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Take five: Mike McMillan prepares for new job as Urban League CEO

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013: Michael McMillan has spent a good part of his career in politics and government, but he is no stranger to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. His goal -- to make community service his life mission -- was fulfilled this week when the local league’s board of director selected him as the group’s next chief executive, replacing James Buford, who is retiring after running the agency for 28 years.

McMillan, 41, is in second term as city license collector. Before that, he was Democratic alderman of the 19th Ward, which takes in midtown, where the league’s headquarters is located.

Once he steps down as license collector, Gov. Jay Nixon will appoint a replacement who would serve out the remainder of McMillan's term, which runs until early January 2015. The office would next be on the ballot in 2014.

Debra Denham, chair of the league’s board, praised McMillan’s selection, saying his “skills, leadership and expertise are what's needed to build upon the Urban League's great legacy in the St. Louis community." He begins his new job Aug. 5.

During a brief interview following his new appointment, McMillan discussed a range of issues. The interview was edited for clarity.

The league’s mission is to equalize life’s chances for African Americans with emphasis on educational opportunities and training. What’s your reaction to the fallout from the latest school transfer program involving the Normandy, Riverview Gardens, Francis Howell and Mehlville districts?

McMillan: It brings up many different issues that we saw decades ago when we were dealing with busing. It has ignited some of the fears from a socioeconomic and racial standpoint of many of the different stereotypes that we have in St. Louis about different people. But we know from dialogue, understanding, and a proven school transfer track record that many of the fears and the misperceptions are unfounded. We have some very successful integrated schools throughout the region and the country, and this transfer program will not be as negative as some people fear.

There is a generation of young people behind you that doesn’t seem to be as connected to groups like the Urban League as the generation before them. How do you intend to bring them into the fold?

McMillan: You bring up a very significant point about how do we make sure the Urban League is relevant to the younger generation. I would like to get them involved as teenagers and young professionals. We have a very strong young professional chapter here that has won national awards. But we have to do more to engage the younger generation to make sure they understand that the Urban League is relevant to them in terms of what it has done and is doing.

What are some of the region’s strengths and weakness in terms of helping young professionals, particularly African Americans, locate or stay in St. Louis.

McMillan: We have many different things in St. Louis to inspire young people. We have the No. 1 Urban League affiliate in the country. We have the No. 1 African-American business in this country, Worldwide Technology. St. Louis is also home to the nation’s No. 1 black newspaper, the St. Louis American, and we have plenty of government and business leaders.

There are also a number of different things happening to engage young professionals. The Regional Business Council has brought together a thousand African Americans and other minorities that many people didn’t even know existed. Many of them are from out of town. The idea is to familiarize them with the culture and institutions, put them on boards and committees, engage them in civic life and help them make the transition and feel comfortable living in St. Louis. A lot of attention has also been focused on an immigration committee that has been formed to boost the St. Louis population, make sure it is not stagnant but is growing beyond the national average.

Some people will be surprised by your appointment, mainly because they had assumed that one day you would run for mayor.

McMillan: No interest whatsoever. You don’t even have to finish the question. I started my career in not-for-profit, social service activities when I was a teenager. I started in social services as a volunteer. Even before I was old enough to vote, I joined the Urban League. I’ve maintained my involvement in social service during my whole time in government. I am happy to transition back to that on a professional basis. That was always my goal.

James Buford, the outgoing CEO of the local league, is leaving you with very big shoes to fill.

McMillan: I’m very grateful to this board for choosing me. I’m looking forward to working hard to continue to implement the agenda of the Urban League. You are right. Mr. Buford has left me with very huge shoes to fill. His legacy is an enormous one, not only in St. Louis but nationally. That’s why this affiliate is the top in the country. My job is to learn as much as I possibly can from him, the board, the 200 employees, and partners, and understand all the nuances of the 25 programs.  My hope is to grow the agency with additional programs and activities in the future.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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