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St. Louis activists, leaders reflect on Urban League’s relevance as national conference begins

The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis is the largest local branch of any other Urban League in the country.
Jenny Simeone | St. Louis Public Radio
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis is the largest local branch of any other Urban League in the country. The group will open a new community center in Ferguson to mark the start of the annual conference of the National Urban League on Wednesday.

If you want to know why the National Urban League conference is in St. Louis this week, look no further than Michael Brown’s fatal shooting. The local chapter of the organization, which champions civil rights and economic empowerment for African-Americans, said it wanted to call attention to what it’s done since August 2014, and the work that remains.

But the location is also symbolic of the dilemma that the Urban League, which has been in the St. Louis area since 1918, and other long-standing organizations like the NAACP face: finding ways to stay relevant as movements like Black Lives Matter continue to rise to prominence.

That’s not to say the Urban League hasn’t made an impact locally. Rasheen Aldridge, the 5th Ward Democratic committeeman who led the fight for a $15 minimum wage in the city and was a fixture during the Ferguson protests, said the organization has helped his friends pay bills, get their GED certificate or find out whether they’re wanted on a warrant.

“I think the Urban League is more relevant compared to some of the other organizations like the NAACP in St. Louis,” he said, adding, “But what people really wanted from these organizations that had the long history is actually get to the deeper-rooted issue and call it out for what it is, and not be politically correct.”

The Urban League was founded in New York City in 1910. St. Louis’ affiliate formed after race riots erupted in 1917 in East St. Louis, to help out and advocate on behalf of the region’s African-Americans.

Going forward, it’s especially important for organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP to listen to younger voices, according to Justin Hansford, a law professor on sabbatical from Saint Louis University.

“Stakeholders give them credit for being the voices of the broader community,” Hansford said. “And so if that’s going to be something they benefit from, they have to deliver on that.”

It has delivered, at least in the St. Louis area, Michael McMillan, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis president and CEO said. Young professionals were in the streets during the Ferguson protests, asking those involved what they wanted and needed.

“Jobs were the No. 1 thing that we heard,” McMillan said. “Can you give me a job, can the Urban League hire me, can you place me somewhere?”

He and his staff realized that young men of color were not using the Urban League’s current job placement services, so the organization created the Save our Sons job training program in 2015.

Mike McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' huin
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Mike McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 28, 2015.

“And so now, over 400 African-American men have graduated from this program, and the huge majority of them have full-time employment and are able to take care of themselves and their families,” McMillan said.

The protests also highlighted the need for services to be closer to the community, McMillan said. To fill that gap, the local Urban League partnered with the Salvation Army to build the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center on the site of the QuikTrip that was burned during the 2014 protests. 

Jobs and a community center are important, but it’s not everything, Hansford argued. The Urban League could be doing more to force large-scale change.

“It’s about forcing the big companies in the region, the developers, the mayoral administration, to do what they need to do provide economic mobility,” Hansford said, “Do you really want a community center to be the ultimate manifestation of how you respond to something as ground-shaking and earth-shattering as Ferguson?”

The local Urban League should take its cue from the work its leader, McMillan, did in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood when he was a Democratic alderman between 1997 and 2006, according to Cydney Johnson, the co-chair of the St. Louis Democratic Socialists America. While he was in office, McMillan helped put together a plan to revitalize the neighborhood, although the initiative later fell apart.

That’s the kind of action the Urban League needs to take the lead on, he said, considering their mission is to give voice to the less powerful.

“There is definitely a need for them. We, on the ground, just wish they were a little bit more ground-oriented,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to protest, of course, but we wish they would at least show some solidarity, because they rarely do.”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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