Q&A with John Gaskin III

Gaskin outlines his vision as the new president for NAACP’s St. Louis County Branch and explains how plans to continue to diversify the organization’s partners while recruiting young professionals with a calling to protect civil rights.

CLAYTON TIMES: What made you want to take on the new role of president for NAACP’s St. Louis County Branch?

GASKIN: I’ve grown up in the organization my entire life. I am somewhat an anomaly, meaning I know nothing more than the organization. Being involved with it since birth, I’ve seen a lot of different leadership at the helm of the national office, whether it be on our national board or at our national headquarters, and just with other branches across the country.

One of the things that really inspired me to take on the mantel leadership with the organization is [that] I got involved on a national level and was really embraced by a woman by the name of Roslyn Brock. Roslyn is now chairman emeritus of our national board. But prior to that, when I came onto the board as a youth, I was chair of what is called the National Youth Work Committee which develops policy for youth and young adult engagement across the country from a policy standpoint, Roslyn was chairman of the board and I really admired her, I still do. She took me under her wing in a major way; I could bounce ideas off her, we fellowshipped, she fellowshipped with my family and traveled to St. Louis a number of different times to speak for different events.

Her pathway was so unique to me. She started, like me, as a college student, as a young person, got involved with the organization, found a particular aspect of civil rights that she was passionate about, which was health care policy, she became a healthcare executive and came back to the national board as an adult. She served as a youth and then came back on as an adult and really took the organization into the 21st Century in a major way.

During her time, you had Roslyn as chairman of the board and you had Benjamin Todd Jealous, who ran for Governor of Maryland, who was our CEO at that time. The eyes were really watching us because we had the youngest chairman in the history of the organization, Roslyn, the first youngest and second black woman ever to chair the board, and then we had Ben as president and CEO, who was the youngest CEO in our history. A lot of people were like, ‘Wow, this is not your mom and dad’s, or grandma and grandpa’s, civil rights organization anymore.’

Not to go down a trail to no return, but what I am essentially saying is this…Roslyn started Leadership 500, which was a cohort of individuals who would come from across the country on Memorial Day weekend to discuss civil rights matters in Corporate America, in the environment, with health, civic engagement and to really talk about the 21st Century problems around civil rights. You had people from Corporate America, doctors, lawyers, teachers, a little bit of everything, but the unique thing about it was they were all really under the age of 40 and 50.

Being the youngest person in the room, when I saw these people who were highly successful, who looked like me, who were black…I was inspired. Leadership 500 created a pipeline for those folks to go back and get involved in their local branch of the NAACP. Many folks know that we are an older organization, and like any organization that has been around for 100 some odd years our leadership has aged. The baby boomers are becoming older, those who are the civil rights giant of yesterday are passing on, literally, by the day. It really encouraged those young folks to take their place in their branches. After seeing that, I was so inspired. Growing up in the organization I said, ‘You know what? If they can do it, I surely can do it too.’

Leadership is not a title, it’s an action. That is really what propelled me to say, ‘Hey. There are critical issues facing my community and we need young, energetic and vibrant leadership to take this organization the last mile of the way.’

CLAYTON TIMES: How would you describe your vision of the organization going into the new year?

GASKIN: There’s a particular aspect of people in St. Louis that I’m concerned about and those are the individuals who will fall into the cracks. The individuals who are underinsured, who are underemployed…

They say that this is the best economy that we’ve had since the Clinton years. However, the pinnacle at the time, during Clinton, black homeownership was at its top. Right now, it’s down. Homeownership is a major indicator of how a certain community is doing. In order to get funding to purchase a home is you need to get a bank to finance it. Well, of course, they take a look at your credit, your income, so on and so forth, and right now African Americans are not buying homes at the rate that they were then. African Americans are still left and locked out of this economic boom that we are seeing. I do agree that the economy is doing well, but as we began to turn on NBC and other networks, they are beginning to talk about the possibility of a recession.

When Wall Street catches a cold, Black Americans catch pneumonia. We have to be cognizant of the very frail state of economics and communities of color.

There are about 3-5 issues that myself and my impressive leadership team is going to be advocating for. One of those is Youth and Young Adult Engagement. Kathy Osborn at the Regional Business Council is a very, very heartfelt mentor of mine who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. She has come on board with us and has been a major supporter. She has pledged to sponsor membership for young people who want to join the St. Louis County NAACP, people within the age bracket of young professionals: 21 to 35. Those are the individuals we are trying to eagerly keep here, in St. Louis.

We want to keep young, diverse talent here and people like Kathy Osborn and others in civic progress know that in order to do that, we not only have to have good jobs for them, but we have to be an inclusive, intolerant region. We are very excited to be partnering with them on that, one of those initiatives is bringing young people into the organization. In order for young folks to want to get involved [they] have to see other young people doing stuff that are on the move – it’s a trend.

