Urban League of Hillsborough County rises up with mission to close equity gaps

A few years back, area businessman Stanley Gray reached the point in his life and career where he could focus on the inequities African Americans face in employment, education, housing, the criminal justice system, access to healthcare, and other crucial areas that affect their lives. 

In 2019, Gray and other community partners launched a new chapter of the Urban League of Hillsborough County (ULHC) to be part of the solution. Over the last three years, the young organization has worked with local businesses and nonprofit and government partners to establish job training and education programs to help African Americans and other minorities in Tampa and throughout Hillsborough County improve their economic condition.  

Now, the ULHC wants to spread the word about its mission and early accomplishments and try to convince more people to join the cause. That is the objective of their upcoming “March Forth” gala, scheduled for 7 p.m-10 p.m. at the Tampa Garden Club on Friday, March 4th. Gray, the President and Interim CEO of the ULHC, says the “March Forth” theme signifies the gala’s purpose: to propel the organization forward and to carry forward the cause of working for racial equity.

“The purpose of our gala is really two-fold,” Gray says. “It’s a fundraiser; but it’s also almost a coming out party, like a cotillion. It lets people know we are for real. We’re not a concept; we are an organization in action. We are going to talk about what we have done and ask people to be part of our movement. We hope the people that attend come away with enough comfort to not just buy a membership, but get involved, because we need people to get involved in our community.”

With the gala approaching, Gray reflects on the launch and accomplishments of the new Urban League and looks to its future.

A national brand

Looking for a way to make a difference, Gray says the Urban League was a natural fit. Established in New York City in 1910, the National Urban League now has 90 local affiliates in 37 states that serve 300 communities across the country. Working with those affiliates, it has a proven track record of establishing training, apprenticeship and education programs that help Blacks and other People of Color attain economic equity. 

“It’s a national brand,” Gray says. “It has resources to assist you as well as history and people to help you get things done. When you’re an affiliate, the affiliation comes with assistance. There’s examples of what works, why it works, and why it doesn’t work -- so you don’t have to go and make the same mistakes.”

The Urban League did have a prior presence in Tampa and Hillsborough. A local chapter was established back in 1922, but dissolved nearly 20 years ago amid financial woes. Gray says the ULHC is a new and separate organization focused on addressing current day community issues, not the demise of the prior group. 

In 2021, the ULHC earned a significant boost to its mission to achieve economic and social equality, when the National Urban League approved it as an official affiliate of the national organization. Gray says that made the resources, experience, and expertise of the national organization available to the Hillsborough group. It also confirmed there were inequity issues in Tampa and Hillsborough. To receive the national affiliate status, ULHC had to prepare a community needs assessment and host a community visit for National Urban League representatives to see in-person the situation on the ground in terms of food deserts, communities without health care facilities, and other imbalances.

The ULHC also had to show sound financial standing and strong support. The organization raised $600,000 in pledges and contributions before becoming a national affiliate last spring and ended last year with approximately 220 members. Gray says before launching the UHLC he sought out businesses and business and community organizations who act not only as members to support the league financially, but also as partners who could offer apprenticeship, training, and educational opportunities to the people the ULHC assists.

A hand-up organization

Gray says the Urban League is a hand-up organization, not a hand-out one. That principle is a foundation for all its programs.

“You have to be willing to work hard to improve your situation,” he says. “They will work hard for you if you work hard for yourself. Just because you knock on our door doesn’t mean we’re going to help you. You have to want to help yourself. The other thing is we don’t want to help anyone who is not going to get into a living wage job. We’re not interested in that. What we’re trying to do is help you turn your life around. And we have the appropriate wrap-around services to assist you with that -- child care, elder care, transportation. We can come up with a plan to help you.”

Project Phoenix is one of the work placement programs available. ULHC partners with community organizations who offer pre-apprenticeship opportunities focused on the 16-24 age group, including individuals who have aged or dropped out of school, as well as returning citizens. Since those are often individuals considered at-risk, Gray says the ULHC helps pay their salary during their pre-apprenticeship. If they do well and advance to an apprenticeship, the company then pays their full wages.

The ULHC also helps connect high school and college students with summer job internships. There is also a focus on younger students. A STEM Camp for elementary school students was one of the first programs the ULHC launched. It is now offered after school, over spring break and during the summer, Gray says, and has reached more than 200 students.

“Fourth and fifth grade are our focus,” Gray says. “We’re trying to get them interested in school, so they do well in school and stay in school. It’s one of our mainstays. It’s a worthwhile program.”

Looking forward

Gray openly acknowledges that, at this point, the ULHC is an “adolescent organization, not yet in puberty.” In these first years, the focus has been working with community partners to establish training, jobs, and educational programs that can help someone make a good living. As Gray points out, crucial issues such as housing, transportation, health care access, food security, and the financial ability to continue your education are tied to a living wage.

“We’ve gotten people full-time jobs,” he says. We’ve gotten people part-time jobs,  jobs so they can go to college. We've provided STEM programs. And as we get a little bit more mature, we’re going to start going into other areas.”

Gray says he is involved in a task force chaired by Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren that looks at racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The UHLC will also soon launch a voting initiative that will help the community “understand their responsibility to vote, get them registered to vote, and legally assist them in getting out to vote.”

More broadly, Gray says the ULHC will advocate to change inequities that have left African American and other lower income neighborhoods with dated parks and recreation facilities, aging public school facilities, and less access to health care and other vital services. Those inequities reach the state level, he says, pointing to the discrepancies in funding and in the quality of classroom and dormitory facilities between the two public universities in the state capital -- Florida State and Florida A&M, a historically Black college and university.

“We truly need people to get involved because a lot of the things that are negative for African Americans have become normalized,” he says. “People have reached this point of apathy and we have got to get away from this.”

For more information, please follow this link: Urban League of Hillsborough County
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.