Most meetings make their way onto the calendar, but some materialize out of thin air. Brianna Reaves might stop by the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC) to run something by advisor Chris Williams. Next thing you know, Bilqiis Sheikh-Issa shows up, followed by Maya Jenkins and Dana Norwood.
Then it’s on.
“We didn’t come in to talk about business, yet somehow all of us are here,” Reaves, a sophomore who serves as president of UMW’s new NAACP college chapter, said of its executive board.
The board’s a sisterhood of sorts, a collection of young women, plus assistant secretary Cameron Washington and assistant treasurer Lewis Geter, who are ready to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to get this fledgling group off the ground. They feed off each other’s energy – meeting for hours and marking up whiteboards like nobody’s business. Focused on the NAACP’s civil rights mission, they’re set to make change, no matter how small.
“You can’t start a wave without a ripple,” Sheikh-Issa, a first-year student who serves as vice president, said of the chapter, chartered last May.
That’s exactly what happened – a ripple turned into a wave – when Williams became JFMC assistant director in September 2017. The Fredericksburg branch of the NAACP had been floating for a while the idea of a UMW chapter and asked JFMC Director Marion Sanford and Williams for help. Farmer, the late civil rights icon and Mary Washington history professor for whom the center is named, had been active in the organization, so it made sense, Williams said.
He went to work bringing Mary Washington into the mix of the more than 600 NAACP youth councils and college chapters – consisting of young but full-fledged association members – that exist today. Involving students every step of the way, Williams recruited executive board members – go-getters with lofty ambitions and leadership skills – who could bring the group to life. They gauged campus enthusiasm and worked to increase it, doubling interest in a matter of months.
“I can’t say enough about their commitment and dedication,” Williams said.
Dues-paying members work to promote human and civil rights, social justice, activism and advocacy. Separate committees tackle health, education, political action, finance, press and publicity, and community outreach. This year – during UMW’s Farmer Legacy 2020 celebration – they’re focused on voter registration and criminal justice.
There are fundraisers, socials and movie nights, but this group – now 40 strong – goes further. The executive board acts as role models, monitoring student concern during tense times, like when the white supremacist group Patriot Front has plastered stickers across campus.
“It’s a blood oath,” said Reaves, who’s also vice president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP’s Youth and College Division. “Think about the civil rights movement. They weren’t just doing it for themselves. They were doing it for their kids and their kids’ kids.”
Group members plan carefully, scouring schoolboard and city council meeting agendas for red-flag items, and know how to fly into action when needed. Last fall, for example, they rallied to help stay the execution of Texas death-row inmate Rodney Reed. And, when those on a trip tracing the route of the 1961 Freedom Rides found no marker at the Anniston, Alabama, site where a bus carrying 13 was firebombed, they got on their phones to try get one placed there.
“It’s putting in work that the average student might not even think about,” Sheikh-Issa said.
Recent honors – a statewide “On Our Way” award for new chapters; and a commendation from Del. Josh Cole (D-28th District) for founding members Reaves and Williams, plus Aminah Abdullahi, Amber Brown, Khaila Nelson and 2019 graduate Kelsey Chavers, former president – prove they’re on the right track.
Sheikh-Issa best summed it up: “We’re doing something beyond what it means to be a college student but rather, what it means to be black in America and how that translates into making a better world for those who come after us.”