Urban League Closes - News-Gazette article

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Urban League Closes - News-Gazette article

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Community Groups

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Julie Wurth

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http://www.news-gazette.com/news/living/2008-11-23/urban-leagues-closure-leaves-community-watchdog-void.html

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News-Gazette

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2008

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noah lenstra

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Urban League's closure leaves community-watchdog void
Sun, 11/23/2008 - 8:40am | Julie Wurth Contact Author
photo-10188
Photo by: Vanda Bidwell

Urban League of Champaign County interim Director Sandra Jones and others are packing up to leave their building in Champaign after the organization shut its doors Nov. 14.

CHAMPAIGN – Years ago, a black mom walked into Ks Merchandise and found not one black doll to buy for her daughter.

She confronted the manager, who told her, "No one's ever asked me to buy black dolls, and I only buy things that are going to sell."

The mom, Vernessa Gipson, told him, "Maybe you don't sell them because you don't have them." She complained to the Urban League of Champaign County, which wrote a letter to the store's corporate headquarters, which apologized.

To Gipson, who later worked at the Urban League, it was a small example of the agency's central role in advocating for black and lower-income families,

"The league was one of those places that you knew had the backs of black families, and families with low income, and other at-risk families," Gipson said. "It just makes you wonder who's out there being the watchdog right now."

The league, which closed Nov. 14 amid mounting financial problems, helped low-income families buy homes, ex-felons find jobs and young adults hone their work skills. For families on hard times, it was a hub for services throughout the community.

But, particularly under former president Tracy Parsons, the league also spoke out on civic issues, pushing for educational equity in Champaign-Urbana schools, working to open minority business opportunities, and brokering disputes between police and the black community.

Who will take on that role now?

Most likely a combination of organizations and individuals, community members and civic leaders said last week.

The league's programs have been parceled off to other groups, and several government agencies and nonprofits do similar work. But it leaves a "huge void" no one agency can fill, said former county board Chairwoman Patricia Avery.

"We have a lot of good people doing good work. But no one has the mission statement of the league," Gipson said.

Lyn Jones, president and CEO of the Champaign County United Way, said directors of United Way-funded agencies discussed the issue Tuesday.

"There's clearly awareness on the part of agencies in town that there's going to be some gaps" in services, Jones said.

Peter Tracy, executive director of the Champaign County Mental Health Board, said the county has organizations headed by blacks that can pick up part of the league's mission. Tackling youth and delinquency issues, for example, are the Champaign-Urbana Area Project, headed by Avery; the TALKS Mentoring program run by the Rev. Harold Davis, and the Mental Health Center's Peer Ambassadors program.

On police-community relations, the city works closely with prominent blacks on the Champaign Community and Police Partnership committee, who "will tell us quite frankly what they think the needs of the community are" and how the city should respond, Assistant City Manager Dorothy David said.

Former Urban League board president Larine Cowan, director of affirmative action at the University of Illinois, said the community has moved past the point where it needs a single spokesman for the black community, as Parsons and the late John Lee Johnson were sometimes viewed.

Blacks now hold elected office and leadership positions in C-U schools, local government, Parkland College and the UI, Cowan said.

"There are so many learned people of color who can speak to almost any issue affecting African-Americans and people in general," Cowan said. "I think that's a good thing."

One person can't represent the views of a diverse black community, added city council member Gina Jackson, whose district extends from Campustown to northeast Champaign.

"Several people should step to the forefront," agreed former Urbana city council member Lonnie Clark.

Clark was friends and business partners with the late Vernon Barkstall, who headed the Urban League for 27 years. Parsons now works at Clark's radio station, WBCP (named for Barkstall, Clark and former Champaign city council member J.W. Pirtle).

Noting Barack Obama's election as president, Cowan said the country has grown in terms of race relations. It might be time for a new organization, a multiracial group that encompasses blacks, Latinos, Asians and "poor people regardless of race," Cowan said.

"It doesn't mean that the problems of African-Americans have dissipated," she said. But "there are opportunities here for us to start something new, and something that will impact more people,"

Newly elected county board member Carol Ammons, a social worker with Catholic Charities, said the league wasn't just for blacks, helping seniors and low-income residents of all races.

Jackson said economic development, not civil rights, was the Urban League's primary responsibility.

But it also made people aware of racial disparities that they might otherwise overlook – the absence of minority children in gifted classes, for example, or the overabundance of black youth in juvenile detention, Gipson said. Even with blacks in leadership roles, it helps to have an outside advocate, she said.

The NAACP historically filled that role at the national level, but the local chapter has little staff and struggled in recent years. The 2005 conviction of its former president, Cleveland Jefferson, for stealing money from the chapter made supporters reluctant to contribute time or money, said its current president, the Rev. Jerome Chambers. A St. Louis native, Chambers said he's had to overcome the "outsider" label.

