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Urban League gone but still needed

Published Jul. 24, 2006

Had Lois Davis, the interim chairman, thrown as much energy into saving Tampa's Urban League as she did in trashing others for its demise, the group might be celebrating its 85th year instead of closing and leaving black families in the lurch. Davis emerged from the bunker last week to announce that the league's $3-million debt would force the agency to fold. Her refusal to reach out all but killed a bailout effort, though in fairness, the problem predated her and raises a larger question: Should Tampa reconstitute its Urban League or hand that mission to some other group entirely?

Tampa's league, like other older ones across the nation, fought on a broad front against racism - helping to establish the city's first hospital for blacks, working to integrate the schools, steering minorities into jobs and housing and providing poor, troubled families with a range of services, from crime prevention and parenting classes to tutoring, technical training and emergency home repairs. The money it blew restoring the historic Centro Espanol building in West Tampa was an extension of the league's drive to expand its profile. Yet the group's demise was caused by more than the Centro debt. Not only do blacks have far more opportunities than they did 80 years ago, but groups other than the Urban League provide a step up. Tampa's black community is also bigger and more spread out. Blacks who have moved into the middle class, won elected office and integrated into Tampa's social scene have shifted the focus from narrow urban issues to more universal concerns, from voting rights and growth to transportation.

The new Urban League, or its replacement, needs a 21st century mission and direction from a board that embodies Tampa's demographic change. Weatherproofing homes for the poor and disabled is fine. But that's a job for the city, the county or some other charity. With incomes for blacks still at the bottom, its population disproportionately young, employment rates for black men lagging, with more saddled with criminal records and the labor market less forgiving to those without skills or degrees, the league has higher and more immediate demands for its resources. Should the focus be on education - a dual approach to expand college prep and skilled career opportunities? Should it be addressing the diaspora of black men going to prison, the need for small business loans in minority neighborhoods or housing costs that may deny a generation the best hope for financial security?

Beyond defining its role, this also is a chance for the league or its successor to reach out to younger leaders and build a farm club. No one in Tampa's old-guard black leadership stepped forward to save the league when trouble surfaced two years ago, choosing not to put their prestige on the line. This example hardly inspires young professionals and activists to view the league as much more than a resume-building tool. Rebuilding also is a challenge to more than the black community. White political and civic leaders have a vested interest, not just a moral imperative, in helping minorities overcome the vestiges of discrimination.

There is benefit in reconstituting the Urban League brand. It is an identifiable institution nationwide, which would give organizers more resources to draw upon. But brand identity cuts both ways. The league's mismanagement of its budget crisis may have alienated the few in this modest-sized city who have the power and inclination to act. At this point, the entity is less important than an acknowledgement by civic leaders that while the league may be finished, its mission is not.

John Hill is an editorial writer based in Tampa.