Saturday, April 14, 2007

Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP showing the right vision

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 14th:

My very first column last spring dealt with my concern about the lack of young black leadership in our community.

I’m still concerned but the good news is that help is on the way. Local NAACP leader Jesse Gibson has brought forward a great plan for a Youth Council that will help to engage teenagers of all races in serving their community. He and the rest of the organization’s leadership have successfully seen the creation of such an organization through Chapel Hill’s lengthy approval process, and it’s now official.

Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP President Fred Battle, who has been a fierce advocate for young people as a long time activist and former school board member, says that frequently the reason they are reluctant to get involved in the community is that they don’t feel adequate to the task. He sees a primary function of the Youth Council as helping these folks to build leadership and become confident in their abilities to help guide the community.

While the Chapel Hill Youth Council is in the planning stages, there are good models of functional ones across the state in communities like Durham, Greensboro, and Goldsboro. Battle envisions members of the council becoming intimate with all aspects of town governance.

This would include things like getting to know members of the Town Council well and understanding the way that operates, as well as seeing how the town’s many advisory boards work. Battle thinks that if the students involved in the program are exposed to a broad array of things involved in the running of the town like greenways, parks and recreation, or planning they will become interested in at least one thing and be motivated to become more engaged in it.

That kind of experience working with individual town departments could also help to inspire folks to enter public service on the staff side, leading them to seek the training and expertise necessary to make a career working in local government.

He also hopes to see the Youth Council have a considerable community service component to it. The steering committee the Town Council has created to oversee the program will help to set the specifics for this but I have an initial suggestion. It would be wonderful if they could work to ensure that everyone in their high schools who will be 18 by this fall’s elections register and vote for their local officials. One of the best ways to engage the members of the Youth Council in the community right away could be to have them take the lead in getting the rest of their peers involved.

Students spend plenty of time in the classroom learning about government from lectures and textbooks. Certainly that’s important, but getting the sort of real world experience the Youth Council hopes to provide should go a longer way in getting people excited about serving the community.

It will take a while to measure the long term success that this program has, but Battle’s hope is that five, 10 years down the line when a call goes out for people to serve on a committee or even to run for office, the young people who have been involved will be eager to raise their hands up to serve.

I don’t know whether or not the Youth Council will have a major effect on the number of younger people engaged in the community, but I do know that the problem is indisputable. Young people vote in paltry numbers; Democracy North Carolina released a report just last week showing that more folks 18 to 25 are binge drinkers than voters. The issue of young black people involved in the community is even more acute, with the number of African-Americans voting in the 2005 Town Council election dropping below 300 in Chapel Hill.

The Youth Council proposal the NAACP has brought forward will work to keep and engage Chapel Hill natives in town and serve as a great partner to the internship program Councilman Bill Thorpe has helped bring to fruition over the last year that hopefully will have the same effect of keeping UNC students around and contributing to the community.

Every new initiative designed to get young people more involved in Chapel Hill is a step in the right direction. The leadership of the NAACP should be commended for its vision and commitment in bringing the Youth Council proposal to the table, and I hope community leaders will do their part to make this new entity a great success. These sorts of programs are what we need to ensure that a new generation of leadership is fostered.

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