For Battle Creek’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leveling the playing field goes beyond what most people think.
In addition to addressing incidences of racial injustice and intolerance in the community, the city’s NAACP also works with local students to help them understand their rights during interactions with local policing agencies.
Last year more than 3,000 area high school students in 10th through 12th grade listened to local law enforcement officials and judicial representatives discuss what to do if they are stopped by the police. Students also learned their rights and privileges during a forum titled "Understanding Your Rights and the Rights of Your Policing Agencies."
"This is a good thing because it helps us make sure they don’t do anything stupid if they are stopped," says Carey Whitfield, president of the NAACP of Battle Creek. "They learn how to interact with police and keep themselves safe."
The discussion focused on the law, the rights of citizens, the duties of policing agencies and their authority. The discussion, Whitfield says, was inspired by police-involved deaths of civilians in Ferguson, Mo., New York and Cleveland, but it is designed to be a conversation and educational meeting not a confrontation between Battle Creek area students and local police.
The likelihood of escalating tensions and confusion during a potentially confrontational situation is lessened with the more knowledge people have, Whitfield says. "This is a conversation that we want to continue between policing agencies and the community," he adds.
When Whitfield became president of the organization last year, improving relations between residents and the police was a goal. As part of that, he invited a judge to talk with residents about how to get their records expunged and asked police to lead discussions about gun safety.
The NAACP also is increasingly becoming a resource for members of the Burmese community.
"There are major barriers between the Burmese community and the police," Whitfield says. "We have held town hall meetings and we now have representatives from the police and sheriff’s department going to their churches to speak with them."
Headquartered in a brick building it shares with the Urban League at 172 W. Van Buren Street, the NAACP also partners with African American students from area high schools to prepare them to compete in an annual national competition that takes place in a different area of the United States each year.
"The biggest program we offer to youth is to train and prepare them to compete throughout the United States with other students in areas such as science, math, the arts, or being an orator. We prepare them to compete," says Whitfield. "They compete with students from all over the country. If they win, they receive scholarships and computers, among other things."
The competition is the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Science Olympics. It's a yearlong achievement program designed to recruit, stimulate, and encourage high academic and cultural achievement among African-American high school students.
ACT-SO includes 29 competitions in STEM, humanities, business, and performing, visual, and culinary arts. Almost 300,000 young people have participated from the program since its inception.
Lorraine Hunter, vice president of the Battle Creek NAACP, says students from Battle Creek have been competing in the ACT-SO competition since the 1970s.
"It gives students the chance to showcase their talents," Hunter says. "It’s something they look forward to doing. There’s no other place for them to show what they can do."
Students from Battle Creek, Harper Creek, Lakeview, and Pennfield high schools are asked to apply. Whitfield says a committee evaluates their skills and determines who has the greatest potential to compete at the national level. Between 15 and 20 students are selected and five to eight of those students go to the competition.
The initial group is matched with mentors including lawyers, scientists, and engineers who work with them to prepare them to compete.
"Kids come to us voluntarily. They have skills in areas such as music, science or oratory," Whitfield says. "It’s quite an extensive training project where professionals will sit down with them and train them throughout the whole year leading up to the competition.
"This helps a child grow and develop their skills. It teaches them about competition and gives them the opportunity to see how the rest of the world lives."
The goal of the ACT-SO training is to make sure that youth in Battle Creek are strong and vibrant in any community that they serve. Whitfield says it all comes down to giving young people the opportunities they deserve.
"If we can prepare them for a productive life then our goals have been met," he says.
The 130-member NAACP in Battle Creek also provides other programs for young people that focus on staying safe, knowing their rights, and learning about their heritage.
For students in grades K-7, the NACCP focuses on educating them about black history. Throughout the month of February, which has been designated Black History Month, NAACP members teach students about their heritage and host a competition to close out the monthlong observance.
Visible and active mentors are important in the lives of many of the community’s youth who are being raised in single-parent households where role models may be lacking. In many cases, these families don’t have a lot of financial support or resources available to them, which can leave young people vulnerable to negative influences.
"There’s not that much for them to do to keep their minds busy," Hunter says. "We need to encourage them to do positive things because there’s not that much for African American high school students to do. We need to keep them off the streets because there’s nothing positive to do there."
Hunter says programs such as those provided by the NAACP go a long way to keeping the community’s young people safe and thriving.
"We just need more activities for young people and more people and more organizations to make that happen," she says. "We just have to get busy and create programs for them to do."
These initiatives support the core mission of the local NAACP--to establish and maintain equity in the community. When there are incidences of discrimination or inequitable treatment, NAACP members will intercede and work with those involved to reach the best possible outcome.
"We have a lot of caring members," Whitfield says. "Our members work diligently if called upon to do so and we have resources we can take advantage of through our national organization. We are very, very visible and active in our community."
Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek.
Photos by Susan Andress