Carmen Watkins flew in from her home in Texas last weekend to help the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People get back on track.
The national field director for the western United States is, along with her eastern counterpart, No. 2 in the national association. She was here in November, along with other national NAACP officials, to help execute a long-delayed election for chapter president. Former president Henry Allen had bumped heads with state conference president Rosemary Lytle and others over the details of the election, as well as other issues.
Allen, a Republican, often said that his struggles with Lytle, a Democrat, and others in the organization resulted from partisanship. He did not run in the November election, and Lisa Villanueva was elected. Allen protested the election, but the matter was settled by the national NAACP early this year. Villanueva is settling into her position, and Watkins visited to ensure she was ready to handle presidential election year activities.
In an interview with the Independent, Watkins said it's not unusual for problems to crop up at the chapter level, saying "90 percent of the people who do work with the NAACP are volunteers."
"I think usually people are well-intentioned, good-intentioned, and just don't follow the guideline," Watkins said. "Such was the case here. And when that happens, we will come down and make sure that the election is done properly and then we move forward in trying to rebuild."
Watkins says election years are busy for the NAACP, which does a lot of voter education and outreach. The organization uses a sophisticated system to identify unregistered voters and pinpoint other information, such as race and gender. That's used to do outreach in various ways, from door-to-door stops to phone calls, encouraging people to vote. The NAACP also arranges for rides to a polling place if needed.
"In our last election we captured over a million voters at the NAACP directly, nationwide [who we were] responsible for turning out to the polls," Watkins says. "That includes registrations and those who went out [to vote]."
The NAACP also creates platforms on issues and combats voter suppression efforts. Voter suppression, Watkins and Lytle say, may come in the form of restrictive laws or from organizations putting out misleading information.
"Just a couple of elections back in Colorado we had the robocall, 'Make sure you get to the polls on Wednesday,'" Lytle says. "And everybody received that call at their home.'"
Election Day, of course, is on a Tuesday.
We spoke to Watkins about issues facing the black community, the election, the impact of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP's ongoing role.
Indy: Voting will be a huge focus this year. Are there certain issues you're interested in hearing candidates address?
CW: "There are areas historically where we've always been lagging. I mean the gap has always been huge. Those areas: education, economic development, criminal justice — which is sometimes not justice for our community — of course voter participation and voting rights. And we're interested in how they stand on those issues.
Health. You know, sometimes we don't think about health and environmental justice as civil rights issues, but they are. If you just look at Flint [Michigan, where water has been contaminated by lead] versus the impact of the water, which then can end up being a health impact. You think of it being a health impact, certainly it can be, down the line, if you don't have access, it could be a job impact, it could be a work impact, it could be a housing impact. You know, you close up a neighborhood, now you've got an education impact.
I mean, all of these things are compounding and we have to look at it with a wide lens. We can't be so narrow to say it's just the economy. Yes, we'd love a booming, bustling economy, but does that mean a bustling economy for the communities that we represent? Often that's not the case. So whoever the candidates are: Where do you stand on the issues that we rally around and that we fight for all the time, not just during an election period?
How do you feel about free, quality education? What does that really mean? When we see across the country a number of schools closing in minority neighborhoods, and either merging, or our kids being bused. But I know, we all know, that when you close a school, you're killing that community. So there's an economic impact to that community. So who's standing up for that?"
Lytle: "She doesn't even know about Helen Hunt." [The District 11 elementary school, which serves a diverse neighborhood near Memorial Park, is closing and students will move to nearby John Adams Elementary.]
CW: "No, I don't. But I'm sure there's Helen Hunts all over the country. If you look at any school district — it just seems like a model. You close down schools in minority communities, often you will partition off that land, or you'll pop a charter school in the middle of it, or if that doesn't happen, the community dies.
And after five or 10 years, you start selling it as warehousing district, or whatever the case may be. But you killed the community. And what happens to those residents who have invested? Who also believed in the American Dream? And they invested their life, their livelihood, bought their homes and raised their families. And where are they to go? And what do they do? Because certainly the home that they lost, they can't use that money to buy anywhere else, they don't have enough. And what if they're now 60 and not working anymore, or they're 70 or 80 and they're seniors? And now you're moving them into apartments when they lost the home that they invested in with their sweat and tears for that 20, 30 years.
