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Special Feature: YBCA Forum with Benjamin Jealous

Writer Jeanne Powell gives her thoughts about The Forum: Conversations at YBCA between the former president and CEO of the NAACP and TV newswoman Belva Davis.


Ben Jealous - Belva Davis

Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP (top), and Belva Davis, the first African-American female journalist in the west. Photo: YBCA.org

Recently, journalist Belva Davis sat down with civic leader Benjamin Jealous as part of “The Forum:  Conversations at YBCA“ (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) in San Francisco.  It was an inspirational evening of interviewing, sharing and exploring.

Belva Davis helped change the face and focus of television news over the last 50 years and has written about her extraordinary life in a fascinating memoir entitled “Never in My Wildest Dreams.”  From coverage of the 1964 GOP convention to her lively sit-down with CEO Ben Jealous in 2014, she has never looked back except to help us understand the times in which we live now and lived then.  

Belva interviewed Benjamin Todd Jealous — an enfant terrible in the best sense of that term, a bona fide genius, an advocate for community.

Jealous is descended from a long line of American freedom fighters on both his mother’s side and his father’s side, going back to the Battle of Bunker Hill.  A graduate of Columbia and Oxford Universities, a Rhodes Scholar, past president of the Rosenberg Foundation, and former director of Amnesty International’s U.S. Human Rights Program, Benjamin Jealous became president and CEO of the NAACP at age 35 (2008-2013).  Among other accolades, Jealous was featured in the list of rising stars, “Forty under 40,” in Fortune and Time magazines.

Responding to questions from Davis, Jealous said he worked hard during the first decade of adult life and in the second decade he worked on finding out what he did best, rather than spending 40 years in one position and then moving on to something else.

He spoke about lawyers and their place in society.  To change the world quickly and positively, train [the lawyers] to work in the community, not to seek and serve power. There is a violent seesaw going on politically in our 50 states, wherein voting rights and environmental protection are being shredded.  In the continuing struggle between organized money and organized people, it is organized people who hold the trump card.

Everybody in America is descended from someone who was categorically denied the right to vote at one time or another – women, soldiers, indentured whites, Native Americans.  Jealous recalled that about 350 years ago white indentured servants rebelled against a royal decree passing indentured servitude to their children.

He went on to say that any good community organizer needs to understand at last 300 years of history before he or she can begin effective organizing, a paraphrase of “any good attorney needs to understand 300 years of jurisprudence.”

His commitment to the civil rights movement is to keep the United States on the path of ever-evolving democracy and economic opportunity.  He emphasized again that in America the struggle is between organized wealth and organized people.  Communities must be organized; get involved and belong to something.  He is working with Julian Bond to create an “Emily’s List” for the American South.  He says that electronic organizing – Facebook, Twitter, email lists, mobile network [texting] – is crucial for civil rights protection.

A well-attended event with a rapt audience, this YBCA Forum began with a reception for the two features, and ended with Davis and Jealous making themselves available for questions and comments afterward.  Among the attendees were civil rights attorney John Burris, actor Delroy Lindo, and Kimberly Bryant, founder of  Black Girls Code.

It has been said of Belva Davis’s literary self-portrait, her memoir… reminds us all never to fear the space between reality and our dreams.”   Ben Jealous’ remarkable life and firm commitment to the preservation of American human rights and civil rights is a testimony to that philosophy.

About Jeanne Powell

Jeanne Powell is a poet and short story writer, who teaches in a summer program for teens. Her most recent books are "My Own Silence" and "Word Dancing," available online and through booksellers. She also hosts spoken word events in San Francisco, and covers cultural happenings for online media.