May 2019

Columbus CEO: Stephanie Hightower is urban Columbus’ advocate

In 2012, a former Bloods gang leader from the South Side of Columbus turned in a job application to the Columbus Urban League after 20 combined years of incarceration and three years of joblessness, and without a high school diploma. Somehow, he was given a job at the century-old nonprofit mentoring youths living in the city’s urban core. The first time he heard the CEO of the Urban League, Stephanie Hightower, speak at a staff meeting, the impression left him doubting he would be there very long. “I thought she was no-nonsense,” he says. “I thought me and Ms. Hightower weren’t going to mix—two strong wills.” But it lasted. In May of this year, Urban League employee Adrian Jones will graduate from Ohio State University with a 3.8 GPA, having made the Dean’s List every semester he attended. The opportunity to meet and pass these milestones was given to him in part by Hightower, who—in addition to hiring him during an extremely vulnerable time for the Urban League—personally gave Ohio State a call after it initially denied his application. Jones also received the Jonathan Jasper Wright Award from the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice in 2018 for his work with youths susceptible to gang involvement. “She kicked that door down for me and I ran through it,” he says. He expresses surprise about how things have turned out for him. “If somebody would have told me that I would be a mentor for youth in gangs and getting ready to graduate from Ohio State, I would tell them they got the wrong person.”

If you ask Hightower, the eighth president of the Urban League and first woman to hold the position, what she believes the disadvantaged people she serves really need, she’ll be frank—stop talking about “poverty, poverty, poverty” and start thinking in terms of resources instead of money. She offers an example to her point—imagine a kid from Dublin and a kid from the urban core both are given $1 million. The one from Dublin will have the resources in place to get the most out of it possible. However, the kid from an area such as the South Side has too many obstacles in the way to truly benefit from the money. No access to transportation, no working family members, no credit and no way to get it, exorbitantly higher interest rates and a long history of generational poverty all mean the $1 million is used to “dig out” of those piled-on impediments. “By the time they dig out one day, they’re already down to $100,000,” she says. “And what are they going to do with $100,000?

“Without going back and digging up the past and talking about blaming and who did what—no—how do we figure out in this community how to level that playing field for everybody, and especially for our babies so that everybody can start fresh?” she says.

Jones is an illustration of her point. He says if he wasn’t given a job at the Urban League three years after getting out of prison, he would have given up and gone back to gang life. “I think that that would have been it for me,” he says. “Especially from an organization that was supposed to restore African-American citizens in the community.”

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