The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 41st Annual Legislative Conference — CBC Week for short — kicked off on Wednesday. The massive event draws thousands of elected officials, business leaders, scholars, activists and celebrities for four days of policy forums, power networking and parties. Although organized by the CBCF — a nonprofit policy institute that sponsors scholarship, internship and Capitol Hill fellowship programs in addition to the conference — the forum's purpose is often overshadowed by the glitz.
The Root talked to CBCF President and CEO Elsie Scott on the goals of the annual event, the message for the civil rights generation tucked into this year's theme and which part of this week she's most excited about.
The Root: What are the goals of the Annual Legislative Conference?
Elsie Scott: One of the goals is to provide a forum to address some of the issues facing the African-American community and the global black community. It's a space for Congressional Black Caucus members to connect with people from around the country to discuss legislative and policy priorities. What we also like to do is provide a networking opportunity for people to connect with others from around the world, who might be working on some of the issues that they're working on. We want to provide an avenue for people of like minds and interests to meet each other.
TR: What does this year's theme of "iLead/iServe" mean?
ES: Well, a lot of our programs — our scholarship, fellowship and internship programs — are designed to help develop the next generation of leaders. When we brainstormed with some of the young people from our programs on this year's theme, they suggested "I Lead." I said I would only accept that if we added "I Serve." You can't be a great leader unless you are a great servant to the people.
There was also a technology slant with the theme. In addition to looking at developing that next generation, we also have to look at the future of technology. We're also looking at different methods of leadership. The methods of mobilizing communities are different now than they were when Dr. King was around.
TR: That's a contrast from the days when both the CBCF and the CBC didn't even have Twitter accounts — as was controversially pointed out at last year's Blogging While Brown conference. What triggered that change for you, in terms of getting on top of these new methods?
ES: [Laughs.] Actually, it was two years ago when CBCF didn't have a Twitter account. At that time we hired a young man here to increase our presence in social media. But since then we've gotten rid of our paper newsletter and gone to an electronic newsletter. Much of our communication for the conference has been through our website, e-blasts and other things that are facilitated by technology. We're trying to modernize here at the foundation. I know that the CBC's doing the same thing. If we want to engage people, we have to appeal to all generations.
Some of the things I have enjoyed at our conferences have been the intergenerational sessions where we're at least talking to each other. When we talk about mentoring, we usually only talk about the older generation teaching the younger, but the young people can teach us a lot, too. So we're trying to stay with the times and to make certain that the foundation survives another 40 years.
TR: What events at this year's conference are you looking forward to most?
ES: I'm looking forward to our town halls where we'll be discussing jobs and the economy, and we have our awards dinner on Saturday night, where President Obama will address the body. At that dinner we'll have the chance to recognize Reverend Joseph Lowery and Representative John Lewis.
We also have young people from Harlem, N.Y., who are part of the "Gospel for Teens" program that was featured on 60 Minutes. Vy Higginsen started the group to transfer gospel music down to the next generation, but what he's found is that this music is helping these young people deal with some of the pain in their lives. So 24 of those teenagers are coming to our conference to sing for us. If there's one thing I'm looking forward to, it's probably listening to these young people, because watching them on 60 Minutes, I was brought to tears.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.