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New Directions for Southland Chapters

April 08, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the shadow of internal feuds, last spring's riots and the coming verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial, local chapters of the NAACP are struggling to maintain their credibility and voice in Southern California's black community.

With a new, 24-year-old regional director, Shannon Reeves, the two dozen NAACP chapters in greater Los Angeles--along with branches throughout the West--are aggressively recruiting younger members, experimenting with computer technology and testing other programs to revitalize the group's image.

Critics say the local NAACP has a lot to overcome.

"I think it still rings the right bells and is clearly still recognized as one of the major civil rights organizations, but I think there's waning loyalty," says former Police Commission president Melanie Lomax, who quit the NAACP several years ago after a dispute with the national leadership over a boycott of black entertainers--one in a series of fracases involving local chapters.

The group, she says, spends too much time on "the traditional civil rights areas--voting rights, education, police brutality--and not enough on the economic issues that affect people's day-to-day pocketbook reality."

In 1985, for instance, the Los Angeles chapter called for a boycott of records by Prince, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and others who reportedly failed to hire blacks for behind-the-scenes jobs, only to be reprimanded by national leaders afraid that the entertainers would cut off their financial support of the NAACP, Lomax says.

Other signs of disarray arose two years ago. First, the Compton chapter broke ranks with NAACP headquarters in Baltimore by endorsing Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then members of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter picketed the NAACP Image Awards--an event the local group had started 23 years earlier to recognize black entertainers--after accusing the national office of wresting control of the event without explanation.

Reeves says such problems are over: "All of that went on when no regional director was in place. . . . Those are things of the past."

His challenge now is putting the maverick streak running through local chapters to good use. In the coming months and years, offices here and in the West will try a number of experiments that could shape the direction and agenda of the NAACP nationwide.

Los Angeles is the testing ground, Reeves says. Among the innovations in the works or already under way:

* A regional membership director. "The national office recognized the need to concentrate on membership in this area," Reeves says, so it hired a specialist. The result: Rank-and-file numbers, in a slump since the 1960s, are now climbing. The main recruitment targets are 25- to 40-year-olds. The NAACP won't release local membership figures, however.

* A regional publicity and media relations officer. "One of our worst attributes is public relations," Reeves says. "We have not told our story or been as visible as we ought to be." L.A. is apparently the first regional office to hire a public affairs director.

* The Benjamin Hooks Fellowship program. Next January, the regional office will bring in the organization's first full-time, paid college interns for six- or 12-month stints working in areas of business, education, government and communications. The goal is to build young leaders, Reeves says: "The whole question of whether the NAACP is relevant is going to be answered by people like these."

* Computer-linked offices. A plan to install computers in every branch in the West would allow local chapters to share information and resources by using electronic mail.

Officials acknowledge that there's considerable overlap of efforts among chapters but say the structure is designed to provide immediate local help when people call in with problems of job and housing discrimination or police brutality. Reeves offers this analogy: "If you're in Compton and you're hit by a car, you'd be frustrated if the ambulance came from L.A."

The drawback to the system is that most of the offices are run by volunteers. "People (who need help) don't want an answering machine when they call." Reeves hopes to bring paid staffers into as many offices as possible.

The volunteers "did the best they could with what they have" but weren't getting the financial support and training they needed from regional headquarters, he says.

Reeves, who took over in February, 1992, says events since then--the King beating case, the L.A. riots, the federal King civil rights case--have diverted attention from some of the projects, but he hopes that will soon change.

"Any minute now," he says, "we're going to be able to do our work."

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