The past year revealed a lot about this country and the people who call it home. We saw the power of hatred and greed play out in our national politics. We watched millions rendered helpless under a pandemic that ravaged Black, brown and under-resourced communities. But If you ask Wisdom Cole (he/him), national campaign and training manager for the NAACP Youth and College Division, the most poignant thing he witnessed last year, I’m sure his answer would include something about the power young Black people have to change this world. A leader in one of the nation’s oldest and largest legacy Civil Rights organizations, Wisdom and his team are shifting the NAACP’s culture around engaging young people, and the results to date have been inspiring.
Wisdom, 27, has felt called to the intersections of education and organizing for nearly a decade. Since his time at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an institution with strong ties to the Black Liberation Movement, he has created opportunities to use education, particularly STEM, to motivate young Black people to be change makers. “I realized that if we want strong organizers or change makers, people who can recognize systems of inequality, it all comes down to how they’re educated.”
Throughout his own formative education, Wisdom’s strong affinity for Chemistry and math often landed him the unwelcome role of “ The only Black kid in class.” Like many students in that position, he dealt with tokenism and isolation regularly. “I remember constantly being told by teachers that I didn’t belong here, constantly being asked different questions about Blackness that my peers thought were about Blackness, but in reality were actually just racist.”
It was ultimately a longing for community, and an opportunity to be with likeminded Black people that led him to attend UC Santa Cruz where he learned how to be an organizer on the campus that radical Black leaders like Huey P. Newton, walked in years prior. He worked on several issues that made the campus community more inclusive and supportive of Black students. College is supposed to be transformative, but what Wisdom underwent put him on a path that, on paper, looks very different from the future he and his family envisioned.
“I was going to school to do research, to become a doctor,” Cole said. “But I didn’t know that attending that university would transform my entire mind. Santa Cruz was where I learned the words and the actions to describe my experiences as a Black man in America.”
Born in Lagos, Nigeria and immigrating to New York (Queens) at the age of three with his parents and younger brother, Wisdom witnessed how class and race affect a person’s ability to care for their family. Despite both of his parents being degreed, they struggled to find employment, Cole recalls. This meant that his family, like millions of others in similar positions, faced income and housing instability.
“Eventually my mom worked at Wal-Mart and my dad worked at McDonalds. “My dad would sometimes have to leave us at home alone to go work. And the neighbors would constantly call Child Protective Services to get us removed because our parents weren’t able to be there and work. Even going through that at a young age, being conscious enough to even know that was going on, definitely had an impact on me.”
Those memories are central to the work he’s doing in his role at the NAACP, a post he took in 2018, after several years of teaching courses that combined STEM and social justice, in California. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprisings in response to the shooting deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, Wisdom’s team had to think outside of the box to meet the needs of their communities. Calls for social justice organizations to make sense of the moment and to provide resources were increasing. People were demanding justice and accountability from the police and the state, whose failed response to the pandemic resulted in the disportionate impact on Black and brown communities.
Wisdom realized that everything he’d planned for 2020 would have to change and quickly. “I had this huge civic engagement plan designed for the year, and the pandemic hit and everything went out the window,” Cole said. “We had to change our model of organizing so that there was still engagement on the ground because we know some of our folks don’t have access because of the digital divide. But, we also knew we had to up our digital strategy game. We needed to build a strong digital community and a part of that was ensuring that folks were really aware of the issues that were playing out.”
Last summer, the NAACP Youth and College Division, under the leadership of Tiffany D. Lofitn, launched a course called Black Civic Summer, a series that covered several topics and brought in issue-area experts to engage directly with young people across the NAACP community and beyond. The course occurred in the midst of their election preparation. The November presidential election presented some of the most egregious voter suppression challenges in modern history, and Wisdom’s team was preparing to help people navigate those challenges. Looking back, he shared that the voter protection and GOTV work he did through the lens of it being a 180- moment for him.
“Last year was actually the most civically-engaged I’ve been in my entire lifetime,” Cole said. “Even when I was an organizer in school I was not a person who wanted to knock on doors and phonebank for candidates. I had a very ‘California mindset’ about electoral politics. Back in 2016, I was like ‘Everything’s fine! Everyone is going to vote for Hilary why are yall trippin?’ But then waking up the next day I realized I only understood America from one lens.”
All last year and through the January run-offs in Georgia, Wisdom and his colleagues leaned into the Black electoral work happening around the country, and did their part to add more capacity. They hired 160 young people to execute various GOTV campaign tactics, something he’s very proud of because they employed young people at the peak of the unemployment crisis.
Now that the election is over and many people are feeling some relief in the result, Wisdom is encouraging people to not let up.
“People were convinced this year. They believed in something bigger than themselves and so now, we have to follow through.” Cole said. “My biggest fear is that if people don’t see change, if they’re not able to see us holding these new electeds accountable, in 2022 they’re not voting. In 2024 they’re not voting. Now, I’m connected to a lot of people who are in the White House and as a person in this position, I have a responsibility to say to them every day I’m knocking on your door and I’m keeping you accountable. I’m going to show my people, my community and my family that what we worked for is actually changing things.”
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