Toledo's Urban League has grown quickly despite a few stumbles along the way. Those involved in the league said they believe the roots of the organization have been solidly entrenched in the community and the league is here to stay.
The National Urban League was begun in 1910 as a nonprofit, community-based organization designed to assist African-Americans in the achievement of social and economic equality. The Greater Toledo affiliate widens its mission to all minorities and the disadvantaged.
“When we started the Urban League here, we made a promise to be valuable to the community, and I think we've done that,” said Paul Hubbard, the city's former director of neighborhoods, who is on the National Urban League board of directors. “The Urban League has 114 affiliates, and Toledo has been getting national recognition.”
The Urban League's operating budget has grown from $292,000 and a staff of two in its first year to $853,374 and a 20-member staff during the 2001-2002 fiscal year.
Johnny Mickler, the organization's only president and chief operating officer, said that could increase to more than $1 million if the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds its YouthBuild program once again.
Beginning with only a handful of projects, the league now has programs as diverse as providing assistance with minority contractors, job training, employment referrals, tutoring, and a youth basketball league that attracted nearly 150 central-city boys and girls this summer.
The league has its executive offices on the 15th floor of the Fifth Third building downtown, donated by the bank.
From there, the organization has grown so that it now operates two satellite offices at the Maurine Simmons Family Investment Center, 430 Nebraska Ave., and Abrams Business Development Center, 131 17th St. The league also took over the management responsibilities of the J. Frank Troy Senior Center, 1235 Division St., in the heart of Toledo's central city.
“We have had a lot of growth in our short five years,” said Larry Sykes, a vice president at Fifth Third bank and first vice chairman of the Urban League. “I think we are probably ahead of ourselves, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
James Hartung, chairman of the Urban League Board and president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, credited most of the success to a dedicated board and to Mr. Mickler's “can-do” spirit. “Johnny is one of the top Urban League executive directors in the country,” Mr. Hartung said. “I wouldn't be surprised if one of these larger cities scoops him up, or [if I] see him in the national [Urban League] office.”
Mr. Mickler has not been bashful about his passion about improving the educational experience of children in Toledo and making sure blacks share in the city's economic windfall.
His outspoken style has won the respect of many local black leaders and ruffled the feathers of organizations such as the Toledo Federation of Teachers during contentious contract talks with the Toledo Public Schools four years ago.
Mr. Mickler makes no bones about his South Carolina upbringing and its Southern family values. He said he became interested in the community's children and education almost immediately after he arrived in Toledo.
“What I found out from the business community was that our kids weren't prepared for the jobs out here,” Mr. Mickler said. “When I first came here, the two things I focused on was minority contracts and making sure we were getting our fair share of all the work that was going on in Toledo, and employment.
“Once I heard from the business community, I knew we also had to concentrate on education attainment. It didn't matter how many jobs were out there if we weren't ready to take them.”
Things have not always gone smoothly for the Urban League. Mr. Mickler said a worker was convicted last year for embezzling $50,000 from the league, and it lost funding for its popular YouthBuild program.
He said the organization recovered all but $4,000 of that money, and he believes he will find funding for YouthBuild this fiscal year.