When National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial visited Knoxville recently, the local Urban League CEO, Phyllis Nichols, wanted to impress upon him that East Tennessee is more than just bluegrass music and Appalachian landscapes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those.)
“I want him to go back to New York thinking, ‘Wow! I never expected to be so impressed!'” she said.
So, in a time span of less than 24 hours, here’s what he did: attended an intimate reception with about 50 community leaders and had dinner with a few of them following that; attended a breakfast for members of the Urban League “family” (meaning staff, board members and leaders of the Urban League Young Professionals group); toured the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge’s National Laboratory‘s National Center for Computational Sciences; and ended with a tour of the Spallation Neutron Source, also in Oak Ridge. Whew!
Moxley Carmichael was honored to sponsor the reception, dinner and breakfast. And I think that after the whirlwind visit, Morial, who also is the former two-term mayor of New Orleans, left with a much changed impression of Knoxville and East Tennessee.
But, never mind what he learned. Here are some of the things I learned during Morial’s brief but jam-packed visit:
- Robert M. Whitten, Jr., a group leader at the National Institute for Computational Sciences, emphatically and repeatedly made the point that we, as a nation and as a local community, must encourage more students to go into the so-called STEM professions: science, technology, engineering and math. “There are more STEM jobs than there are candidates to fill them,” he said.
- Something goes awry in our teaching when children reach fifth, sixth and seventh grade. “Everybody wants to be a scientist — until they hit middle school,” Whitten said.
- When Morial asked about the cause of that, Whitten said, “There’s simply not enough focus on it. We need to answer the question, ‘How can I use math as a tool to get things done?’ Rather than it just being something you have to get through.”
- The Urban League is on board with these goals with the League’s emphasis on education and employment. “Education is a key part of economic empowerment,” Morial told the local Urban League staff and board members at breakfast. “We need to manufacture things in this country. That’s what built us. But for the past seven decades, that’s moved abroad. But China and Indonesia will experience upward pressure on wages because those folks will want a better way of life. The Urban League needs to be a part of training people to do those jobs when they come back.”
Morial said the Urban League supports common core standards and more stringent requirements for graduation. “But parents and schools have to have resources to get there,” he added. “It’s one thing to set goalposts 15 feet high. But players have to be strong enough to kick the ball through them.”
- “You can’t have effective reform without intelligent investing,” he said. “We give money to what we think is important. The hogs on the farm don’t get fatter just because you weigh them.”
- As chair of the local Urban League Board, I was very interested in what Morial had to say about the organization and its future. “We are trying to penetrate the college and university market,” he said. “We are an institution not of the past, but of the future. You’d better include young people or you will die on the vine. As an institution, you can’t be stuck in the past.”
- The Knoxville Area Urban League is among the 62 of the 95 Urban League affiliates that have a strong Young Professionals group. Morial said today there are 6,500 young professionals in those 62 affiliates and that number is expected to double within five years.
- I was delighted to hear that he also is a strong advocate of social media. “Concentrate on social media,” he urged the staff and board. “Social media allows David to fight Goliath! Social media builds visibility and advocacy. Get on the front edge of all things related to technology.”
- The Urban League as a non-profit organization is not driven by volunteers, but instead has a paid professional staff that works in conjunction with volunteers. “The first job of an Urban League Board is to hire an excellent CEO,” Morial said. “It’s like the NFL: no team is successful without a great quarterback.”
- I agreed with him when he said “the skill set required of an Urban League CEO is bigger than those required of the CEOs of multimillion dollar corporations.” Why? “The multiplicity of tasks,” he noted. That is certainly the case with our CEO, Phyllis Nichols. During his visit, Morial re-presented her with the national “Women of Power” award she received this summer at the Urban League’s national convention in Boston. We are very proud and fortunate to have her as one of our community’s most successful non-profit leaders.
Thanks to photographer Gary Heatherly for taking all the shots at the reception. They are much better quality than the usual ones, taken by me, that are on the blog!
At 7 a.m. the following morning, we gathered for breakfast at the downtown Hilton Knoxville, where Morial was staying.
I just wanted to show you a few of the people who help Phyllis make the Knoxville Area Urban League the success it is.
After breakfast, we were off to Oak Ridge to accomplish Phyllis Nichols’ goal of impressing Morial!
In case you were wondering about the Spallation Neutron Source, click here for a five-minute video overview.
This visit was valuable and impressive to me on several levels. It drove home the real issues we have with education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. It introduced the folks at ORNL to the Urban League as a possible partner in influencing young people to pursue these fields. And it let the leader of the largest civil rights organization in the country in on the fact that some of the most important science in the world is happening in the hills of East Tennessee. All in all, a very worthwhile few hours!