The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle appears to be back in good standing with City Hall and other prominent institutions.
The League is negotiating a $400,000 contract with the city for a program aimed at increasing job opportunities and reducing violence among black men.
“I think the community at large is taking notice of real solid leadership, with both the CEO and a much more engaged board of directors,” said George Allen, a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
Not that long ago the League was foundering.
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Ambitious to a fault under former CEO James Kelly, the League developed the Northwest African American Museum and attached affordable housing, created a contractor center to help minorities bid on projects and led a youth- violence-prevention program for the city.
Then came several crippling blows. A scathing state audit of Seattle Public Schools implicated the League in questionable spending. The recession shut off sources of funding. And in 2011 the city severed a $500,000 annual no-bid contract for the League’s youth-violence-prevention work and awarded it to other groups, criticizing the League for vague invoices, similar to findings by state auditors. City Hall also cut financial support for the League’s contractor center, encouraging city departments to seek other competitors for the job.
The 84-year-old League — which had survived hardships including the unsolved assassination of its leader Edwin Pratt in 1969 — hit bottom.
It sold its headquarters building, in part to pay debt associated with the museum project. Kelly resigned. Staffing shrunk from 40 employees to two full-time staffers.
With its rich history, the Seattle chapter was too important to fail, declared Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
Morial was the keynote speaker at the Seattle chapter’s annual fundraising breakfast Friday. Eight hundred people attended the $125-per-ticket event, sponsored by Macy’s, Starbucks, Union Bank and others.
Key to the League’s Lazarus act was hiring CEO Pamela Banks, a longtime city employee known as a charismatic problem-solver.
“I spent the first year apologizing,” Banks said of her 17 months on the job. “Now we’re moving forward.”
Alex Fryer, spokesman for former Mayor Greg Nickels and other political figures, works in public relations at the Fearey Group and does pro bono communications for the Urban League.
“There’s so much that can be defused by a good and positive attitude,” Fryer said. “I’ve worked with a lot of leaders you wouldn’t want to put in front of a camera. But that’s Pamela’s strong suit.”
Banks tapped another well-known figure in Seattle’s African-American community, Nate Miles, to head the League’s board. Vice president for strategic initiatives at pharma firm Eli Lilly, Miles is respected across the political spectrum, said King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, a Republican from Federal Way.
“People like Nate have worked within the system for decades,” said von Reichbauer. “While some activists are knocking on the doors, he’s already inside working the problem.”
Together, Banks and Miles restocked the League’s board with top-shelf members including Leesa Manion, chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, La Sonjia E. Jack, a Microsoft senior director, and Nancy Koeper, the president of UPS’ Northwest District.
They’ve also brought in potential rising stars in their 30s such as Keely Brown, a planner for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Kia Franklin, who returned home to Seattle after Georgetown Law School and a stint with a New York City think tank.
“It was always ingrained in me that the Urban League has a place in the community and provides direct services,” said Franklin, 32, of her decision to join the board. “I just know personally it has a real tangible impact on people’s lives, their ability to earn a livelihood, their quality of life.”
Housing: a core issue
Charlene Bolar, 63, is grateful the League kept its housing program alive.
Bolar was jobless, suffering from diabetes, heart and kidney problems. Her unemployment benefits ran out and she couldn’t keep up with mortgage payments on her house in Graham, Pierce County. She faced foreclosure.
Wells Fargo referred her to the Urban League last year as a federally certified mortgage counseling agency. She came to Seattle, met with staff and received help filing complex paperwork that qualified her for a federal loan-modification program.
Her mortgage payment was reduced this year, she said, from $1,680 per month to $892. Now, drawing on Social Security and her retirement pension from Alaska Airlines, she says she can afford to keep her home.
“It’s a really strict process. You have to have just the right documents and if they’re not correct the banks will foreclose on you. I couldn’t do it myself. I had to go to mediation with the bank and the Urban League provided a counselor to help. I tip my hat to them,” she said.
In rebounding, the League has a renewed focus on what have been historically its core issues: employment, housing and education.
The bulk of its 17-member staff now works in housing, Banks said. Because there are few federally approved mortgage counseling agencies, people come to the Urban League’s free monthly seminars — every third Saturday at Seattle’s Miller Community Center — from all over Western Washington.
The League educates homeowners facing foreclosure or default about their options, from loan modification to mediation.
To help people buy a house, the League offers a homebuyers’ workshop, as well as credit counseling.
And some who lost homes to foreclosure have had difficulties renting because of criminal records in their past. For those, the League offers a workshop on sealing and expunging records.
The League has helped 1,560 people in the past year with housing services, according to reports filed with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
While its focus is on helping minorities, it serves people of all races, said Banks, who was Nickels’ outreach director and a Department of Neighborhoods district coordinator in Southeast Seattle. According to the League’s most recent report to HUD, a majority of the people served by its housing program last year were white.
Job training, social services
The League’s new city contract tackles a stubborn issue, said the Chamber of Commerce’s Allen.
“When we were involved in criminal background legislation at City Council, we wanted to know what it takes for somebody with a couple bad knocks to be fully employed. The Urban League is stepping up to that,” Allen said.
Banks’ passion flares when discussing the new job-training and social-services program. She calls it a movement driven by community groups, including churches.
“It’s not just a job. We get them in stable housing, reconnected to families, and in drug and alcohol treatment if needed,” she said.
Partners in the venture, called Career Bridge, include Men’s Wearhouse, which has donated suits and other clothes for job interviews.
The League also is looking at working with others next year on a program focused on lifting third-grade reading levels, because of their importance in determining economic opportunities later in life.
Only the second woman to hold the top Urban League post in Seattle, Banks said she tells potential donors about the League’s problems: “I don’t know what happened because I wasn’t here. But I’ll show you the books.”
She carries a financial summary statement that shows that the League will have a positive balance in its $1.4 million budget at the end of the fiscal year if it raises all the money anticipated.
The bruising the League took from the Seattle Public Schools audit was not warranted, according to Banks and Miles.
The audit said that $600,000 the school district spent on Urban League programs came in questionable expenses. But state auditors didn’t fault the League for wrongdoing; rather, they blamed the school district for inadequate documentation showing it got value for its money.
“We’ve never been accused of something horrible,” Miles said. “Some mud was flying and some unfortunately spread to us.”
Still, Banks does believe the League had become too reliant on government contracts under Kelly’s leadership. At one point, she said, roughly 60 percent of the League’s funds came from government.
Her idea is to have one-third of the funds come from government, one-third from grants and corporations, and one-third through some kind of enterprise not yet determined.
Miles said the League still has relationships to mend and massage, and Banks is proving adept at the job. “It takes tremendous energy and humility and someone strong enough to say, ‘If you give me another shot, we’ll do it right,’ ” he said.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org