News

August 2022

CAANJ Cover Story: Defining Transformation

See the full issue of the August 2022 Columbus African American News Journal

DEFINING TRANSFORMATION: YEARS OF CHANGE FOR STEPHANIE HIGHTOWER AND COLUMBUS URBAN LEAGUE

All of us confront “defining moments” or experiences that unilaterally and indelibly alter how we think and act.

For Columbus Urban League (CUL) President and CEO Stephanie Hightower, the past two years ushered in traumatic challenges and transformative opportunities that leave her, and the organization, forever changed.

It started with the health, economic, educational and social tsunami that was COVID. The 104-year-old organization she has led for more than a decade had long relied on face-to-face coaching and classroom-style training to serve clients. How and where they worked, what they did and how they delivered it, where the funding and partners and allies came in—all of it had to change. And instantly.

Then, just two months after the lockdown, she found herself staring unbelievingly at her television, watching the gut-wrenching “I can’t breathe” last minutes of George Floyd’s life. The horror and trauma of the Floyd murder echoed and compounded the shooting of Breonna Taylor, which in turn was elevated again by the shooting of Andre Hill and far too many others.

CUL and Hightower had to find a place to stand. A place where they could work for recovery, reform, hope, respect and eventually unity. They did so in the midst of violence, racism, divisiveness, protests, canceling and a sudden surge in interest in fostering inclusion, diversity and equity.

While the macro issues were overwhelming, Hightower was stretched even more. She found herself caring for, and ultimately burying her parents and, more recently, a long-time friend.

“I thought I was woke before,” she says. “But it’s as if everything I thought I knew has come into even sharper focus.”

And in the midst of chaos and sadness, she also found new energy, new allies and renewed purpose for Columbus’ oldest social justice and racial equity advocate.

 

GOOD CRISIS

As COVID-19 began raging, Hightower talked with a trusted advisor about how CUL should respond to the pandemic. The final answer echoed the words of Winston Churchill who, when launching the United Nations after the end of World War II, said “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

“No one ever seeks out traumatic events,” explains Hightower. “Especially not viruses that kill people, slam the brakes on our economy, isolate our families and send addiction, anxiety and depression soaring. We couldn’t change the situation we faced. So, we changed how we faced it.”

Hightower and her leadership team slammed CUL into high gear—and not just in terms of adding Microsoft Teams to their laptops and more forms to request services from their website. They dug in to shift an agency known as a holistic resource into a holistic resource AND an emergency front-line provider.

“We pumped out rental assistance to keep people in their homes, navigated landlord-tenant

disputes, placed emergency food boxes in car trunks, hosted vaccination clinics, dreamed up virtual afterschool programming for kids, advocated for PPP and other funding supporting small businesses and made sure people just released from incarceration had masks, food and other necessities,” she says. “Our team fielded thousands of calls and worked around the clock. Sometimes they fought to stay awake long enough to coherently finish a client interview.”

COVID, like many other crises, disproportionally impacted people of color. Hightower saw an urgent need for greater collaboration among public, private and nonprofit leaders who cared about Black and underserved communities. She convened weekly calls with what became the Equity Now Coalition, (ENC) a group that now extends to as many as 250 participants. Members share information, work together on larger community issues, collect and analyze data and advocate for reform.

Then, in the midst of these hyper-speed efforts to help families stabilize and survive, the murder of a Black man caused a national explosion.

 

TRAUMA RESURFACES

For Hightower and so many others, what happened to George Floyd was horrible, brutal and not an isolated incident.

As a mother, she had repeatedly engaged in “driving while black” conversations with her son, Cameron. As a wife, her husband was rocked by overt racism he heard while door-to-door campaigning during her first campaign for the Columbus Board of Education. As an Olympic hurdler and over her long career in leadership of U.S. Track and Field and World Athletics, she witnessed racism in all its forms across the world.

She had already planned a November 2020 Empowerment Day event designed to make racial inequities real to people who had not personally felt it. She intended to feature A Thousand Cuts, a virtual reality experience in which participants become a young Black man. They feel his pain and indignation over disparate treatment by teachers in pre-school, nearly violent police behavior in high school, and nonchalantly biased potential employers as a young adult.

