NAACP Looks to the Future

Mainstream Civil Rights Group Taps the Energy of Youth

Daniella Gibbs Léger explains why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is taking on new issues important to future generations of people of color.

NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous addresses the 102nd Annual Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Monday, July 25, 2011. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous addresses the 102nd Annual Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Monday, July 25, 2011. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)

When I told people I was going to the NAACP Annual Convention in Los Angeles last week, the question immediately arose whether the 102-year-old civil rights group was really relevant anymore. My typical response was that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People boasts more than 275,000 active members and hundreds of thousands more followers. That’s a big and committed group of people. But I understood the underlying question. Are young people really joining the NAACP? And are the battles the group is fighting important to them?

After spending five days in L.A., I think the answer is a resounding yes. Sure, there are internal struggles and issues that the organization is dealing with but I left convinced that the leadership and the members are ready to roll their sleeves up and continue the work of helping communities of color prosper, driven in large part by the energy of youth within the organization. In fact, my first encounter with the conference didn’t start off so well precisely because of the young people who critics of the NAACP say are not engaged with the group.

I arrived on Sunday, tired and jetlagged, ready to go to sleep and start the week off fresh, but the young adults and students populating my hotel for the ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) had other ideas. They were there for the NAACP convention to celebrate their achievements and be recognized for excelling in academics and humanities, so I could forgive a little nighttime rowdiness. These excited overachievers joined more than 5,000 individuals from all races and ethnicities—gathered in one place to talk about how to help move the country forward through these perilous times.

The result was uplifting. The various panels and keynotes hit on the main issues facing African Americans and communities of color—unemployment, education, and the economy—with the new Pew Center study on the wealth gap between whites and people of color defining the conversation. The study, released during the conference, showed that the income gap, if left unchecked, will do great harm to the future prosperity of our country as we become more diverse.

Uplifting, too, were the diverse groups of people from all across the country attending the convention. The young teacher from Long Beach, California, who spoke about her desire to inspire children and the obstacles she faces in doing her job. The young woman from Washington, D.C., who flew across the country to serve as a mentor, discussing her career path with high school students. And it was great to hear the inspiring words of NAACP National Chairwoman Roslyn Brock and NAACP Mississippi Chair Derrick Johnson, two young dynamic leaders striving to make a difference.

At lunch one day I sat with an NAACP staffer and a reporter. Between the two of them, I learned that a few attendees were threatening to leave the organization if it continued to press strongly and publicly for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. This was disappointing to learn but I wasn’t particularly surprised by this sentiment. There is a segment of my community that simply isn’t comfortable talking about gay and transgender rights, let alone supporting them.

But times are changing. During the conference, one of the breakout sessions was indeed on gay and transgender rights. And not only was there a panel dedicated to the topic, but NAACP President Ben Jealous attended to show his support, too. And there are many other leaders within the organization pushing for change. Former NAACP chairman and veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond often says LGBT rights are a civil rights issue. So, too, does the younger generation of participants at the convention, including some of those ACT-SO participants who kept me awake that first night in L.A. Polls show they are more supportive of gay and transgender rights than the generations before them.

There is still plenty of work to be done for sure, but there is progress, which of course is the whole point of the NAACP.

For any organization to survive, it needs the wisdom and dedication of the older generations and the energy and idealism of young people. Through their recent struggles it’s clear to me that the NAACP is growing and changing with the times. From the very helpful conference app downloaded on my iPhone to the numerous events and panels geared toward young people, to the intense focus on the economic well-being of people of color, the NAACP is focused and headed in the right direction.

Daniella Gibbs Léger is Vice President for New American Communities Initiatives at the Center for American Progress.

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Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy