LOS ANGELES — High school student Jasmine Thornton struggled to describe what she knew about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She said she learned from history books about the NAACP’s pivotal role in lobbying against segregation and for voting rights, but she could not think of anything recent.
“I would be curious to know what they’re doing, if they had a strong presence on social media,” Thornton said.
Suzanne Nichols, part of the Generation X crowd, also is unsure of what the organization or its local branch is up to.
“Last time I heard about the local branch was when they wanted to give Donald Sterling a lifetime achievement award last year,” Nichols said. “If that is the only time you hear about them, then maybe it’s time to re-think what needs to be improved and how to achieve their goals.”
Nichols’ comment speaks to the NAACP’s longstanding image problem — particularly among young people. Despite the good works the organization may be doing — locally and nationally — it seems that many people still see the group as outdated, old fashioned or irrelevant.
It is a challenge the local branch president seems determined to overcome.
“We’re working to improve quality education, voter registration especially among high school graduates while also assisting young parents,” said Minnie Hadley-Hempstead, president of NAACP LA.
The branch stays busy by receiving roughly 50 calls a day, mostly concerning employment-related problems and people facing evictions due to gentrification, according toHadley-Hempstead. When not listening to voicemails, she reads mail from prisoners seeking legal assistance and advocacy on their behalf.
Hadley-Hempstead took over last year when former President Leon Jenkins resigned amid the controversy surrounding former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was due to receive a lifetime achievement award from the local NAACP even after his racist comments became public.
The resignation came right before the chapter’s only fundraising event, the annual Roy Wilkins Freedom Fund Awards Gala.
For Hadley-Hempstead, this year’s gala, scheduled for May 21, will mark her one-year anniversary as president.
With the shaky shift in leadership change in the past, Hadley-Hempsteadis making sure 2015 is all about foundation building because, as she said, young people cannot work as a foundationless people.
“Instead of waiting for someone else to do it, like the past 30 to 40 years, we need to do it ourselves,” she said. “We’re working with faith leaders and asking them to provide pre-kindergarten education to children.”
In addition, the former educator is also fighting for industrial arts — courses like wood shop and home economics — to return to high schools within Los Angeles Unified School District because she believes many young people are graduating without marketable skills.
Yet, many black people would like to see the organization more on the frontline. During a time when black people are being beaten or shot by police officers, the achievement gap is growing wider in South L.A. schools and many are still facing unemployment as the job market slowly stabilizes, many observers believe the NAACP’s presence is seldom felt. Especially on social media.
“If the youth [aren’t] part of the discussion, which typically takes place on social media, then the younger generation can’t see their direct impact,” Mark Callier said.
Hadley-Hempstead, admittedly, follows the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“We get our message out the old-fashioned way — working with educators, ministers, parents of youth and other community stakeholders,” she said.
Historically, she said the branch is not known for protests, but for influencing policy and legislation. Presently, she said NAACP LA is either busy solidifying or re-establishing relationships with law enforcement, clergy and the LAUSD.
While it may appear that the branch is hiding when people are voicing their concerns on the streets, she claims the branch is maintaining “excellent” relationships with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol.
“The day after a highway patrolman beat up Marlene Pinnock, [Commissioner] Joe Farrow was very receptive and everything he said he was going to do he did it in a timely manner,” she said.
However accountability and transparency with the Los Angeles Police Department remains to be seen, she said.
The NAACP LA has made efforts to discuss excessive use of force, particularly in the fatal shooting of Ezell Ford last summer, but have yet to meet with Police Chief Charlie Beck or District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Yet, Hadley-Hempstead remains hopeful the community can work together.
“If not, our community cannot be the best it can be,” Hadley-Hempstead said.