Clark and Gipson said it may be time for local ministers to take a more visible role.

"Many of their parishioners are going to be adversely affected as a result of this," Clark said. "Collectively, they need to be discussing it and seeing what contribution they could make."

Black communities have historically relied on a "collective, progressive, consistent voice from the faith community," Gipson said. "I'm not seeing that recently."

The Rev. Evelyn Underwood, president of the Ministerial Alliance of Champaign-Urbana and Vicinity, said she couldn't speculate on the organization's role until the ministers discuss the league's situation.

Chambers and Avery want to rally local support to try to save the league, and draft a community impact statement on its closure.

"The league is too important to be written off in the community," Chambers said.

He and Avery said they tried to contact interim Urban League director Sandra Jones in the last year to offer their help, but got little response.

For her part, Jones said she tried to solicit more support for the league through local black churches last February, but only four allowed her to speak to their congregations.

Underwood said she hopes the National Urban League will step in to help.

Herman Lessard, senior vice president of affiliate services for the National Urban League, said his agency was kept apprised of the chapter's financial problems and sent a team in last January to help.

But the local Urban League can't reorganize, or start a new chapter, until its legal and financial problems are resolved, officials said. The agency is under investigation by state and federal authorities because of questions about the use of grant money. Investigators told Jones the inquiry could take two years.

After the "dust settles," Lessard said, the national will work with the community to see if there's any interest in resurrecting the league.

The 45-year-old chapter was founded to bring blacks and whites together, and it has the most integrated board in the community, Jones said. That mission is still important, Avery said.

"Even if the programs are picked up by other agencies, I'm more concerned that the spirit of the organization and its founding will be lost," Ammons said.

What's happened to Urban League programs?

Education

— Community Day Care: 40-year-old day care center at Bradley Avenue and Neil Street closed on March 1 because of ongoing deficits. City recently bought that property and several others in the same block for $250,000.

— Education programs: League also closed its education department March 1, transferring $80,000 in United Way funding for three programs to Regional Office of Education in Rantoul.

Civic engagement

— At Promise of Success: Joint project with Champaign schools and University of Illinois to encourage academic achievement by middle-school students was transferred Oct. 1 to UI Extension. Imani Bazzell, former director of civic engagement for league, is now a UI employee.

— Mental health grant: $20,000 grant to help Mental Health Board of Champaign County draft federal proposal for comprehensive children's initiative was returned to mental health board. Grant will now go to Champaign-Urbana Area Project.

Work-force development

— Digital Divide: Community computer lab designed to bridge "digital divide" for underserved populations is moving to Parkland College, a partner on the project.

— Ex-felons program: State has not decided what to do with $135,000 annual grant to help convicted felons re-enter work force through job training, employer support, etc. Similar $15,000 grant was returned to Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

— Ways to Work: Program funded through National Urban League to help workers buy discounted cars with low-interest loans was discontinued last spring because federal government changed grant requirements, interim League director Sandra Jones said.

— Workforce Initiative: State grant to provide GED programs and skill development to young adults was transferred to Illinois WorkNet in Champaign, a grant partner.

Housing

— Urban League Development Corp. ran home-ownership program for low-income families and two apartment buildings for low-income renters.

The 12 homes were transferred to Busey Bank and Regions Bank, which held mortgages, under a "deed in lieu" of foreclosure, Jones said. Homeowners will now pay those banks instead of Urban League but should see no other changes.

— Crestwood Apartments, Urbana: 20-unit building was transferred to Hickory Point Bank under "deed in lieu" of foreclosure. League owed $800,000 on property and had tried to sell it for $1.1 million.

— Urban Park Place, Champaign: League will continue to manage building as it works with Illinois Development Authority on the property's future.

— Credit counseling; Canceled. Funding came from National Urban League.

League Headquarters

— Two-story building at Springfield Avenue and Neil Street is being transferred to developers Mike and Dan Hosier, who bought it and nearby parking lot earlier this year.

Urban League Boards

— Boards for Urban League and its development corporation must remain in place until state and federal investigations are completed, which could take two years, Jones said. League did not declare bankruptcy because it held no assets of its own. Any property was tied up in mortgages or owned by granting agencies, she said.

Help book

Families who don't know where to turn for services can check out the 2008 edition of Champaign County's "Help Book," 50 pages on subjects from children's services, health care, finances and housing to immigration, libraries, schools and recreation. The free book is available at Family Service, 405 S. State St., C, and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, 201 W. Kenyon Road, C. It's online at www.helpsource.org (click "contents") and www.famservcc.org. The United Way of Champaign County also supports the project.

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Julie Wurth, “Urban League Closes - News-Gazette article,” eBlack Champaign-Urbana, accessed May 24, 2019, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/677.

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