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Hamilton, Wenham residents forming NAACP branch

Natalie Bowers, Juan Cofield, and Tashou Brown. Bowers and Brown are members of the coalition committee leading the effort to establish a North Shore chapter of the NAACP. Cofield is president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.
Natalie Bowers, Juan Cofield, and Tashou Brown. Bowers and Brown are members of the coalition committee leading the effort to establish a North Shore chapter of the NAACP. Cofield is president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP.Handout

A social justice advocacy group recently formed by Hamilton and Wenham residents is spearheading an effort to establish a new area branch of the NAACP.

The Hamilton-Wenham Human Rights Coalition is preparing to ask the national civil rights organization for a charter to establish the proposed North Shore unit, according to Natalie Bowers, a member of the coalition committee leading the effort. The branch would be independent of the coalition.

“Joining a national organization like the NAACP will provide us with a more powerful voice to get our policymakers to finally start considering justice and equality in what they are doing,” said the Wenham resident.

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Organizers acknowledge it might seem surprising to have a bid to establish an NAACP branch led by residents from two affluent, mostly-white suburbs. According to 2018 US Census figures, Hamilton is 93 percent white, and Wenham, 92 percent.

But Bowers, who is white, said the recent police killings of Blacks and resulting nationwide protests have “awakened white people to the reality that racism is very much alive” and that they need to help eradicate it.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, strongly supports the effort to start the new branch.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has opened people’s eyes to a greater sense of the issues of race in this country” and spurred many to want to help advocate for change, Cofield said. “This is one of a number of inquiries we’ve had from people seeking to participate in the NAACP. We are quite pleased and enthused.”

Cofield said it is a misconception that the NAACP is a Blacks-only group, noting that a meeting of four white people after the 1908 race riot in Springfield, Ill., helped plant the seeds for the organization’s founding in 1909. While white participation declined over time, Cofield said it has risen recently and some branches are predominantly white.

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“Blacks alone will not solve the race problem in this country,” he said. “It’s an American problem.”

To form a branch, the coalition must recruit at least 100 founding members. The New England Area Conference is assisting the group with a goal of submitting an application to the NAACP’s national board for consideration at its July 25 meeting.

The Conference has 23 active branches, including one based in Lawrence serving the Merrimack Valley and one in Medford for the Mystic Valley region. There was a Lynn branch, but it is inactive. The territory of the proposed new branch is not yet set, but Cofield said it would not include any communities in an existing branch.

Tachou Brown, a member of the coalition committee working to form the new branch, said a particular goal of hers is to see area cities and towns do more to attract relatively affluent people of color, like herself, to reside in their communities.

“When people think of inclusion in towns like Hamilton and Wenham, they are thinking of strategies to attract lower-income people of color through affordable housing or food programs,” said Brown, a Hamilton resident who owns a local yoga studio.

While worthwhile, she said those efforts are insufficient since they “leave white privilege intact” and equate diversity only with accommodating people of lower economic status. “There are few minority professionals in Hamilton and Wenham because nobody is attracting them here,” Brown added.

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Bowers and Hamilton resident Anna Siedzik started the coalition with others in response to the nationwide protests, to help enable residents to join the fight against racial injustice.

The group already has enlisted more than 300 members, and etched its first accomplishment: At the coalition’s behest, both towns raised the unity flag recognizing LGBTQ Pride Month.

Siedzik, who was just elected to the Hamilton Wenham Regional School Committee, said the coalition’s quick start “indicates the community was really eager and ready for change and just needed the right platform to do that.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.