African American Leadership Forum

Reports Unfairly Malign Urban League

By: Steven L. Belton

   The mission of the Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) is to link African descendants and other people of color to opportunities that result in economic success and prosperity, and to advocate for policies that eradicate racial disparities.

   Recent stories published by the Star Tribune about the MUL (“Did Urban League get paid twice?” April 13, and subsequent stories) have created a false specter of financial impropriety, have distorted the organization’s history in delivery of contracted services and, as a result, have undermined the reputation of a long-standing community organization.

   That this recent reporting parallels coverage of other groups in our community is obvious. But all organizations and leaders serving African-American and disadvantaged populations in our community are not alike, and they deserve more careful reporting, based not on innuendo but on facts.

   Fact: The Urban League Academy (ULA) is a 40-year partnership between the MUL and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Our 89 students are typically African-American, below the poverty level and have been unsuccessful at up to five MPS high schools. Most have faced trauma such as abuse, neglect and/or homelessness. Despite these odds, in 2014, 67 percent of ULA students eligible to graduate earned a diploma.

   An example is Darren, one of our 2014 graduates. Darren felt lost and frustrated at South High School. He was on the verge of quitting school when he enrolled at ULA. “The smaller class sizes help you learn better,” said Darren . “You get one-on-one teaching, and everyone seems to really care about you.” Darren now is enrolled at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

   Fact: The 13th Grade Program is a separate college and career pathways readiness program for young adults ages 17 to 24. This noncredit program focuses on building academic, technical and soft skills of disconnected, un/underemployed young adults who aren’t enrolled in a postsecondary institution. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) reviewed and approved our work plan, including specific program goals and learning objectives. An assigned MDE program manager met with MUL staff to review the program model in April 2014 and raised no objections. So, it is puzzling that the MDE commissioner is quoted in the Star Tribune saying that her department has no oversight of the 13th Grade Program.

   Fact: Just three months ago, in February 2015, MDE conducted a financial desk audit of the 13th Grade Program and found no deficiencies or concerns. The MUL shared the desk audit with the Star Tribune’s reporter, but she elected to exclude this information from her story.

   Fact: Currently, in the second year of the 13th Grade Program, there are 119 participants, six of whom are also students at the Urban League Academy. Again, these programs have different objectives and offer different services. Moreover, it is common accepted practice for nonprofit organizations to have multiple revenue streams to serve clients. “Every public charity in the state of Minnesota actively seeks more than one source of funding,” according to Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Our objective and hope is to provide our students and participants with all the education, training, job counseling, career coaching and other services for which they are eligible.

   Muhammad is one of our success stories. Raised by a single mother, Muhammad graduated from high school with dreams of success, but no life plan. Disconnected from opportunity, he sought the help of a family friend who brought him to the MUL. Upon entering the 13th Grade, Muhammad received counseling and services to help him develop a life plan, career road map and the confidence to follow them. He is now a freshman at South Dakota State University.

   Fact: The MUL is not “currently in financial crisis,” despite the Star Tribune’s unsubstantiated and contrary assertion. In an April 15 article, the reporter contended that MUL’s loss of revenue since 2000 equates to financial crisis.

   Many nonprofit and for-profit organizations have undergone reductions in force and revenue in the past 15 years, particularly as a result of the national recession in 2008 and the years immediately following.

   Fact: The MUL is committed to the highest ethical and performance standards. Comments attributed to Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, imply the MUL’s past use of state grants warrant exceptional scrutiny. This belies the fact that our largest state grant, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Transportation, trade unions, prime contractors and the Minneapolis Urban League, has more than doubled in the past five years.

   The MUL’s reputation has been damaged by the misleading innuendo reported by the Star Tribune, which has harmed our ability to serve our students and program participants. They and the Star Tribune’s readers deserve better.