BY Gloria Dulan-Wilson

The National Urban League, under the leadership of former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, just celebrated its 100th Anniversary via its Educate and Elevate! Centennial Conference 2010 in grand style in Washington, DC, from July 27 through July 31

Their theme, I AM EMPOWERED, echoed throughout the entire event, as they literally took DC by storm. They had a Women’s Empowerment Day, a Volunteer Empowerment Day, and focus on job opportunities, not only for recent college grads, but for seniors who were still looking for viable opportunities in their fields.

Empowerment, indeed, is definitely what is needed now, when so many African Americans are at a crossroads, individually and collectively. And the Urban League enunciated its meaning in a way that no organization has ever done before. I came away from that event truly inspired. And, Yes, I took the “I Am Empowered” pledge. It was an act of genius on their part. The goal is to get two million African Americans to take the pledge to BE EMPOWERED, throughout the US. And they are well on their way to doing so.

The venerable organization, which was founded September 29, 1910 in New York, has had a lifetime of service to the Black community. Few realize that the NUL was actually the consolidation of three organizations that, individually, experienced only marginal success, but collectively, became a force to be reckoned with. The Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, and the Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions of Negroes in New York merged into the National Urban League. 

One can only imagine what it took to persuade the three to unite, instead of operating on the kind of ego-trips we generally witness today among our organization, businesses, and even some of our churches. Thank goodness these visionaries had the insight, and infinite wisdom to make it happen,

These visionaries, whom Morial called the original “odd couple”, were a Black man, George Edmund Haynes, and a white woman, Ruth Standish Baldwin. Now, despite the fact that they were in New York, where rules were somewhat more relaxed, Baldwin and Haynes were taking a big risk. It was during this era that Black people were fleeing the south to escape pervasive oppression, poverty, lynchings, KKK, and all that made the South a dangerous and undesirable place to live.

Black people who came to New York found out there were no jobs, housing conditions were abysmal, they didn’t have the requisite job skills for an industrialized society. Haynes and Baldwin formed an alliance to do something about it. That’s what Empowerment is all about.

For the entire week the National Urban League (NUL) focused on issues of concern to African Americans facing an economic downturn that has resulted in double digit unemployment for us nationally (the rate for Blacks is 23% or more, compared to the national average of 10%).

These challenges are nothing new for them. For 100 years they have focused on and advocated for equal employment, job and career training, equality in the workplace. In fact, per Morial, “In our first century, we beat back the Klan. We stopped the lynchings. We turned a climate of fear into a climate of hope. We helped a rural people transition to the industrial jobs of the north. In our first century, we began to tear down many of the ugly walls of segregation, injustice and inequality.

Every conference has their signature “giveaways”, usually a bag with their logo, and some gadgets that other organizations and corporations have donated. But the National Urban League’s 100 Anniversary bag included UPLIFT: Past Present and Future Magazine, “The Woodson Review: the Association for the Study of African American Life and History” (founded by Carter G. Woodson); Empower Magazine; as well as a complimentary copy of “MY PEOPLE” a pictoral collection by Charles R. Smith,Jr. based on a poem by Langston Huges.

The interesting part for me was the frame of reference in maintaining continuity between those who have paved the way, and our contemporary leaders. Naming the merchant’s pavilion after Ron Brown, the first African American to head the powerful US Department of Commerce, was a stroke of genius.

Bringing together Hugh Price, John Jacobs, Vernon Jordan (past NUL Presidents), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous, John Mack, Danny Bakewell, Xernona Clayton -- it was like having the pantheon of Black leadership all in one place. It was like being on hallowed ground.

Their honorees, which included the great Maya Angelou Poet, Writer, Intellect, Actress, Speaker, you name it, she is it and she deserves every accolade there is; Levar Burton, who, in addition to Reading Rainbow, Roots, and Star Trek, is a director, producer and writer (Levar Burton is a personal favorite of mine because of Reading Rainbow and Roots); Earvin “Magic” Johnson legendary basketball great, turned businessman, and founder of Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE); Alfre Woodard, 16 time Emmy-Award winning actress, and founder of Artists For a New South Africa.

In addition to the forementioned, additional honorees included Angela Bassett, Laila Ali (daughter of Muhammad Ali), UN Ambassador Susan E. Rice. Two of my favorite speakers, New York’s enigmatic Dennis Rahim Watson, and the iconic Sonia Sanchez , whose accolades are more than this article can encompass. Needless to say that her impact on the Urban League‘s Youth Town Hall was inspiring (where ever she went people were running up to her to thank her for her words of wisdom). TD Jakes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Ed Gordon (who announced that he was returning to BET), Congresswoman Barbara Lee, (D. California), Cornell West, Geoffry Canada (of Harlem Children’s Zone), among others.

