater than in the American community at large. When I say employment, I mean not just any job but a path that sets you on a path to grow wealth. There's a 26% differential in home ownership between whites and blacks, and home ownership is the single most significant aspect in building a wealth legacy and passing it on to the next generation. Employment (issues) also speak to employment in Hollywood and also to minority suppliers. A lot of jobs being created in our country today are by small businesses. As large corporations buy services from smaller businesses, we want minority businesses to be represented. The percentage now is in the low single digits, though we are 13% of the population.

THR: Does the entertainment industry play a role in furthering the goals of the organization?
Gordon: The entertainment industry creates images that our young people see and shapes their thinking, hopes and dreams. It has a major impact on how a community sees itself and its potential. It's important that the industry projects positive role models. When an African-American plays the role of the president or the head of a company or a successful lawyer or judge, these are positive images that shape what young people see and, ultimately, what they start to think about themselves. "The Cosby Show" -- one of the greatest (sitcoms) in the history of TV -- told a story about an African-American family with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a lawyer and whose kids went to college -- a family that stayed together with real values that are worthy of modeling and worthy of emulating. A couple of weeks ago, (Fox Entertainment president) Peter Liguori took a very strong position on behalf of diversity. He talked about how he would make it a condition of employment for his decisionmakers to be sensitive to diversity as they go about their work. I was encouraged by his willingness to take a strong position. I hope others take his lead.

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Dialogue: NAACP's Bruce Gordon
2007 Image Award nominees
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2007 Image Award honorees:
Chairman's Award:Bono
President's Award: Soledad O'Brien
Hall of Fame Award: Bill Cosby