by Jordan Green
Students at an NAACP youth conference hear messages about self-esteem and being safe when they encounter the police.
A youth summit for area high school students sponsored by the High Point NAACP put a new twist on the slogan “black lives matter,” which is typically framed as a protest against institutional racism.
Under the banner of “My life matters,” the summit — the first in what organizers hope will become an annual event — largely shifted the externalized protest of “black lives matter” into an inward focus on self-development.
“We’re here to let you know that your life does matter,” Oveter McLean, president of the High Point NAACP, told the roughly 40 students assembled in the auditorium at Welborn Middle School on July 25. “Not just one color, all colors.”
She told the students, who came from Andrews High School, Penn-Griffin School of the Arts and Southwest High School in High Point, Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, and Page High School in Greensboro, that the word “colored” in the organization’s full name — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — means “all people.”
Several speakers addressed the students, including Jadon Success, a positive rapper with two popular YouTube videos that celebrate urban areas of High Point; Greg Commander, a motivational speaker, who shared his story about rehabilitating himself and earning a bachelor’s degree after serving 18 years in federal prison; and Calvin Shorter, an educator who operates a charter school in Greensboro.
The Rev. Brad Lilley, who serves on the executive committee of the High Point NAACP, told the young people that recent events motivated organizers to put on the summit.
“Across the nation, we see young people who have lost their lives to the police and others,” he said. “A cry has gone up that black lives matter, even saying all lives matter. So we want you to understand — that’s why there’s this conference is because all lives matter.”
Lilley, a former member of the Black Panther Party and pastor at Shekinah Glory International Ministries, talked about mass incarceration and the resegregation of schools by race, about recent decisions by the US Supreme Court to limit voting rights while allowing ever greater sums of money in the political process. He compared the present historical moment to 50 years ago, when people marched and died for voting rights, and said young people today have a similar opportunity “to transform the nation.”
When the pastor asked the young people to stand up and proclaim, “My life matters,” some complied while others slouched in their seats or stared down at their smart phones. Some mumbled the slogan into their hands, while others stood with arms folded or shifted uncomfortably from side to side.
“When you walk into a store or your driving down the street you need to know that your life matters,” Lilley continued. “If you believe that, you’ll show it. When you say your life matters, you’ll project that in your actions and your conversations.”
As the program progressed into the late morning, Lilley raffled off event posters and headphones. He announced that there were five sponsored NAACP memberships for youth.
“How many of you would like to belong to the High Point NAACP youth department?” he asked.
Two hands tentatively went up, then three and four. Then McLean instructed the young people to count off and break into small groups for discussion.
Trent Stubbs, who starts his first year at GTCC in August, and Landon Leftwich, a rising junior at Page High School, wound up in group No. 5. They decided to tackle the first question: “How do you feel about the recent events that have happened in our nation?” Although Lilley mentioned as examples the Charleston shooting and recent church burnings, Stubbs and Leftwich focused on the killing of unarmed black men.
They agreed that people who have adverse experiences with the police need to take more personal responsibility. They also expressed misgivings about people who react with violence to police abuses and said people should not tar all police officers with the same brush because of the misbehavior of some.
“You have a choice,” said Stubbs, a youth member of the NAACP. “Don’t act crazy and do something that will get you in a situation.”
Leftwich said he often sees his peers try to provoke the police, including at Page High School. “I have a friend who cusses out a police officer,” he said. “I tell him, ‘If you give the worst, expect the worst.’”
Even in the case of Walter Scott, a black motorist who was shot and killed by a white police officer in North Charleston, SC, the two said that the victim shouldn’t have run from the officer.
“People get stuck on themselves,” Leftwich said. “I see videos of white police officers shooting white people, but people don’t say s*** about that.”
Another perspective came from Jewel Tillman, a rising junior from Penn-Griffin School for the Arts, who reported back from group No. 3. Tillman said her group felt scared about recent national events. When Lilley asked Tillman whom her group felt scared for, she responded, “For us, black people, white people, youth, everyone living in our society.”
Before the conference broke for a lunch of hot dogs and pizza, the students watched a video with 10 rules of survival for encounters with police before hearing from police Chief Marty Sumner. The chief said he agreed with the advice in the video, which included the admonition to not make sudden movements or argue with an officer about a citation or arrest.
“If an officer stops a car, we don’t know if we’re dealing with a good guy or a bad guy,” Sumner said. “So give us the signal that you’re a good guy.”
Lilley recounted a recent stop by police. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he kept his cool.
“I have to watch my tone of voice, my facial expressions,” he said. “I know I can’t have an attitude. I know that officer is nervous, too. Both of us got up in the morning and put our pants on, and just want to get home safe. We just want you to get home safe.”