The Baltimore Branch of the NAACP has a new face, city housing official Tessa Hill-Aston. The Northwest Baltimore native was elected president Nov. 16, defeating longtime former head, G.I. Johnson, by 142 votes. While this was her first presidential run, she has served on the NAACP executive board for 15 years, most recently as second vice president.
Hill-Aston, 60, is the first woman to hold the two-year presidency since the honorable Enolia McMillan, who completed her local tenure in 1984 to become the national president until 1990.
The new branch leader recently sat down for a Q &A with the AFRO.
AFRO: Why did you decide to run for the presidency?
TH: Well, I decided to run after some encouragement from other people on the executive board. It wasn’t something I had planned.
Being president is going to be a challenge that I’m looking forward to and I will implement all the rules and regulations of the NAACP while initiating outreach. We have already been meeting with the president of the Caribbean Association, who is a female, and I just met with the female president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We are going to be doing some work together. We are going to reach out to other ethnic organizations and corporate America for partnerships. One of the things that I want to do is work outside the box. We have standing committees but along with that I’m going to bring in some other people to be advisors so we can get more support and write grants and do things that help youth and young people through leadership programs.
AFRO: Speaking of youth, it seems that the NAACP does not have many young members. Are you planning to do any outreach to target this group?
TH: Yes, but let me say that we do have young people but it’s not given a lot of attention in terms of PR. We have a Morgan State chapter, a New Shiloh Baptist Church youth group and just recently, “Doc” instrumented last year, a chapter at Northwest High School. So, we do have youth involved but it’s probably not showcased enough and I would like to recognize the young people more so other students will want to join and get involved… Even separate from college and separate from the churches, I want a youth component with young leadership so they can learn and understand that the NAACP started over 100 years ago and it is still needed just as much today in 2010 going into 2011. Some of the obstacles look different but racism and blockages are still there for people of color and there is also a need to work together with all communities.
AFRO: What is your first plan of action as president?
TH: We are going to have a strong housing committee because that has been my background—housing and homelessness. We are going to have a strong youth component. And when I talk about youth, I’m thinking teenagers up to early 30s and we want them to get more involved and to feel comfortable.
And voter registration—next year is an election year; we are going to do strong voter registration starting with people 18 and up. We will go from community to community and we will have people on the board that will take different areas of the city. We want a strong force of people coming out to vote and understand why they are voting and who they should vote for and investigate the candidates in an intelligent way. That’s very, very important. We’ve been doing that but we want to do more.
AFRO: How did you become interested in housing, homelessness and foreclosure prevention?
TH: I used to work with the Office of Employment Development. I was a counselor for women and became a mentor and when I got a promotion, I went into housing. Housing…there is a lot of meat there. Housing development, torn down houses, boarded up houses, people coming in that have evictions, public housing residents—and I’ve worked with that population—and then I got involved with helping people with disabilities and homelessness. My specialties right now are senior citizens and people with disabilities. But with seniors, we found out, I’d say about three years ago, that it was getting to be a lot of seniors coming in the shelter and we are talking about people over 65. So, I started working with them and started to find out all the reasons for their lack of housing—issues with families, lack of income, evictions, foreclosures. So, we would try to get people back on their feet.
I think all those experiences made me want to be involved and I’m happy. It’s been a good experience and I learned a lot and still have a lot to learn and do.
AFRO: You are the first woman president for the Baltimore chapter in 30 years, since Enolia McMillan. How does it feel?
TH: Yes. Enolia McMillan was my vice principal when I was at Cherry Hill Junior High School. She was the vice principal and she knew my family. I had an aunt that was in the school system so she knew my family name and I met her here at the branch at an event years ago. Very sophisticated, elegant lady and I’m glad I had the privilege of knowing her when I was in junior high school and when I re-met right here in this office. It’s big shoes to follow.
AFRO: Mrs. McMillan went on to become the first woman president for the national NAACP. Do you see that in your future?
TH: Oh no . When I agreed to run for president, I went to the library and read some literature on Enolia McMillan. Even though I had known her, I wanted to read the history. I was just so overwhelmed with the things she has done. There was a time frame of things I read—how she got to where she was, how she came from the South and was teaching and she fought for living wages and she stood up as a woman and just became more and more positive and aggressive with her route to help other people. It’s because of her that this building is here, that’s why it’s named after her. We are one of the few branches in the whole United States that owns a building. This building is paid for and it was under the guidance and leadership of Enolia McMillan. She also orchestrated national coming to Baltimore, so we are very grateful for that. She did a lot of good things. My hat’s off to her. She was a dynamic woman and the time when she was in leadership, there were a lot of issues that people could see and smell.
In my time of leadership, there are a lot of things they don’t see but if someone came in here for three or four hours, they would hear the phone ringing, see people knocking on the door, asking for help and assistance because they think they were not treated fair. Every day mail comes in with five to 10 people writing us. Just a couple days ago, a woman came by and said she was treated unfairly by a state police officer.
AFRO: How do you handle these situations?
TH: We have someone in here every Thursday that deals with labor and civil rights issues—a person from the city agency for human relations. They have been on staff here for about five years. We have a complaint form. We also have committees that sit around the table—we have a person in charge of prison, we have a person in charge of education, we have a head person of health and labor. We want to beef up the committees and be able to solve more problems and do even more outreach to let pe