Knoxville Area Urban League


Annual Membership Lunch – How Can You Be A Part of the Urban League?

Thursday, February 16th, 2017 by KAUL Administrator | Uncategorized | No Comments

Thank you for your interest in the Knoxville Area Urban League.

We are extremely grateful to our supporters whose ongoing commitment has allowed us to continue the work of empowering communities and changing lives for another year.

Check out our 2016 Annual Report which is posted on our website for detailed program outcomes and fiscal information, and acknowledgements to all who have invested in our work.

Since 1968, the Knoxville Urban League has stood for social and economic equality.  We continue to work to create opportunities and partnerships that help individuals needing assistance in employment, housing and home ownership, youth development and education, entrepreneurship and diversity and inclusion.

Last year was an especially impactful year of service for us. In December, the Knoxville Affiliate was recognized as one of National Urban League’s premiere affiliates earning a 5 of 5 on the National Performance Assessment.   Our board and staff worked very hard to earn this designation for the second time in 2012 and 2016, and we are indeed proud of our accomplishments.

Even with the National recognition, our 49 year history, and serving nearly 9,000 individuals and families each year, we are still challenged with the general public understanding of what we do.

The National Urban League was founded in 1910.  Today 90 Urban Leagues in 35 states and DC work so that NO one is left out of the social, political or economic mainstream.  That focus was central to our work in 1968 and it continues today.  And we work to partner and collaborate with other like-minded individuals and organizations to accomplish that mission.

We recognize a few of them in October with our Equal Opportunity Awards presented at our annual gala.

For all the good she does throughout the community and especially for her support for our Economic Development and Lending Programs, Mayor Madeline Rogero received the Corporate Leadership Award; the Minority Business Award went to Beal Bourne, Jarnigan & Son Mortuary, Sanford Smith was voted by the staff to receive the Volunteer of the Year.  And we were genuinely humbled to award the prestigious Whitney M. Young, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award to Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson and Mrs. Judy Gibson for their lifelong work in civil rights and social justice.

The Equal Opportunity Day Awards Gala raised nearly $200,000 to support our programs and services.  Thanks to Scripps, SNI for their production support.  Don’t forget to mark your calendar for the fourth Thursday in October.

There are many others that we would like to give awards to because we could not begin to provide the level of programs, services or special events without the help of our volunteers and partners.    We are grateful for our collaborations with our higher education partners – Pellissippi State Community College in our workforce development program and several schools within the University of TN with our college access programs.

  • Volunteers facilitate many of our employment workshops; help clients understand the importance of insurance, asset building, financial planning and mortgage documents
  • Some volunteers help families understand and develop their financial capacity through budgeting and credit counseling
  • Other volunteers spend hours with budding entrepreneurs and mentoring struggling business owners, chaperoning college tours, and leading activities for high school students
  • and hundreds volunteer for Shoes for School each August to distribute shoes and school supplies to over 3,000 kids. Save the Date:  Saturday, August 5th

To our Young Professionals, dynamic young leaders who serve as Urban League ambassadors. Our YPs volunteer with many of our program initiatives and serve as mentors to high schools students.   Thank you for your commitment to the Dr. Walter S.E. Hardy Scholarship Fund and for helping us better serve the community.

We appreciate the members of our board, engaged committed individuals who support the Urban League mission with their time, talent and treasure. These individuals first believe in the mission of equity and equality and then seek to use their talent to support the work. 

I love my work because of what this organization stands for, the difference we make, and the people I am privileged to work with daily.  The Urban League is fortunate to have a dream team of talented professionals.

Our Board and staff are passionate about the Urban League.  We know why we’re still here after 49 years.  Our mission of enabling African American and others to gain economic self-reliance, parity power and civil rights is as important today as it ever was.    Our first core value of diversity and inclusion guides us to advocate for equity for ALL people.

There is a role for all of us to play in the civil rights and social justice movement and if you really want to make a difference, provide an opportunity for employment.   We work with hundreds of adults each year wanting a job.

Work is empowering.  We define ourselves by what we do. Work gives purpose and dignity to life, provides families with economic and social stability, and contributes to our community.

At the forefront of some of the issues we are facing here in Knoxville is the high unemployment of young black men ages 18-24.   At a time when work has never been so hard to get and so hard to keep, the Urban League is on the front line, partnering with agencies and corporate supporters to connect the unemployed with jobs.  At our Workforce Development Center, individuals looking for a job or a better career opportunity can obtain employment search assistance, improve their computer skills, career counseling, employability readiness training; job placement referrals and post-placement support.

Our goal in our workforce program is twofold:  to work with companies to get job postings that are not distributed widely, and to pre-screen appropriate candidates, and to assist our clients through skills development and job readiness to be the best prepared candidate – to be competitive for the fewer jobs that are available.

People like Joel Byrd

Having been out of work and unable to find employment on his own because of his background, the Urban League and Community Step-up provided Joel with job readiness training including self and skills assessment, resume and cover letter preparation and interview training. Joel applied himself to the training earned conditional employment with the City.  Through the 12 week program, Joel worked under multiple department supervisors in two different service areas, acquired a Commercial Driver’s License in addition to new vocational and personal skills. Finishing his Second Chance opportunity in November, Joel applied for and accepted a full-time job offer as a Public Service Worker this January.

As a HUD certified housing counseling agency, our goal is to facilitate first time home-ownership and housing retention for those facing foreclosure.

