Within the broad operations of the NAACP, two youth-oriented programs give African-American teenagers resourceful options to the “thug life” and other less-wholesome distractions. One is the organization’s Youth & College Division; the other is the National Voter Fund.
During last year’s national presidential election, both projects spent the final two weekends before the election canvassing and informing residents in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Central to their mission were explaining the voting procedure in the various precincts, registering those qualified to vote and providing those voters transportation to the polls. Overall, according to Jada Bradley in The Crisis magazine, the tour reached more than 20,000 people. “The tour included door-to-door canvassing interspersed with rallies,” Bradley wrote. “College students gave up time that could have been spent studying or socializing on campus to participate in the tour, and a number of high-school students made the rounds with them.”
Many of the students on the tour and students they encountered became active members of the NAACP, promising to take part in other program initiatives. When the Jena 6 incident occurred in 2006, in which Black teenagers at a Louisiana high school was charged and arrested for beating a white youth, the NAACP and its young members marched in demonstrations that put the case in the national spotlight. A similar commitment was demonstrated by the youngsters in ACT-SO (the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), the NAACP’s main youth program. Conceived in 1978 by the late and legendary journalist Vernon Jarrett of Chicago, ACT-SO is a yearlong enrichment program that begins with mentoring, coaching and teaching. According to its Web site, “local competitions usually take place between March and May. Contestants who win gold medals on the local level qualify to attend the National ACT-SO competition, which takes place in early July at the annual NAACP convention.”
Since its inception, more than 260,000 young people have earned scholarships, computers and monetary awards, totaling more than $350,000. During the yearlong program, youths spend their Saturday mornings working on projects in 25 categories, including the sciences, humanities, performing arts, business and the visual arts. High-school students from the 9th to the 12th grade are eligible to enter into not
more than three categories.
Exemplary of an ACT-SO winner is Ben Lee Foster, who at 16 won an award in filmmaking last year. Since then, Foster has established his own film festival for young filmmakers. “Enough is enough!” he declares from his Web site. “It’s time to make a change in what young people watch and listen to. Hopefully, together we can inspire others to do the right things in life. If you take in a lot of negative material ... you become a negative person. We are made up of what we watch and listen to.”
And the program’s mentors are also inspired by their commitment and a sense of giving back. “I thought, perhaps it’s time to give back a little bit,” English professor Barbara Richards told reporter Deborah Douglass in The Crisis. “I was also aware that so many youngsters could not write a decent paragraph and had difficulty writing an essay.” She felt it was her responsibility to remedy this predicament.
Over the course of years, it has been this kind of dedication and partnership that produced thousands of aspiring educators, entrepreneurs and artists, all of whom have given the NAACP its future economic, political and cultural base. The association’s president and CEO Ben Jealous addressed this issue in a recent interview with The Network Journal, stressing the importance of focusing on the needs of the younger generation. “Without a well-educated people, particularly the kind of training they need to compete on the world market, our country will continue to lag behind,” he said.
ACT-SO, the Youth & College Division and the NAACP’s National Voter Fund are all poised to make sure that Jealous’s vision is realized, and realized within the next decade.