by Cynthia Price
“The Urban League serves as a bridge of opportunity, to enable people to care for one another and to give one another access to opportunity. I think people who have opportunities are looking to connect to people who need opportunity, and the Urban League exists to be that bridge,” says Brenda Moore, the Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of the Grand Rapids Urban League.
In focusing on the African-American community (though they stress that services are available to everyone), the local Urban League has created many programs and services that address injustice and lay the groundwork for equity.
That is why the organization qualified to win the Liberty Bell Award from the Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) this past Law Day.
Given to a non-lawyer or a non-profit organization “that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or advancing public understanding of the Constitution and our legal system... to recognize community service that has raised awareness in America’s Justice System...,” Liberty Bell Award recipients over the years have been educators and rights organizations, those who help people in poverty and those who partner with GRBA to spread the word about justice and our democracy.
Moore says that she has just received word that the Grand Rapids Urban League has also received the statewide Liberty Bell Award, to be given when the State Bar meets in Grand Rapids this September.
It is especially fitting that these awards come in the year that the Grand Rapids Urban League turns 75.
The precursor to the current organization was organized in 1942, under the name The Brough Community Association of Grand Rapids, but it was not until 1943 that Grand Rapids Urban League was added to the name and its history began. In 1947, at the beginning of the 30-year term of Executive Director Paul I. Phillips, a community leader whose influence is recognized by at least one building in the Southeast neighborhood, Grand Rapids Urban League became the full title.
The organization will celebrate with a full gala on November 3 of this year.
However, it was in 1942 that the local chapter became an affiliate of the National Urban League, which has been around since 1910. “Driven to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights for our nation’s marginalized populations,” the organization says in a recent publication, the league works toward “economic empowerment and the elevation of the standard of living in historically underserved urban communities.”
In 2007, the National Urban League published The Opportunity Compact, with principles that still guide Grand Rapids, one of 95 affiliates in 35 states.
Over the years, the Grand Rapids Urban League expanded greatly, particularly under Dr. Walter Brame, who led it from 1979-1992 and 1999-2011.
In conjunction with its 50th anniversary, the Grand Rapids Urban League will expand again. They are gradually increasing their capacity to serve the Muskegon area, which formerly had its own separate affiliate, and will add Ottawa County to its service area in 2019, forming the Urban League of West Michigan.
Will Osmun, the Vice-President and Chief Strategy Officer, lives in Muskegon and loves the lakeshore. “It’s a fascinating community,” he says. “Our approach is different than what I think has been done there before, but we definitely want to partner with others there working toward the same goal.”
Osmun also attempts to ensure that the Urban League is diverse and inclusive. “We offer services to anyone who walks through the door, and we see diversity very broadly – religious, gender, disability. But we’re a historical civil rights organization, and the primary focus has been on African-Americans,” he says. “I’ve seen other organizations that started with an ethnic or racial lens get watered down, but we’re unapologetic about seeing through the lens of the African-American experience.”
President and CEO Joe Jones, who was also recently ordained as a minister, engages in advocacy work to reach the goal of “creating systemic changes which eliminate racism and increase the availability of quality life chances.”
But a major emphasis of the organization is its programming, which is organized into five “centers” or pillars: The Center for Employment and Workforce Development, the Center for Housing and Community Development; the Center for Education, Innovation and Parent Empowerment; the Center for Health, Wellness, and Youth; and the Center for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
The numerous activities that the values-based organization uses to advance its mission include everything from housing foreclosure prevention to youth food gardens to targeted career fairs to tobacco use prevention. Urban League works with WMU-Cooley Law School and Davenport University on a twice-monthly landlord-tenant clinic.
Says Moore, a Grand Rapids native who has worked at the Grand Rapids Urban League for over 30 years, “People are what fuels all our work – just sitting with someone to figure out what their potential is, what their goals are, and helping them map out the way to get there, but never forgetting that they’re the ones driving.”