It’s not always easy to get young adults involved in social justice causes.
Millennials are busy starting careers, families and independent lives. Finding time to speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminatory practices is difficult — especially for those unfamiliar with political activism.
But highlight multiple social justice causes and offer free food in a hip Duluth ciderworks, and young people might make room on their calendar.
The Social Justice Social is one way Twin Ports organizations are working to reach more young people. A recent gathering organized by the Duluth NAACP filled the Duluth Cider tap room in Lincoln Park as leaders delivered speeches, organizations introduced their work, and groups talked over food and drink.
The place buzzed with conversation, energy and a sense of purpose.
Duluth NAACP Executive Board Second Vice President and Young Adult Committee Chair Terresa Moses said the organization has prioritized new membership among people ages 21-40. Moses said many in this age group have a hard time engaging with long established and successful institutions like the NAACP.
“A lot of times, they don’t feel like they have a voice. They don’t feel like they see themselves there or they don’t feel nurtured to use whatever gifts they have in an effective way,” she said.
Moses said finding a place in a prominent national organization can be intimidating. “I think it’s more about folks not wanting to compete with the historical progress that’s already been made,” she said.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 in Springfield, Ill., with a mission to advocate for civil rights, equal opportunity and voter participation.
The NAACP played an important role in national desegregation efforts and approval of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964.
According to its website, the Duluth branch was established in 1920 after a mob broke into the city jail and lynched three black circus workers accused of an alleged rape. The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial was dedicated in 2003 on East First Street and stands to remember the incident.
Today, the Duluth branch of the NAACP has approximately 275 members, an Executive Board headed by Stephan Witherspoon and 12 active committees. Fewer than half its membership is between ages 21-40.
Moses, 33, moved to Duluth after accepting an associate professor position in graphic design at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She attended an NAACP meeting during her first week in town.
“I wanted to make sure I could offer my talents and skills in an effective way in something that was going to be community building,” she said. “I’m interested in making sure what I do is for the good of our community. So because I’m passionate about that, I kind of wedged my way in.”
Moses said the Duluth branch of the NAACP wants to welcome young people and sustain the organization.
“I think there’s always going to be this fight between older generation and newer generation, but both folks need to see the value that each other bring to the movement,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been tasked to do, to make sure we have that younger generation to fall back on when people get tired, people get worn out, or need to leave or retire.”
More than a dozen activist groups joined the NAACP in sponsoring the Social Justice Social, including the Feminist Action Collective, the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, The American Indian Community Housing Organization and Loaves and Fishes. Moses said the quarterly gathering gives young adults options for community participation.
“A lot of them are like, ‘I hate racism. I hate sexism. I hate homophobia. But I don’t know where, or what organizations to get involved in and what kind of spaces that will value my voice,’” she said.
NAACP treasurer Emily Drevlow said the Social Justice Social gives young adults options and expands their community.
“I think it’s tricky when you’re young in Duluth to meet people at all if you’re not from the area and also meet people you have things in common with,” she said.
Drevlow works in the University of Minnesota Duluth Office of Diversity and Inclusion and said she saw a need to improve community race relations.
“I’m a white person living in Duluth,” she said. “I’ve seen the need for more awareness about racial issues and just how different life is if you’re a person of color in Duluth versus being a white person in Duluth. So it felt like a nice chance to make a difference.”
NAACP Executive Board member Sandra Oyinloye is involved in other social justice groups but said the fight against racism will always be high on her list.
“The NAACP seeks to eliminate racism and also eliminate barriers to people of color,” she said. “Because we live in a predominantly white community, services like that — and just having community around people who are willing to fight injustices and make sure that a community is held accountable — is really important to me.”
Oyinloye said creating spaces for young adults to work together, thrive and be heard will increase their participation and success. There also needs to be some time to chill out.
“The movement also needs spaces where we can be creative and spaces where we can relax,” she said. “Because this work can be quite burdensome, and it takes a lot out of you sometimes. So creating spaces like this for young folks to be engaged but also have a sense of relief from all the stress is key.”
Courtney Clark and Tasha Jokela said they attended the Social Justice Social to make connections and look for places to help. People of color in Duluth face unfair housing and education issues that need to be confronted, they said.
“Having connections to different organizations is key when you are working with young people,” said Jokela, who works with disadvantaged youth at Life House Duluth. “Just being able to connect with other people in the community and know what’s happening and how I can help with any organization that’s fighting the good fight.”
Clark said it’s important for young adults to get involved now.
“We’re looking to our elders for their wisdom and strength and knowledge but at the end of the day we’re going to have to fight that fight because it will be on us to not only help ourselves but help the next generation as well,” she said. “It’s exciting. It’s good to see that people are here and they are networking and mobilizing for something that’s positive for our community.”
Mark Nicklawske is a Duluth freelance journalist and arts critic for the Duluth News Tribune.