Friday, December 04, 2009

NAACP Youth Gathering Holds Promise

Christmas came early for the three dozen or so aspiring young political activists who responded to the NAACP flier inviting them to a primer on building a framework for leadership in the new political landscape ushered in on election day last month, even if the lessons didn’t go exactly as planned.

More than 250 people filled the atrium at Cleveland State’s Levin College of Urban Affairs last night in a pulsing, buzzing swarm that in some ways resembled a political convention. There was an intriguing mix of officials serving as faculty, but the audience included a rich array of political activists whose roots go back to the black community’s heady successes of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and a surprising number of current elected officials whose presence [in a delightful departure from normal protocol, was not officially recognized]. There was also a healthy dose of the hoi polloi, whose dismay at the perceived loss of black political power in the wake of the county’s new charter provided hot sauce for the evening’s brew.

An enterprising political aspirant could reflect on the mixed bag of wisdom that came from the invited panelists [State Rep. Robin Belcher, Lakewood mayor Ed Fitzgerald, Cleveland council members Mamie Mitchell and Zach Reed, Young Democrats president Curtis Thompson II, Jose Feliciano Jr. of the Hispanic Roundtable, and for good measure, community activist Eric Johnson and Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc. [State Senator Nina Turner was an invited panelist but chose not to participate.]

Perhaps the most important lesson a novice politico could have learned was the need for patience and composure in the face of the untidy part of public life: when citizens, feeling disempowered and deeply upset with the state of public affairs, take the microphone and say so in all kinds of ways.

Charged with keeping the proceedings under control were recent law school graduate NeKima Hill of the NAACP Youth Council and radio talk show host Basheer Jones. Hill focused on keeping both panelists and audience on point, though her predetermined questions left panelists groping to respond at times. Jones showed promise as a moderator, and earned audience gratitude when he gracefully but firmly forced ever-garrulous Gerald Henley to give up the microphone after an overlong declaration of his intent to run for a seat on the new county council.

Panelists expressed a range of views when asked why Issue 6 had passed. Lakewood mayor Fitzgerald observed succinctly that people had lost faith in the existing system, and expressed it by overturning the existing order. He said, “Sometimes elections are about an idea, and not about the specifics.”

Eric Johnson argued that Issue 6’s mandate was weak because of poor turnout. Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell pointed out that very few of the politicians who stated opposition to the new charter actually campaigned against it.

For Curt Thompson II, three factors contributed to the result: the overwhelming amount by which Issue 6 proponents outspent the opposition, the ongoing corruption revelations and allegations, and a lack of engagement by Issue 6 foes. Speaking to The Real Deal in a post-forum analysis, he said matter-of-factly, “there is no more Issue 5 or Issue 6. Issue 5 is dead and Issue 6 is a law. We must concentrate now on putting people into office who will concentrate on progress and growth.”

Councilman Zach Reed was blunt in his analysis. “Issue 6 passed”, he said, “because the Plain Dealer wanted it to pass, and they took advantage of the corruption issue.” He said several times, in apparent reference to Republicans and their allies, “the people who couldn’t get in the front door came around the back door.”

Reed did have some cogent advice for those young people who want a place set for them at the table. It’s about power, he told them, and it’s not in the nature of power to yield except in the face of a greater power.

Among those on hand, possibly to recruit new blood or take the measure of potential rivals, were Cleveland council members Mike Polensek, Eugene Miller, and councilman-elect Jeff Johnson; mayor-elect Gary Norton of East Cleveland, and Highland Hills councilman Kenneth Roberts. Also in attendance was former county commissioner Tim McCormack, giving fuel to talk he may be considering a run for county executive.

Other public officials observed at the forum were former election board chief Jane B. Sheats, former Cleveland safety director James Barrett, chief Cleveland Municipal Court referee Greg Clifford, former Central State University board chair Betty Pinkney, and deputy county administrator Lee Trotter.

• • •

The Plain Dealer account of this event reported attendance as “more than 100” and seemed to suggest that the event was a downer because many older citizens lamented the passing of the old order.

In fact, more than 125 attendees signed in according to the organizers, and at least an equal number did not.

Whether or not a sizable number of young people attended depends in part not only one’s ability to guess ages, but also how old you can be and still qualify as young. I saw a vibrant mix of young and old, tried and true, straight and crooked. There was pessimism yes. There was despair, yes. But when I left after 90 minutes, finally tearing myself away from a fascinating evening to keep a commitment a few blocks away, I left feeling that I might be witnessing multiple manifestations of the law of unintended consequences. First, that a ballot initiative developed with the intent by at least some of its partisans to diminish some segment of the electorate, might prove a galvanizing force to greater involvement by that very segment. Second, that the evening’s takeaway for a young leader could plausibly include receiving not only a realistic dose of what his or her constituents likely feel, but a commitment to work to channel the intensity and depth of those feelings in positive ways, and to feel supported in that quest by the veteran troops who came out to be a part of a night for the new and the young.

Kudos to the NAACP, its Youth Council, and its executive director, Stanley Miller. Here’s hoping they do it again, east side, west side, all around the town.


John Ettorre said...

Very interesting. Thanks for that alternate take.

Richard said...

Thanks, John.

It is sad enough that economic factors, the death of competition, and some lamentable editorial judgments have combined to create a local "news" environment where so many events in our community go unreported, ill-reported, or misreported.

Anonymous said...

This Eric I want to email you some information to think about.

John Ettorre said...

For me, it's beyond sad. It's a damn tragedy.

Richard said...

Of course you are correct, John. Tragic it is. It used to amaze me how I would attend a public meeting or event, and then eagerly in the next day's paper for a professional account. Sort of like watching your favorite team win a game, then wanting to savor the story in the next day's paper. The next day's paper would often make me wonder if the reporter and I had attended the same event. Now, with increasing frequency the story either does not appear or is flat-out misleading.

david said...

I too had another commitment that evening. Your account begs a question for me... what, I wonder, was the next step/phase? It seemed like another fantastic event, that unfortunately becomes another "drive by". Meaning, it seems like there was no closed energy loop, and a lot of the positive force that you describe dissipates little by little with no transition (or if you will translation) into a vector that as you wrote "might prove a galvanizing force to greater involvement by that very segment". A telling success for Ms. Hill, Mr. Jones and Mr. Miller, in addition to adeptly handling the desire of so many folks with something to say, will be to facilitate just such vectoring. Nice reporting, thanks

Richard said...

David, your comment does put a finger on the question, "Where do we go from here?" The answer will come from several sources, all rooted in the community.

First, I would expect the NAACP and its Youth Council, as sponsors of this event, to build on it, perhaps by having more targeted forums throughout the community.

Second, many young people are already involved in politics, from working on campaigns to running for office, etc. Next year will offer unparalleled opportunities for people of all ages to engage or re-engage in political activity.

Young people like Carl Stokes and Barack Obama have shown us how it is done. They grounded themselves in community, they studied, they consulted their elders and processed the information as feedback, not as gospel. They made their own choices based on their analysis, and above, they worked hard to succeed and were not disheartened by the inevitable setbacks along the way.