Powell and Zorn

Dennis Powell, left, is being challenged by Ari Zorn in his leadership role as president of the Berkshire branch of the NAACP. The election is Wednesday.

PITTSFIELD — The election for president of the Berkshire branch of the NAACP has grown prickly after its long-standing president drew an unexpected challenger.

Ari Zorn, 53, of Egremont, surprised President Dennis Powell and many in the group with his candidacy, and a public announcement of a platform that suggests that the current leadership needs modernizing to expand its reach, further pad its coffers, and unify with other groups and causes.

At this moment of “awakening” in the U.S. about racism toward Blacks and people of color, “people are listening,” Zorn says, and the group needs leaders who quickly can adjust to fast-changing technology, for instance.

Powell, 75, of Pittsfield, who has been president for six years, says a sudden shift in leadership could undo all his years of cultivating community relationships, sources of money, as well as long strides in combating racism and knitting together support in a rural county.

The seat for president is the only one contested in Wednesday’s officer elections. Zorn and Powell are running for the two-year term that the group’s nearly 800 members will cast votes for by email. Secure electronic ballots will be sent through special software from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The nonprofit, founded in 1909 by a group of civil rights activists that included Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois, has more than 500,000 members nationwide. It works to counter race-based discrimination and to ensure equality for all people. The group’s Berkshire branch was reestablished eight years ago.

Zorn has framed his candidacy around what he sees as a need for a generational shift and different leadership style. And that has been fueled by the social justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd in May, while in Minneapolis Police custody.

The NAACP sponsored a key Black Lives Matter rally in Great Barrington in June, an event that tripled the group’s membership and bumped its bank account from about $30,000 to over $100,000, Powell said.

The rally was a seminal event at which Powell and Zorn spoke to a crowd of about 1,000 people. It also was what, in part, Zorn said has propelled him to seek office.

During his speech, Powell had set off a firestorm when he linked U.S. police chokehold techniques, like the one used on Floyd, to training learned from Israeli special forces. He asked “his Jewish brothers and sisters” to work to end this connection.

While police-restraint methods haven’t yet been tied to these anti-terrorism trainings, Powell’s remarks drew outrage, as well as support, from many Jews in the Berkshires.

Yet, Zorn, who was adopted and raised by Jewish parents, said Jews came to him in distress after the rally.

“It was just the wrong moment,” he said. “We were uniting. That was a powerful rally and people are listening, and then you throw that comment in.”

He said he wants unification among groups, and that it takes forward-thinking action.

Powell was distressed that his words had caused upset, given his partnerships with the Jewish community, and his work against racist and anti-Semitic incidents. He said Zorn supported him during the speech controversy.

“Now, he turns around and makes that an issue,” Powell said. “He’s trying to say that I divided the NAACP and the Jewish community.”

The past aside, Zorn says he wants to see more delegation among those wanting to help the movement.

“A lot of white people became members and said, ‘I want to do something,’ and there was nothing for them to do,” Zorn said.

He wants to make a local shift in a world problem.

“The wheel keeps turning, people keep complaining and saying the same things, and wars happen, but there’s no massive change,” he said.

Zorn also suggests that more women and youths should have more of a voice in the group, and said that people had given ideas to leadership and they weren’t taken up.

Powell said a number of distinguished women have a strong voice in the group, and youth engagement has been vibrant, though the coronavirus pandemic has hindered that.

He said that even some of his own ideas aren’t taken up among leadership.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice,” Powell said.

Powell noted the growth of the group’s membership and community impact since he has been on board. Donations for social justice work, like a recent $15,000 grant from Williams College, will help with legal aid, for instance.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said.

Zorn says there is further to go.

“We want to take it to the next level,” he said, noting that he wants to harness more financial savvy to give more money to people of color. Zorn, who runs his own fitness business and is starting a cannabis shop, also is a member of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts.

“We want to bring new money into this area to get things done,” he said. “Keeping people poor hurts the economy. And we have this fear that the current [NAACP] administration isn’t adjusting to take advantage [of the climate] right now.”

Powell says forging partnerships to draw funding takes time, and he points to all of his own work, which includes redrafting the city of Pittsfield’s once-dormant affirmative action bylaw, and leadership in 20 protests. He said Zorn has only been a member for about one year. Powell, a retired chef, educator and hospitality executive, said he met with Zorn and suggested that it might have been helpful to first run for vice president and be mentored for two years.

“I’m not against someone taking over,” Powell said. He said Zorn is part of a younger group that wants “the old people to sit down,” yet, Powell says he is the one called on by police chiefs and other community leaders to problem-solve or speak.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. On Twitter @BE_hbellow.