Urban League chief keeps building

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Urban League chief keeps building


Tracy Parsons, president of the Urban League of Champaign County, greets Urban League board member Robert Dodd at a luncheon last month celebrating Parsons' 10 years as president of the agency.
Sun, 10/10/2004 - 2:00pm | J. Philip Bloomer

CHAMPAIGN – When Tracy Parsons took on the job as president of the Urban League of Champaign County, he figured three to five years max.

That was in 1994.

Parsons is still here, still building his agency, still building people, and quietly – for the most part – smoothing patches on the rocky road to racial justice.

The length of his tenure is a little bit surprising both to him and to others who helped recruit this up-and-coming young businessman back home from Chicago. Parsons just signed another two-year contract.

"I stayed because I see that we're having a positive impact," Parsons said. "There are struggles. Daily. With budgets, controversies, different challenges all the time. But overall, this organization is having an influence on making this community a better place. And it's my hometown. The fact that I can play a role in improving the quality of life for people, however small, makes this somewhere I want to stay."

Many would beg to differ on his self-described diminutive role.

Parsons has grown the agency he oversees many times over. He took over for another institution, the late Vern Barkstall, who had been president of the league for 28 years.

Barkstall was a tireless advocate for civil rights in Champaign-Urbana. In contrast, Parsons says his strength is in programming and administration. That is evident in how far the agency has come in the last 10 years.

The league ran six programs when Parsons arrived, out of an office employing 12 people in a little rented building off an alley in downtown Champaign. In 1999, the league moved to its own building at the corner of Neil Street and Springfield Avenue. That is now the base for more than 20 programs and 44 employees serving in the realm of 5,000 people a year directly, and thousands more in subtler ways. Its budget has grown from $1.2 million to $4.5 million.

From traditional programming focusing on home improvements and energy assistance, the league's emphasis has broadened to include work force training programs and educational programs that touch the lives of the poor from preschool to adult.

Its Freedom School Summer Program served 180 black and Latino youths in literacy-based learning focused on conflict resolution and social action. It is the only Freedom School approved by the Children's Defense Fund to be operated by an Urban League affiliate.

The league recently collaborated with the University of Illinois' Success by Six program and the United Way to take over the operation of the 50-year-old Community Day Care and help ensure the availability of child care for working families and people actively trying to find work. The center operates from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and on Saturdays as well.

The league's Urban Technical Outreach Center provides training and 16 computers, including one for special-needs populations, and just received another grant to add another class. There was one computer and no fax machine when Parsons took over the job.

The league has found jobs for 200 ex-felons in the last year.

Through its Development Corporation, the league has helped 30 families buy their first homes and initiated other efforts to revitalize neighborhoods. The corporation also recently bought 20 townhouses in Urbana and a 24-unit apartment complex on Park Place, also in Urbana, geared to low-income residents.

With charitable contributions declining, Parsons earlier this year initiated the league's bingo hall out of a vacant grocery store building on Cunningham Avenue. The hall brings in about 135 people a night.

The list goes on.

Parkland College President Zelema Harris, who helped recruit Parsons here, likened the league's new breadth of endeavors to a community college in a bit different sociopolitical context.

Danielia Rasmussen, who chairs the Urban League board, said Parson's days are an imposing mix of appeals for help on personal problems and issues, meetings with police officials, school officials, politicians and business leaders.

"I have to say two things really stand out about Tracy – his community advocacy work and his extraordinarily visionary leadership," Rasmussen said. "Even during rough economic times, he has consistently made the league grow and added innovative and unique programs."

Parsons was not an unknown quantity when he arrived here. He played football and basketball at Urbana High School, where he earned honorable mention honors for all-state and was awarded a scholarship to play football at Northwestern University.

From there he went into a successful sales job with DonTech, the telephone book publisher. He later became a district manager for Godfather's Pizza in Minneapolis and Baskin-Robbins in Franklin Park. Well-spoken, well-dressed and with an easy smile, it's no surprise Parsons enjoyed success at sales, but financial success didn't provide the personal satisfaction he got from working with kids.

At 28, he joined the Hire the Future summer jobs program for Chicago youth. He was its executive director, working in collaboration with the Urban League in Chicago, when the local search committee found him.

Urbana schools Superintendent Gene Amberg went to interview Parsons in Chicago. Parsons' youth (he was 32 at the time), his hometown roots and understanding of the community and his business experience all worked in his favor, and the national search came to a close. Amberg said it's one of the best "hires" he's ever made.

