Six years ago, Classie Dudley seemingly won election as president of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP — only to have her victory invalidated weeks later due to a technicality.
Then a 22-year-old college student, Dudley could have walked away from the organization in frustration. Instead, she said, the controversy vaulted her to unexpected opportunities within the national civil rights group.
"It was almost a blessing in disguise," Dudley said recently. "A lot of people asked me to stay involved and it ended up helping me get on a national platform."
After participating in multiple leadership programs and forging connections with some of the highest-ranking leaders of the NAACP, life has come full circle for Dudley. Now 28, she took over this month as president of the Duluth branch after running unopposed in the organization's November election.
She steps into the role at a time of rapid growth in membership — particularly after last year's in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — but she also faces many challenges, including a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color.
"My favorite thing about the NAACP is that it literally is not only the biggest and boldest civil rights history organization ever, but it also hits you in every aspect of your life," Dudley said. "It hits criminal justice, health, housing, youth, sciences — if you have an issue, if there's an equity issue in it, we have it. That's why I wanted to get involved in the NAACP."
Dudley is a young leader, but her "tremendous amount of skills" and prominent connections will serve the area well, longtime community activist Henry Banks said.
"I strongly believe she is going to be a breath of fresh air for the organization," he said. "She’s got a wonderful and unique leadership system where she recognizes and sees skills of people, and brings individuals in to be part of the leadership team. I think there will be a lot of noticeable changes with her leadership."
'We need you to stay active'
A Duluth native, Dudley was a member of the final graduating class of Central High School and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies from Hamline University. She's currently preparing to continue her education, with hopes of earning a master of business administration from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
For the past five years, Dudley has owned and operated Miketin Board and Lodge in downtown Duluth. Housing 35 people, the transitional living facility allows residents to have private rooms, while staff provide three meals a day and certain support services.
"It feels good and I love the residents," Dudley said. "They can stay as long as they want or as long as they need. We've had some residents stay less than a week; we've had some stay for about 35 years now."
Dudley is also active in the arts, producing a documentary called "The Secrets of Being Black: Duluth Edition," which aired on local television. She's currently completing a fellowship at the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, where she helped develop a new equitable-vision initiative.
With that background, Dudley said she has been advocating for justice and equity in economic and arts throughout her involvement with the NAACP.
"Those are the things I would personally like to focus on, but I definitely trust my board," Dudley said, referencing a new slate of executive committee members for 2021. "We have such a great visionary board and they are amazing. They are super active and they've got all kinds of ideas of what equity means to them and what the NAACP should focus on."
Dudley said a focus of her studies has been on the intersectionality of issues. Most challenges in society — from COVID-19 to the economy to LGBTQ issues to climate change — tend to affect people of color at a greater rate, she said.
"We are going to be a huge organization to enact change," she said. "I'm ready to put the boots to the ground and get going."
Membership in the organization has surged over the past year, with Dudley indicating that there are now some 1,600 people belonging to the Duluth chapter — almost certainly the largest figure since the branch's founding after the 1920 lynching of three Black men.
Dudley said that's encouraging, but now she wants to turn those memberships into action. She's also aiming to expand outreach efforts to Cloquet, the North Shore and as far away as the Iron Range and Bemidji.
"I really want to mobilize our membership," she said. "Signing up for a membership is great, but we need you in these spaces. We need you to stay active. We need you to participate."
Adversity led to opportunities
Dudley said she was first drawn into the NAACP by an oft-discussed issue in Duluth: racial equity within public schools.
Only a few years out of high school herself, Dudley mounted a 2014 challenge to Duluth NAACP President Claudie Washington, who had served in the role more than 20 years. While she appeared victorious, national leadership later declared Dudley ineligible and ordered a new election as her membership had briefly lapsed in the months leading up to the contest.
Dudley said she received an outpouring of support in wake of the controversy. She became one of 16 young members selected for the NAACP's national Leadership 500 Summit and was later part of the organization's inaugural class of the Next Generation Young Professional Leadership Program.
Those national connections have paid off. On Saturday, the local branch was joined by Dwayne Proctor, chairman of the NAACP Foundation Board of Trustees, to help facilitate a strategic plan for 2021.
"She has such strong relationships and ties with prominent individuals in the national office and throughout the entire NAACP organization," Banks said. "Those connections are going to be promising for Duluth."
Dudley said she wasn't looking to make another run at Duluth president, but received the encouragement of fellow members last fall. She succeeds Stephan Witherspoon, who decided to step down after four years in the role.
"Classie brings new energy that is highly needed in these tumultuous times," he wrote in a farewell letter. "Her new creative ideas will pave the path for an even stronger NAACP Duluth Branch. The most important action membership could do right away is keep the active committees working and activate the ones that need to be started up."
Dudley said it has been more difficult than usual to forge new connections in the community as president, with few in-person events taking place. She participated in a live-streamed Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally last week as the organization has been canceling or retooling many of its major celebrations and fundraising events.
Nonetheless, she said the work will continue.
"The NAACP, in general, is an advocacy and policy organization," Dudley said. "Our footwork is in policy-changing and enacting new laws, and I want to start doing more of that — to see the trickle-down change into our community."