(The Root) — In 2005 the NAACP took a look at its membership and, more important, the people who were not members. There was the robust Youth & College Division, but then, as National Board Chairman Roslyn Brock puts it, "After you're 25, we lose you — you're graduating from college, starting your family, starting your career. Then folks come back to NAACP around their late 40s, 50s, and they literally stay until God calls them home."
She wanted to change that. The Leadership 500 Summit, a conference held for the ninth year this weekend, was designed to get the attention of professionals in that missing generation. Its explicit agenda: Recruit movers and shakers between the ages of 30 and 50, teach them about the NAACP's work, dispel myths about what the 104-year-old civil rights organization is (black-only, nonprogressive and old, to name a few of those myths) and send attendees home ready to become active members and lead the group into the future.
The Root caught up with Brock at the summit, where she talked about battling a lack of understanding about what the NAACP does, why she thinks it's more progressive than people know and the organization's selling points for a new generation.
The Root: What kinds of people are invited to the Leadership 500 Summit? And why 500?
Roslyn Brock: We're trying to get a critical mass of interdisciplinary leaders from education, health care and the faith community, plus economists, politicians and elected officials — people who have a passion for social justice along with their professional endeavors. There was a demographic study of the NAACP that showed that between 1996 and 2000, only 14 percent of our membership base was in the 35-45 [age] range, so it was like, wow, we need to do something to increase that. We extended it up and down five years to 30-50.
So the goal is to extend the vision of the NAACP to a new group of 500 advocates in that demographic — to say, "Come hear about the NAACP. Don't believe everything you've heard. It's not what you may think." So when they go home, they're able to actively talk about what the NAACP is doing. Some of them have even gone on to take over their local chapters.
TR: What are those myths about the NAACP?
RB: The NAACP has been around for 104 years, but everybody in it is not 104 years old. When you come here and you see who our thought leaders are, who our president and CEO has hired and attracted, you'll see some of the best and brightest professionals that you will see anywhere.
So through this event and through social media, we're saying, "Come home to the NAACP. Because courage should not skip this generation."
Because of a lack of understanding and information about what the NAACP does, a lot of the people who are keeping some of the branches open are folks' mothers' age, or grandmothers' age, and it's because they learned in the '50s and '60s and '70s how important this organization is to American society, and they won't be moved. But they're encouraged by having younger people come in.
Another of the myths about the NAACP is that we're a black organization. We're not. We're a multicultural, multiracial organization that believes in advancing a democratic — with a small "d" — society of fairness, equity and justice.
TR: Has your recent activism in the arenas of stop and frisk and marriage equality helped to gain the interest of a younger and more progressive group of people?
RB: Yes; [activism against the New York City Police Department's policy of] stop and frisk was one of the key accomplishments that helped us bring a broad-based group of people … together. And I think our stance on marriage equality helped to show that we're a progressive organization.
That's another myth: that some might think we're not progressive, or that we kind of stayed back in the old days. But our ability to push the envelope is not only marriage equality — it's environmental justice, for example. Many don't know that we have a very robust emerging program around climate change and economic justice in communities of color.
Also, we have white Americans who are presidents of our local branches, of our local college chapters, and we're doing a good job of widening our net of black and brown, yellow and others to come to the NAACP, because we believe that "colored" people come in all colors, and our cause is not a black cause; it is an American cause.
TR: Do the group of people at this year's summit reflect that diversity?
RB: We've extended invitations to those [nonblack] people to come, but they may not accept because they think, "Oh I'm just gonna be around a bunch of black people," not really appreciating and understanding what we are. But we're going to continue to ask, little by little. When you look at our staff, you see that, and we're looking to [increase racial diversity] also on our board. But we have to do more — you have to practice what you preach.
We need to dispel the myths that we're aging, that we're mired in the past and that we're black-only. Those are the selling points for us for a new progressive generation.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.