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Urban League makes a big comeback


Five years ago, the Urban League of Portland found itself in a deep hole.

The North Portland nonprofit — a fixture in the community since 1945 — saw its programs dwindling and credibility shot due to allegations of financial misdeeds.

Former president Marcus Mundy ended up stepping down in December 2011, and the organization needed a new leader to build credibility and financial stability again — fast.

Two interim leaders later, the Urban League board hired Mike Alexander, a former executive at Portland’s Regence BlueCross Blue Shield and cabinet member of the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, well-known in the community for his can-do spirit and relationship building.

Now, the Urban League is not just back on its feet, helping to move the city’s equity agenda forward, but also a major player in the city’s workforce development.

Consider: The Urban League’s Workforce Development Team is a hotbed for young professionals; the League is a go-to site for businesses to recruit and hire candidates of color; and the group’s recent lobbying work in the Legislature helped pass the Ban the Box legislation as well as other key bills for underrepresented communities in the state — related to racial profiling, paid sick days, minimum wage, retirement savings and more.

So how did they rise from the ashes?

Alexander, who retired last spring after three years at the helm, credits the transformation to a pivotal grant from the Bank of America in 2014.

The bank’s $200,000 Neighborhood Builders grant is part of a national award program that’s operated for 13 years in Portland, with a total of $4.5 million invested in local nonprofits.

“We try to pick organizations where the funds can be transformative,” says Roger Hinshaw, head of commercial banking for Bank of America’s Pacific Northwest region.

Specifically, the bank targets organizations that will boost job growth in the city.

And they hope the philanthropy will spur other corporations to make similar investments.

“We want it to be a catalyst to the broader business community,” Hinshaw says. “We hope it will leverage into other dollars.”

The two-year grant, with unrestricted funds, provided money the Urban League used to expand its youth employment program for young people, enhance its website, renovate its space to better accommodate their programs and expand its summer youth programming to year-round.

The Urban League’s students — in middle and high school and age 18-25 — now participate in an after-school homework program, leadership classes, classes in music and the arts and public speaking.

The League is a new Portland Public Schools food site, so youths have access to healthy food to keep fueled.

And for the first time this year, a group of youth program students will tour Oregon State University and the University of Oregon campuses during spring break.

Job skills are a cornerstone of the Urban League’s focus because of the inequity in unemployment rates.

In Portland in 2014, the state’s unemployment rate was 7.1 percent (6.8 percent for whites), and twice that (13.6 percent) for African Americans.

Those figures don’t reflect an additional number of under-employed people who are not earning family-wage jobs, without the skills and resources to do so, Alexander says.

In 2014, 54 youths participated in the Urban League’s summer youth programs, most from low-income families who got to attend their camp free of charge.

All gained employment after they graduated, earning an average $14.72 hourly wage in their jobs.

The youth programs expanded to include job readiness training topics such as resume writing, interview skills, technology platforms, being smart about social media, basic banking and more.

They asked: “What do we need to address root causes” of under-employment among black youth, Alexander says.

The Urban League’s 22nd annual Career Connections job fair this year was its biggest yet, with 700 attendees and 70 local employers at the Doubletree Hotel.

Throughout the year, local employers list more than 1,400 jobs on the Urban League’s website, looking to increase diversity in their hiring pool.

The Neighborhood Builder leveraged more than just money — it included three leadership trainings for both the executive director and one of the emerging leaders.

Alexander recalls meeting up with 65 other CEOs and grant recipients in North Carolina for the first training, thrilled to be able to talk about the challenges and struggles of leading their organizations.

“They were organizations that were small, but thinking big,” he says. He took part in monthly conference calls with his new network of CEOs for a year after the training, using it as an “incubator for thinking” about the path forward.

Most importantly, it gave the Urban League the spark they needed.

There was a “cloud over our organization, our work,” says Alexander. “We started looking at how to recalibrate. Bank of America listened to what we wanted to do.”

Suddenly, doors started opening. One of Bank of America’s senior leaders joined the board, and other bank employees participate in League events like the Young Professionals Organization, targeted to the “young and young at heart.”

Providing networking, leadership trainings and volunteer opportunities, the bank’s support of the program was immediately validating.

“It tells our staff we’re important,” says Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the new president and CEO who took over in April, when Alexander retired. “It moves us up on the list of things people might believe are important to do.”