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Youth take new role in guiding NAACP

Sat., July 11, 2009

Twenty-somethings bring new vigor to rights group

NEW YORK – For 23-year-old Demar Lamont Roberts, the NAACP Centennial Convention is like celebrating the election of Barack Obama all over again.

So the recent South Carolina State grad is going all-out for the convention here, which starts today and runs until Thursday.

He bought tickets to all the events, even the ones taking place at the same time. And he says he’s planning to tweet from the minute he boards the plane until the convention is over.

“A lot of things I have never experienced before I’m about to experience – the camaraderie, seeing civil rights persons that have come before me and paved the way for me,” said Roberts, of Memphis, Tenn., who serves on the NAACP National Youth Work Committee.

That kind of excitement from twenty-somethings like Roberts is just what the NAACP has been seeking – and now is seeing.

First founded a century ago as the National Negro Committee, today’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is sometimes regarded as an organization with graying members and obsolete ideas, out of step with new challenges facing the black community. The average age of a member is between 50 and 55.

But as the nation’s oldest civil rights organization celebrates its centennial, NAACP officials are reporting a resurgence of youth activism, even as it continues to field questions about its relevancy in the post-civil rights era.

Advance registration numbers for the convention are a record 2,400, and the number of attendees under the age of 25 is “significantly higher” than it was last year, according to Stefanie Brown, who oversees the organization’s Youth and College Division.

“I just see an increase in young people choosing to be active who want to interact with other young people who are like-minded,” said Brown, 28. “Where else can you be a 15-year-old and meet someone else across the country who is also passionate about social justice issues?”

The convention doesn’t come cheap. Roberts estimates he is spending more than $2,000 in graduation gift money on airfare, hotel, tickets, meals and entertainment.

Brendien Mitchell Jr., 15, of Ocala, Fla., said his local youth council, which has more than 100 members (not all are attending), had two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts sales and a chicken strips sale to raise money for the road trip. (The chicken didn’t go over well; they made only $21).

Many of them have been asking family for donations, he said.

The NAACP has been working hard to attract a new generation. The board elected then-35-year-old Benjamin Todd Jealous last year as president and CEO, the youngest person to hold the position. He’s ramped up activism among the organization’s 600 “youth units” ranging from elementary to college age with a campaign to increase college access and affordability.

It seems to be working: For the first time in five years, all seven seats on the 64-person board slotted for people under 25 have contested races, Brown said. The election is during the convention.

NAACP officials credit some increased excitement to the “Obama effect” – leftover energy from a presidential campaign that electrified young voters.

The president is scheduled to address the convention on Thursday. Gen. Colin Powell, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Rev. Al Sharpton are also expected to attend.

“It really is a carry-over from the momentum that the Obama candidacy sparked across the country in that age group, of wanting to be active and involved,” said NAACP vice chair Roslyn Brock, 44.

Shayla King, 21, who is going into her senior year at Loyola University in Chicago, started an NAACP chapter on her campus and is on the national board. She said after the election, young people are fired up and ready to work on the issues.

“A lot of youth are seeing that it’s their time to be leaders and have their voices heard,” King said.

The organization plans to use the convention to help the community mobilize. Youth workshops are scheduled that focus on becoming better community organizers, Brown said. And the NAACP is focusing on multigenerational issues such as racial disparities in education, the criminal justice system and HIV/AIDS.

Jealous said both young and old members share a sense of urgency and are eager to change the world.

“We are closer to the finish line,” he said. “The pain of not being there yet is very real for all generations, including this rising generation of activists.”


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