People in St. Louis are saying that we have a workforce shortage, I believe that that is true. However, at the same time, one of the issues that continues to plague the black community, not just here in St. Louis but across this nation, is workforce diversity. Our workforce is not as diverse as it should be, especially as it relates to outward mobility opportunities at firms, companies and other agencies.

You look at some of our region’s largest employers and unfortunately we, as an organization, are a little concerned at the lack of diversity. That’s why our Labor and Industry Committee, headed by former-State Representative John Bowman, with United Auto Workers, and Clinton McBride, who is vice president of Governmental Relations for Laborers in South County, will begin to take a look at ways that we can eagerly diversify apprenticeship programs and create a better pipeline for young African Americans to go into the trade.

We’re going to be releasing some industry report cards on a number of industries about their lack of diversity and what their current rate of diversity is. We understand the great level of mind power in African American communities, however, at the same time, I think we ought to be cognizant of the level of diversity that these companies, universities, agencies and institutions are promoting.

CLAYTON TIMES: What additional steps do you plan to take and/or make in order to fulfill your vision?

GASKIN: One of the other things that we are looking to doing is becoming more visible. Membership will be promoted in everything we do. Membership is the lifeline of this organization. It is what allows us to remain independent and for us to do the work that we do.

We want [people] to join the NAACP and by doing so, they can go to our new website, which is very engaging and accessible, where they can join the organization very simply and conveniently.

We’re going to start a Listening Tour at the end of January and going all the way through Black History Month, where we will be having different town hall meetings across St. Louis County – North County, South County, West County – to really hear from our constituents on what some of the top civil rights priorities are for this region. Many say, ‘You should focus on this, you should be focused on that.’ Let’s go to the people, meet them where they are, be present, hear from them. And who knows, we may find, being that we are a volunteer organization, some of our best and brightest volunteers from those meetings.

We look forward to engaging the community.

CLAYTON TIMES: What would you say is the organization’s main goal?

GASKIN: Our main goal, right now, well there are several things. But to be honest, becoming a stronger organization and ensuring our legacy will be a top priority, which will be [through] programs.

Programs that address the needs of the community and programs that really bring people in and meet them where they are. As we approach the 5th year anniversary of Ferguson, the world will be coming back again to watch with their eyes on this community; wondering, where we are, what has been accomplished, what has not been accomplished and the direction that we’re looking to take our community.

We have a great deal of work to do. If I’ve heard correctly, out of the nearly 40-something recommendations of the Ferguson report, only, I believe, 4 ½ or 5 of those recommendations have been accomplished. That to me says that we have very real work to do.

CLAYTON TIMES: What is NAACP’s St. Louis County Branch’s role in the community when looking at its development?

GASKIN: One of the things that we are doing, or that we have already done, which is so unique for us as an organization, is that we have established an infrastructure and transportation tax force to take a look at how our region can work more collectively with the help of a civil rights organization, like the NAACP, to better connect the communities of color to public transit options.

There are a number of jobs that are available in West County, whether it be hotels, restaurants, nursing facilities, but the biggest barrier that our people are seeing is a lack of availability for transportation options.

One of the things we have noticed, and we all know this but we just don’t talk about it the way that we should, is Metro has come a long way, but it has a tremendous way to go. It is very difficult for someone who lives in North County to get to South County. It’s very difficult for someone who lives in North County to get to Chesterfield, or to get downtown. Or who lives in South City to get to North City, or North County, or even Mid-County or Clayton. It’s very difficult.

We’ve got to become more nimble, in that if we’re able to do what we need to do as it relates to transportation and infrastructure in this town, not only will it create jobs but it will link employers to come to our region, to establish their headquarters here. It allows our folks, who do not necessarily have the luxury of a car, be able to get to work in a reliable timeline and reliable rate.

CLAYTON TIMES: How would you describe the relationship between the organization’s strategic partners and the young professionals that become members?

GASKIN: I think it’s very strong. Not only do companies, like Grey Eagle, Anheuser-Busch, the Regional Business Council and other groups, who have been major partners of our young professionals care about our region’s diversity, but they also care about attracting and retaining young people here.

One of the things that we’re looking to do by way of that Young Professionals Network, not only providing a pipeline to leadership in the organization but the thing that allows people to come to St. Louis and stay here is when there is a civic connection to the community. People say that St. Louis is a ‘small big town,’ it’s ‘cliquish.’ If we’re able to welcome young people to St. Louis, get them to stay connected by way of the NAACP or other groups that are rooted in the community and they see that we are working to make the community better, more just, more equity is at the center of all that we do, they will find [this] to be the place where they want to stay and raise a family.

My thing for 2019 is people and equity at the center of all that we do. People have to know that we genuinely care about their well-being, we care about their empowerment and advancement. Equity has to be at the center of everything we do, after all, we are a civil rights organization.