With a new leader, the Las Vegas Urban League starts to think big
Poor North Las Vegas. Mired in debt, its tax base shriveling, a city limping along as the state considers taking over its finances. Then — insult to injury — some Bunkerville rancher cashing in his 15 minutes of fame piles on with a racist monologue that singles out North Las Vegas as all that’s wrong with coddling, entitlement-drunk, socialist America. Cliven Bundy certainly didn’t do North Las Vegas any favors. But maybe, in his cringe-inducing monologue on race, welfare and big government, Bundy did a solid for the Las Vegas Urban League. The league leveraged his headline-hogging bit of demagoguery to hype the opening of its new offices on Cheyenne Avenue: The subject line for its April 28 press release reads, “North Las Vegas Non-Profit Will Rally to Dispel Bundy Remarks and Restore Hope.”
Enterprising and clever, sure. You might also say it marks a new phase of visibility and vigor for the anti-poverty nonprofit. Since its new CEO Kevin Hooks took the helm a year ago, the Urban League has expanded its budget, shaken up its services and boosted its profile. Even the office move has the scent of rebrand.
“We wanted a place that, when someone walks in, not only gives off a sense of being inviting, but also this idea of dignity,” Hooks says as he leads a recent tour through a maze of cubicles, meeting rooms, offices. “The last thing you want people to do is walk into an environment where they have a need, and be reminded by that environment of where they find themselves economically.” The shift in HQ from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Owens Avenue to west Cheyenne is itself a signal flare for a broader vision. “We’re not the Urban League of black people, and not the Urban League of North Las Vegas,” says Hooks. “In order to show that, we’ve got to expand our footprint.”
Hooks knows about brands. He’s an out-of-town hire who was previously senior vice president of branded entertainment for PR giant Weber Shandwick. “I was not only impressed with his resumé,” says Tony Bourne, a league board member, “but his ideas were refreshing. He realized that one of our biggest issues was that many people see us as an organization that’s always asking for money, but those people can’t quite articulate what the Urban League actually does. He immediately started making connections in the community to raise awareness.” That awareness already seems to be bearing fruit. This year’s budget, which Hooks estimates at $30 million, is notably higher than that of previous years, which ranged between $10 million and $12 million.
“But," Hooks says, "I’d also say that we’re still in a very difficult situation because of the nature of our funding sources. The majority of our funding comes from state and federal money — grants, contracts, workforce opportunities. How do we grow membership revenue, foundation revenue? How do we grow donations from high net-worth individuals who believe in our cause?”
Some of the league’s new programs are decidedly different than its traditional offerings of resumé-writing classes, child-care assistance, baby formula and food subsidies. For example, Hooks brought on a senior vice president of agency innovation, Michael Maxwell, who launched ITECH702, a four-week course that immerses students in at-risk schools in basic HTML coding. To Maxwell, it’s a digital-age deployment of the league’s core mission. “This embodies what we’re trying to do: to make people self-sufficient,” he says. “But we wanted to do something proactive, teaching kids skills they can use, and get paid for, right now. It’s very empowering.”
Hooks is looking beyond that right now and considering the long-term trickle-down. “What happens when they graduate from high school is going to be interesting. How many of them are going to be offered jobs right out of high school, $60,000-, $70,000-a-year jobs? That completely changes their family tree, the reality of their family, the generation that follows them. All because we were willing to think differently.”