On the first Saturday in November, a contingent of Grambling State University students boarded a bus decorated with NAACP logos and headed to neighboring Monroe, La. Their ission: to register as many new voters as possible before Election Day Nov. 5.
It was the second time in as many years that the student members of the Grambling State NAACP chapter have expanded the work of empowerment beyond the confines of their campus. And for members like chapter president Gourjoine Wade, a senior who describes himself as "a freedom fighter for life," it won't likely be the last.
Thousands of committed young people like Wade make up the 670 active units of the NAACP Youth and College division, a national department devoted to cultivating civil rights leadership and activism among youth aged 18 to 25.
For National Director of Youth and College Jeffrey I. Johnson, what's happening at Grambling and in other chapters across the country is the fruit of the NAACP's investment in youth that dates back to the division's founding in 1936.
"We want to develop intelligent, militant and effective youth leadership [to pursue] equality and civil rights for people of color," he asserts.
Johnson, who attended the University of Toledo where he spent two years as president of the school's Black Student Union and was the first student of color to serve as Student Government president. He has been director of the Youth and College division for two years.
Previously incorporated in the NAACP Programs and Branch and Field divisions, Youth and College became its own department in 1998.
The division has a long and distinguished history of producing student activists who played vital roles in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. Today its mission is at a crucial crossroads as students of the 21st century confront both old and new permutations of racism.
"The challenge is trying to engage a generation of young people [who] have never experienced the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, segregation, Jim Crow and poll taxes," explains Johnson. "We have to be able to translate that that still happens now in different ways. The issues haven't gone [away], they've just evolved."
To that end, the Youth and College division launched a nationwide mobilization campaign this fall to galvanize youth members in chapters from Los Angeles to Detroit to Atlanta around key issues in the current struggle for social justice. The division plans to kick off 2003 with intensified training to assist local units in identifying issues important to their own communities, including health care disparities, violence, poorly funded schools and juvenile justice concerns, and to vocalize these matters through a variety of means.
At Grambling State, for example, chapter members have begun projects examining racial disparities in hiring and housing in their college town of Grambling, La. They plan to release the results of their research in the spring of 2003.
For Johnson, it's worth it even "if we have a group of young people with a bullhorn on a street corner talking about why they're frustrated and what they're willing to do about it. We want youth to realize they are the answer to their own problems."
Other initiatives reflect the Youth and College division's responsiveness to the unique demands of today's civil rights effort. In the spring of 2001, Penn State University was rocked by a series of threatening e-mails sent to leaders of Black and gay and lesbian student organizations. That fall, Auburn University suspended several students who had attended a Halloween party in blackface.
These two widely publicized incidents were more than enough to convince the NAACP that racism "is an attitude permeating campuses all over," as Johnson puts it. …