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Pittsburgh's NAACP losing membership; its officials say public relations campaign needed

| Monday, July 2, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Adam Golden has two of the qualities that the Pittsburgh NAACP chapter is seeking: He's young and a strong advocate for community service.

But he has no intention of joining the chapter.

“I just don't see too much activity from them and I haven't really heard of them doing too many meaningful activities that affect the community that I reside in,” said Golden, 26, of Garfield, who is treasurer of the Homewood-based Community Empowerment Association's board of directors and a business banking relationship manager at a financial institution.

Founded in 1915 and based in the Hill District, the Pittsburgh chapter is facing the same challenge many chapters nationwide face: attracting young members to a civil rights organization that has a large segment of members who are old enough to have experienced legal racial segregation first-hand and/or whose parents did.

“You've got to have the support, but we're here and we're relevant. And people know how to get us when they have a problem,” Pittsburgh NAACP chapter President M. Gayle Moss said.

Membership likely will be a topic of conversation at the Baltimore-based national organization's annual convention, which starts Saturday in Houston.

The Pittsburgh chapter's membership ranges from 1,500 to 1,700 people, down from 5,000 in the 1960s, said Moss, who attributes some of the decline to a lack of understanding of the group's efforts on the forefront of the fight for civil rights.

Nationally, the NAACP's membership has been increasing for a few years — it had a spike in membership after its endorsement of same-sex marriage in May — but it is possible to become a national member without joining a chapter, national spokesman Derek Turner said.

Moss said the local chapter continues to be active, including lobbying in school districts on behalf of children; conducting job and health fairs; and advocating against police violence, including calling for state and federal intervention in the case of Jordan Miles, the unarmed black teenager beaten by three white Pittsburgh police officers in Homewood in 2010. They were not charged.

The chapter is part of a national campaign opposing laws requiring potential voters to show identification; Pennsylvania passed such a law in March.

The problem is that more people need to know what the group is doing, some members of the chapter's executive committee said.

“I think that one thing that our branch can absolutely do better is public relations. So the fact that we aren't as visible today as we have been in the past isn't an indication of our effectiveness and our involvement in community work,” said branch Treasurer Anna Hollis, 45, of Ohio Township.

The issue of the NAACP's relevancy locally and nationally is being raised as some say the country has become a “post-racial” society, citing as an example the election of a black U.S. president.

Others say the group is needed now more than ever, citing continuing racial disparities in education, poverty and criminal justice.

Nationwide in 2010, 28.9 percent of black families with children younger than 18 were living in poverty, compared with 12.2 percent of their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“But I think that people, because they don't see that type of situation that was prominent in the '50s and '60s when the NAACP was in its heyday, they don't see not having basic civil rights and so they seem to dismiss other racial problems that are there,” said Charlton McIlwain, a New York University associate professor of media, culture and communication.

Founded in 1909, the national organization had 600,000 members by 1946; membership had fallen to 190,000 in 2008, the year Benjamin Jealous, at age 35, became the youngest person to be named NAACP president.

The NAACP has more than 300,000 members nationally, which Jealous attributed somewhat to the national organization using social media more to engage younger members.

The exact age breakdown of members isn't known because membership applications don't ask for ages, Turner said.

The Pittsburgh chapter is working to improve its online presence, Moss said. The website, which is down now, will be relaunched by September, and the Facebook and Twitter accounts will get a moderator to drive content, she said.

A corporate lending officer at a local bank, Friendship resident Morton Stanfield Jr., 33, joined the chapter about a year and a half ago, and became the assistant treasurer shortly afterward, he said.

He believes his banking background can help to improve the finances of the chapter, which had a $37,420 budget deficit in 2009 and a $23,712 deficit in 2010, according to its tax return filings.

“I think it's a combination of reducing some expenses, as well as increasing revenue...and a big part of that is increasing membership,” he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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