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NAACP and Groundwork Project launch ‘transformative’ fellowship for grassroots organizers at Harvard Kennedy School

From left, NAACP CEO & President Derrick Johnson, Organizing Accelerator senior advisor Tracey Lewis, and Groundwork Project founder and former congressman Joe Kennedy III during a forum Thursday which launched the Organizing Accelerator, a 20-week training, mentoring and networking fellowship program created by the NAACP and Groundwork Project.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Jarret Anthony Luter, a Louisiana-based grassroots organizer and political action chairman for the Baton Rouge NAACP, was grading papers in his office last month when his phone rang. He didn’t pick up. The news he missed he would later call transformative, and it arrived in his inbox soon after — Luter had been selected as one of 16 inaugural members of the Organizing Accelerator, a new 20-week fellowship program for social justice organizers, advocates, and leaders from across the country.

The fellowship is a collaboration between the NAACP and Groundwork Project, a nonprofit organization that invests in local grassroots organizing. It puts a focus on training, mentoring, and building networks between organizers from historically disenfranchised and under-resourced communities.


“I believe this experience will be transformative for all of us, and I’m very appreciative for the opportunity,” Luter said.

The program kicked off the first of its three in-person weekend intensives Thursday night in Cambridge with a forum on the power of organizing at the Harvard Kennedy School, featuring NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson, Groundwork Project founder and former Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, and grassroots organizer Tracey Lewis, who will lead the Accelerator.

“It’s an opportunity for us to learn from each other ... and the practitioners and policymakers that are in this room at the Harvard Kennedy School,” Lewis said at the forum. “[It’s] a little bit of a boot camp, but something that isn’t only short-term — we’re hoping this will have long-term impact.”

According to Kennedy, the Organizing Accelerator will help equip emerging organizers with tools to support and invigorate grassroots community activists year round, not just during election season.

“One of the challenges we see with politics today is a incessant short-termism,” Kennedy told the Globe. “What that misses is the fact that people have challenges and aspirations and troubles in their communities 24/7/365.”


He said supporting hyperlocal organizers is the way to help communities build the capacity to keep up their advocacy and organization efforts year-round.

“That’s ultimately the way that you build long-term, sustainable change,” said Kennedy, who also serves as the US special envoy for Northern Ireland.

The fellows, hailing from 11 different states with anywhere from one to 10 years of experience in community organizing, will capitalize on Harvard’s Institute of Politics’ opportunities for collaboration and skill development.

“[They will be] learning the mechanics of organizing ... but also sharing the regional and cultural differences around how to organize — whether it’s rural versus urban, North [versus] South, because everyone has something to learn from their cohort,” Johnson said.

NAACP CEO & President Derrick Johnson speaks during the Thursday forum launching the Organizing Accelerator. The fellowship program selected 16 emerging grassroots organizers, community organizers, campaigners, social justice advocates, and civil rights leaders across the country to participate.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“Movements start out of lived environments,” he said during the panel. “If you go to where people are living the reality, and you begin to identify the skills and talents, you really are tapping into the richness of who we are as a country, as a community.”

Luter, who got involved with the NAACP in Baton Rouge after recognizing what he viewed as a lack of active organizing in his community, said he hopes the rapport developed among the fellows through the program will help them better understand the overlap in challenges they each face.

“I want to know that I’m not the only one facing the same issues,” Luter said. “Just knowing how they address it in their community, and how I address it in my community ... we can now communicate to each other [and] figure out how to cross those humps.”


After spending the weekend at Harvard, the fellows will continue virtual workshops until their second in-person meeting in May at the Biden Institute in Washington, D.C. The program will conclude with a final meeting in June at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., a refuge and hub for civil rights organizers in the 1960s.

“We’re really proud to be able to host this first cohort of fellows here,” said Setti Warren, interim director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “Not just to inspire them to organize through work, but provide support for them ... beyond just the days that they’re here.”

Freedom Thompson, another Organizing Accelerator fellow and human rights advocate from Lincoln, Neb., has focused the last nine years of her career on organizing and advocating for human rights and holistic health. But really, she said, she’s been organizing for the better part of her life.

In Nebraska, a Republican stronghold, organizers like Thompson face consistent opposition to the progressive changes they push for, she said. Through the Accelerator, Thompson will share her strategies for empowering activists to lead in Lincoln with other organizers from red states like Mississippi and Oklahoma.

“We’ve still done some major progressive things for a red state, and that progression comes from advocacy from people who cared,” Thompson said.

The more people can share their stories and experiences, she said, the more “they realize that they do have power.”


Sonel Cutler can be reached at sonel.cutler@globe.com. Follow her @cutler_sonel.