Benjamin Jealous was just 35 when he was selected to run the NAACP. He was one of the youngest chief executives in the nation, running one of the oldest advocacy organizations.
At 40, Jealous decided there are additional ways he can serve. He’s forming a political action committee (PAC) with Steve Phillips and Andy Wong, co-founders of PowerPAC. Jealous hopes that the new PAC will “last (election) cycle-to-cycle,” have a strong grassroots element and help elect black, Latino and progressive candidates. Jealous, Phillips and Wong raised $10 million for then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007 through Vote Hope, a PAC they formed for the 2008 election cycle.
Jealous last month announced that he would leave the civil rights organization at the end of the year. It concludes a re-energizing, five-year run. Jealous is credited with quelling tension between the board and staff, as well as putting forth an aggressive federal and state agenda.
Jealous said he wants to “focus on training the next generation of leaders in this country.” With the aging of Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, John Lewis and Wade Henderson, a new generation of African-American activists are making their mark in the nonprofit sector.
“As a sector, generally, we’re clearly going to be seeing more and more transitions. The question is who’s going to take those roles,” said Richard Buery, president and CEO of Children’s Aid Society in New York City.
As African-Americans have advanced in society and more opportunities have become available, Buery said leadership has been coming from more diverse spheres. “The ministry has played a critical role in black leadership, but as opportunities for people of color have grown, not surprisingly, we’ve seen a greater diversity of where leaders are coming from, people with professional backgrounds like law, education, medicine and business,” he said.
There’s more of an openness to consider young people for leadership positions. Organizations are willing more and more to consider those who are coming from different backgrounds, who might not have the same history, and might be willing to look at those folks in leadership roles, Buery said.
Among the recent appointments he cited at New York City charities are Sheena Wright at United Way of New York City, Margarette Purvis of the Food Bank for New York City and Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
It’s not only young people but young people of color who are taking the reigns of New York charities, he said. “These folks hopefully will be part of the community, collaborating for decades to come,” Buery said, adding that the world of New York politics has seen new blood as well, with the election of 43-year-old Hakeem Jeffries to Congress, and Ken Thompson ousting an incumbent last month for Brooklyn District Attorney.
The challenge has always been and remains getting institutions and leaders in society to look at those who might not traditionally be looked at as leaders, Buery said. An organization that’s typically seen male leadership may struggle to see a female as leadership and likewise it might be a stretch for an organization with historically white leadership to see someone non-white in a leadership post. In opening the hearts and minds of boards of directors or executive search firms, Buery said organizations won’t limit themselves to thinking of leadership in the same way they have in the past. “Often times it’s still a leap of imagination. Organizations have to be self-reflective: Are they seeing talent where it exists,” he said.
Buery was 37 when he was hired as Children’s Aid Society’s CEO four years ago. Not only was he the first African-American CEO but he also was young relative to other leaders. “We need board (members) in the nonprofit sector willing and able to be open minded in that way,” he said.
“We’ll probably see and hear his voice for a number of years to come on important issues,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, said of Jealous.
Often times the story that’s told around age and the civil rights movement isn’t always accurate. Fifty years ago at the March on Washington, people like Julian Bond and John Lewis were in their teens and early 20s having great impact and leadership in terms of what was happening for black people and mobilizing support. While there were many young leaders, there also were a number of elders who “were doing amazing things,” he said.
Robinson pointed to Philip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, who has risen in public prominence since leading a month-long sit-in at the Florida state capitol after the George Zimmerman verdict. He also pointed to Judith Browne Dianis, who runs Advancement Project, a next-generation civil rights advocacy organization, and ColorOfChange’s own co-founder, Van Jones, who now has a platform on television at CNN.
Jealous should be on the cover of every business magazine in America as “turnaround artist of the year,” according to Van Jones. He “took a failing, faded brand and turned it into a revived powerhouse of an organization in five years,” Jones said. The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the world “and it was starting to show until Ben got there,” he said. Jones expects that “his best contributions are ahead” given that Jealous is just 40 years old.
Jealous also deserves some credit because people with his pedigree and level of talent would have gone to Silicon Valley, Jones said.
Among the emerging leaders Jones cited were Majora Carter, an environmental leader and founder of Sustainable South Bronx and co-founder and CEO of StartUpBox.SouthBronx; author and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry; and, Ohio State University professor and civil rights advocate Michele Alexander, who wrote the 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow.”
“There’s a lot of fruit growing on that tree that MLK planted,” Jones said, and because leadership is spread out, there’s not likely to be another singular voice.
Jones founded several nonprofit, advocacy organizations over the years and said it’s both harder than it’s been before and easier these days. Money is tighter and foundations ask tougher questions. But it’s easier to get started because of newer efforts that weren’t available in years past, with technology.
People can start something online, via Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. “A lot of things that are happening nowadays don’t fit the usual mold of, get a 501(c)(3), get a grant from the Ford Foundation,” Jones said. Social media makes it “easier getting something started, responding to something awful,” like the Trayvon Martin shooting. “That was more a function of young people on social media refusing to drop the subject rather than any civil rights organizations,” he said. “You will hear from a lot more different voices, a democratized shaping of the agenda…that’s going to become a portal into public impact.”
Starting an organization in a traditional way is difficult because some foundations have jumped on the “metrics quantification bandwagon,” and “some of those problems need more patient capital to be invested to develop responses over time, and to develop leaders and models over time,” Jones said. “It’s very difficult for the people who are brand new to jump over the hoops and barriers to traditional philanthropy. It’s easier for them to use” new tools, like social media, crowdfunding and digital video.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was fantastic, Robinson said, but the question is what will be the new strategies and tactics that will not be just marches over next 50 years, “to mobilize and animate oppressed communities to make their voices be heard.”
It also will be up to Millennials to decide what strategies, organizations and tools they want to employ to make their voices heard, Robinson said, adding that they can’t wait and expect legacy organizations to provide that platform. “Our ability to be effective as a sector, as a community of activists, depends on us to continue to innovate and do things differently,” he said.
Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors, accepted Jealous’s formal letter of notice. “We thank President Jealous for his time leading the Association,” said Brock via a statement. “Under his leadership, the NAACP has built a highly competent staff that will carry our mission forward and meet the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Our board, staff and volunteer leaders throughout the country deeply appreciate his sacrifice, and will continue to implement our game-changing goals for the next half century that include the restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, implementing Trayvon’s Law, bolstering civic engagement efforts and ensuring our community is enrolled in the Affordable Care Act exchanges.” NPT