Wednesday, April 14, 2021

As president of the State College NAACP, Lorraine Jones is working to foster conversation and commitment that brings positive change

Now with more than 2,200 units and branches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 in response to the ongoing violence against Black people around the country. As the largest civil rights organization in the nation, its mission is to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.

The State College chapter of NAACP was established in December 2019, with Lorraine Jones serving as president. She is responsible for raising community awareness of policies and practices of discrimination, racial inequity, and other violations of civil rights. She is also responsible for responding to referrals from community members needing advocacy, and improving the political, educational, social, and economic status of racially marginalized community members.

Jones is a graduate assistant at Penn State University’s EnvironMentors program, working in this position for the past three years. In 2018, Penn State joined EnvironMentors, a national college access program of the Global Council of Science and the Environment, with the mission to mentor and motivate marginalized undergraduate and high school students from underrepresented communities in STEM, as they plan and conduct environmental research, acquire skills that will allow them to learn and explore the science fields, build careers, and become more active stewards of their communities and the environment. 

Originally from Chicago, Jones has been in State College for the past 16 years. She has two undergraduate degrees, one in human services from Randolph College in New Jersey and the other in human development and family studies from Penn State. She also holds a dual master’s degree from Penn State in higher education and comparative international education, focusing on education administration and equity, diversity, and inclusion. She is currently a fourth-year PhD candidate in educational leadership, focusing on social justice and antiracist leadership.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down via Zoom with Jones to discuss what motivated her to start the State College NAACP chapter, how the organization hopes to help transform our local community, and what others can do to support the work of the NAACP in State College.

Mimi: I tip my hat to the NAACP for founding locally, and I’m glad to say I’m a founding member. And I’m as excited to have this interview because we can help break some ground together and make us all more human and humane. What was the thing that motivated you to start the local chapter of NAACP?

Lorraine: Well, first, I want to thank you, Mimi, for inviting me here to spend this time with you. I started doing some of the work with SURJ – Showing Up for Racial Justice – which is a white organization. There were so many allies within that organization – actually, they were accomplices. They were in the trenches with me, working on the issues. There were so many issues. There were racial incidents in the school district, things were happening on the Penn State campus, there were things that would happen with the police; Osaze Osagie was shot and killed.

There were so many different issues, and I was hitting different social and racial justice organizations. Still, there wasn’t one central place where I could work on all of those issues and allow different people, especially to bring the voices of people of color to the forefront that would help others see from a different perspective. That was what really motivated me to start the NAACP chapter, because there were so many different things that were happening in so many different institutions. We can make so much change in State College.

Mimi: I agree with you. What are the things we can do together to make life a better example for this great community?

Lorraine: I think there are several things that we can do. First, we need to be transparent. We need to be humble. And we need to be committed. If we have people that are being transparent and really want to make these changes, I think they can happen. They’re humble enough that they want to learn. There’s so much that people need to know. Maybe they need to be educated. Perhaps they want to do something, but they don’t know what to do. We need to show up for our Black community and hold our leadership accountable. And being committed, this is not something that’s just going to happen overnight. The NAACP has short- and long-term goals in terms of transforming our community. And so, we have to be really committed to not just one and done, but just committed to being thoughtful and working collectively on a different issue as they come.

We’re making progress. There’s a lot to be done. But years ago, we weren’t even having real conversations. So, the fact that we’re having these conversations, the fact that we are making some efforts toward improvement, is an improvement. It’s not where we need to be. But the fact that we’re being open, that we’re having these conversations, is definitely a great start.

When I first started doing this work, so many people of color, Black families, were afraid to talk about these issues. They were scared, and you couldn’t pay them enough money to come and bring these issues forth. So, having a person in the leadership of color, talking about these issues, sharing their narratives with me, and trusting that we’re going to be able to work on these issues, that’s an important part.

Mimi: You’ve taken on a mammoth task in a community that has lots of people who speak out, both ways. But a lot of prejudiced people, in my opinion, don’t understand why they are. They just are.

Lorraine: I think that we have been in a culture that is tainted with a lot of things about our history that isn’t true. There is a great deal of guilt and shame that comes with facing the truth about racism, therefore erase the past. We don’t want to look at both sides of a person. We want to either say they’re good or they’re bad. And there are two sides to a person. You think about the things that your grandmother taught you; well, there was some good in your grandmother, and there were some things that needed to be changed. So, I think many people have to realize that there is a lot good, and there’s things that we need to change.

Mimi: It’s a lot like the political picture. Republicans and Democrats don’t take time to understand, hear, compromise, cooperate, and collaborate. They’re just stuck in the mud, both sides, on that score. And I believe it’s possible to compare between the majority community and the minority community in this country.

Everybody has to come together, be transparent, and share the responsibility of life being equal and fair for everyone that has been created on this earth. And it’s our job in our local community to be able to talk sensibly, not frantically, not ready to fight, but prepared to solve, ready to admit what each of us has done right and wrong and share the good life that’s possible. That’s a dream. But you’ve taken a couple of steps to get closer to it.