The NUL truly tapped into unsung heroes and sheroes who have made major contributions to our life and culture, but have been largely overlooked by the mainstream media.

What was most stunning, and inspiring, as the week zoomed ahead to culmination, was that there was truly something for everyone. Whether it was the Town Hall on Education; the Economic Development Forum, The Professional Employment Sessions (where for once they didn’t tell you to go on line, but actually took the time to interface with you); The Affordable Housing and Foreclosure Prevention Workshop (which was occurring at the same time that NACA was also there doing their 24/7 Save The Dream Foreclosure Prevention Program on the lower level), they were truly on point, and had their fingers on the pulse of their members.

The highpoint of the Conference was President Barack Obama’s appearance at the National Urban League. So, while he appeared on “The View,” fielding questions from the 5 female cohosts, covering everything from soup to nuts; the next day he covered issues concerning the paucity in education, and the moral necessity for developing a uniform standard to which all states must aspire. So while the front pages of most papers show President Obama on The View (where, by the way, he did a wonderful job), he covered issues of substance in D.C. at the National Urban League’s Centennial Conference. That, likewise should have made the front pages as well.

These following are excerpts from his speech. A more detailed account can be seen on my blog, ww.gloriadulanwilson.blogspot.com:

President Obama highlighted the steps his Administration has taken over the past eighteen months to improve the education system in America via Race to the Top and other programs. 

Per the President, education reform is a top priority for his Administration because: “The status quo is morally inexcusable, it’s economically indefensible, and all of us are going to have to roll up our sleeves to change it. I know some argue that as we emerge from a recession, my administration should focus solely on economic issues.  They said that during health care, as if health care had nothing to do with economics. They said it during financial reform, as if financial reform had nothing to do with economics. And now they're saying it as we work on education issues.  But education is an economic issue -- if not “the” economic issue of our time.  It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks, who’ve never gone to college, is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college.  It’s an economic issue when eight in ten new jobs will require workforce training, or a higher education by the end of this decade.  It’s an economic issue when countries that out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

President Obama noted that the 21st century jobs will require higher education degrees. He noted that while obtaining a higher education is more expensive than ever, but is still an essential requirement for our progress. He cited the fact that the US has fallen from number one in education to number twelve. He also noted that “our Black youth have fallen tragically below most third world countries, and well below their own white counterparts here in the US.”

He continued: “Now, because a higher education has never been more important –- or more expensive -– it’s absolutely essential that we put a college degree within reach for anyone who wants it.  And that’s why we’re making higher education more affordable, so we can meet the goals I’ve set of producing a higher share of college graduates than any other nation by 2020.  I want us to be back at number one instead of number twelve. “

The President has eliminated taxpayer subsidies to banks that had served as the middleman, savings tens of billions of dollars and has used those savings to provide additional financial aid door for college to millions more students [Wish he had been president when I was struggling to put my three through college]. 

He further stated, “This is something that a lot of you may not be aware of, but we have added tens of billions of dollars that were going to bank middlemen, so that that money is now going to students -- millions more students who are getting scholarships to go to college.  That’s already been done.”

The Race to the Top program was designed to encourage states to reform their education laws and policies in order to compete for additional federal grand dollars. He made sure to make the distinction between Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind (which left millions of children behind):

Race to the Top provides real incentives. According to the President: “In an effort to compete for this extra money, 32 states reformed their education laws before we even spent a dime (as you will recall, for some inane reason, initially, New York was not one of them, until the communities and teachers read them the riot act-GDW). The competition leveraged change at the state level.  And because the standards we set were high, only a couple of states actually won the grant in the first round, which meant that the states that didn’t get the money, they’ve now strengthened their applications, made additional reforms.  Now 36 have applied in the second round, and 18 states plus the District of Columbia are in the running to get a second grant.”  

The President noted that some civil rights organizations had criticized the Race to the Top as not doing enough for Black students. There was also some controversy as to why, when he cited the need for increased parental responsibility, it appeared he was directing it at Black families. With his usual aplomb, he adroitly addressed those topics:

We can’t continue with the status quo. “Let me tell you, what’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo.  That's what’s not working. What’s not working is what we’ve been doing for decades now. So the charge that Race to the Top isn’t targeted at those young people most in need is absolutely false because lifting up quality for all our children -- black, white, Hispanic -- that is the central premise of Race to the Top.  And you can’t win one of these grants unless you’ve got a plan to deal with those schools that are failing and those young people who aren’t doing well.  Every state and every school district is directly incentivized to deal with schools that have been forgotten, been given up on.” 

