Great expectations await the new president of the Washington Urban League, who took over leadership of the local branch of the national civil rights organization on Jan. 1.
But to many who know her, there is little doubt Betti Whaley is equal to the challenge.
Whaley has a 25-year track record of community service, program development and management work that has earned her a reputation as a tenacious, outspoken and shrewd administrator.
She has served as program director of the National Urban League, administrator of New York City's day-care program, professor of social work at Howard University, administrative assistant to Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), and deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
She now comes to head an organization that has become less visible in recent years, paralleling the general waning of the influence and recognition civil rights organizations enjoyed in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The 45-year-old Washington Urban League has a history of documenting economic and racial inequities in the city's public and private institutions and pursuing their elimination through boycotts and bargaining. Its studies often became fodder for movements that helped curtail discrimination in employment and housing, and the league has long pushed for improvements in education and business development.
The league's services include Operation Rescue, a volunteer tutorial program for District elementary school students that Whaley directed; the Word Processing Training Center; and programs for veterans, troubled youths, senior citizens and the unemployed.
Whaley said she plans not only to continue those traditions but to build upon them. Many former colleagues and longtime acquaintances expect her to do much more.
Among the hopes and predictions are those of former City Council president Sterling Tucker, who led the organization for 18 years. Tucker said he expects Whaley to build "effective coalitions" with other organizations and produce "good targeted planning."
Cernoria D. Johnson, former National Urban League Washington bureau director, expects Whaley to cultivate and inspire new local leaders. Collins simply predicted Whaley will "do a terrific job."
No one has higher expectations of Whaley than she herself does, however.
"I don't ask any one to do more than I expect of myself. I have high expectations and low tolerance," the 50-year-old Baltimore native said as she sat in her office, surrounded by partly unpacked paintings from her West Indian art collection.
"I don't walk away from trouble" with colleagues and subordinates, she said, smiling. "But if I can't get around it, I'll determine if this person is necessary to the program."
Johnson, who worked with Whaley at the National Urban League's New York headquarters, recalled: "If you'd tell her she had ruffled someone's feathers on the job , if they got their feelings hurt, she would say, 'That's their problem, not mine. I've got too much to do to worry about these folk.' But she's a charmer.
"But the thing I like about her is that she's not crooked. She's not doing it for herself; it's the cause," Johnson added.
Whaley said she "would like to see more mind stretching, more new ways to resolve problems." She said she wants the Washington Urban League to function as an "action think tank" for urban problems.
"I can't believe we can't get people to believe that Washington, as the capital city, should be an example to the nation. It just blows my mind that they don't believe it."
Many problems the Washington Urban League faces today are markedly similar to those the city faced in the late 1930s, when the organization was founded, she noted.
"Traditionally, the urban league has played a pivotal role in all social advocacy--critical examination--from unemployment to education. The problems are the same, but there has been a change in scope," she said.
"Discrimination in housing still exists. But today the problem is, how can we keep a mixed population in the city ?" Whaley continued.
One new focus, she said, should be developing housing for low- and middle-income families. She said she plans to form a housing task force to locate vacant units for rehabilitation, to start a program to train workers and to sell the structures they have renovated for a modest price.
She also plans to launch a task force to tackle economic development.
An accomplished fund-raiser who brought in more than $25 million for national programs of the National Urban League, Whaley emphasized the necessity of private sector support for community service programs.
"We are now in a different era, and there's not a damn thing we can do about the economic situation," she said, expressing a hope that hard times would bring unity. "Anyone who is black today can no longer feel economically secure; that illusion has been ripped away."
"In terms of service, the league is never going to be able to meet the total needs, but we can, by means of demonstration, show how the program works and get someone else to pick it up," she said.
"And to do that you push, push, push," Whaley said, her silver bracelets clanging as she jabbed the air with an extended index finger. "If you've got something that is workable, develop a constituency around the concern so that it isn't just the league. Call it to the mayor's attention, involve the business community and anyone else that would be effected."
Several of her predecessors have gone on to political or high-visibility positions, among them Lyle Carter, who served as president of both Atlanta University and the University of the District of Columbia; Tucker; and John E. Jacob, who became head of the National Urban League.
Whaley, however, said she does not want a political career. She said her time as New York City day-care administrator cured her of all political ambitions when, one month into the job, she had to begin fighting to save centers serving 5,000 children, as part of what she called the "nasty" elimination of social service programs during New York City's fiscal crisis of the late 1970s.
Although Whaley resigned that position, she said she "grew up a lot: I started with the league in my mid-twenties and had been there most of my career. I had never had my behind kicked."
Her experience with the New York day-care problem taught her an important lesson, she said: "I learned that if you need support, you damn sure better scream for help."