December 2021

Urban league president: ‘Our economy and society must work for everyone.’

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Stephanie Hightower
December 28, 2021

Diversity, equity and inclusion, affordable housing, criminal justice, childcare and COVID-19 among issues community must continue to address in 2022, Stephanie Hightower, Columbus Urban League president, says.

From overwhelming appreciation through the Great Resignation, 2021 stands out as a year of contrasts, unfinished business, and, thankfully, tempered hopefulness.

Juxtapose this reality.

Thousands of our neighbors struggled to keep their homes. During fiscal year 2021, Columbus Urban League alone fielded approximately 15,000 thousand calls from people on the edge of eviction or foreclosure.

Meanwhile, Forbes reported in November that U.S. billionaires increased their wealth by more than $1.8 trillion since the start of the pandemic.

It’s not over.

We may long for closure, but we can’t yet consign our masks to the sock drawer or circumscribe racism to a finished Wikipedia entry on U.S. history. Omicron is ripping through our ICUs and ERs, filling our hospital beds and exacerbating a health care worker shortage and burnout crisis.

Greater attention to and respect for diversity, equity and inclusion echoed through C-suites and boardrooms more than ever before. But we have yet to transcend the misguided view that diversity equals inferiority.

Thankfully, light does seep through the gaps in our blind spots.

Google reports that more people in 2021 searched for how to start a business than how to find a new job. We’re delighted to witness and support this trend. Columbus Urban League worked with 7,100 Black and women-owned businesses this past year, businesses that not only survived the economic turmoil, but are learning to thrive as well.

Black women launched many of these companies, seeking to succeed economically and gain flexibility to care for family. It’s survival instinct. Childcare is nearly extinct; school is virtual and hourly wages can’t touch the monthly bills and mounting debt.

These trends drove us to revamp or introduce new initiatives that ensure our emerging businesses acquire smarter financial management skills as well as critical business acumen – and offer access to HeadStart and after-school initiatives.

Entrepreneurship, ingenuity and creativity built America. They can rebuild her as well.

In addition to continuing strong support from Franklin County and Columbus City public officials, new coalitions and collaborations emerged in 2021. These partnerships are dedicated to advancing a more just society and more inclusive economy.

Citizen review boards and new checks and balances could embed greater justice into our criminal justice system.

More strategic investments in affordable housing should flow from a call by Columbus Urban League, NAACP, YWCA, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority and faith leaders like Pastor Victor Davis for a community-wide strategic plan.

A concrete, intentionally inclusive community-wide plan will benefit all neighborhoods and track with recent census data that attributes all of Columbus City’s population growth to increases in the number of people of color.

More people needed and got help. Thanks to Columbus Urban League board companies like Honda, JP Morgan Chase, NiSource, Fifth Third Bank, Nationwide, Huntington, AEP, OhioHealth, CoverMyMeds, Bath & Body Works and Corna Kokosing, as well as organizations like the Columbus Partnership and Columbus Chamber, we were better equipped to keep pace with 160,000 individual and family engagements over the fiscal year.

Yet, while hope may float, it does so best when buoyed by real supports.

My dreams for 2022 are that we find even more thoughtful and innovative solutions to long-standing inequities.

For example, with great support from Franklin County we are standing up a community development financing entity that will give Black business owners an equitable source to procure infrastructure loans and working capital.

Or consider The Columbus Foundation. Determined to reverse the damage to Black-nonprofits that were subjected to philanthropic redlining, the foundation led in 2021 and gave Columbus Urban League a significant gift — a gift entirely dedicated to recruiting, training and retaining the talent and building the technology and other resources necessary to become an even more sustainable and effective service provider. May their thoughtful generosity set a new precedent.

Finally, kudos to our community for its compassion. Even as cases of depression and anxiety increased by 30% or more, greater acceptance of mental illness rose, too.

May we continue this mind-shift in 2022.

It’s long past time to replace the negative labels we carelessly applied to addiction and mental disorders with positive attitudes that encourage everyone to find the self-care that leads to happier, more productive lives.

May the lessons and hopes of 2021 ring in our ears more loudly than “Auld Lang Syne” this New Year’s Eve. Our economy and society must work for everyone in order for everyone to work.

Stephanie Hightower is president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League.

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