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Australyah Coleman on winning NAACP's first-ever youth award, future of activism at CMU


Grand Rapids senior Australyah Coleman (right) poses with actress Tiffany Haddish at NAACP's 51st Image Awards in Los Angeles. “(Seeing what celebrities do) with their positions of power and privilege was interesting,” Coleman said, “because I feel like when you hear about celebrities you hear about the drama, but you don’t hear about the work they’re doing for their community.” (Courtesy of Australyah Coleman)

It was a Saturday when Grand Rapids senior Australyah Coleman, president of Central Michigan University’s NAACP chapter, got a phone call asking if she could be in Los Angeles by Thursday, Feb. 22. 

Waiting for her in Los Angeles was the NAACP’s first-ever Youth Activist Award. Other winners at the 51st NAACP Image Awards ceremony included names as high-profile as Lizzo, Rihanna and Jamie Foxx. 

“I was scrambling,” she said. “I was like, oh my gosh, I need to find clothes. I need to find a lot of stuff.”

Coleman didn’t even know she would be appearing on stage – or giving a speech – until shortly before she had to do it. Backstage, she was comforted by Anthony Anderson, star of the ABC comedy “Black-ish.”

“Just breathe,” he told her. “It’s going to be OK. Just don’t trip.”

Though the stage lights made it too bright to see the audience in front of her, Coleman could make out the first few rows of “very high-up people." The Youth Activist Award was introduced this year to celebrate the work of NAACP’s Youth and College Division, Coleman said, who is the vice president of Michigan’s division.

Coleman’s work responding to racist incidents on CMU’s campus, which included a rally organized in less than a day, as well as organizing a water drive in Flint, which moved about 16,000 liters of fresh water into the city and sponsored by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, led to her being selected as the inaugural youth award recipient.

The award is among the highest ever received by Michigan’s NAACP chapter, Coleman said, but she insists on not being the sole recipient of its honor.

“I’m not really good at accepting awards, because in this position, it’s not just work done by myself,” she said. “There’s a lot of other people putting in the work to gain this award. It’s a ‘we’ thing.”

Coleman joined CMU’s NAACP chapter during freshman year. None of her friends joined her, but that only pushed her to grow even further.

“Going to the meetings by myself allowed me to find my own individuality,” she said. “I’ve definitely become a stronger person. I feel like I've found my voice, I've found my footing, my foundation and what I want to do in life.”

Dr. Traci Guinn, former Executive Director for the Center for Inclusion and Diversity and Multicultural Academic Student Services, worked with Coleman to develop an online diversity training module and sought her advice when hiring new staff. After Guinn and Coleman spoke at meetings or events, they would "dissect" what had happened and talk through what they could have done better.

"I was able to watch Australyah grow and develop as a leader and a young woman," Guinn said. "I guess you could say we were mentoring one another."

Coleman said she’s looking to take the Law School Admission Test this summer. Coleman plans to attend law school after she graduates in December. When she arrived at CMU, she wanted to go to medical school, but the NAACP set her on a new course.

“I got involved in the NAACP and I was like, 'I hate science.' I want to be a lawyer,” she said.

Coleman is confident her strong activist leadership at CMU, which last year earned her the title of "Organizer of the Year" from NAACP, will be taken up by younger students in her organization.

“I know the people in my chapter who are not graduating yet definitely will (make sure) that we’re still moving in the right direction, that we’re still pushing for change,” she said. “I have a lot of faith in my organization.”

Likewise, President Bob Davies sees the transition more as an opportunity than a challenge.

"I look forward to continuing to work with students in leadership roles in the CMU chapter of the NAACP and other student organizations as we strive to make our campus as inclusive and welcoming as possible for all students, faculty and staff," Davies said in a written statement.

In case anyone was wondering what an NAACP dinner fit for Rihanna is like, dinner at the Image Awards was a roasted chicken dish with “really cute little potatoes” and wild mushrooms, Coleman said. “It was really good.”