"Tracy has really become a friend as well as a colleague," Amberg said. "He has really actively engaged the Champaign-Urbana community to create a shared responsibility for racial progress and success. It takes a special leader to command respect from a broad spectrum of the community, and Tracy has done that."

Amberg also got a new teacher out of the hire. Parsons' wife, Martha, is a teacher at Yankee Ridge Elementary School.

Parkland's president also was on the search committee and remains close to Parsons.

"We were lucky he applied, then we sort of strong-armed him into coming," Harris said. "I've observed his accomplishments, especially in the area of working with minority youngsters, and am pleased to report on how effective he has been. He's just everywhere. The tentacles of the league are everywhere. And people believe in him."

Parsons downplays his role in some of those successes and is effusive in praise of his staff.

Parsons said that while some would try to pull him to the podium to be Champaign-Urbana's answer to Al Sharpton, a more important contribution for him is to ensure the financial health of the Urban League.

"I can't be out there on every issue and every cause. If I was, the league wouldn't be in the position it is today," he said.

To be effective and influential with decision-makers requires the maintenance of integrity that becomes compromised if one is constantly pounding fists in front of TV lights. That doesn't mean Parsons hasn't been in the forefront of several major issues that have divided white and black communities in Champaign-Urbana. It just means he picks his battles judiciously, and his approach generally tends to be less confrontational. Not that he lacks the capacity to get angry.

Parsons was instrumental in persuading the Champaign city administration to withdraw its recommendation that the police department start using Tasers, and a comment by Mayor Jerry Schweighart prompted Parsons to demand an apology.

While those issues are important, Parsons could fill his days with them if he chose. More flag carriers would be welcome.

Parsons said he and his peers in the Urban League organization across the country struggle with the relevance of civil rights fights and how those issues affect their agencies. The fundamental platforms – the Civil Rights Act, school desegregation, affirmative actions programs, the Community Reinvestment Act – are in place or have otherwise played a role in allowing Urban Leagues to focus energies elsewhere.

"Is civil rights still the battle or has the battle changed to economic struggle? I believe that it has. For me, it's about creating a black wealth, economic power, giving individuals the tools to make a good living, and fighting the educational system to create fair and equitable opportunity.

"Don't get me wrong. There are still many battles to be fought. Black and white people want me to put a positive spin on things and say that racism is better now. White people want to be told there is no racism and they've done a great job. Well, no, look around this town, where people live and work and socialize. There's a lot of work to be done."

Earlier this year, Parsons wrote community leaders to convey just that message:

"We cannot continue to suggest that we have created a community that treats all people equally," Parsons wrote. "In fact, the consequences of racism are readily apparent in both the black and white communities. Apathy among blacks is rampant and should be unacceptable. It has instilled in our youth an attitude of disengagement and complacency. Equally as disturbing is the white community's denial of 'white privilege' as it relates to their acceptance of responsibilities in creating and leading institutions that perpetuate discriminatory practices. It is a constant battle to gain the concern and understanding of decision-makers, white and black, who continue to implement policies that keep our community lagging behind."

It's not a lot of fun to have to be the point man in example after example of painful, confrontational racial issues. Parsons longs for a more cosmopolitan flavor for the community, restaurants, bars and other social venues where there are no color barriers.

For relaxation, he sometimes visits friends in Chicago, and when time permits, plays basketball at the YMCA, a place where barriers of race and job and social status happily vanish, and where his rainbow jumper still finds its target more than not.

Parsons' office at the Urban League reveals surprisingly few mementos for this one-time high school and college football star, a man who has already won many accolades, certificates and plaques from important local and national organizations.

There is a copy of a high school diploma on his desk. It is not his own. Prodded, Parsons said it is a copy sent to him from Tommie Berry Jr., a young man he mentored at Urbana High School. There's a kind note of thanks to Parsons for helping him through school, with a scholarship search and with his selection of friends.

"That's what matters about this job, when you can make a difference in a young man's life like this," Parsons said. "That's why I do what I do."

You can reach J. Philip Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at pbloomer@news-gazette.com.


Robin Scholz




News Gazette


10th 10 2004

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Robin Scholz , "Urban League chief keeps building," in eBlack Champaign-Urbana, Item #251, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/251 (accessed July 14, 2020).

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