In terms of teachers, he noted that due to budgetary conditions, many quality teachers had dug into their on pockets to get the money for supplies to help their students. “… teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s education from the moment they step into the classroom.  So I want teachers to have higher salaries.  I want them to have more support.  I want them to be trained like the professionals they are –- with rigorous residencies like the ones that doctors go through.   I want to give them a career ladder so they’ve opportunities to advance, and earn real financial security.  I don't want talented young people to say I’d love to teach but I can’t afford it.”

The President stated he wanted to see some teaching superstars just like there are sports superstars. To see teachers on the front covers of magazines the way many athletes now are.

“So even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure we’re seeing results in the classroom.  If we’re not seeing results in the classroom, then let’s work with teachers to help them become more effective.  If that doesn’t work, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom.“

In reference to the parental responsibility issue, he stated, “Michelle and I happen to be Black parents, who have the responsibility for our children’s education. So when I speak to other Black parents about their responsibility, I may put a little more oomph behind it.”

He humorously mentioned that having come from the South Side of Chicago, and having seen some of everything, he was well aware of the challenges Black parents face. They may need social services themselves, may need jobs, my need housing or have substance abuse issues, but education is not just a club for prosperity, it’s for all of us…“Our children have to understand that no one is going to hand you a future. No one is going to tip your head over and pour it (an education) in. You have to want it and you have to take it. I know life is tough in this country; I come from the South Side of Chicago, I know what you’re going through. Our kids have to wrestle with things no kids should have to go through. But as parents, when our kids say “no we can’t” it’s up to us as parents to say “yes you can.”

Finally, the President addressed the issue of raising standards for students, teachers and schools to help achieve better outcomes:
“So here’s what Race to the Top says:  Instead of Washington imposing standards from the top down, let’s challenge states to adopt common standards voluntarily, from the bottom up.  That doesn’t mean more standards; it means higher standards. I do not want to see young people get a diploma but they can’t read that diploma.” Thus far 30 states have come together to develop higher standards. Under No Child Left Behind, several states lowered their standards so that school districts wouldn’t be penalized when their students fell short.  Per the President: “And what’s happened now is, at least two states -– Illinois and Oklahoma –- that lowered standards in response to No Child Behind -- No Child Left Behind -- are now raising those standards back up, partly in response to Race to the Top.”

The President announced that 5,000 schools throughout the US that are functioning below average are now being assisted by Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, with a budget of $5 billion, to turn them around. They may or may not become charter schools, but the decisions are being made at the community level, bringing together teachers, administrators, parents to have an impact on their improvement. The President stated that he was not necessarily saying that he supported charter schools over public schools, but that he definitely was in favor of whatever it takes to make the schools more productive and effective for the youth.

He closed by pledging to keep fighting for nationwide educational standards and education reform; and to fight along side the National Urban League so that people can reach the American Dream. He left the audience totally in awe.

Urban League President, Marc Morial stated,

Marc Morial stated, “As we approach the 21st century, we are one Urban League and we are empowered. We are one Urban League and we are inspired. We are one Urban League and we are powerful, magnificent, courageous, and ready. We are one Urban League and we are servants. We are one Urban League and let the word go forth that we name and claim the leadership role in the 21st century. As our second century begins, some ask whether the National Urban League is still relevant. I say to them, as long as there are people out of work, as long as there are people in need of better schools, as long as there's a need for safe, decent and wholesome afterschool programs, as long as there are people who long to become homeowners and are looking for somewhere to turn, this National Urban League and Urban League Movement is not only relevant, but we are here to stay!”

Interestingly enough, there are many of our youth who are questioning the continued relevance of the Urban League and the NAACP, but have at the same time failed to come up with organizations or solutions to the violence that seems to plague their generation. It’s apparent that we have not done what we should to keep the history alive in our homes, schools, churches and institutions. Many of our youth don’t realize that, were it not for these organizations, as well as SNCC and SCLC, their ability to attend institutes of higher learning, have their own recording and production companies, even walk around with their pants hanging off their behinds (as reprehensible as it is to us) would not have happened. They would still be totin’ that barge and liftin’ that bale. (if there are any youth reading this and don’t know what means, ask your grandparents, they can bring you up to speed.)

We may have prematurely assumed that we had won the fight in the 70’s and 80’s, and so moved on to more mundane matters, such as job development and community building, thinking that we had delivered on our promises to our people; but we realized that 400 years of deprivation was not so easily mitigated. There are still many of our brothers and sisters in need of the leadership and intervention The National Urban League and NAACP have provided over the last century. This does not preclude the formation of other organizations, but it does speak volumes for the fact that they have rolled up their sleeves and have begun to retool to make sure that there none of us are left behind.

