Ever since she was a little girl growing up in rural Louisiana, Elsie Scott has dedicated her life to justice and education. Maybe that’s because, even at a young age, she knew those were the two things that African Americans needed most on their march to freedom.
And for the last five years as the head of the Congressional Black
Caucus Foundation, she has lived out this mantra, helping turn the organization into one of the most notable nonprofits in Washington, one that she says furthers civil rights causes and trains a new generation of leaders.
“When I was child, my parents did not have the right to vote . . . and so I grew up with my daddy’s fight for the right to vote,” Scott recalls of her father’s work, which had her helping to teach citizenship classes to unregistered voters so they could pass the required literacy test. “I never thought about doing anything except something that would help somebody else.”
Now, as Scott, 65, takes her leave as president and chief executive of the organization, she feels that her most significant mark will be left in the opportunities she helped build upon for students seeking to make their mark in the nation’s capital. Under her tenure, the foundation’s summer internship program has been extended from one to three semesters, and, for the first time, foundation fellows conducted a 2011 community service trip to Cape Town, South Africa.
“I think that I’ve been able to help to really build a reputation of our internship program as one of the best,” she said.
Scott’s journey to leading the foundation has combined an unusual tandem: education and law enforcement. For nearly five years, she was deputy commissioner for the New York Police Department.
“They train you to be part of the police department culture,” Scott said of her work, which oversaw training for officers and civilians. “Whether you’re a cop or whether you’re a civilian, you’re a part of that culture.”
Scott’s impression of law enforcement left much to be desired prior to her studies and interactions with the men in blue. When she was a child, her father was shot by someone who was suspected to be a police officer. It would be several years before her relationship with criminal justice would soften.
“I now have a lot of respect for them and the job that they do,” she said. “You learn discipline and you learn teamwork and partnership, because if you’re a cop out there, your life can depend on whether you get along with your partner.”
Colleagues at the time saw a strong resolve in the petite woman from the deep South.
“I was very impressed with her understanding of some of the issues in criminal justice and her ability to articulate those positions to a broad audience,” said Lee Brown, Scott’s mentor, who at the time served as commissioner of the NYPD.
“It was very important that I have someone that I had complete confidence in,” he said of recruiting Scott to help reform the department by implementing community policing.
The fourth of eight children, Scott grew up observing the fight for justice through the work of her father, Baptist minister and NAACP chapter president John H. Scott.
Her father’s work was dangerous, and the family was often the target of threatening phone calls and bomb threats. “To go to school the next morning,” she said, “and you’ve been up half the night because you don’t know whether somebody’s going to come and try to kill the family — that’s the kind of childhood I had.”
But educating future generations has been equally important. Indeed, Scott is leaving her post with the foundation to re-enter the academic world at Howard University this fall to direct the Ronald Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center.
Through it all, colleagues say, she has kept a mantra of “walk softly and carry a big stick” that has, at times, left her underestimated.
“She’s a very petite, relatively soft-spoken person, but she’s very firm,” said Rep. Donna M. Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), a caucus board member. “She ran a tight ship.”
The organization’s largess under Scott has not come without criticism from the media, though. In 2010, the New York Times reported that much of the money that the foundation raised was spent on “elaborate” conventions. The report also questioned the cozy relationship between the lawmakers in the caucus and the donors to the foundation.
“I think when Elsie came in, we were all over the place, trying to be everything to everybody,” Christensen said. “. . . She’s gotten us to zone in on where our particular niche is for our community.”
Scott echoes those sentiments about her term, which concludes in October. “I think Daddy would be pleased,” she said. “He wouldn’t be surprised, I don’t think, because my parents groomed us for success. He groomed us to go out here and not just be successful for ourselves but to also be in positions where we can give back and help other people.”