CANTON – The Greater Stark County Urban League originated 100 years ago as a group seeking to eliminate racial segregation and discrimination and achieve parity for minorities.
"It really doesn't vary much from the mission of today, which is to enable African Americans and other underserved individuals to reach full economic, social and health parity to enrich that individual's life and the lives of the individual's families," President and CEO Diane Robinson said.
She began leading the organization in 2018 and recently reflected on its history. Although different initiatives have come and gone based on community needs, the five foundational pillars — workforce, housing, health, education and social justice — continue to be top priorities.
"They are consistently the challenges that we have in the community," Robinson said from the league's office at the Edward "Peel" Coleman Community Center.
1921 to now
The Greater Stark County Urban League began in 1921 as the Canton Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League. It changed its name to reflect an expanded coverage area in 2006.
The National Urban League was founded in 1910 to aid African Americans who moved to northern cities from the South as part of the Great Migration. When the local affiliate was founded, the nation was roughly a year removed from the influenza pandemic.
"The Great Migration north created a need that the people had and that need was to improve health conditions by distribution of literature, health instruction and making known the medical agencies of the city and assisting and preventing the spread of contagious disease," Robinson said, drawing parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We did the same thing."
The Urban League worked with local health departments, care providers and churches to register Black residents for vaccination; distributed more than 4,500 bags of household cleaning and personal hygiene supplies; and partnered with Canton Outside of Canton to give away 12,000 boxes of food in the past year.
A recent initiative in partnership with the Ohio Department of Health involves distributing COVID-19 rapid home tests, disposable masks and other protective equipment along with flyers encouraging vaccination.
"This is another point of entry that Urban Leagues are working with the state to make sure we get this very valuable information and material out to the barbershops and the beauty shops," Robinson said.
Her leadership during the past few years helped put the Urban League on better footing, said local advocate Ron Ponder. Although he's not a board member, Ponder said he has supported the league and helped convince Robinson to become president.
"She was just the right person at the right time, and I think that the organization and the community is much better off because of it," he said.
Robinson added new members to establish "one of the best boards in the county" and ushered the Urban League into its 100th year — an accomplishment in itself, he said. Although identifying funding has been difficult at times, the organization continues to meet community needs.
Ponder said it's known as the place to go for work and career opportunities.
"They're using their influence and their reputation and their credibility to try to place folks in these jobs," he said.
Career Connect program succeeds
Robinson cited workforce development as one of the Urban League's most successful initiatives in recent history.
Through the grant-funded Career Connect program, the organization placed about 80 people at jobs between January and October of this year. Because it costs $4,500 to train first-year participants, who earn about $31,000 a year, Robinson said the earnings exceed the initial investment and end up back in the community.
"The first year of employment, $26,000 goes back into the economy of Stark County," Robinson said. "That's only the first year. After that, the full amount goes back into the economy."
The Urban League currently employs three career "navigators" and works with the countywide economic development initiative Strengthening Stark to help people find jobs and stay employed. Robinson said they help meet participant needs, which range from interview skills to reliable transportation, by connecting them to the appropriate social services.
"Whatever the needs are, we can connect the people, and we don't drop them," she said. "We stay connected with the person and the organization to make sure their needs are met."
Many efforts overlap, such as in the case of workforce and housing. Robinson said participants in the workforce program also receive financial and homebuying counseling from the Community Building Partnership.
Another goal is ensuring local school children receive what they need based on individual circumstances — equity — as opposed to treating all students the same — equality.
"The teachers and the administrators need to know the culture of the child in order to address their needs," Robinson said.
The league started a parental empowerment group in 2019 to help parents feel more comfortable interacting with school teachers or officials and also is establishing a third-grade reading program to partner with schools and local colleges to provide tutoring.
What's to come?
Robinson said the Urban League plans to reinstate a formal membership structure in the coming months.
"We have a large number of individuals that are on our roster that we keep informed of what's happening in the community and social following, but we don't have that paid membership piece right now," she said.
When Robinson began leading the Urban League in 2018, she said she was the only employee. In addition to the three workforce navigators, there now are three office staff members.
In 2019, she relaunched the annual Black and White Ball after five years without the fundraiser. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was the keynote speaker at the event, which raised $23,000 from tickets and more than $50,000 from sponsors.
The pandemic canceled plans for this year's ball, but Robinson said the next one will be Feb. 26, 2022, at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel downtown.
"It is our largest fundraiser, and one of the most important things for us is that we are able to invite a large number of people in to attend and to sponsor our fundraiser," she said.
Young professionals network starting
Also planned for next year is a young professionals network.
Aashawnti West is working with a fellow volunteer and the Urban League to establish a local branch for people between the ages of 21 and 40.
West, a graduate student at Walsh University, began volunteering with the league in 2019 because she wanted to give back to her hometown community. She helped register people to vote and distribute household cleaning and hygiene products during the pandemic.
"There was never a need that the community had that they didn't fill, so it was nice being part of something greater," she said.
West said she expects the young professional program to begin in February or March and run parallel to the organization's workforce development. Participants first would assess their career values and leadership style; then examine how to best present themselves in resumes, cover letters and interviews; and then learn how business interactions and hierarchies can help them obtain and retain a job.
"So, it's definitely something for people to look out for and get involved and help out in any way they can," she said.
During the two years she's volunteered with the Urban League, West said she's noticed more "hands-on" outreach and increasing awareness of the organization. It's inspired her to try to play a greater part in its future.