Community partners to launch new Urban League in Tampa, Hillsborough

The conversations started quietly long months ago. Sometimes one-on-one in a coffee shop or after a church service; other times at small gatherings in a school cafeteria or gymnasium.

Most recently, a dozen or so people met at Middleton High School, and then Blake High School.

Businessman Stanley Gray and a sponsoring committee of about 20 people have started a dialogue with the community at large. Within the next 14 months, they hope to launch a new chapter of the Urban League.

Nearly 16 years ago, the existing Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League closed, amid mounting debts related to an ambitious plan to renovate and move its headquarters to a historic Ybor City building.

The proposal for a new Urban League of Hillsborough County isn’t a revival of the former organization but a new beginning, Gray says.

“We’re trying to get out in the community and let everyone know what we’re doing,” he adds.

More community meetings are on the agenda as the sponsoring committee members seek to broaden and deepen support for their cause. The organization’s goals would be focused on job training, jobs with living wages, and medical services in low-income, primarily minority neighborhoods in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Some members, including financial advisor Ronnie Oats, are newly recruited. Oats met with Gray at a coffee shop. As a volunteer, Oats says he wants to bring his business knowledge to the discussions.

The Rev. Glenn Dames, Jr., senior pastor at Allen Temple A.M.E. Church, has been with the committee from the beginning. He joined after conversations with Civil Rights Attorney Delano Stewart of Tampa, his parishioner and a committee member.

Development is booming across Tampa and the county, but some neighborhoods aren’t sharing equally in the growth, income, and jobs, says Dames.

A local Urban League chapter could play a role in addressing those disparities, he says.

“The Urban League is uniquely situated at a time when Tampa is attempting to grow its businesses … and to make sure African Americans participate in the process,” says Dames.

He doesn’t see a new Urban League as competing with any existing nonprofits or agencies. “There’s always room for other voices at the table,” he adds.

Growing support, building empowerment

Others on the committee include Attorney Ron Weaver and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.

“I know what it meant to the community and what it would mean if it comes back,” Miller says. “The younger generation doesn’t know Urban League was here. We’ve got to get the message out.”

Miller has served on the local board of the previous Urban League and on the national board.

“It’s to help anyone who needs help and empowerment for a better opportunity,” he says.

The National Urban League, based in New York, was founded more than 100 years ago as blacks migrated to northern cities to escape racist Jim Crow laws in the South. The mission, then and now, is economic self-reliance for blacks and other underserved urban minorities.

The National Urban League has final approval in green-lighting the proposed chapter as an affiliate. A letter from Gray on behalf of the sponsoring committee got the initiative started.

Interest in a new Urban League has grown since then, but, Gray and committee members want to expand their band of volunteers.

On a recent weeknight, Gray met with about 15 people in the cafeteria of Blake High School to update the status of the group’s efforts, and to answer questions on what comes next.

The committee recently filed an application to form a nonprofit and secured a tax identification number. Meetings will begin soon to set up a board of directors. Plans are to hire an executive director in the future.

The national leadership found a local needs assessment and a tour of Hillsborough neighborhoods, compelling evidence to support a new Urban League chapter.

What stuck out, especially in minority and lower-income neighborhoods, was the lack of grocery stores, doctors’ offices, mental health care facilities, and dental offices, says Gray.

“You go to middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods and you see it all,” he says. “It was really easy to show them we are a community in need.”

Gray estimates an annual budget of about $500,000. The national organization asks that new affiliates budget $1.5 million for the first three years, according to the National Urban League website.

Gray is scouting potential locations for a main office and as many as four satellite offices. The geographic reach would be county-wide, including Tampa but also Plant City.

Gray says he has had discussions with owners of at least two businesses with interests in partnering with the Urban League.

While financial support from the business community is important, Gray is counting on businesses that can do more. He wants job opportunities or what he calls “job ladders” where young people could learn skills for career advancement and economic security.

“This organization won’t work if we don’t have buy-in from the business community,” he says.

Tackling health, social, education inequities

In addition to jobs, the new Urban League would offer wrap-around services such as preventive health care for physical, vision, dental, and mental health.

Gray’s personal preference would be out-reach to students who drop out of school.

“That’s a sizeable population in our county every year,” he says.

He estimates 200 to 300 students a year “easily.” Even a 40 percent success rate would be worth the effort, Gray says.

That’s a goal that makes sense to Blake High School Teacher Casey Curry. She sees the students who struggle and drop out. Students enrolled in traditional or vocational courses, rather than magnet programs, sometimes don’t get the attention they need.

“I don’t see any other organization doing the economic parity piece,” she says. “I think that is a unique need.”

Christine Acosta owns a small business consulting company that promotes bicycle-friendly initiatives in the Tampa Bay Area. That might not seem a natural fit with the Urban League’s purpose.

But, safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists bring benefits to people’s health and to their pocketbooks if fewer crashes bring reduced insurance costs, Acosta says.

Data year after year shows Tampa is near the top of the list of municipalities in pedestrian and bicycle crashes and fatalities.

“We know equity is lacking when investment is made for traffic infrastructure,” Acosta says. “We know when we make our neighborhoods safe for walking and bicycling, we make the neighborhood healthier.”

There would be many opportunities for volunteers to help, says Dames. He sees the Urban League as a “driving engine” for improving at-risk neighborhoods.

 “We’re making serious and intentional steps toward the end goal,” he says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.