Twenty-somethings like Lesley Younge should be the ideal prescription for what ails the NAACP, the nation's premier civil rights organization. An African-American fourth-grade teacher at New York City's private Dalton School, Younge figures that the NAACP's crusading a generation ago afforded her the option of teaching at prestigious schools like Dalton as opposed to confinement to second-rate, black-only institutions.
But with legally backed racial discrimination a thing of the past, Younge, 28, says the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is now largely irrelevant to her generation of black Americans, the very audience the group desperately needs to offset an aging membership that dwindles year after year.
"On an experiential basis, it is irrelevant," says Younge, a native Californian who has never joined the NAACP. "I do not feel that any of us have any need for the NAACP as an organization in our personal lives. The NAACP was sort of this catchall national organization and I don't think people are feeling necessarily oppressed at a national level at this moment."
Such ambivalence among the post-civil rights generation is among the reasons the NAACP's conflicted leadership has turned over the storied but beleaguered organization to the youngest president in the group's 99-year history -- Benjamin Todd Jealous.
The 35-year-old Californian assumes the reins this month in an attempt to counter accusations that the group has lost both its way and its relevancy. There's reason for hope here and there, but the NAACP's credibility has suffered in recent years as its leadership struggles to devise a clear agenda amid waning membership and financial turmoil.
For years, the NAACP claimed about a half-million members, who helped inspire a generation of civil rights activism in the 1950s and 60s. The number is now at about 300,000 dues-paying members. Dwindling coffers forced the NAACP to temporarily shutter regional offices last year and cut its national staff by 40 percent.
Earlier this year, however, an aggressive fundraising campaign helped shrink last year's $3 million deficit to less than $300,000. Still, Jealous' tenure will arguably be defined by his ability to draw a new generation of black Americans into the fold.
"They're looked at as a very old-school kind of organization and a lot of the people that they're trying to help don't even know about them any more," says Aaron Liburd, 28, who has never been a member. "I'm from Harlem. People don't know where the NAACP office is. But they know where the National Action Network is. That's Al Sharpton's thing."
Indeed, NAACP leaders and critics blame the growing perception of irrelevance on a number of factors -- from generational apathy, to poor marketing, to competition from entertainment outlets such as MTV and Black Entertainment Television for young people's limited time.
"The truth of the matter is, you got a lot of young folks -- they won't even pay $30 a year for a membership," says Rev. Amos Brown, 67, who heads the San Francisco branch of the NAACP. "Now here we are about 38 to 40 million black people in this nation and we have around 275,000, 300,000 members. That's a shame. We should have at least 3 million to 4 million members."