Discussing the Black and Brown Communities in New York with President of the NYUL, Arva Rice
In the wake of the many events unfolding in this nation, including dozens of states attempting to stifle citizen’s ability to vote and access resources, one urban community league is doing more. The New York Urban League (NYUL) is a civil rights organization that empowers African Americans and other underserved communities to secure a first-class education, economic self-reliance, and equal respect of their civil rights through programs, services, and advocacy.
Recently, we sat down with President of the NYUL, Arva Rice to discuss how the NYUL has been empowering Black and Brown communities of New York for over 100 years. They are a non-profit organization actively working with members of the community to reach underserved neighborhoods and ensure communities have access to the resources they need. Rice was recently named the Community Hero of New York by the NBA in association with Gravity where she received the Community Hero Award.
In light of the recent events in the United States that have underscored what it means to be Black in America and around the world, the Brooklyn Nets introduced Community Heroes of New York, a moment during each of their games this season where they honor Black-owned businesses and Black Leaders who are providing opportunities for black communities in the greater New York City area.
SheVille: I have long admired the work your group does in education, economic and civil rights advocacy. I am in awe of the incredible volunteer services that your Young Professionals groups contribute to so many underserved neighborhoods. In these volatile times, the New York Urban League is a beacon in the struggle for accessibility and equality for all.
This year, in light of so many high-profile brutalities, there’s been a more focused spotlight on race in America. We seem to be facing a turning point in awareness of the inequities and abuses embedded in our society. From Black Lives Matter marches all around this country to conversations sparking in every household, it seems we have reached a tipping point. As the President of the New York Urban League for well over a decade, my first question is about this perceived shift. I am wondering if, you feel an awakening among white people in regards to racism and if so, when was that moment you felt a change?
Arva Rice: I think it’s beyond an awakening to a reckoning. We can’t refute those eight minutes and 46 seconds that the entire world saw. Then, just at the moment it seemed it might fade from the national consciousness, (because let’s be clear, people have their moments where they focus on an injustice, then it’s gone) in this case the next moment happened and it was the insurrection.
It’s interesting; many people have said to me that they weren’t surprised by the insurrection. I would disagree. Listen, I am not surprised that there is a division in our country. We know this just in the fact that millions of people voted for this reality star, rather than voting for the most qualified woman we’ve seen in a generation. But let me say this, there were people scaling the walls of the Capitol building. I couldn’t have imagined that would happen. The fact that there was this insurrection lets you know, that it wasn’t an awakening; it’s a reckoning.
So do you consider it a reckoning because the bad actors are taking off their masks and the bigots of this country are showing their faces? Or is it a reckoning of formerly passive white people who now see the hatred and take action?
I think it’s more the latter than the former. The insurrection allowed us to see all of the ugliness, and not allow anyone to deny it. So you have the George Floyd moment for everyone to see and then somehow watch it be forgotten, and then you have this violence right here. So now the conversations we are having at the New York Urban League and with our partners, as well as personally, are more action-oriented and more honest.
So how is this different from the conversations that New York Urban League used to have with organizations about race versus the conversations they’re having post-George Floyd?
Before all of this, they were writing a check to the NYUL so that we could send kids to college, so that we can give young people an opportunity to be exposed to careers. They would give a check to us so that we could provide opportunities for our young professionals and access networks that they wouldn’t have had in the past. It was all about, ‘we’re giving to those people so that they can work with their community.’
After George Floyd, people calling were saying, “We need you to help us, our employees, we should help our company.” And it became more about the understanding that the work is their work to build and support all our communities. And that was something that I didn’t have a lot of calls about before.
We are seeing heightened racial awareness in corporations and institutions. How is the Urban Lab helping to advance those conversations?
So, in regards to professionals, if you have not had a conversation about race in your corporation then you are missing the boat, right? There needs to be a conversation at your place of work, and the New York Urban League can help facilitate that conversation. We start by asking, what do you want us to do? Sometimes an employer will call and say, “Our employees are really upset. They’re really upset. And so we’re not sure what we should do.”
And we can proceed in many ways, from facilitating a conversation on the issue at hand to employees wanting to know just how did they get here. They’d say, “Slavery has been over since 1865, why is this still going on?” And then there are other employers who call and say, “You know what, I’m looking at the Zoom call from my last staff meeting, and all the boxes are mostly white men.” In that case, they want guidance on how to diversify their staff.
According to a think tank here in New York, the Center for Talent Innovation, Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large businesses. I know the New York Urban League launched a Diversity Lab recently to address this issue. Would you speak to how you’re helping to provide Corporate America with a much-needed pipeline to Black leadership talent?
Basically, we’re looking to launch with at least 10 corporations who decide to be part of our inaugural members of our Diversity Lab. So ‘signing on’ means there’ll be monthly opportunities for them to interact, to be able to talk about the plans that they have for their organizations. Whether it is diversity training, cultural sensitivity, or maybe the company wants to develop specific hiring benchmarks, we will help connect them to staffing resources—whatever they need. The goal of the Diversity and Inclusion Lab is to bring companies and management that are struggling with how to build inclusive environments to share best practices and access diverse talent through the New York Urban League.
So having this dialogue at the workplace and really reflecting on the personnel at all levels is one step in taking action. How else can one activate in a personal setting?
The action could be about having conversations at your dinner table. The action could be volunteering with a new organization. Also, if you believe in more Black women in positions of power, what Black candidates do you write a check to? In our Young Professionals group, we have New York City residents from the ages of 21 to 40 who all do service. They have completed over 15,000 hours of service to the community by helping in food banks, they hold workshops on college readiness, and they staff our black college and university fairs, and conduct voter registration drives. There are plenty of opportunities to give your time.
So we talked about race in the workplace on a personal level. Any other ways to activate?
I’ll always think people should put their money where their mouth is. Right? If you believe in an organization then give? Times are challenging for us all, COVID definitely affected the New York Urban League. We initially had to do layoffs and cutbacks. We didn’t know how long this was going to last. And as we talked about in the beginning, the Urban League turned one hundred years old. So we had literally started off our Centennial celebrations for February of 2020, with the idea that we would have this grand event in June, and that we would have a whole year of activities. Obviously, that didn’t exactly happen.
The last way to activate I would say is to be conscious to ‘check yourself’. Whatever your color, ask yourself: What are the places and ways in which you, we, assume that white is better? Is it when we decide that straight hair is better than curly or when we decide on a ‘neutral’ name for our baby over choosing one that sounds too Black? How are you perpetuating this lie?
You mentioned the Centennial and it’s a big milestone. I’m wondering, what was the original mission statement of the Urban League, and what is it today?
That’s a great question. I would love to be able to look into the literal words that were in place when we first started—but the whole idea of providing equality for all New Yorkers has been integral to the Urban League mission since the start and that hasn’t changed.
What would you tell anyone who wanted to partner with the Urban League, or any non-profit?
Find an organization, whichever it is, and give as much of yourself as you can. Find the wrong you want to right.