Akousa Ali

Akosua Ali is the president of the DC NAACP branch. (AFRO File Photo)

One of the NAACP’s most active and storied branches is being led by a new generation who respect the work of their predecessors but are addressing the new challenges facing Blacks. On June 9, 25 members of the D.C. NAACP met for their monthly meeting with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) as the primary speaker.

“Economic empowerment is one of the most important issues facing the city,” said Mendelson, invited to speak by D.C. NAACP chapter President Akosua Ali.

Mendelson talked about the incremental rise in the city’s minimum wage with the culmination of $15 an hour in 2020, and addressed issues such as affordable housing, the expansion of pre-Kindergarten education, the evolution of the University of the District of Columbia, and fighting truancy.

Branch members asked the chairman about helping the homeless, for specifics regarding the District’s housing policy, and proposed council legislation to legalize personal leave on a job up to 16 weeks.

The District’s NAACP branch has had prominent Black figures such as historian Carter G. Woodson, Black women’s rights activist Mary Church Terrell, and Lorraine Miller, the first Black to serve as clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, as members. The chapter played a role in fighting segregation, participating in the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns in the 1930s and in the 1950s the U.S. Supreme Court cases of Bolling vs. Sharpe and the District of Columbia vs. Thompson, cases that respectively outlawed racial bias in school and public accommodations.

After the height of the Civil Rights Movement the branch focused less on fighting legalized segregation and more on improving schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods, equality in health care, and fair minority contracting. In recent years, the branch has continued its advocacy for Black equality but in different arenas.

For example, the D.C. NAACP joined with the national organization to force Catholic University to accept a student branch in 2008 after rejecting it in 2004. Leaders of the D.C. NAACP supported the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in 2015, and earlier that year joined a number of progressive organizations to stop health care giant Corizon, a healthcare system allegedly responsible for numerous inmate and jail employee injuries and deaths, from getting a District government contract to treat incarcerated residents at the D.C. Jail.

“We are dealing with issues in a relevant and innovative way,” Ali told the AFRO. “While I am honored to lead an organization that played a role in the civil rights movement in this city, the challenges we face are different. The racism and inequality isn’t as blatant but is just as real.”

The chapter, through its health committee, launched its 2016 Health Program focusing on Black women’s lifestyle improvement through gardening, cooking, healthy eating, and physical activity.

“We have partnered with personal trainers, nutritionists, health coaches, and various health care professionals to offer exercise classes and health coaching to achieve health and wellness,” Tambra Raye Stevenson, the chair of the Health Committee, said. “The D.C. branch will address health disparities facing residents in all eight wards of the District of Columbia. The D.C. branch will host our program activities in churches, parks, schools, libraries, colleges, and community centers throughout all eight wards in Washington, D.C.”

There is an active effort to get young people involved in the branch and that was intentional, Douglass Sloan, a former first vice president of the group told the AFRO. “The president is young and when she came in she brought a lot of young people with her,” he said.

Krystal Leaphart, chair of the Youth Works Committee, told the AFRO, “That is a misconception that millennials aren’t interested in our activities. The issues are there and the NAACP is addressing them.”

Ali said the Legal Redress Committee, which helps people with their problems on the job or dealing with various government entities, is still going on strong. “We have received over 500 complaints since 2010 and we review each one that comes through our door on merit,” Ali said. “Whether it is dealing with consumer products, police harassment or employment we do our best to produce the best result for the complainant.”

Ali said the D.C. NAACP will have 10 delegates representing it at the Democratic national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio from July 16-20.