Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network will open a Las Vegas chapter next month. The group has already been laying the groundwork for months to increase its Nevada political profile, stirring up controversy by pressuring Clark County School District officials to change their disciplinary policies and pledging to help find jobs for the poor.
“We’re not just here during election time,” said NAN’s Las Vegas chapter president, the Rev. Christopher C. Lewis. “We’re here to stay and make sure our voice is heard.”
Sharpton’s group has been in Clark County for about a year now, Lewis said. Since its founding in 1991 by Sharpton, the Brooklyn-based organization has grown into a national civil rights organization with 29 chapters in 20 states. It has steered $2 million to the families of black men who were killed by police nationwide. NAN also held a rally in December outside the Clark County School District office after a number of black students were suspended because they refused to take off their shirts during indoor workouts during hot weather.
With an office in the West Las Vegas neighborhood of Holland, NAN opened its first field operation here last month. Lewis said they’ve held an informational session at Highland High School and passed out information about voting rights at Terry Parker High School. Next week, he said, the group will hold a similar meeting for students at Western and Clark high schools before giving out “Get Out The Vote” fliers to them.
Cheryl Gallant, spokeswoman for the school district, said officials have asked to be included in future NAN meetings so they can learn more about the organization’s concerns and schedule a meeting between Sharpton’s group and top administrators as required by law.
The Rev. Dwayne Long, pastor at Western Christian Center in Las Vegas and a minister to gang members, said he’s been working with Sharpton’s group since October. At his New Year’s Eve rally last month, Long handed out fliers promoting NAN. The goal? To give people something to do on Super Bowl Sunday besides drink alcohol and watch the game.
“We want to get people registered and get involved,” he said.
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The group is also planning a February job fair at Western Christian Center. Lewis said they will work with the county’s Commission on Economic Opportunity to find jobs for those who decide to attend the event.
Lewis, 40, graduated from West Las Vegas High School and lives in the community. He said he became a reverend about nine years ago after being caught up in the drug culture – and serving time for burglary. Lewis said NAN has helped him get clean but also become active in improving his neighborhood.
“This is where I learned how to do this work,” he said, running both of his hands down an old campaign poster that showed Sharpton shaking hands with now-former President Bill Clinton. “They were my teachers.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Lewis met at Revive Auto Detailing on East Lake Mead Boulevard with business owner Kenneth Chapman and NAN’s national director, Michael Finney. The group was looking into setting up shop in Las Vegas through a company called Pinnacle Financial Services used by local companies who need funding, Chapman said. Finney said NAN would help loan the company a hand in getting going.
“They’re helping us get started,” he said. “We’ve got to bring jobs out here.”
One of those jobs could come soon for Lewis, who would like to work full time on community issues. He’ll stay with his long-time job at the Nevada Commission on Tourism – but hopes to use that as a leverage point during negotiations with the county and local schools over discipline policies that affect students of color disproportionately more than white students, he maintains.
Lewis said while serving at County Commissioner Larry Brown’s office between 1998 and 2000, he noticed black students were singled out more often than their peers for discipline such as suspensions. He blames the discrepancy on school administrators who don’t take racism seriously enough and should be more sensitive to black students’ needs, he said.
“This is not an issue that is going away,” Lewis said. “And we’re coming.”
As far as NAN’s goals for 2013, Finney had just one thing to say: “We want justice.”
Finney didn’t want to elaborate further about those plans but did say Sharpton planned a visit to Las Vegas in February or March. And it wouldn’t be your typical speech praising black community leaders or politicians but rather a little something different, perhaps highlighting their work with Long on crime prevention efforts such as job training and counseling teens involved in gangs.
Lewis hopes to use Sharpton’s visit to get the community talking about an issue he says isn’t being addressed: racism.
“If you can’t see it, it’s hard to fight against,” he said. “It’s a sin problem.”
It was announced on Kaye Lani’s Radio Show two years ago that Sharpton would be visiting Las Vegas. No word if he actually did.
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