All Articles Tagged "political activism"
Brian Benjamin Launches ‘Young Professionals United For Change’ To Increase African American Political Engagement
According to published reports, African American voter turnout at the 2012 Presidential Election was higher than that of whites for the first time in history – and crucial in securing Barack Obama’s victory.
Months of Congressional tension that pitted Red and Blue lawmakers against each other in nearly every significant policy issue, often politically tying Obama’s hands, no doubt led blacks to the polls in droves and in overwhelming favor of the embattled incumbent. But there were also plenty of folks behind the scenes, rallying African American support and working to ensure that the nation’s first black president wasn’t just a one-term wonder, including rising political star Brian Benjamin.
After seeing increased political interest among many of his own minority friends during President Obama’s first bid in 2007, Benjamin set out to create a vehicle to harness that interest and create a united front. Through his nonprofit, Young Professionals United for Change (YP4C), Benjamin’s mission is “to increase community service and civic engagement among young professionals of color, and in doing so, assist in strengthening economically-disadvantaged urban communities.” Here, we talk to him about the untapped power of our people and what it really takes to start a movement.
MadameNoire: What do you say to the Lupe Fiascos and others who believe that their vote doesn’t really count?
Brian Benjamin: If Lupe Fiasco and others think that the political process is all about just voting in the presidential election in November then maybe they would have a point. However, the political process is really about selecting issues you care about and finding candidates at the beginning of the process whether national or local to represent your interests. If you wait until the last minute to get involved, then you are responding to the interests of those who got involved at the beginning. We as African Americans tend to be reactive as opposed to proactive when it comes to civic engagement. We are usually protesting something or responding to something someone else is doing. For us to be effective, we need to be more proactive and start determining the political landscape. When you take that approach, the political process is definitely not a waste of time.
MN: Why do you believe that more young African Americans aren’t involved politically – particularly on the local level?
BB: Young African Americans don’t benefit from politics. We aren’t on Social Security or Medicare and most of us aren’t on Medicaid. We don’t get our jobs through politics for the most part. The young African Americans who work in or around politics are very active. Also, we live in a very selfish environment. Issues that impact the community are looked at as someone else’s problem. Young African Americans tend to be worried about their own employment and their own families. With that said, the number of young African Americans involved politically spiked tremendously during President Obama’s campaign because we thought President Obama represented us and his success would facilitate our success in our own professional and personal lives. As more young African Americans run for political office and get involved then you will see more of a spike on both a national and local level.
MN: Things have returned to relative quiet at the polls – for now. What are some ways that young professionals can get involved outside of election years?
BB: One easy way is to get involved in helping to elect local candidates they know and like or getting involved in some of the major issue initiatives like stopping gun violence. I am the Finance Chair for my local City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who is running for Speaker of the City Council. I am also supporting other candidates for local office. I imagine there will be a groundswell of support to help Cory Booker in his efforts to become the next black US Senator. Another thing that young professionals can do is join their local community boards or get involved with the National Action Network, NAACP, or the National Urban League’s efforts to advance causes important to our community.
MN: How do you think government would be different now if more young professionals were more politically engaged?
BB: I believe the government would be more forward looking and concerned about obligations that are being placed on the next generation. I also believe that government would have a more innovative approach to education funding and how we prepare our kids for the future. With new technology coming a mile a minute the younger generation is better able to assess how the government can harness technology to help our citizens efficiently and at lower cost. Also, I think we would move Election Day from Tuesday to Saturday or Sunday. There is no sensible reason that we have to vote on a work day. It discourages voting particularly in local elections and that wasn’t the intent. The original intent was to help farmers in the 1840s be able to vote without impacting business. This need no longer applies particularly in urban environments.
Girl talk is half the reason black women love to hit up the beauty shop on a regular, but long before women just showed up every week for a wash and set and a side of gossip, hair salons were the birthplace of political activism.
NPR recently talked about the civil rights element of black salons with Tiffany Gill, associate professor of history, African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Gill is the author of “Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry,” and in her book she talks about how black women came to the forefront of the beauty industry around the 1820s when it became unacceptable for black men to style white women’s hair and how enslaved women in Urban areas were even able to hire themselves out as stylists and make money.
Stemming from the entrepreneurial example set by Madame CJ Walker at the beginning of the 20th century, Gill said by the time the 1950s and 1960s rolled around, guidelines were written into beauty college curricula about how to engage clients in conversations about politics. She went on to talk about a South Carolina woman named Bernice Robinson who’s salon was known as a place for “all kinds of subversive activity.”
“She would literally be washing someone’s hair, put someone under the drier, be walking someone through the long kind of elaborate voter registration hurdles that black people had to go through and while someone was under the drier she would go and run someone down to the courthouse, try to get them to register to vote, and then come back,” she said.
“And then she actually took it to a more formal level where she would actually organize other beauticians in the area and tell them that, yes, within your space, as women come in, we can do citizenship education classes. We can help prepare people to vote. We can help prepare African-Americans to engage in civic activity and so they balanced their entrepreneurship with their politics.”
Gill said when she started her research she expected to see a decline in political activism inside shops today but she found that the conversation isn’t all weaves and kinky twists in the new millenium.
“I found in San Diego, there’s this very robust research as well as community activism happening, where beauty shops are being engaged in health activism. So everything from empowering beauticians to talk with their clients about HIV/AIDS, about mammograms – because they found that that was a space where African-American were willing to take care of their bodies, willing to talk about their bodies.
So it’s still there. It functions differently, but certainly the health activism, as well as domestic violence prevention, is something that’s happening very much in beauty shops today.”
In 2010, The L’Oréal Fondation D’Enterprise founded Hairdressers Against AIDS to provide in-depth training to thousands of salon professionals at special L’Oréal educational sessions, and this year they held their annual event in Harlem to address the high rate of new HIV diagnoses among African Americans in New York City. Several other black shops held independent events at their salons in recognition of Aids Awareness Month as well.
Were you aware of the history of social activism spurred in black beauty shops? Do you witness this type of activity in the salons you visit?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.