The Urban League of West Michigan, formerly Grand Rapids Urban League, was organized in 1942 and is one of 100 affiliates located in 36 states and the District of Columbia and is the second largest affiliate in Michigan. The idea of a local Urban League began during 1942 when the League, known as The Brough Community Association of Grand Rapids, was organized to provide recreational and self-development opportunities for the Urban League of West Michigan community. One year later, the Board of Directors, anxious to improve and enlarge the programs of the organization, held a series of meetings involving other concerned citizens from businesses, industry, churches, and civic groups. The meetings quickly indicated an awareness that a local Urban League might help meet the needs of a rapidly growing urban area such as Grand Rapids.
In 1943, the name was changed to the Grand Rapids Urban League and Brough Community Association, and its first Executive Director was Edward P. Simms, Sr. The size of the staff was three. In 1947, the name of the organization was shortened to the Grand Rapids Urban League, its Executive Director was Paul I. Phillips, and the size of the staff was five. Mr. Phillips would serve the organization for nearly 30 years until his death in 1976.
That same year in 1976, John W. Hall, became the Executive Director and served for two years followed by Dr. Walter M. Brame, who served as Executive Director (later changed to President and CEO) from 1979-1992. Under Dr. Brame’s leadership, the League grew in staff size to 22 and its annual operating budget grew from less than $200,000 to over $2 million. In 1993, Rodney N. Brooks became the President and served through April 1995, followed by Lawrence Borom from 1997-1999. Dr. Brame returned to the position of President and CEO in 1999 and remained until his retirement in 2011. In 2012, the Board of Directors appointed Joseph D. Jones as President and Chief Executive Officer, who served in this role for eight years prior to becoming the first African American City Commissioner elected to serve the City’s Second Ward.
In 2021, the Board of Directors unanimously chose Eric D. Brown, as its eight President and Chief Executive Officer. A visionary leader, non-profit administrator, and fierce advocate for racial justice, Eric is no stranger to the Urban League movement. Regarded as one of the “brightest college interns” the agency had the privilege to mentor, Brown is fondly remembered for his drive to succeed and his keen business sense and an entrepreneurial mindset. As the city’s oldest and largest community based movement devoted to economic empowerment for Blacks/African Americans, Brown serves as the eighth president of the historic civil rights organization, eight—representing the number of new beginnings, with his trajectory for new beginnings having taken off like a rocket. With a multidisciplinary business and operations approach, he brings a history of strong, steady, and stable leadership to his new role along with more than 15 years of experience working with diverse institutions. He assumes the helm at a time when not only our city, but the nation as a whole commits to addressing institutional racism, economic, academic, and health disparities, and issues of social and economic justice. His laser focus on improving the quality of life for individuals and families-of-color throughout West Michigan are exactly what the Urban League needs as it enters its eighth decade of service.
Grand Rapids Urban League, now officially renamed the Urban League of West Michigan demonstrates our reach to not only Grand Rapids and Kent County, but also includes Muskegon and Ottawa Counties, as well. Although our name has changes, our mission and vision remains the same to delivering services and creating systemic changes which eliminate racism and increase the availability of quality life chances. Our goals then are to enable Blacks/African Americans, other minorities and the disadvantaged to become self-sufficient, secure, and healthy by providing programs in education, job training, employment, housing, health, safety and economic development, and to collaborate with other community groups to help achieve these goals.