department hDarnell Williams, CEO Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts

CM: Aside from the UL, you sit on several boards. How do you handle it all?

CM: The National UL Conference is returning to Boston after 35 years. It is a very different city now, what do you hope to showcase?

CM: What can we expect in the ULs upcoming State of Black Boston report?

DW: The best thing that we have here at the UL is that we offer all of our programs free of charge, thats the first thing they should know. Secondly, the people who come to us, dont have the money to go to a community college and cant enroll in a four year institution. They dont have the resources, or theres a transportation barrier, that prevent them from going for the certificate programs. Usually, when they come to us, they have a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. We take them, do an assessment of who they are, and the barriers that are preventing them from being successful. Then we pour into them. We deconstruct their images of who they are, and then we reconstruct a positive image of who they can be. Then we put them back on the road prepared for an opportunity. Thats the generic version but I can think of a hundred stories of how weve done that.

CM: Do you ever catch yourself acting like that?

DW: Youre absolutely right that in 1910 when the National UL was founded – this particular affiliate was founded in 1917 – the primary focus was on the migration of black people moving from the South to the North. When they left the South, and those horrible conditions, they moved north thinking that they were going to move to the promise land. And when they go to the northern cities they found they were locked into menial jobs. A lot of the jobs that we now take for granted were forcibly blocked off because of the color of our skin. The UL was founded to fix that.

CM: It doesnt sound like you grew up dreaming you would be a diversity consultant. How did that passion come about?

DW: I dont know if I had any perceptions because I knew about Boston, and I knew about the history, but I guess coming from Gary, Indiana, which is a predominantly Mexican and African American community, I was a little culture shocked when I came here to see this many white people. [Laughs.] It was like, Toto, this is not Kansas, but, low and behold, here it is 40 years later, I have come to love, to appreciate the cultural differences, the landscape. I was just in Indiana this past week, and it reminded me of when I was 18 and I worked in one of those ingot plants. Gary is an industrial rust belt and many of the people, my parents included, moved from the South to raise their milies because they thought the lifestyle in the North would be better for their children.

How weve been able to transition today is because those same social conditions that have been plaguing our nation also impact Asians, Latinos, Africans, those who move in from the Caribbean and even our transient white folks. So we really dont focus in on African Americans, we focus on whoever walks through the door, and we wrap our services around them, and we give them the best of our abilities, collective knowledge, skill sets and competencies to put them back on the road.

What I try to do in all of the roles that I play, I try to bring to the table a sense of transparency a sense of irness that I would listen to what the issues are, and that I will come to my own conclusions. That I will try to suspend my judgments, but at the same time use my previous experiences to assist me when I come up with these decisions. I have a solid ith in God, in that he is using me as an instrument in order to better humanity, so I never lose sight of that. Lastly, I would say that no matter what you do in life, you are going to have supporters and you are going to have detractors, the question is how you navigate that. As long as you have a good sense of your mission and goal in life, then I think you are going to be fine.

If I were to say it another way, we take used tires, we retread them and we put them back on the road, because we think there is a marketplace for retread tires. We give people hope that they can reinvent themselves and become engaged into society. And thats going to benefit themselves, their mily, their community, their city and, ultimately, the nation.

So the question is, how do we let those who are coming here, who have never been here and those who are returning, recognize that this place will embrace them and that it has embraced diversity? We want to have them leave here as ambassadors.

department hDarnell Williams, CEO Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts,We will wrap our services around you not because of the color of your skin but by the potential you have for yourself and for society.

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DW: When you start observing the players, the person in charge, who is speaking at the microphone or who runs the division, they all have different styles and nuances. When you get beat up and you get kicked to the curb, you end up observing and learning from these people. A couple things come out of that. One, you thank God and pray to God that you dont become like them. It doesnt mean you dont want to be in their position, you just dont want to operate with the same kind of tactics they used. Some of those people were very mean! They could care less about people, because they were so focused in on results. But I got trained in that kind of a system in multiple [sectors]. My promise was, that if I was ever to make it into a position of responsibility, that I would never become like those people I had to serve under.

