Analysis: Is W-S Urban League targeted?

Analysis: Is W-S Urban League targeted?
January 28
00:00 2016

By Cash Michaels

For The Chronicle

It was December 13, 2015 when local published reports shocked the community with news that starting July 2016, the Forsyth County United Way was cutting its annual grant to the Winston-Salem Urban League’s workforce development programming from $427,344 for the 2016-17 fiscal year, to what was later revealed to be just $100,000.

The news was stunning, given the fact that it came days before the United Way board had even met to make it official. And it seemed contrary to Mayor Allen Joines’ stated goal of using every resource in the city to effectively fight poverty.

“ … [T]he county’s poverty rate continues to rise, food insecurity is a growing concern, and health issues continue to escalate,” Forsyth United Way Board Chair Sallye Liner said in a Jan. 4 statement. “United Way believes these challenges demand that we evolve from operating simply as a fundraiser and distributor of grants to specific partners, to focusing on developing and executing integrated and long-term solutions that address the root causes of our community’s challenges.”

At the time, Urban League Chairwoman Evelyn Acree did not share Liner’s optimism.

“The cuts will be very severe for us,” she told The Chronicle then, referring to the many job training and placement programs the Urban League currently offers. “This will definitely be a major setback.”

In a December 17 editorial expressing the community’s outrage, The Chronicle stated, “The United Way should take another look at the Urban League’s mission to help fight poverty through job opportunities, and change its plans for huge cuts in its grants for the organization.”

There are several in the community, however, who firmly believe that drastically and inexplicably cutting the Urban League’s funding is part of a larger strategy by some in the city’s power structure and outside developers to so cripple the black-owned and operated anti-poverty agency, and deem it as no longer important, that it would be forced to close, and either move from its prominent West Fifth Street downtown headquarters to elsewhere, or cease to exist entirely.

And with the United Way now seemingly assuming the role of fighting poverty, among other issues, observers note the justification for the Urban League’s demise seems almost built in with the defunding.

“You know, when you look at the funding … it does seem pretty strange that the only black organization downtown would be cut to that extreme,” remarked a concerned community observer who asked not to be named.

The area the Urban League headquarters occupies has seen key redevelopment in recent years with the Mast General Store, the Village Loft 48-unit apartment complex, and $14.2 million dollars in total construction permits for the coming redevelopment of the historic 22-story R. J. Reynolds building into offices, apartments and Kimpton Cardinal Hotel.

Mindful of the sensitive and delicate position they’re now in, officials with the Urban League that The Chronicle contacted for this story would not offer comment, but sources close to the UL made it clear that they fully expect another shoe to drop, with the ultimate goal being to move the marginalized black people the UL serves away from that prime area for future revitalization.

“What’s on that corner that’s not new?” another community observer asked rhetorically, suggesting that too much redevelopment is happening for the Urban League address to be ignored.

One suggested to not be surprised if the bus transit depot across the street, which brings poor people from impoverished areas across the city to Fifth Street, seeking the job training/placement services UL provides, is closed and moved. Doing so would eliminate the primary reason for the Urban League to continue to operate in a spot where revitalization is happening all around it.

“It’s a prime piece of real estate,” confirmed another community observer.

Indeed, The Chronicle has learned that several years ago, the Urban League signed over its building airspace rights for an undisclosed amount to neighbor Mast General Store, prohibiting the UL from expanding upwards during the course of that agreement.

Now that its funding has been drastically cut, there’s no way the UL could even consider expansion once that agreement runs out. Indeed it may have to sell.

The Chronicle did check with both the city manager’s office and the city Planning Dept., and both indicated that there are currently no plans to move the bus station.

With the United Way changing its mission from just being a funder for those doing the community work, to now actually undertaking some of the challenge itself, there are questions about its Carver School Road Place Matters Initiative.

Last fall the United Way announced that in conjunction with Neighbors for Better Neighborhood, it would invest over $1 million to work with residents of 13 surrounding Carver School Road neighborhoods in improving their quality of life conditions. Indeed, Alana James, the director of the United Way’s Community-based Collaborations, was quoted in a Sept. 10, 2015 Chronicle story as admitting that those 13 neighborhoods, “… are actually not the most challenged part of the community” … ” though they did have “significant and complex issues.”

But those residents are, for the most part, middle-class stable black families, critics told The Chronicle, compared to the poor populations the Urban League works with daily in administering job training skills, and then helping in job placement so that they are able to independently lift themselves up and out of gripping poverty.

Those critics question whether the United Way’s Carver School Road initiative is simply a way to claim a quick victory over an area where the problems of homelessness and poverty are nowhere as acute as in some of the city’s more challenging harder-hit communities.

With United Way effectively being the center-source for community funding in Winston-Salem, that limits the Urban League and the other local nonprofits who also saw their grants slashed, from making up the difference, sources say. Companies that already give to the United Way are now least likely to also give to these agencies individually, which now makes providing services, let alone keeping their doors open, even harder.

That means James Perry, who just took over as CEO of the Winston-Salem Urban League, is going to have his work cut out for him, as the prospects for his agency’s survival just got tougher.

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