NAACP summit aims to close gap in the movement

Conference at Florida resort may attract younger audience.

April 08, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

The setting reads like an ad for a deluxe Memorial Day Weekend getaway: Rounds of golf at a choice of four championship courses. Seaweed wraps and aromatherapy facials at the resort's top-notch spa. And hours of lounging on sun-soaked Florida beaches.

While a vacation escape is the lure, the goal is to talk civil rights business and reinvigorate the aging membership of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

Hoping to entice post-civil rights era black professionals to the aging National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization is trying something new: blending old-fashioned social activism with the leisure that today's trendy, upwardly-mobile buppies - black young professionals - are accustomed to.

More than a junket, organizers promise the Leadership 500 Summit, which is scheduled for May 26-29 at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., will attract professionals between the ages of 30 to 50 in fields from law and politics to education and religion. They'll be encouraged to brainstorm on a civil rights agenda for the 21st century.

"They are the third wave of leaders who have come through with all the rights and privileges and benefits that this society can afford them," said Roslyn McCallister Brock, vice chairwoman of the NAACP na- tional board of directors, who hatched the idea for the gathering.

"But they are disconnected," she said. "Most people come in contact with the NAACP only if they can't get into that gated community because of redlining or because they feel they have been passed over for a promotion. When they feel discrimination hit them in the face they say, `Hmmm, it's time to get the NAACP involved.'"

The idea, said Brock, is to re-educate them on the NAACP's legacy, as well as harness their energy and clout to boost the organization and build for its future.

Networking with notables such as political strategist Donna Brazile, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, and National Urban League President Marc Morial is part of the draw. Workshops will focus on health disparities, education inequities and other problems of the black community.

However, the summit is also about survival. It speaks to the struggle of civil rights-era institutions to remain relevant to people who never endured the indignities of legal discrimination. As membership goes, few of them seem to see the connection.

The NAACP claims 500,000 members - the same figure it reported in its heyday in the 1940s, and one that critics say is inflated. Still, only 14 percent of the group's total membership is between the ages of 35-45, Brock said.

Furthermore, the 64-member board includes only four members between the ages of 25 and 45.

Brock is somewhat of an anomaly. At 39, she's been on the NAACP board for 20 years. At 18, she started as a youth board member. This year, those younger than 25 hold seven of the 64 seats on the board. Brock won a seat on the permanent board after her 25th birthday and has been a fixture since.

Yet few NAACP members stay as loyal to the group. Under former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, the group's Baltimore national headquarters made college and youth recruitment a top goal. The organization had some success with recruiting on college campuses, only to see those members lose interest when they started careers. Though some rejoin when they retire, Brock wants to fill the gap.

Even stalwart NAACP members have said the group has neglected the young black professionals.

"Some members don't want to relinquish power, but some of these older folks have been doing the same old thing," said Hazel Dukes, a board member and president of the New York state NAACP conference. "They got their church functions and their Freedom Fund dinners, but the young people don't want to go there, their patience is short. They don't have time for that stuff."

Others wonder why the group hasn't noticed the potential of those between the ages of 30 and 50 sooner.

"I think it's a really, really great idea, but unfortunately this is something the NAACP could have harnessed a long time ago," said Nolan Rollins, president of the Greater Baltimore Leadership Association. The group of black professionals was born out of the Baltimore Urban League. "I'd argue that this age range is most important to any kind of movement," said Rollins, 32, who works as vice president of economic and community development at the Baltimore Urban League. "These are the folks with not only the sweat equity, but the economic wealth to do this."

Rollins cautions that the gathering must have defined goals and solutions to be effective for what he dubs the "you just might get it" generation - people with the skills and bank accounts who go to top schools, land quality jobs and have a passion to succeed.

"The last thing you want to do is get us down there and not have anything for us to do," he said. "We have very short attention spans. You don't want to waste these folks' time."

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