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NAACP youths fight to save job of leader

DETROIT — DETROIT -- The NAACP youth director who conceptualized the civil rights organization's mock funeral for the N-word is among the more than 70 staff members who are losing their jobs because of financial troubles - prompting a protest yesterday outside the office of the group's chairman.

Amid the organization's 98th annual convention, the group of young NAACP members demanded a meeting with Chairman Julian Bond to discuss their concerns and to try to reverse the staff cut.

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Without Victoria Lanier, the regional youth field director, the organization will lose a vital link between young membership and the administration at the Baltimore headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, they said. Moreover, they said, her loss is yet another example of an NAACP culture that does not embrace its young members.

"By taking away our director, you are making the age gap that much wider," said Juanita Harvey, 15, of Philadelphia. "Yes, we have our own youth division, and the people at the top talk about how the youth is our future, but they don't talk to us about our concerns. We have no connection."

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Bond met with a group of eight young NAACP members for about 45 minutes yesterday afternoon. While he made no decision on the fate of the youth director, Bond agreed to meet with the group again today to discuss a possible fundraiser directed toward keeping the slot open, said Harvey.

But first, Bond said, he commended the group on their determination and courage.

"I congratulated them for following our motto, which is 'speak truth to power,'" he said in an interview with The Sun.

When Harvey and the other high school-age participants left Bond's office at the Cobo Center, they were greeted with cheers from a crowd of about 30 other students, chanting "NAACP!"

"I think it went better than I thought it would," said Harvey. "I was expecting him to give us a whole lot of politician kind of talk. He actually spoke to us as if he actually cared. I came out smiling. We didn't get an answer today, but a baby step is better than having no step at all."

But Harvey said she was not optimistic that Lanier will be able to keep her job. Without her, the organization's much-publicized N-word funeral would never have occurred, said the Rev. Elisha B. Morris, youth adviser for the Philadelphia chapter.

"She was the bridge," he said. "Not only do directors like her bridge the gap between the ages, the youth felt that Victoria was looking out for them."

Lanier's position was eliminated last month when NAACP leadership shrank its national staff by about 40 percent through attrition and layoffs. Leaders announced that the cuts were necessary to prevent the organization from further depletion of its reserve fund, which it has tapped for about $10 million over the past three years.

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The NAACP is also closing its seven regional offices, eliminating directors and regional youth directors - including Lanier, whose area includes branches in New England, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and Europe.

Bond told the young members that the NAACP's financial troubles have forced tough choices.

"Every department at the NAACP suffered," he said. "I used to have three people in what used to be the chairman's office. That office has been eliminated."

Still, critics said yesterday that they hoped the NAACP could find other areas to trim.

"All these receptions, these bodyguards for the national leaders, driving around in all these limos - these are more important than connecting with the youth?" said Morris.

Lanier said she was flattered by the youth group's effort to keep her and proud that they stood up for something they believed in.

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Lanier, 31, would not discuss her departure but said she believes a lack of trust exists at both ends of the age spectrum.

"Both sides need to work together," she said. "Young people need to accept some accountability as well. And I think today they showed their power in numbers - that they do follow their heart."

NAACP national board member Hazel N. Dukes of New York said that while she encouraged the young members to voice their concerns to Bond, she believes the NAACP does an excellent job incorporating youths' views into its national agenda.

"There is a structure in place where they have a voice," she said.

Bond said the NAACP is the only organization like it that allows minors to be board members. The organization reserves seven slots for members under 21, who are elected by the NAACP's 30,000 youth members.

"I've served with board members who are high school students," he said.

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kelly.brewington@baltsun.com


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