Even against this backdrop, the world shift churned up new questions. For example, Nick Bankston, then President of CUL’s Young Professionals (YP) group, asked that CUL endorse a “Black Out” day. Young men and women would deliberately not work for one day as a means of expressing their own peaceful protest and demands for reform. Hightower agreed and joined a news conference with the YPs. She also fielded several calls from unhappy employers.

“It was a tough decision, but I still believe it was the right one,” she says. “We were dealing with COVID, white supremacists were infiltrating some of the protests, policing tactics were questionable, it just wasn’t a safe choice for many people. But they still wanted to be heard.”

She paired up with the National Urban League, sister organizations like the NAACP, and members of the ENC to speak out on policing issues, civilian review boards, voters’ rights, responsive schools, eviction prevention and economic relief for frontline workers, among others.

 

PERSONAL LOSS

Family issues also arose. Hightower stepped in to relocate and care for her aging parents.

Then, both passed away within weeks of one another in late 2020.

“Nothing prepares you,” she says. “Losing them during COVID felt even more lonely. I’m so grateful for the outpouring of love and support I received. It got me through.”

She also gained new support for CUL and its work.

 

NEW DOORS OPEN

One long-standing barrier to CUL’s success that Hightower and others spent years trying to overcome was philanthropic redlining, the documented reality that Black-led, Black-serving

organizations receive far less funding for basic operations and infrastructure. Not only does this translate into the inability to pay staff well, it means there are no dollars for functions critical to effective operations, such as technology and communications.

“As an anchor institution in the community, being marginalized for so long, we didn’t

have capacity,” she explains. “Our employees were disgruntled; our funders were unhappy. Everyone thought we should do more. But, it’s like, I write a proposal for $300,000. Then, I get $50,000 accompanied by outcomes measures that may or may not be realistic for the clients we serve. “

The trauma of 2020 laid bare this disparate reality—and created new openings to address it. The leadership of the Columbus Foundation made an unprecedented, unrestricted $500,000 gift to CUL. Other funders followed, including asking about the real cost of service delivery and what they should realistically expect from their donation.

Hightower embraced the positive change and has begun making investments in people that will lead CUL to becoming “an employer of choice.” Staff salaries for full-time employees now start at $50,000 a year.

“How can I ask people to increase the earning power of our families, to propel people into the middle class, if they’re not earning middle-income salaries themselves?” she asks. “We have a new generation of people who are well-educated and have valuable lived experiences. They can achieve great things. They are not willing to compromise themselves, however. They expect and deserve to be compensated and appreciated.”

CUL also has implemented new self-care days. Any employee with a year or more of service can earn up two self-care days per month, days to get well-needed rest or take care of their families and responsibilities.

“We ask our employees to be the best coaches, best educators, best supporters our clients will ever find,” she adds. “That means they need to be their best selves every day.” She believes today’s CUL must be a conduit for economic mobility – ensuring everyone can maximize their earning power – and an incubator of an inclusive economy. “Everybody wins, when everybody’s in.”

This translates into a myriad of other changes as well, starting with workforce development programs aimed at preparing people for jobs with higher wages and greater opportunity for advancement.

“This is about my passion for what Black and underserved populations deserve,” she says. “Mediocrity isn’t acceptable. Our community should set high expectations and be clear about what all of us need to succeed.”

The tragedies and the blessings of the last two years may just make Hightower’s dream a reality.

 

In all, between March 2020 and March 2022, CUL earned more than $19 million in financial support and completed more than 150,000 community interactions. They:
— channeled $1.3 million to ensure that over 1,200 Columbus wage-earners with COVID didn’t go broke because they got sick.
— helped host 25 clinics, completing more than 1,000 vaccinations.
— tapped over $2.1 million in rental and mortgage assistance and kept more than 900 families in their homes.
— provided winter coats to 1,437 kids and emergency food to 6,000 families.
— engaged nearly 3,000 youth with academic offerings, behavioral health interventions and $510,000 in paid work experiences.
— continued providing training and support to 500-plus people looking to move into the middle class through careers in skilled trades and logistics.
— shared more than $8.5 million in recovery funds with 7,000 black-owned businesses, creating or saving 2,750 jobs.

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