DW: 35 years ago, Kevin White was mayor and you were probably a twinkle in somebodys eye. [Laughs.] It was a very turbulent time because Boston had a reputation of being a very hostile, racist environment because of the busing issue. It was a very bdepartment hDarnell Williams, CEO Urban League of Eastern Massachusettsitter time. We dont want to dwell on the history, but we dont want to run from it. We want to say to those who are coming to Boston, that Boston is now a minority-majority city, 51 percent of the peopdepartment health eastern cape vacanciesle who live here are people of color. There are 81 languages spoken in Boston. Theres a cultural diversity – and its not just a black and white construct – that was probably more prevalent because of busing. I look at the Asian population in Chinatown, or the Vietnamese population in Dorchester, or those from Haiti, or Cape Verdeans, et cetera, that make up Boston. I dont want to leave any countries out, but what I am trying to say is that there is a great attraction here in Boston for people of color. And if it wasnt for the immigrant population influx, then we would have lost even more population. There is a melting, culturally-rich pot that makes Boston a totally different place. Weve been a lot more progressive than that one snapshot would reveal.

CM: The UL traditionally served the African American community but now serves many other communities. How are you reaching out to those communities and helping them?

Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League (UL) of Eastern Massachusetts, has worn many hats. He started out wearing a hardhat, working in a steel mill in Gary, Ind. He then entered the military, and eventually ended up stationed in Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee and Ludlow, Mass. Through the G.I. Bill he was able to don a square cap and earn a degree from American International College in Springfield. That launched him into careers in electoral politics, diversity consulting and community advocacy. Notably, he was the president of the Springfield branch of the NAACP, manager of recruitment and development at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the United Way of Pioneer Valley. In 2003 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino awarded Williams the Community Service Award; in 2005 he received Paul Parks Veterans Community Service Award; and in 2007 he was inducted into the Human Resources Alliance for African Americans Hall of Fame. We spoke to him in the UL offices in Roxbury, Mass.

DW: In my free time I play golf and I swim. I go early in the morning, usually during the week. We go out and play nine holes around five, six oclock depending on when the sun rises, then we go to work. Golf is probably the most important ingredient because, the portability of the lessons of golf are something that people often miss. Theres honesty and integrity. How do you deal with success and manage disappointment? If you hit a ball out of the irway, thats obviously not what you intended to do, but the objective is how do you get back in the game, not that the game is over. Then you learn from playing with others in terms of who they are as people. The the lessons of golf are just phenomenal.

DW: Heres what we do know: Blacks are living in just about every neighborhood in the city. But there are basically four zip codes, where more than 50 percent of the people happen to be African American. We look at the ctors dealing with education, health, housing eastern acceVolunteer, economic development or engagement, civic engagement and disparities around those areas. If we use this report and the recommendations that are going to come from it to eliminate, reduce, disappear those disparities in those zip codes, then we can fix the problems in some other parts of the city. Highest unemployment, highest incarceration rate, all of the maladies that are known to man are residing in those four zip codes. We are going to use it to impact policy makers, to influence philanthropic efforts.

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CM: How did you go about the process of learning and training?

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DW: Thats a very good question. I think that how I got to where I am is like an evolution or a process. I always knew that deep inside of me there was a voice, which needed to be cultivated and developed, and I needed the right platform for that voice to be heard. However, growing up, you just dont have the guidance, or the understanding, or the wherewithal, as to how thats going to come about. Life has afforded me opportunities to absorb that there were people who were in charge and then the people who they were in charge of – there were perks and privileges and there were obstacles and hurdles. I found myself caught in between that. I recognized that those folks who were being denied, were not being denied because of their individual merit. My passion came out of recognizing the disparity of that system. Then I became an advocate, and I had to learn and be trained to become a more effective advocate.

DW: Well there might be times where I have to make decisions that are unpopular. What I try to do is make a decision based on how I would like to be treated myself, so there is not this cold, calculated indifference. I have learned from observing the folks who were the robots and machines of carrying out their work.

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