Is The National Urban League Still Relevant in Barack Obama's America?
This week, the National Urban League (NUL) will celebrate its 99th anniversary. More than 4,000 members from all across the country are convening in Chicago to mark that milestone and participate in the civil rights group’s annual conference. About 10,000 more are expected to attend.
The largest community-based group of its kind, the Urban League made a name for itself organizing tens of thousands during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In the decades that followed, it positioned itself as the main advocate for issues facing people in America’s inner-cities.
Now, we live in Barack Obama’s America, where racial discrimination is less pronounced and where there’s a growing gap between the Black upper and middle class and others who find themselves below the poverty line. We’re also watching the new high-tech economy take the reins of the American labor force from the manufacturing-based job market of yesteryear. And urban America is less Black and less disadvantaged than ever before – at least since the Great Migration north in the first half of the last century and the “White Flight” and sprawling of the suburbs that followed it.
In this new reality, the Urban League is operating against a fresh set of challenges. Is the organization able to maintain its relevance? How is it adjusting its game and its goals to adapt to the new reality we see emerging in America?
BET.com spoke with the NUL’s president, Marc Morial, about these issues and more.
What are the top three priorities of the Urban League right now?
Jobs, housing and our children. We need to put our people back to work, stem the loss of wealth in our communities as a result of the sub-prime mortgage rip-off and housing crisis. The Urban League is also dedicated to educating our children. We are one of the nation’s leading providers of after-school and early childhood services to young people. We serve over 400,000 kids.
In your estimation, what’s the biggest crisis facing African Americans today?
Jobs and the economic crisis. We have higher than 20 percent unemployment in our communities. The best way to strengthen a family is to make sure people are working and making a fair wage.
You’re having the largest ever job fair in the history of the organization. Have the employers you’ve invited committed to moving the ball down the field and actually hiring participants or will it just be a good public relations opportunity for a lot of them?
We have a total of 70 employers who have made commitments that they will accept applications, interview candidates and have jobs available.
Upward mobility for Blacks - in politics, entertainment, sports, business – you name it – has accelerated over the last decade, expanding the gap between the Black middle class and the Black poor. How is the organization adjusting its strategy to address the needs and concerns of constituents and members who fall on both sides of the economic divide?
This is very important. We primarily serve people who are at or below the poverty line. For those who are doing better, The Urban League is a way for them to give back - to serve. It’s not where we are today. It’s where we’ve come from. Today’s middle class stands on the shoulders of the generations behind us. We have the responsibility to give back to others. We preach it, push it and pull it. If you are successful, you have a responsibility to give back to others.
The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy – at least as we’ve known it over the last century - continues to shrink. Is the organization taking any steps to align itself and its constituents with the economy of the future - green jobs, high-tech clean energy jobs, etc.?
We are launching a new “Green” initiative. We will be offering new training programs that will prepare people for new jobs, take advantage of the change and prepare for jobs of the future. Those are the areas in which we hope to partner with the president.
In 1998, the Urban League started the Young Professionals auxiliary group. Are there any other efforts to reach out to younger people?
Our goal is to expand the National Urban League Young Professionals. We have a successful formula that no other organization has had. A number of young people have been exposed to the organization through the young professionals and many of them continue with us. We hope the celebration of 10 years will be an inspiration to more.
The Vice President will be speaking at the conference and the First Lady will be there. Did you invite the President?
The Vice President will be speaking. We invited the President and for scheduling reasons, he declined. He has not spoken to us since the campaign so we look forward to having him in the future.
Do you think the stimulus package has begun to benefit African Americans?
No, not yet. I think it’s too early to tell. The president has to hold the governers to a schedule, though. He has to keep the pressure on the governors to make sure the money reaches the people.
What do you think the Obama administration is doing well when it comes to your constituents?
The increase in unemployment benefits and the cut in payroll taxes. And the new money he has committed to education and job training also hold great promise.
What could it do better?
At this point, it's hard to make that call. We have to recognize that he’s up against powerful opponents. Where we agree with him, we have an obligation to support him.
As more Blacks move away from urban centers to the suburbs and exurbs of America’s major cities, how is the organization adapting its outreach to meet that changing reality?
We have a number of our affiliates that are taking the lead on this. Dallas is one example. Another is Detroit, whose chapter’s reach now includes southeastern Michigan. We are encouraging all of our affiliates to expand their reach to include areas where there is need that are out of their historic service areas.
The Urban League celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. What’s next for the organization?
Our priorities will not change. What we will lay out tomorrow night will be how we approach those priorities. Our centennial next year will not be about looking at the past but how we will move into the future.
Get more on the Urban League Convention in Chicago.