NAACP’s New Youth & College Director Tiffany Loftin Brings Energy and a New Brand of Activism

Before Tiffany Dena Loftin took on her new job as director of the NAACP Youth and College Division, she spent a week and a half on vacation in Belize. She just chilled: no phone, no technology, lots of sightseeing and beach-bumming. It was the best preliminary self-care the Los Angeles native could have done to prepare for a position that has kept her on constant go since she started on Feb. 13.

“There really hasn’t been a transition,” she said. “I’m very familiar with this level and range of work, which is why I decided to go to Belize between my last job and this one. I kind of hit the ground running, and I knew that might happen.”

On a bustling day in her Baltimore office less than a month into her new role, she was simultaneously planning young people’s participation in three upcoming events, including the National Walkout on March 14 and a gun reform rally 10 days after that. Students as young as sixth- and seventh-graders want to take action because they see themselves as agents of change and they want to be heard, said Loftin. She is thrilled about their enthusiasm and drive, and prioritizes plans to protect their interests and safety.

She fields calls and emails from organizers looking to the NAACP for direction on how to get involved. It’s the perfect time for her to be in place to help them, she said.

“My first value in this work,” Loftin said, “is to make sure that our young people are treated as respectable young adults. I say that because I’ve been instructed and told by multiple entities that young people in high school or even middle school can't do what the college students can do.

“That's actually not true. Our young folks are more woke, taking more risks and having more important conversations at a younger age that a lot of us didn't have to have when we were young.”

Loftin herself found her voice as an activist on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. After her parents’ marriage ended because of domestic abuse when she was 7, she became a caretaker to her two younger siblings. But her single mother made one thing clear: Despite the family’s challenges, she wanted her daughter to graduate from college.

But in the second quarter of Loftin’s freshman year, the University of California Regents raised tuition 36 percent. For a student with zero family contribution, the increase was financially jarring. Loftin also witnessed how it affected undocumented immigrants and felt compelled to help.

“I had no idea what ‘undocumented’ even meant,” she remembered. “My first activism was seeing a problem in another community and wanting to do something about it. A friend handed me a postcard and said, ‘If you sign this, we’ll send it to all of our elected leaders in D.C., to ask them to pass the federal Dream Act.’”

Loftin learned about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation, now known as DACA, and worked to make it happen.

“We organized and I became someone who asked other people to sign postcards,” she recalled. “The day of the vote, it passed in the Senate but fell three votes shy in the House. I was upset but I also felt empowered because we were so close. I said, ‘This is really cool. Can we do this all the time? We can solve every problem in the world if we just make phone calls and sign postcards.’”

She laughs now at her naïve enthusiasm, but it sparked a series of successful elections for her, including president of the Student Union Assembly, to play strategic offense against the systemic issues that were—and still are—the source of so many challenges levied against students of color.

In 2010, while she was in Sacramento with a delegation of about 30 students lobbying legislators to give more money to California institutions of higher education and vote against tuition increases, a friend called her. Someone had hung a noose at Loftin’s dorm.

She was livid but refused to play the victim. Instead she sprang into signature action: “On the way back, which may be a three- or four-hour drive, I texted every Black person I knew on campus and said, ‘We’re going to have a Black state of emergency meeting in the conference room above the bookstore. You can only come into the room if you’ve been racialized as an African American,” she recalled. “Out of 300 Black people on campus, we had more than 200 there.”

The noose was quietly taken down. There was no public outrage from the chancellor, no investigation by the police. Like so many similar incidents before it, the normalization of the crime gave implicit permission for it to happen again and the lack of disciplinary action around it was an insult to the Black student community. The experience and her proactive response to it, helped shape Loftin’s activism in racial justice and higher education.

In 2011, she became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college. After graduation, Loftin accepted a position as the president of the United States Student Association, the largest student-run and student-led organization in the country dedicated to representing student governments in general and college students specifically. She used her platform to address issues like student loan debt and financial aid for students of color. That position—and the passion she invested into it—opened opportunities to work for the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO and, most recently, the National Education Association, focusing on the racial and economic disparities that affect educators, students and communities.

“I love working with membership-based organizations because I believe we’re accountable to people. I believe in democracy. I believe in people power, and I believe in touching and working with people who are directly affected. I love my Black people, and I am absolutely in love with my community,” she said.

In 2013 President Barack Obama appointed Loftin to serve on the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in Higher Education. At 24 she was the youngest adviser on the commission. Meeting with Obama was a life-changing experience, Loftin said.

“He was like, ‘You know, you should really consider running for office.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Mr. President. That means a lot coming from you.’ It was such a powerful, symbolic moment, and it will always be one of my best experiences on this planet—not just meeting him as a person but being able to claim that space in the Oval Office for people like me.”

That expression of confidence from the first Black president was confirmation of a path that seems to be divinely carved for her to follow. Every job she’s ever been hired for has been an opportunity that opened up as a result of her visibility as a person who effects change where change needs to happen.

“It’s always been the work that I’ve done, the relationships that we build, the value I hold and how I conduct myself to dedicate my energy and talents to this work that have allowed folks to say, ‘Can you join us in this work and help us? Can you lead here? Can you show up here?’” she said.

Loftin looks to the NAACP’s legacy of organizing — built over more than a century of grassroots action, to give voice and movement to the current concerns of young people.

“One of the values that I learned in college was the African proverb with the Sankofa bird. Its head is facing the reverse direction and its legs and feet are facing in the forward direction. I apply that to what we do here,” she explained. “I don’t want our young folks to feel like they’ll join the NAACP and all they have to do is get a history lesson. We tailor ourselves to adjust and move with the current times and systems that allow us to advance the work of our communities. I want them to do the work today, but we can use models and practices that worked in the past and from the history of this organization.”

Students are already fired up, she said, and that is going to be the NAACP’s newest generation of members. Her additional mission is developing them into leaders who are equipped to have strong conversations and stand up for what they believe in. “The work has not changed in terms of focusing on racial justice, health care, education, workers’ rights, voter suppression, gender equality,” said Loftin. “We haven’t won or crossed any of those things off our list. And that’s where I want to elevate and lift up our youth.”

— Janelle Harris

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