Gay, Hispanic Leaders Changing The Face Of The NAACP

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The Associated Press reports that immigrants, gays, and people of young ages and various ethnicities are now filling positions once held by blacks. In the past few years, chapters in a number of states have elected Hispanics as president. And Last December, A Jackson, MS chapter elected a white president for the first time. Host Michel Martin discusses the changes with Ravi Perry, the 28-year-old openly gay and black president of the Worcester, MA chapter. Also joining the conversation is Victor Diaz, the Dominican president of a Connecticut chapter.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, diversity within one of the nation's champions of diversity, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP. We're following on an Associated Press story detailing new leadership there. The story says that immigrants, gays, people of diverse ethnic backgrounds are now filling leadership positions once mainly held by African-Americans.

In the past few years, for example, group chapters in New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut have elected Hispanic presidents. Last December, Mississippi's Jackson State University chapter elected a white male as president for the first time.

We've called upon two new leaders in the ranks of this - the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, as we said. Ravi Perry is the new president of the Worcester, Massachusetts chapter. He's 28 years old. He's openly gay and he's African-American.

Also joining us, Victor Diaz. He is 32 years old. He's president of the Greater Waterbury chapter in Connecticut. He defeated an incumbent for the position last November. He started his post in January and he is of Dominican heritage and I welcome you both, and thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. RAVI PERRY (President, NAACP Worcester Chapter): It's an honor to be here.

Mr. VICTOR DIAZ (President, NAACP Greater Waterbury Chapter): Thank you.

MARTIN: And well, Ravi, let me start with you. You know, I'm not sure that a lot of 28-year-olds want to be chapter president for the NAACP, so why were you drawn to this leadership position?

Mr. PERRY: I've had a lifetime of history with the NAACP, beginning with my involvement as a member of the Toledo, Ohio branch in high school, with this (unintelligible) program there. And I also reactivated the college chapter branch at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor while I was a college student there.

So my interest in the NAACP is longstanding and I blame my parental heritage for that. I come from a stock of parents who are social justice advocates and PhDs in their own right and they insisted that we, as children, advocate on behalf of all people. And the NAACP is an organization that supports that effort.

MARTIN: OK, Victor, what about you?

Mr. DIAZ: I've always had a great respect for the organization, what it has done for - to benefit a lot of minorities in the past. And I just had a passion for it. I got involved about six years ago. And I just fell in love with the organization, what it stands for and what it does for the community.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit, if you would, Victor, about how you got involved because - and forgive me, you know, I certainly don't want to be stereotyping you, but there are organizations that are more closely aligned with issues that are of particular interest to Latinos. And so, I'm just interested in how you decided to spend your time with this organization.

Mr. DIAZ: I actually I was invited to a meeting and some of the issues that the organization was facing were some of the same issues that I was sitting down in other organizations of Latino heritage, such as the Hispanic Coalition in the Greater Waterbury area. And I noticed that we are facing the same issues, but nobody was really linking those two communities together and addressing the issues together. And I just started mentioning some of the stuff at both meetings, and then I decided to take a more leadership role and tried to address some of the issues.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the NAACP started as a multiracial organization initially, so many people might not, you know, many people might not remember that. I mean, the organization started in 1909 and always had a multiracial leadership.

But in recent years, you know, it's been identified more, you know, as the title suggests, with the interest of - particularly with African-Americans.

Victor, was your heritage an issue in your election when you ran for chapter president?

Mr. DIAZ: You know, it became an issue. It became an issue because some of - I would say some of the older individuals, some of the life members were - some people were using scare tactics, letting people that - or telling people that I would probably be addressing Hispanic issues and concentrating more on Hispanic issues more than anything.

But when the numbers actually came out, I had more support of the younger generation of African-Americans and Latinos alike. They came out and actually voted for me in a large margin, and I ended up winning the election three-to-one.

MARTIN: Well, what was your answer to that? For those who were uncomfortable or who had questions, how did you answer their concerns?

Mr. DIAZ: I sent a letter out to each individual member, and I named some of the issues that I wanted to work on, from education to job growth, and just growing the organization. And I just let them know that some of, you know, that we are facing some of the same issues, regardless if you're Hispanic or if you're black, that some of the issues being faced need to be addressed and that the leadership at the time were not addressing them.

So I wanted to take that responsibility on, and I wanted to not only address them, but to give a great name, again, to this organization and the Greater Waterbury area.

MARTIN: And Ravi, too, the organization has always had people of different orientations as a part of it, but I wanted to ask you as well whether your sexual orientation was an issue in your election.

