adora_obi_nweze_3.jpgMIAMI – For a half-century, if a situation arose in Miami-Dade County that involved community policing, race relations, crowd control, diffusing tensions between groups, or disaster support, the answer was the Community Relations Board (CRB).

These days, the CRB is pursuing its mission of conflict resolution and mediation with a 30-member volunteer board and a support staff of just one full-time and one part-time employee.
Shortage of staff poses a challenge, said the Rev. Dr. Walter Richardson, CRB chairman for the past two years.
“We have a lot of work to get done and with such little clerical work it gets difficult to get things done,” Richardson said.
The work of the one staffer includes sending out meeting notices, apprising the county of tensions in the community and providing a channel for all complaints against the police, he said. The part-time employee serves four other advisory board program directors.
When he was interviewed, Richardson was at the Miami Beach Police Department, where he was “on duty” during Urban Beach Weekend. The city has been criticized for its dealings with the thousands of young blacks who visit annually during the Memorial Day holiday.
The CRB’s next assignment: to calm any possible tensions during the
upcoming trial in the shooting death of Miami Gardens resident Trayvon Martin in Sanford early last year.
“We have made a valiant effort to work with schools to get the community educationally ready for this trial and verdict,” Richardson said. “We can see the tentacles that are attached to this trial. We are trying to diffuse rumors. It is the most imminent, tense community issue we are dealing with right now.”
The CRB, which has been a mediator between various parts of the community, the county commission and the police for 50 years, celebrated its Golden Anniversary May 22-23 with a conference and luncheon in downtown Miami.
Part of the County Commission’s Office of
Community Advocacy, the CRB was originally known as the Office of Community Relations.
But the agency has almost been crippled by lack of staff. It went from having some 35 paid staff to three and an assistant a few years ago. Now it has just one, the program director, Amy Carswell, who has been with the agency some 15 years, and a part-timer who also serves four other boards.
The community has been paying attention.
“The networking needs to come a little closer to the community,” said Jeffrey Mellerson, a member of Committee of Involved People, who attended the 50th anniversary luncheon. He said he does not believe that the CRB is as visible as in the past.
“The groups in my community are not being made a part of the circle,” he said.
That is a valid concern, Richardson said, but  limited staffing has put the agency under “stringent constraint.”
“We deserve and require more staffing so we can do the things we need to do,” Richardson said.
Still, the CRB managed to put on an elaborate half-century celebration, welcoming Bernice King, the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution in Atlanta, and Grande Lum, director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, to address attendees.
The Civil Rights Movement has done a lot and some people are still doing a lot but for most people America is still a “they” and “them” society, King said. She loudly urged her listeners to start thinking of a “we” and “us” society.
Conspicuously missing at the anniversary celebration were most members of Miami-Dade County Commission, though a who’s who of community leaders were present.
Richardson said Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Rebeca Sosa attended parts of the conference and Dennis Moss attended the luncheon.
Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Miami-Dade NAACP and a former CRB chairwoman, called it a missed opportunity.
“They had a chance to get educated about the board and what it does and has been doing for the community,” Nweze said.
Jordan agrees, saying that with about 100 boards coming up for renewal, it takes a lot of effort to get to know them all. The CRB is one  that all county commissioners should familiarize themselves with, she said.
“The entire community needs to understand the value of the CRB and how it keeps the lid on things that have the potential to blow up Miami-Dade and the state of Florida,” said Jordan.
Jordan was instrumental in protecting the board when she was an assistant county manager. The agency was filled with political appointees and its role had diminished. She advocated the appointment of at-large members from the community and fewer commission appointees and persuaded Nweze to chair the agency. She also helped the commission to see the importance of the CRB in promoting race relations.
In the 1980s, when discontent in the neighborhoods about employment and housing discrimination and the shooting deaths of blacks went unanswered by the justice system, violence erupted. The CRB went to the streets and diffused the tensions.
By the 1990s, the acquittal of a police officer in the shooting deaths of two black motorcyclists had the
community at a boiling point. Again, the CRB intervened. By the 2000s, a new target of hate had developed after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001:
Muslims. The CRB stepped in with campaigns that preach that Miami-Dade is “no place for hate” against any groups.
At Urban Beach Weekend, as tensions between visitors and the city and its police force have grown and at times escalated into violence, Goodwill Ambassadors coordinated by the CRB have walked the streets of Miami Beach to help answer questions and discourage crime and violence by their presence. This year, more than 150 Goodwill Ambassadors served during the three-four-day party.
Jordan said the education process needs to continue, especially with the election of new county commissioners. Residents should “remind their elected officials that the CRB is understaffed and needs their support.”
“It takes dedication and commitment for the CRB to function and we need to do everything we can to give it resources it needs so that it can be effective,” she said.