About 300 high school and college members of NAACP youth and college councils from across the state were given that advice and honored for their work in their own communities during the annual NAACP Vernon Jarrett Youth Awards Luncheon at the Doubletree Hotel in Oak Ridge.
The event was part of the 73rd annual Tennessee NAACP State Convention held Thursday through Sunday in Oak Ridge. The Haywood County Youth Council was given the award as Youth Council of the Year.
“We’re so proud of you for all that you do,” state NAACP President Gloria J. Sweet-Love told the assembled youth. “You are not going to be leaders; you’re already leaders. And we greatly appreciate that. Your future is so bright, and I don’t feel bad because I know we’re in good hands.”
The keynote speaker for the luncheon, which was co-hosted by the Oak Ridge Youth and College Council, was Kevin Myles, the NAACP’s field director for the Southeast Region, which includes Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Myles urged the youth to work from within their own communities to bring necessary change. And he told them that they need to move beyond the idea that they must accept the role of oppressed people.
“I know we’re not supposed to play the oppression Olympics,” Myles said during his address. “But because we have suffered so many indignities over so long a time, we have developed the ability to sustain ourselves even in those darkest moments.
“We learned how to build a community that could endure those darkest moments. That is a gift. It is also our curse, because our remarkable resiliency allows us to cope with things that we should not cope with. It has given us the ability to acclimate to things that we should not accept.”
And he told the group, “Everybody in here, either you or somebody in your family, when you go to that house, you recognize when you get close to it by the condition of the streets you’re driving on. … Those streets haven’t been paved in the last 25 years.”
On the subject of the so-called “food deserts” that minority and rural communities often endure, Myles said:
“Either you or somebody in your family lives in a community that does not have a full-service grocery store, but you’ve got a bunch of Dollar Trees and Dollar Generals selling you discount materials because it’s close to the expiration date.”
And he told the group that accepting the status quo isn’t the NAACP’s way. “We have developed a cultural ability to say in the midst of all this, we’re going to find some joy. … But our gift is our curse,” Myles said.
“So the question I have for you is: If you’re an NAACP-er and you want to distill your role down to what you’re supposed to do as a member … You are somebody who changes things. That is the job of the NAACP. If you aren’t changing something, you are not doing the work.”
Myles summed up his charge to the youth, saying”
“To make change, I would submit to you, means that we have to be consciously engaged in a battle to challenge our own comfort. I’m talking about the internal struggle …that we have to fight our own acceptance of the status quo.
“Challenging our sense of comfort means that you as youth … have to be able to maintain your focus even when everybody else is telling you it’s time to move on,” he said.
After the luncheon, the youth groups drove to Clinton for a tour of the Green McAdoo Cultural Center. Among them was Clinton High School senior Jacori Wimes, who is a member of the Oak Ridge Youth Council.
He said one of the highlights of the luncheon was getting to meet and talk with Sweet-Love, the NAACP state president.
Sweet-Love praised Wimes and his fellow Oak Ridge council members as she met with him after the luncheon.
She said the state convention is held every third year in a location either in West or East Tennessee, after two years of conventions in Nashville, where the group is headquartered. Under its bylaws, the group is not allowed to hold its convention in Knoxville, so Oak Ridge was chosen because of its “close proximity to Knoxville,” Sweet-Love said.
“It’s a good place for us to be,” she said. “You have a great, super-active [NAACP] unit here in Oak Ridge.”