That's a horrible legacy, but we see it all across the country. So this is really not time for fun and games, it's not time for fluff, it's not time for really cute statements from candidates. For us, this is real. And when you become president, or you choose not to, or you get a great appointment, or you decide what you're going to do next, these folks are still left in the trenches. And that's really why the NAACP has been around for 100 years. You know, often people just think about the march, they think about the protests, or they think about us voting, but it's much more than that. We spend our life's work working on these issues for our communities."
Indy: Black Lives Matter is a huge thing. It's played out online and social media, and it's been great at getting young people involved in the social justice movement, but in some ways it seems to have operated on its own.
CW: "When you get to a certain age, you want to conquer the world your way. I'm happy to see that we have not run from that. It was those young people years ago who sat at those counters at drug stores, and many left college, left high school, because they wanted to take a stand right then. Many of them were organized by leaders outside of the NAACP, and that's great. But I think there's always a role for young people. I think what has gotten this country so excited about this is they call themselves Black Lives Matter. And I don't fear that. Because, you know, implicit in the statement is this: Yes, all lives matter, but if black lives don't matter than all lives don't matter.
You've got to weave it differently. And I think what people are responding to is that they wear the tag Black Lives Matter. ... I don't think it's exclusionary. It's exclusionary to say that all lives matter, and then we see our kids dying on the street. It's exclusionary to say all lives matter, and we see our children — black or brown — incarcerated at a higher rate. It's exclusionary when we are continuously being locked out of the process. Then our lives don't matter. And that's what they're talking about; they're talking about the marginalization of their existence. I think that is so strong and it's so powerful and it scares people. But really and truly, if you want to say all lives matter, than black lives have to matter.
... And I appreciate the question, but everybody wants some sort of negative statement from — I don't think it's just the NAACP, but established organizations — about Black Lives Matter, but why would we? These are our children..."
Indy: Well, I wouldn't think that you would have a bad thing to say, and I do think these young activists respect the legacy of the NAACP. But I think they see themselves as sort of the new dawn.
CW: "They are the dawn of the new day, in their mind. And as we all found out, when we grew older, it's like hmmm, OK, I was the new dawn at 21, 22, 23. [At] 25, I'm like, just day. [Laughs.] So I want to encourage, I encourage the ones in Texas, I encourage this group. I also encourage them to seek counsel. I would love to see them build a bigger platform. But I want them to contact Rosemary, I want them to contact me, but I don't need to be out front in their movement. I don't feel compelled to do that. There are things I can share and if they contact me, they contact others. And that's what it's all about, and I'm good with that..."
Indy: I was going to ask you, when you think about the things that Black Lives Matter is angry about right now, sadly, this has been going on a long time. It's not new, but maybe what's new about it is that everybody hears about it now. I don't know. Why do you think this is happening now?
CW: "This is my theory: Over the last, I'm going to say 10, 12 years, as a broad community, we've given ourselves permission and license to openly hate. We were a lot more polite, 15, 20 years ago. It's not that it wasn't there, but there was not this license to spew out hate in the name of free speech."
Indy: I was reading something a long time ago about the effect of Internet commenting. And basically, they said, it's like driving in your car, people are somehow less real to you when you're commenting. You don't think about someone actually reading it and being hurt by it.
CW: "Let me tell you, it's not just Internet. When we walked from Ferguson to Jefferson City in Missouri [in the march for Michael Brown, a young black man killed by a police officer], we went through a couple of small towns, rural towns ... in one place, they hung a deer from a tree with a noose. In some places, they put out beer, watermelon and fried chicken with candles. ... The back of our bus was shot out. There were places — my most vivid memory, we went through one town, one small town, and there was a school on the road that we were going to be coming down. And rather than them see — the children — they covered up all of the windows so the children couldn't look out at us walking. This wasn't in the '50s or the '60s. This was a year ago. In Missouri.
There was signs that read 'Go Home N-word.' How many times did people say, 'You need to go get a job, you lazy so-and-so.' It was a moment where you would know that this is real and it's how people feel, and whether they are responding on their own fear, or they're responding on prejudice and racism, it doesn't matter. It's really there."