As the president of the Black Student Union (BSU) at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, I strive to ensure that all members of the BSU are civically engaged and registered to vote in Wilmington. As an organization that aims to make sure that black students are both represented AND supported on UNCW’s campus, getting students of color to vote and take part in their community is so important, not only for the students, but the community as a whole. If people of color are not civically engaged, our voices and our concerns will go unheard, and the most successful society is one in which every group of the population has a “seat at the table.”
Also, individual citizens benefit when they become involved in their community. I have seen firsthand how voting, community service and other forms of civic engagement help people grow as individuals. During my time as an intern here at the Institute for Emerging Issues, I became interested in learning about how young people from the Triangle are working to encourage civic engagement among people of color. I was lucky enough to speak to two people doing very important work in the field.
The first person I reached out to was Eliazar Posada, a 26-year-old community engagement director at El Centro Hispano in Durham. Posada’s programming work at El Centro directly engages the Latinx (gender neutral term for people from Latin America) community while creating opportunities for Latinx people to get involved and improve their own environment. His work includes working on college readiness programs with high school students and training Latinx youth and adult leaders on how to help improve the quality of life in their communities.
Born in Florida and a resident of Texas for many years, Posada has long known the importance of community engagement, especially in underrepresented communities, “Community engagement is important because if underrepresented communities don’t take part in the decisions being made about their own community, then people who aren’t in their community will continue to make the decisions,” Posada said. “I will never tell a community member what they should or need to be doing, instead I go into a community and ask what they need and what they want from their legislators and then I educate them on how to get those things done. Nothing gets done when you choose to lecture and not listen. “
Posada also notes that understanding histories of exclusion and prejudice are crucial for anyone working to promote civic engagement among people of color. For example, long-standing racism and prejudice against the Latinx community still keeps many of its members reluctant to get involved civically, he said.
Another local individual engaging people of color, specifically YOUNG people of color, is Ottillie Mensah, a Durham native and a rising senior at UNC Wilmington, who also serves as the UNC Wilmington collegiate chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Through her NAACP presidency, Mensah is constantly engaging with the black community both on her college campus and in the greater Wilmington community. Mensah believes community engagement is important because it’s the foundation for producing societal change, and her work has shown her how much MORE work needs to be done reaching out to people of color, as well as why it’s so important for black people to be a part of the plans to strengthen Wilmington. Mensah plans to educate and advocate for students of color, and make sure that they are apart of the conversation about things going on in Wilmington and on UNCW campus. Mensah has big plans to work with as many organizations as possible that focus on civic engagement, and she hopes to empower black students to do as much as they can in their communities.
As someone who plans to work alongside her and the NAACP, I am ecstatic to see her creative ways of engaging the community, and connecting individuals to build partnerships.
And I am excited by all the people in North Carolina—and beyond!—doing the hard, important work of keeping the voices of people of color heard.
— Alexis Landrum is a Marian Drane Graham Scholar interning at the Institute for Emerging Issues in the communications department for the summer.