Leading up to its annual convention in San Antonio in July 2018, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is conducting a nationwide listening tour aimed at improving the organization and better addressing core issues affecting communities of color.

NAACP Forward‘s latest tour stop Tuesday at the Ella Austin Community Center on the city’s Eastside drew around 50 attendees, whose most pressing topics included voter education and mobilization, and engaging youth and ex-convicts.

“Our goal is to find out how we as the NAACP could better support the work here in San Antonio,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive officer. “As a national organization, we have to make sure we’re tuned into the needs of our individual members.”

Implementing programs to increase voter registration and educate constituents on election issues before they head to the polls should be among NAACP’s top priorities, according to Eastside businessman Joe Linson.

The high level of misinformation and the lack of voter participation is alarming, he said, but these factors are partially compounded by gerrymandering and strict voter eligibility laws.

“Voting in the United States is going south for all races,” he said. “People don’t know what’s going on. We don’t pick our Congress people. They pick us because they draw the lines.”

Lashanna Hill, a student at Texas A&M-San Antonio, said many of her peers want to cast well-informed votes, but lack an acceptable form of identification. She urged national and local NAACP leaders to increase the number of college chapters in order to engage students and ensure they are informed, registered to vote, and have the means to cast a ballot.

“No matter what their race, no matter what their cultural background is, it’s still a problem,” Hill said.

Oliver Hill, president of the NAACP San Antonio Branch, agreed. “We need to do a better job of reminding people [they] need to vote,” he said.

NAACP San Antonio Branch President Oliver Hill listens to community input at NAACP Forward at Ella Austin Community Center.
NAACP San Antonio Branch President Oliver Hill listens to community input at NAACP Forward at the Ella Austin Community Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local voter turnout remains too low, especially during off-year elections, Phillip Ray said, adding that both voting and failing to vote have a long-lasting effect on which judges and officeholders assume power and which laws go into effect.

“For us to sit back and do nothing is kind of frightening,” Ray said, to which a few attendees suggested the NAACP help train people interested in running for office or organizing campaigns at the local level.

Audience members further advocated for the NAACP to support programs aimed at reintroducing ex-convicts to society. In Texas, felons are ineligible to vote until they have completed their punishment or been pardoned.

Linson and others said a number of formerly incarcerated people feel disenfranchised because they are unable to obtain jobs due to their status as felons.

Improving the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, mental and physical health care resources in low-income neighborhoods, educational opportunities and mentorship programs for black youth, and financial empowerment were among other issues raised at the meeting.

NAACP Forward is hosted at Ella Austin Community Center.
NAACP Forward is hosted at Ella Austin Community Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Engaging and educating youth early and in different ways could help address some of these challenges, several attendees agreed.

“We need to teach our children … that they [need] education to work,” said Anna Randle, a volunteer with the Each One, Teach One program, lamenting the low local adult literacy rate. 

A group of Trinity University students of various ethnicities studying social justice attended Tuesday’s event. Two black students spoke of culture shock when they arrived in San Antonio from their hometowns and suggested creating programs that would help youth integrate into their new surroundings, especially those historically plagued by racial or cultural injustice.

“There’s a lot of fear surrounding places in the South,” said freshman Camille Johnson, a Portland, Oregon native, adding that the NAACP should work to increase its outreach to college students and Millennials.

Local and national leaders pledged support for the formation of NAACP chapters at colleges in San Antonio. Oliver Hill urged young people to take part in the forthcoming national convention and become part of the organization.

The 2018 conference – a first for San Antonio – will take place at the Henry B. González Convention Center. It coincides with the San Antonio chapter’s 100th anniversary and is projected to draw as many as 10,000 attendees and have a more than $10 million economic impact on the city, according to Visit San Antonio.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.