The New York Urban League (NYUL) was founded in 1919, at the start of the Great Migration, to connect blacks who left the agricultural South with jobs in the industrial North. At the time, descendants of slaves poured into a metropolis where they had to fight against housing discrimination and boycott stores where black job applications weren’t accepted. Nearly a century later, Arva Rice, a NationSwell Council member and president of the New York Urban League, is continuing to fight for equality within New York City’s education system and job opportunities. NationSwell spoke to her recently about the ongoing fight for civil rights, as the nation’s first black president leaves office.
New York Urban League is approaching its centennial. What issues are you anticipating will be core to the league’s next century?
One challenge for us is how the conversation about race has changed over time. When I meet with others, I talk about the importance of this particular time in history. The fact that when I first came to the Urban League in April 2009, President Obama had just been elected and we were hearing, “You all have a president. That’s the ultimate level of equality.” Unfortunately, in the last seven years, we have also had Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and all things in between, like the intentional voter-suppression laws and attacks on the Voting Rights Act. The work we do is more critical than ever. There’s a generation that cares about racial equity, but we need to engage them in different ways. Maybe they want to march and be involved in grassroots movements, some want to be engaged in policy discussions and some want to become part of the establishment themselves and run for office. All of those ways are correct and right, and we have to figure out how to support that going forward.
Besides equal access to education and employment, the NYUL’s mission statement references working toward a “living environment that fosters mutual respect.” What does that mean to you?
Envisioning a world of mutual respect means that folks can not only tolerate but appreciate difference. I’m fascinated by how we define diversity and inclusion. Diversity is inviting people to a party, where inclusion is getting everyone to dance. I think that distinction is important, because to get everyone dancing, you have to think deliberately. You need to think about what is going to include people across generations, and most importantly, you need to be intentional in order to create environments that bring others to the fore. You have to be thoughtful, because it’s not going to happen by accident.
The racial biases pointed out by Black Lives Matter and the rising economic inequality in American cities were both on the minds of many voters last year. In what ways does New York reflect and buck the trends of what we expect from cities?
New York is often leading the way. We’re the ones who were really pushing for higher wages, with the Fight for 15 campaign. We’re also second place for technology and innovation. That’s why the New York Urban League is focusing some of our work on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], giving young people the opportunity to not only play with technology but also be creators. There are some folks that say, “Oh, people of color aren’t interested in tech, because it’s not cool enough.” And I push back on that. This is not about being cool; this is about being accessible. Without having somebody who you know, any experience, any interaction with someone who works at Facebook, Google, Twitter, how can they know that’s something they can do? We’re helping to break through that, and then provide skills. The fact is that people of color will be passed over if, once again, they are not included in intentional ways. The reason why I feel privileged to lead a historic black organization is because you’re constantly focused on making sure that there really is equality. Until the day we feel like there truly is real parity, we’re not finished.
What have you learned about leadership during your time at NYUL?
I have learned that leadership is about doing things that make your stomach hurt. And that just because your stomach hurts doesn’t mean that you’re unusual. If you are doing it right and pushing yourself and the people that you manage and your stakeholders and your donors, there are going to be times when it’s uncomfortable. It’s a growth pattern. The other thing I’ve learned is that the only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who aren’t doing anything. So I need to forgive myself for those times I made mistakes, figure out what I learned, dust myself off and go on to the next thing.
What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
We have a program called Empowerment Days for our young people, which is basically Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work days. We take 200 girls and 150 boys on the first and last Friday of March, respectively. They’re able to go and meet people at places like O, The Oprah Magazine, black enterprises, the Yankees, Google and Microsoft. Basically, they spend the day with people who may look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences, and find out how they got into those careers. And one of the reasons I’m so proud of that is because we have a level of access, as an organization that has a 97-year history of impact on communities. So I can call people and get my calls returned at a level that I wasn’t able to in any other position in my career. Every time we do an Empowerment Day, the young people are excited about a senior vice president or a receptionist that they met. That’s fantastic, because we would not be able to do that, if it were not for the relationships that the Urban League has within the city.
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