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From street dances to social media, how youth are changing activism for the NAACP

Updated: Jul. 23, 2022, 12:22 p.m.| Published: Jul. 23, 2022, 10:00 a.m.

By Shaylah Brown | NJ Advance Media for

Marcus Sanders, a youth delegate from Albion College, attends a workshop during the NAACP convention in Atlantic City, N.J., Monday, July 18, 2022.Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for

When younger delegates wanted to amend the NAACP’s constitution to refer to themselves as militant, older and younger members debated the issue. On Monday, NAACP Chairman Leon Russell announced the organization had made the change.

“Your militancy should be governed by knowledge, strategy, and a results-oriented claim, not just emotion,” Russell told middle, high school and college students during the NAACP’s 113th national convention in Atlantic City.

Younger members had spoken and been heard. The amending of the NAACP’s constitution speaks to the influence its 25,000 younger delegates wield in an organization led by older members who recognize the need to give them a voice and bridge the generational divide.

The youth “have to take us to the next level,” said Richard Smith, 59, the NAACP’s NJ State Conference president. “And when you see what young people are able to do with their energy, their ideas, technology, we need all of that in the NAACP.” Samuel Blackwood, 25, of Middletown Township, agrees.

“More can be done to empower young people...,” said Blackwood, Project Ready NJ’s public policy director. “Putting more young people into roles where they act as advisors and help take what they know and what they understand from their lived experience“ can be used to advance the organization.

The NAACP has for decades championed civil rights, spearheading landmark cases, such as Brown vs. Board of Education, that have changed the landscape for people of color nationwide. More recently, it has fostered change around criminal justice, environmental issues, equitable healthcare, an inclusive economy, and education disparities. In New Jersey, for example, the organization joined the Latino Action Network in suing New Jersey over its segregated schools.

But some say the NAACP skews toward older delegates whose approach to activism is akin to the civil rights of the 60s, although it now has 25,000 delegates under 50.

And while at the forefront of some of the nation’s most pressing issues over the years, organizations like Black Lives Matter, led by younger people with different ideas and approaches to civil rights and social injustice, have taken center stage.

“A lot of times in the community you will hear people say, ‘the NAACP is not relevant, and it is just Black Lives Matter,’ said Maisha Aziz, 45, of Lawnside, an advisor for New Jersey State Conference Youth and College.

But the NAACP is providing young people with the tools to be civically engaged and make change, she said.

Maisha Aziz (above on the far right in the red sneakers), advisor for The NAACP's New Jersey State Conference Youth and College, stands with and members from across the state.Photo Courtesy of Maisha Aziz

This week, The NAACP hosted over a dozen events that brought the generations together during the convention. They focused on issues of concern to younger members, such as youth empowerment, student loan debt crisis, gun violence, housing injustice, reproductive rights, voter suppression, mass shootings, redistricting and national terrorism.

The events included sessions where delegates learned about street dance activism, defined as moving together for healing and transformation and the power of social media.

A lot of our members are older, Smith said. And we find ourselves now in 2022, committed to moving forward. Younger delegates hope to bring the organization into the modern age using the power of social media, mobilization and knowledge-based militancy.

“The great thing about social media is the democratization of power in that we just started posting whatever we wanted and were able to grow a platform and let people know tactile task we can take to be able to totally change the atmosphere,” said Sofia Ongele, 21, a computer science major at Columbia University and social media influencer who led a session on the topic.

She said that with social media, youth could chart their path through activist spaces.

Lauren Steed, 17, from the Gary, Indiana NAACP, said the organization is doing a great job understanding youth and incorporating the older generations’ viewpoint. “But at the same time, everyone can get better,” she said. “It’s a balance.”

All agree that the key to the NAACP’s future lies in attracting and grooming young activists.

Recruitment is important, said NJ State Conference President Smith, because we are in a fight for democracy in this country.

“Rallies and marches are...a great way to educate folks and energize and mobilize them,” Smith said. “But when the march is on Saturday, if you are not at the school board meeting on Monday, the city council meeting, and the NJ Statehouse, if you’re not at those places, all you did on Saturday was have a get-together. The changes are made going in those buildings and holding people accountable.”

The organization’s dedication toward empowering a younger generation helped Nicole Graves-Watson, 45, the NAACP’s Hillside, N.J. branch founder and president, obtain national and state approval for her chapter, which started in October 2021.

The most important issue for the chapter is seeing that Amistad legislation is fully implemented, she said, referring to a law mandating that New Jersey schools incorporate African American history into their social studies curriculum.

“Our children are not learning the history in the full context,” she said. “And it is a problem.”

“We have to organize,” she added. “When you don’t organize you can’t get things done.”

Jasmin Jones, 22, of Camden, is NAACP New Jersey State president for Youth and College. During the convention, she advised others on creating chapters on college campuses. She suggested “reaching people where they are, incorporating fun events and making sure that you are engaging with your peers to get people excited.”

“Educating our peers and our community is really important,” said Jones, a recent Rowan University graduate and former president of the campus NAACP chapter.

“There are students in more affluent areas that need that same guidance and leadership and also need to see Black mentorship to see themselves in the leadership as well,” she said.

Smith said the NAACP’s efforts had enabled the organization to double its youth and college chapters” in New Jersey, bringing the number to about eight.

“I always said when I leave as state conference president, my goal is to pass the torch,” he said. “I want to pass it to someone that is younger than me.”

“I will be making a get our young people set and ready to run” for leadership roles in the NAACP, he said. “You need a good mix of older folks with the wisdom and younger folks with the energy.”

Marcus Sanders, 20, an NAACP convention youth delegate from Texas, says the time is right.

“Having a vote and voice is important,” he said.

Austin Scott, 19, of Maryland, agreed.

“A lot of the older generations think that when we are on our phones or.. posting that it is not the same level of activism as going out and protesting or doing the stuff that they had to do,” he said. “It is the same principle, but we are using technology to achieve the same things the older generation was trying to achieve.”

If you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind, he said.

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Shaylah Brown may be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @shaylah_brown

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