These organizations have long been in the forefront of arming themselves against racist whites KKK, Jim Crow, etc., nolw face the task of confronting their own youth in the streets. This is quite a challenge. These venerable organizations have endured for a century only to find themselves confronted with an element of self hatred on the part of some of our youth that are turning on each other in violence, instead of turning to each other to work together. The challenge is how do they bridge that gap?

I can say without hesitation that NUL’s Be Empowered Movement is making a considerable difference in their approach to the challenges of bringing our youth back into the fold. In the weeks and months to come, it will begin to make a considerable difference, moving our kids from the streets to the schools, to the heads of business and community development.
But it was NUL President Marc Morial’s final address and charge to the Urban Leaguers that was truly inspirational. In point of fact, it was more of a charge, a call to action, than a speech. It left us inspired and ready to roll up our sleeves to do more:

“Wake up! Wake up! Urban League, we’ve got work to do. Wake up America, the time to change top priorities is now. Wake up Urban League, wake up America, the time to lead is now. It is time to stand on the shoulders of Baldwin and Haynes, Jones and Grainger, Young and Jordan, Jacobs and Price (referring to the founders and the subsequent presidents of the National Urban League).

“Wake up Urban League, we stand tonight upon the shoulders of Martin Luther King, and Fanny Lou Hamer, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baynes Johnson, Shirley Chisolm, Barbara Jordon, Molly Moon, Dorothy Height; and we stand on the shoulders of Benjamin Hooks, Roy Wilkins, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Hughes, Constance Baker Motley. We stand on their shoulders of Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Adam Clayton Powell, Ralph Metcalfe, Branch Rickey & Jackie Robinson.

And we stand on the shoulders of all of our mothers and fathers; all of our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles. We stand on the shoulders of all who have struggled; who sweat, who bled, who yearned, who sacrificed, who have given; who toiled in the hot sun of Mississippi and Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, who traveled to New York, Detroit and Chicago, and Cleveland, OHio almost 100 years ago looking for opportunity, we stand on their shoulders. And we stand on their shoulders because they shared our vision of one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and economic opportunity for all. Urban League, we are empowered! We are empowered to embrace our second century. We are empowered to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Go back, go back to Los Angeles, Louisville, Kentucky, Stanford, San Francisco, Macon, Minneapolis and Milwaukee because we are empowered. Go back and serve those in need. Go back and touch the children, the weak, the disadvantage, the dispossessed. We must be inspired to lead in the 21st century.

As our second century begins, some ask whether the National Urban League is still relevant.  I say to them, as long as there are people out of work, as long as there are people in need of better schools, as long as there's a need for safe, decent and wholesome afterschool programs, as long as there are people who long to become homeowners and are looking for somewhere to turn, this National Urban League and Urban League Movement is not only relevant, but we are here to stay. We are one Urban League, and we are empowered.  We are empowered to embrace our second century. By the power vested in me, let the second century of the Urban League begin.
Thank you.  God bless you.  God bless America.  And God bless the National Urban League. “

In 1995, the Honorable Louis Farrakhan put together the Million Man March, which converged on Washington, DC. He called for one million, and two million showed up. In his closing speech, he urged the men to return home and become part of one of the traditional organizations that have worked to make a difference in the lives of Black people, citing the work of the National Urban League as well as the NAACP, CORE and others.

I am going to issue the same charge. And though I don’t have the charisma that Brother Farrakhan had, I think it is as important today as it was 15 years ago, that we support the organizations that have spent a lifetime supporting and fighting for us. For more info on the National Urban League, you can log on to www.nul.org. For the New York Urban League, log on to www.nyul.org. Next year the Urban League will be in Boston, Massachusetts.

The New York Urban League’s annual Whitney M. Young National Urban League Classics takes place Saturday, September 25, at the New Meadowlands Stadium in Rutherford, NJ. This year Howard University vs. Morgan State University. Tailgate party time!

Stay Blessed &
Gloria Dulan-Wilson

PS: I would be totally remiss if I didn't mention the spectacular fundraising concert held at the gorgeous Warner Theatre, featuring Fantasia and Ronnie Isley. Needless to say it was a packed house. It was my first time seeing Fantasia, and I have to say, it won't be the last. Fantasia, my sister, you rock! You put on a show that ten sisters couldn't master.
And for brother Ronnie Isley, thanks for the wonderful trip through Isley Brothers land. I have and will always love you and your brothers music. GDW

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