MINNEAPOLIS — VANESSA POWELL represents the face of hope for the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization.
Decked out in a Sunday-best pink dress, the shy Columbus, Ga., college freshman left her first annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with the promise: ''I'll come back again.''
Tapping the energy and ideas of African-American youths, such as Ms. Powell, is seen as crucial to the future of an organization beset by enormous challenges both within and without.
Internal bickering, financial woes, and an aging membership have some blacks questioning the NAACP's relevance. At the same time, the more conservative mood in the country is leading to attempts to roll back some of the group's most cherished causes, such as affirmative action.
''The NAACP will survive,'' Myrlie Evers-Williams told an estimated 5,000 people here. The dynamic new chairwoman of the NAACP says part of her rescue plans include being ''sensitive'' to the demands of black youths. ''To serve our beloved NAACP and you, my friends, in a time when the association is being tested as never before is the greatest challenge of my life, and I have faced many.''
Mrs. Evers-Williams's first husband, Medger Evers, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated more than 30 years ago. Three days after her election in February to head the NAACP, she was widowed again.
On Wednesday, Rev. Jesse Jackson gave Evers-Williams his vote of confidence, saying she brought ''a touch of class, integrity, and the blood of martyrs all her life'' to the organization.
She will need such support to rebuild the NAACP.
Last year, Benjamin Chavis was dismissed in a controversy over using more than $300,000 in NAACP funds to pay a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. Board chairman William Gibson was voted out amid allegations of financial mismanagement.
Among Evers-Williams's immediate goals is to reduce the group's $3.8 million budget deficit. ''Our house must be in order,'' she says, to restore the confidence of past and potential donors. The association has already cut staffing by 40 percent. She is also expected to close some of the 2,200 NAACP offices in the US.
A long-awaited audit of the NAACP finances found that top former executives squandered the organization's money on limousines, personal trips, and children's toys. The audit reported that Mr. Chavis spent $32,459 on personal expenses. Evers-Williams says negotiations are under way for Chavis to pay back about $25,000.
Mr. Jackson told convention delegates that the NAACP needs heroes and ''leadership that keeps its eyes on the prize'' in a speech that sounded like a campaign pitch.
Evers-Williams says maintaining the NAACP's political influence is a priority. ''The key to the future direction of the NAACP will be based on how we redefine ourselves,'' she says. ''Our basic arm will be registration and voting. Through the arms of 2,200 branches we shall send our message to candidates, local, state, and national.''
But one of her most persistent themes as she flits between meetings is that the NAACP must become more relevant to black youths. The median age of the NAACP membership, which counts half a million members, is 49. Evers-Williams wants to double membership.
''We shall meet with leaders in the entertainment, financial, and business industries to discuss how we may become more relevant to young people, ages 20 to 40 years. We shall complete our plans for this prime group of young people within four months. We also are working out a program to strengthen our youth and college chapters.''
Another vehicle for encouraging more participation from black youths is the NAACP's Afro-Academic Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition for high school students. Competitions are held in 23 different events in four major areas: humanities, sciences, performing arts, and visual arts. This year, students from more than 900 communities participated. Winners were awarded scholarships, medals, and other prizes at the convention this week.
The new NAACP chairwoman has a leadership style some describe as ''corporate'' and ''efficient.'' That was evidenced in adhering to the convention schedule. Evers-Williams designated ''parliamentarians'' to keep the convention meetings - known for long-winded interruptions from the audience - on track.
NAACP board member Kenyon Burke says Evers-Williams's experience as the Los Angeles commissioner of public works and later, director of community affairs at the Atlantic Richfield oil company, are what the organization needs now. ''Myrlie has the stamina,'' he says. ''She can cope with the intense issues of the day - bullets, schools, justice, economics, and health.''