Lorraine: I think part of that comes with being reflective. A lot of times people have to take that time in saying, “OK, why do I do the things that I do? What are the thoughts that are driving me to think that my way is the way of doing things?” A lot of people have been silenced. When you talk about anger and those different emotions, it’s because people feel like they’ve been silenced for so long. In my experience with talking to different people in the community, they say they have been trying to speak, but they haven’t been heard.

Once you start trying to be reflective and seeing it from a different person’s perspective, it’s like an onion – you start to peel away a lot of those different layers. At the end of the day, we all want the same things. We want the best for our kids, we want to leave a legacy for our grandkids, and we all want a safer community for everybody to be able to be happy.

Mimi: Do you think we’re on the road to progress?

Lorraine: I think the more that we’re transparent, the more that we are reflective, we can continue on this path. I think as long as we continue to have these conversations and listen to one another. One of the key things is when I’m working with different people in the community, I try to build trust. Trust is so important. If you can’t build those relationships and build that trust, there’s no movement.

Mimi: You hit the button. Life success is the value of the relationships you develop in that lifetime.

What is the Penn State University EnvironMentors?

Lorraine: The Penn State EnvironMentors Program is a partnership between high schools and Penn State University. Our program works with underrepresented undergraduate and high school students to engage and retain them in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We give opportunities to first-generation, racially marginalized students to have hands-on research experience, mentorship, and college access with renowned faculty at Penn State. A lot of kids, because of issues of inequity, come into college and they are not well-prepared for the STEM fields. There’s an underrepresentation of students of color – Black, Hispanic, and females – in the STEM fields. We try to use our program to motivate and engage students in STEM fields. Through our program, students are able to build relationships, their STEM identity, and social networks with STEM faculty at Penn State University.

Mimi: What’s your track record? Do you have any great stories to tell?

Lorraine: There are so many different stories. But I think the most important thing is building those relationships. One-hundred percent of our students go on successfully to college and 90 percent go in STEM fields. Some go on to Penn State and others have been accepted into some of the most competitive universities, like MIT and Cornell. We are changing the narrative about who belongs in STEM and changing our world through STEM. Our students are working on real-world problems. One of our students built a sensor to monitor air pollution in West Africa. That tool that he built was actually deployed in a poor part of West Africa to help them with the air pollution. And now, he’s off to MIT. There’s a great example of this program working.

We also have students that didn’t even think that they would have the opportunity to go to college, or that they had what it takes to go to college, and now they’re applying to different colleges and feel like they’re well-prepared to be in a STEM field.

Mimi: What are some of the things you’ve been able to accomplish in the general area of injustice?

Lorraine: I have headed many different social justice organizations in the community. I have and will continue to push for reform and accountability in several of the community institutions of education. Wherever I go, I try to motivate and engage people in social justice work and show them why this work is so important.

Recently, we’ve had several different people within the community reach out to us. We had a gentleman that got into a physical altercation, no weapon. He’s an outstanding person in the community, and now he’s being charged with a felony. The NAACP is advocating for this gentleman to ensure that he does not get criminal charges for something that should have been a misdemeanor. A woman in another school district is having problems with her daughter being called the n-word. And so, NAACP is at the forefront, working on those issues to make sure that her daughter’s civil rights are not violated.

We have and will continue to show up and speak up for marginalized people. We have been and want to continue to be instrumental in raising money for racially marginalized students. I hope I make life better and safer for others because of the work that I do. 

What surprised me is that so many people within the community, now that they know that we’re here, they’re coming to us, they’re trusting us to advocate for them, and it’s so important.

One of the things that we’re trying to work on is a fundraiser, specifically for underrepresented students of color in the State College Area School District that have a financial need to have scholarships to go to college. We want to support these kids every step of the way. We’re trying to raise money for this scholarship so we can have an endowment. It’s through the Centre Foundation, a scholarship in memory of Osaze Osagie.

Mimi: Is that the best thing people in our community can do to support the NAACP right now?

Lorraine: It’s one of the things that that the people in our community can do. We’re always looking for members to help us take action in our community. We have several different committees going on right now to advocate for people in the community. We’re always looking for new members. We’re always looking for people that if you can’t donate time, donate finances, so we can keep continuing to do the work that we’re doing. That would be State College NAACP, PO Box 1145, State College, PA, 16804.

Mimi: I think you’ll get some mail. I hope so. Or I’ll be very sad.

Lorraine: We can’t do the work we’re doing without people helping with their time or the different resources they have. We had such a hard time in the midst of trying to start the NAACP with COVID. That really hurt our thrust. So, we’re trying to get back off the ground. We started in December 2019, and then we got shut down [by the pandemic] in March 2020. It stalled our momentum a bit.

We had a Juneteenth event last year. That was our kickoff, and it was very well attended. We had a lot of support from the borough and the community, and we’re looking forward to holding another this year.

Mimi: I’d really love to stay in touch with you and do whatever I can to help you achieve what, in my mind, are very worthy goals. We can make national news if we put our minds to it.

Lorraine: We really can. Building those relationships and building that trust. Thank you so much for this opportunity.