Mr. PERRY: Well, it was, but it wasn't. I was identified as openly gay for some, though, not everyone. And some people came in late, so everyone might not have gotten that announcement. But I can definitely say that since that election has occurred, it has created some concerns.

MARTIN: How come?

Mr. PERRY: Well, I think most people did not expect that the Worcester branch would generate such an interest as a result of the leader's sexual orientation. And I do think that many people still believe, for whatever reason, that the NAACP is a predominantly black, Christian, older organization, and if you are not within that framework, then you are not someone that is a member of the NAACP.

And to that, I respond by indicating - as you, Michel, just indicated - that the NAACP has historically been diverse. That includes, historically, several members of various intergenerational age groups, and also of various orientations. And so this is not new. What's new about it is that we are actually elected in leadership positions. And I think that's a great change, bringing us back to the history of the organization.

MARTIN: Ravi, tell us a little bit more, if you would, about what you think it means that you are in this leadership position and what you hope to accomplish in this leadership position.

Mr. PERRY: Well, what I think it means is that we truly are, as an association, staying true to our mission, and that is to fight the political, economic, social, education, you know, equality of all people. And I want to stress, of all people. And I think that that is, as a professor, that is the educational lesson that many residents in my community in central Massachusetts are, frankly, getting because they're being reminded that the NAACP is for all people.

And that is something that is unique. And it's particularly, I think, encouraging, because in Worcester, we have a largely Latino population. It's a city that's roughly 35 percent minority, although the Hispanic and Latino population is 20 or so percent of that population - and so, very diverse members of the community, and some of them happen to not be straight. And I think that that type of experience allows more people to come into the organization that they long felt perhaps was not for them.

MARTIN: Hmm. And Victor, what about you? What do you hope to accomplish in this position? You've been telling us a little about that. But tell us a little bit more, if you would.

Mr. DIAZ: You know, just along what he mentioned there, that more people are going to be able to see what this organization does and open the doors for more individuals if you're straight or not, or if you're whatever color, instead of just thinking that NAACP is for a specific group or for another group.

I mean, just from the election alone, I mean, I've got different articles in newspapers and people writing to me on Facebook and saying, hey, you know, I didn't even know they allowed Hispanics in that organization. That's great. You know, I want to come on board. Or I didn't know they allowed this. And I want to come on board. And I think just that alone sends a huge message to build this organization and to really accomplish some great things in the community.

MARTIN: And, finally, I wanted to ask this question of each of you. There are those who say that it's fine for the NAACP to be part of coalitions, but that there are issues that are particular to African-Americans that have not yet been resolved, and that they say that their issue is not that there is - that you have broader identities than solely being African-American or identify with African-American.

But what they say is the issues - there are particular issues that are of particular concern to African-Americans, like police brutality, for example, disparate sentencing, and that they see as being particular challenges for African-Americans. And they are concerned not about U.S. individuals, but about the focus being diverted from that focus on those issues. And to those who have that concern, what do you say?

Victor, I'll give you the first word here.

Mr. DIAZ: I would say that whatever challenges are ahead, we'll address them, regardless of who is for and who is - the whole thing is about fair and balanced across the board. So regardless of it's an issue with an African-American or Jewish or whatever, going forward, the Greater Waterbury branch will be addressing some of those, regardless of race or any other ethnicity issues.

MARTIN: And, Ravi, final thought from you?

Mr. PERRY: Well, my response to that would be that those concerns are valid. There are some particular concerns to the African-American community nationwide, and in our local branches. I study that as a professor. I study black interests. And those are interests that might be of concern to other groups, as well. But because of disparate treatment, because of discrimination, et cetera, it might be of particular interest to African-Americans. So that is of concern.

And I would encourage people to remember that civil rights and civil liberties are for all people. And that is what we in the greater Worcester area are going to ensure that we get across to our membership here in central Massachusetts, because we want to emphasize that this is not an effort to take away from the agenda that is needing to be addressed in respect to African-American issues, but to emphasize that by building coalitions with other groups - with LGBT community, perhaps, with the Latino community, with Asian community, with the other religious minorities that might exist - that we are therefore linking our issues and our concerns as African-Americans with other groups. And that actually makes those issues stronger to be addressed, because we'll be in a better position to effectively address it.

MARTIN: All right. Ravi Perry is the president of the Worcester, Massachusetts chapter of the NAACP. He was kind enough to join us from Boston. Victor Diaz is the president of the Greater Waterbury, Connecticut chapter of the NAACP, and he joined us from member station WNPR in Harford, Connecticut.

Mr. Presidents, both, I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. PERRY: Thank you very much.

Mr. DIAZ: Thank you.

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