Urban League making a difference in tough time

by Jim Longworth

Some Washington economists say the recession is over. Try telling that to hundreds of thousands of unemployed or underemployed North Carolinians. Try explaining it to the 37,000 who are about to lose their extended benefits. Try telling it to the hourly workers and their managers who were laid off when their plant closed. Clearly, despite what the so-called experts say, times are still tough here in the Tarheel State. Fortunately there is an organization that is addressing our recessionary problems by tailoring programs and services to every demographic group that needs a leg up.

The Winston Salem Urban League has been around for more than 60 years, and during that time its core mission has remained constant: to empower the community and change lives.

“In today’s economy, when we look at the number of corporations who are downsizing or have left the community, we can’t get down on ourselves. We have to look at ways in which we retrain, rethink and reboot ourselves so that we can make ourselves viable in this community, and that’s what empowerment is all about,” says Urban League CEO Keith Grandberry.

Toward that end, Grandberry is also quick to dispel the myth that the word “urban” means the league’s service is limited to minority populations.

“The Urban League is in 18 counties, and many of the people we serve are not minorities. We serve everyone. We serve middle income people. We serve folks who have lost their jobs and who need to be retrained. We try to provide a service to everyone in this community because we believe everyone is important.”

The Urban League is funded in part by donations from corporations such as the Wachovia Foundation, whose $100,000 grant allows the League to help unemployed managers and executives prepare to re-enter the job market, some of whom have gone on to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, Piedmont Federal Savings Bank recently donated a building in northeast Winston- Salem where Forsyth Tech and Wake Forest University will help the Urban League establish a training center and job readiness program for people out of work.

These and other programs benefit a diverse population, including those over 55 years of age. One such initiative is the Digital Inclusion Program that teaches older adults how to use computers.

“Some of our seniors are involved in a job search, and they realize that in today’s market you need to have basic computer skills. So our program is a way of empowering them to be employed,” said Patricia Sadler, the league’s director of marketing.

And for retired persons, the Digital Inclusion Program is being offered in 18 senior facilities where residents can set up e-mail accounts and communicate with distant relatives.

But for all the good work the Urban League is doing for adults, perhaps their most ambitious initiative involves young people who are at risk of dropping out of school. Working with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Forsyth Technical Community College and nationally recognized facilitator Stedman Graham, the Urban League offers a structured program for teens enrolled in alternative schools where historically about 70 percent of the students tend to drop out.

“We’re focusing on a lot of kids who are in tough situations, and we provide them with mentoring, tutoring and leadership development skills to make sure that they stay in school,” says Grandberry. Students who participate in the Urban League’s Youth Leadership Program graduate with a renewed purpose and marketable skills.

One of Graham’s favorite motivational phrases for youth is, “You are not your circumstances. You are your possibilities.” But that philosophy really applies to people of all ages who need and deserve a second chance. Appearing on “Triad Today,” Lt. Governor Walter Dalton commented that, “In these tough economic times, the Urban League gives people a foundation to move forward.”

It’s well deserved praise for the architects of that foundation.

Urban League Week kicks off on May 18, with a ribbon cutting at the new Northside Center office in Winston-Salem. For job training information contact the WS Urban League at 336.725.5614.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).