Swirl of controversy envelops Minneapolis Urban League board


The Minneapolis Urban League (MUL) first filed as an active nonprofit corporation in the state of Minnesota in 1932. According to its last annual filing in 2008 with the Secretary of State office, it is in good standing. However, as of late some have questioned the longtime organization’s effectiveness in the city’s Black community.

The MUL “is perceived as a beacon” in Minneapolis’ Black community, according to Roxanne Givens, founder of the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center. “But there are many, many young people from the ages of 21 up to 30 who will not step forth in that Urban League [headquarters],” Givens added. “I ask myself, why is that? People have said that to me.”

Of the MUL’s Glover-Sudduth Center, the organization’s Northside headquarters that is named for two former MUL presidents, Givens noted, “While [it is] beautiful, the building lacks a community personality and presence.”

Former president/CEO Clarence Hightower left the MUL last fall, and a search committee the organization later hired identified two finalist candidates to replace him: Pamela Coaxum, a South Minneapolis native and University of Minnesota graduate who was an executive in St. Louis, Missouri, and Greater Madison (Wis.) Urban League President and CEO Scott Gray, a Milwaukee native.
Gray was hired this past spring.

Givens, who was among eight new members elected to the MUL board just a year ago, was removed in June, reportedly because she had missed too many meetings. A lifelong native of Minneapolis, Givens’ family is involved with all facets of the city’s Black cultural and business life. “To impact positive change [in the community] — that has been in my family for generations,” she said.

In an exclusive interview with the MSR in June, Givens expressed several concerns, including the MUL’s search for and subsequent hiring of its new executive director.

“It is about funding, community trust, credibility — it is about the survival of our organization,” she noted. “Controversy is swirling around the Urban League.”

Especially after Coaxum unexpectedly withdrew her name from consideration for the position in April and Gray eventually was hired, some community folk believe that the MUL executive director search process was flawed.

Although Givens admits to having supported Coaxum’s candidacy, “It has nothing to do with Scott Gray, the person — I only met him once — or his level of competency,” she said. “I hold the Urban League leadership responsible for allowing the [search] process to be contaminated, compromised, and in my estimation, borderline unethical.

“I believe in transparency,” continued Givens, speaking about the allegations of conflict of interest that have been raised between search committee members, board members and Gray. “When you have an organization such as the Urban League, which historically has been examined under the microscope, why would you allow a potential conflict of interests to cause such a controversy?”

Givens was not directly involved in the search process, but she questions how it was conducted. “I do know that there should be a certain amount of candidates that you bring back, but somehow we ended up with only two candidates. That to me is a procedural question. I don’t know how far we threw our net.

“I have been on governing boards, search committees and nominating committees, and I have never seen a process like what occurred at the Urban League in all of my life,” Givens said.

She added that even an MUL audience forum held in April was handled badly because a board member screened questions that seemed to favor one candidate over the other. “That to me is a conflict of interest,” Givens pointed out.

Reflecting on when she was elected to the board last fall, Givens said she welcomed the opportunity to work with the MUL. “I got on the board natively thinking that I could impact change within an historic organization. I have always felt that it was not meeting its potential. I knew that there were issues, and that is why I wanted to be on the board.”

However, according to her, Givens quickly discovered that her intentions weren’t altogether welcomed on the MUL board: “I became the person who sat by the door and was trying to hold everybody accountable for every single action that took place, because some of the policies and procedures are very questionable.”

Givens admitted that she did miss board meetings after her daughter was found murdered in January, and she took time off for personal reasons. But she does not believe this should be grounds for dismissal from the board, especially when, according to her, other board members have been absent as well.

“Not all board members show up [at meetings], and not all board members show up at the same meeting,” she states.

MUL plays hard to get

Since our interview with Givens, the MSR has tried unsuccessfully to contact several MUL officials, including Kenneth Charles, Leslie Wright and Terrence Miller, for comment on the issues she raised. All three were elected as board members at the same time as Givens.

Only Miller returned our calls. He said that he had been instructed to refer all our inquiries to MUL Board Chair Catherine Wassberg.

We then called Wassberg and left a voicemail message seeking comment, after which we learned that her phone number has since been disconnected. The MUL board chair has yet to return our phone calls.

Currently, the MUL’s website does not list any board members. Therefore, on several occasions we requested from MUL staff an up-to-date list of the 24-member board. On each occasion the MSR was promised such information, but as we publish this story our request remains unfulfilled.

Scott Gray, the new president/CEO, did leave a message with the MSR saying that he was told that we were seeking information. We returned his phone call and requested an interview. He has not responded.

Transparency and accountability

The Urban League “is a membership organization,” Givens points out, and she believes that all information about it should be public. She said that all local organizations working in and with the Black community may need to reexamine themselves and ask if they are really meeting the needs of the community. Are they accomplishing something?

“The questions are probably long overdue,” she said. “There has to be a sense of accountability for all social service agencies and all agents of change. I think you can not operate in a vacuum — you [should] have the voice of the community.
“[However], if you are not out in the community, you never will get that voice. Not only the Urban League needs to take inventory, but perhaps a lot of community organizations need to do so.”

Givens said she thinks the MUL board is largely made up of “people that have their own self-interests. I think there are people that don’t know the community enough to know what is in its best interests. I also like to say that there are people who like to say that they are on the Urban League board.”

Finally, “The best litmus test [for any organization] is the action component,” Givens said. “Is the organization making an impact collectively — not individually or for one, two or three [persons] — on the community’s request? When that happens, then you know that an organization is moving in the right direction. That’s how I see it.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com or read his blog: www.challman.wordpress.com.

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