Renee Romine, president of the Portage County NAACP. Jeremy Brown/The Portager
Interviewed by Wendy DiAlesandro
We spoke with Renee Romine, 59, the recently installed president of the Portage County NAACP about her life, her goals for the organization and her thoughts on recent law enforcement actions.
You can also read an explainer about what the group does to support civic equality in the community.
DiAlesandro: Tell us about yourself, your background and what you do for a living now.
Romine: I was born and raised in Merritt Island, Florida. It is a peninsula, with beautiful palm trees, and other trees, mango, guava, avocado pears, and of course oranges. I am the youngest of 11 children. We were taught to stand up for ourselves, respect ourselves and others, and to get our education. The most precious gift my mom taught me was forgiveness. Whenever I go back home, I intentionally take time to go to the beach to watch the sun rise and set.
I retired from Kent State University several months ago. I was the Executive Director of Training and Development, in the Human Resources Department. I am a Retired Army Reserve Captain. I met my late husband in the Army Reserve, but we were in different units. I have two wonderful children who both graduated from Kent State University. My daughter and I are both working on our doctoral degrees.
DiAlesandro: What is the story of your activism?
Romine: Growing up in the South, it was hard not to be active in social change. Most of the civil rights activists were from the South and they were a household name. My older siblings experienced segregated schools. There were no buses to take them to school; the community families carpooled to get the kids to school located in another city. In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. This did not change overnight. The schools did not immediately desegregate. However, by the time I started school in the ‘60s, my city’s schools had desegregated. Merritt Island is very small. We had a few elementary schools, two junior high schools and one high school.
DiAlesandro: Why did you choose the NAACP as an outlet for your activism?
Romine: The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in the nation. It was founded in 1909 by a multiracial group of individuals passionate about stopping the violent killing of African Americans, abolishing segregation and discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting and transportation.
I am the recent past-president of the Pan African Faculty and Staff Association at Kent State University, and community engagement liaison for the Interfaith Justice Alliance (Akron, Ohio). Social justice has always been an important part of my life. We have very busy lives. You have to determine how you want to serve your community, and the NAACP is a perfect fit for the person that I am. My mom volunteered in my community growing up and that made a huge impact on me.
DiAlesandro: What are your specific goals during your tenure as NAACP president?
Romine: To intentionally collaborate with leaders in various organizations to resolve complex social justice issues like gun violence, health care disparities, eliminating school discipline disparities, and to solicit the help of our young people in finding ways to connect with them. We are always willing to help establish chapters in the high schools and universities. The Windham students were motivated to start a chapter and it was easy to support them from there. We do not have paid positions, so we do not have the bandwidth to be everywhere we would like, so it helps when we have the support of the schools.
I am meeting with Pastor Dennis Ritchie this month to discuss a strategic plan to work with our churches, community leaders and law enforcement agencies. It will take the entire community working together to make a lasting difference. We cannot do this work alone. We are all community servants. We do this work because we love our community and we want everyone to feel supported and listened to.
DiAlesandro: What is your assessment of law enforcement in Portage County?
Romine: I have not officially met Sheriff Bruce Zuchowski yet, but I have sat in a few council meetings with Kent Police Chief Nicholas Shearer. I like his openness and transparency. Any information that my office has asked of him, he has willingly provided it. After the George Floyd murder, he looked at the department’s use-of-force policy. The Kent Police Department has had a ban on chokeholds for some time. I plan to set up a series of meetings with all of Portage County’s law enforcement agencies to talk about their use-of-force, de-escalation policies and more.
DiAlesandro: What is your reaction to the Jayland Walker shooting?
Romine: First, I want to be transparent about my son being an Akron Police Officer. He is an amazing officer, and he loves his community.
My initial reaction was a cry out to God. Then, I thought about the Walker family, and my community. I have worked in the Kent community for over 35 years, but I live in Akron. I love both communities. The African American community has suffered greatly when it comes to the way our children have been treated and killed by some law enforcement officers.
I am a doctoral student in Kent State University’s Interprofessional Leadership program. The program is designed to teach students how to collaborate with leaders in their discipline and community to resolve complex problems with a social justice lens. My dissertation work will include community policing. I have read almost 100 journals and government articles. The U.S. Justice Department has documented a lot about how the African American community is treated differently by police departments. This is a systemic issue in our country that law enforcement agencies can no longer ignore.
I will schedule a series of meetings with Pastor Dennis Ritchie; our churches; student leaders; Windham NAACP student unit; Deanna Baccus, president of Black United Students at KSU; Vice President Amoaba Gooden, Diversity Equity and Inclusion at KSU; Chief Dean Tondiglia at KSU and Chief Nicholas Shearer to look at use-of-force and de-escalation policies and changes that are needed to keep our kids and community safe.