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Urban League’s Morial: Educational Equity Essential to Economic Empowerment

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and current president and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL), sees proactive collaboration as a way to create a movement and drive social  change, particularly toward equity in education.

In a visit with the Diverse editorial board, the political and civic leader elaborated on NUL’s 15-year strategic plan to empower African-Americans and other underserved urban citizens to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights. Among the strategies is an eight-point “Educate, Employ and Empower” plan to provide equitable funding for all schools and targeted workforce development programs.

Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban LeagueMarc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League

While the National Urban League is “fighting to affect progress across the board,” higher education is “front and center” on the organization’s agenda, Morial said.

“Education is an economic empowerment issue.”

NUL is working to influence policy around the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), but leaders do not want a “bad bill” just for the sake of reauthorization, Morial said. For this reason, the organization takes both an offensive and defensive stance on higher education policies.

At the request of the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, NUL is among groups that will offer recommendations tied to the reauthorization of HEA. Morial shared highlights of a letter that the NUL is completing that contains recommendations aligned with the Urban League’s principles regarding college access, affordability, completion and accountability.

The letter admonishes Congress to “do no harm” to historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions that educate low-income and minority students due to biases in outcomes-based performance measures.

The Urban League believes the priority should be not just “what will help advance completion rates for Black students and students of color, but provide equity throughout the system so that we’re targeting these scarce resources [to] the students who need it the most, and historically underrepresented students, in particular,” said Susie Saavedra, NUL’s senior director of policy and legislative affairs.

With more than 90 local affiliates, the National Urban League is the only civil rights group in the United States that is a direct-services provider, Morial noted, reaching nearly two million people across the country through its various programs.

The organization also advances its advocacy in various areas by supporting its policy suggestions with concrete data offered in publications such as the “State of Black America” report. The annual report features a comparison of equality indexes on education, health, economics, social justice and civic engagement for Black, White and Hispanic groups.

Citing the disparities between White and Black and Hispanic groups, Morial said that in some instances, disparities are akin to where they were 50 years ago. In his time as president, Morial added that the modest progress that he has seen in a relatively short time period – an increase in Black graduation rates, home ownership and political leadership – created public backlash.

He said NUL leaders are mindful in their conversations about race and economic disparities that social justice movements and the continual publication of statistical data highlighting racial wealth and education gaps can contribute to “race fatigue.”

When race fatigue occurs, “people listen but they don’t hear anything,” he said. “Yeah, you’re tired, but you can’t be tired of the truth. We’re on a playing field where we’re fighting” people who believe that “progress for us means others will lose.”

What is happening now, Morial noted, is that many other civil rights groups such as NUL, the National Action Network and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – often with other minority groups and progressive Whites – are collaborating to develop and demand shared principles for the future of higher education and civic change. It will take “strategic discipline” and communication across differences to maximize their work, he said.

“We all do our own thing, [and] pursue a common mission in different ways,” he said. “We are stronger if we can build broader alliances. [We] need a strong, passionate movement.”

The current political era and challenges to civil rights gains such as voting access have renewed public consensus on the need for organizations such as NUL. Newer movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and youth mobilization following the recent mass shooting at a Florida school “stimulate a new awareness,” Morial said. They are movements that encourage coalition-building for social progress, he added, at a time when people need to get “woke” instead of “cynical and disinterested.”

“Will a commitment to social justice continue,” Morial asked, “or is it just a moment in time related to a crisis and then it’s over?”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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