People like Timothy Fetty

Mr. Timothy Fetty came to our Housing Program in need of assistance.  As a result of severe health challenges, he was placed on Long Term Disability.  Now a fixed income, a hike in his mortgage rate hike placed him in jeopardy of losing his home. In October, working with our certified counselor, we were able to help Mr. Fetty obtain a Loan Modification enabling him to remain in his home on his reduced income.

We change lives through education. Our Education and Youth Programs work to improve educational opportunities for many at risk students to support their academic achievement, encourage their civic involvement through service learning, and contribute to their cultural and emotional development.   We are committed to help every child be ready for college, work and a self-sufficient life.

We change lives through our education programs.

Scholars like Courtney Majors, senior at West High School, a third year member of the National Achievers Society.  Courtney earned the opportunity to participate in the National Urban League Youth Leadership Summit last July in Baltimore along with 500 other high school students from all across the country.  Courtney shared with members of her church, “This experience helped me to get out of my comfort zone and made me more confident. I am now willing to embark upon challenges that I probably would not have considered before.”

Working in partnership with other community leaders and Knox County Schools, our intent is to end racial disparities in school discipline and narrow the achievement gap for students of color.

We are members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and the Knoxville Alliance. Our statewide coalition believes that change can happen when we harness the collective influence and voices of a diverse group of civil rights and education advocacy organizations to improve the educational outcomes for all students.

We change lives through advocacy, especially for those who do not understand how public policy impacts their lives.

In the United States, public education is still viewed as the best way to create equal opportunities for families, children, and youth to advance and succeed.

And we will work with our local district, school board and teachers to make our public schools the best possible for all students.

Our agenda is to build a strong bridge between education and work; provide more pathways for young people and adults to secure a quality education, employment and grow professionally; create opportunity for entrepreneurship; and through diversity and inclusion help transform the Greater Knoxville Area into a place where everyone can succeed, thrive and enjoy raising their families.

What to look for in 2017:

  • Kids Who Code– we will have our first summer camp to teach coding for middle school students. In the fall, we will continue the Kids Who Code through the community schools initiative at Vine Middle.
  • Out of School Youth Employment Program– double down on our efforts to increase employment under the WIOA program
  • We’re hosting the Paradigm Challenge – “Building Knoxville One Business at A Time”

The Paradigm Challenge, an event to inspire business growth and economic development in East Knoxville, will be June 17th.  This place-based, industry specific pitch competition challenges entrepreneurs to solve business and economic growth challenges facing the East Knoxville business community in businesses related to Health Care, Retail/Light Manufacturing, and Technology.   You can learn more about it on our website

  • Renovation of our facilities– You’ll hear more about this in the coming months.

The Urban League is not about entitlement programs, but rather empowering programs.  We don’t give hand-outs, but hand-ups.

When someone asks, what the Urban League does, tell them we advocate, we partner and we implement.  And we’re going to need your help.

Will you become a member of the Urban League?   Encourage your family, friends and colleagues to join us.

I have been asked, “What do I get for my membership?”    Besides wearing the Urban League pin of equality, here is what you get.”

You get to become part of the WE.  

  • We improve the quality of life and education opportunities for young people
  • We increase employment skills and workplace diversity and inclusion
  • We increase opportunities for entrepreneurship
  • We Increase homeownership
  • AND we advocate for the civil rights and social justice for ALL people

When you learn about another Mr. Byrd getting a job, WE did that.

When another of our scholars goes off to college, WE did that.

When a family becomes first time homeowners, WE did that.

When an entrepreneur realizes her dream, WE did that.

Make today a WE are the Urban League through your membership.

Then you can say – this is what WE do at the Urban League.


Thank you for joining.

Phyllis Y. Nichols

2017 Annual Meeting Speech

What do business leaders need to understand about diversity?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 by Phyllis Nichols | Uncategorized | No Comments

If our collective desire is to make the greater Knoxville area a destination of choice for investment, for talented individuals and their families, and for the leading businesses of tomorrow, then diversity and inclusion must have intentional focus.

Business leaders send a powerful message when they demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion that goes beyond mere talk. Companies and leaders  who are most effective, have integrated diversity into all of the processes of their organization. Diversity becomes a lens for looking at, identifying, developing, and advancing talent. So when they think about recruitment, they don’t just have a minority recruiter. All recruiters are educated about how to relate to the diversity of the population that they recruit from.

Leaders build accountability into their systems with regard to their managers taking responsibility for creating a diverse and inclusive work environment. Too often the people at the very top say all the right things relative to diversity, but their middle management, who create the experience for people who work there, don’t understand and don’t feel accountable for diversity and inclusion.

Leaders do not see diversity as a once-and-done initiative, nor do they hand off that responsibility to others.   The Harvard Business Review interviewed 24 CEO’s from around the globe who ran companies that had earned reputations for creating diverse workforces.  When asked why advancing diversity in their organizations was so important to them, the aggregate answer was twofold: They believed it was a business imperative because their companies needed it to stay competitive, and they believed it was a moral imperative because of their personal experiences and values.

We love our comfort zones.  Leaders need to rise above our need to justify or validate ourselves, which is what happens when we seek people who are just like us. Diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, diversity of opinion is really crucial. Leaders need a certain amount of social competency to be able to engage people who have differences of ideas and perspectives. Diversity can and should be a critical component of the innovation that leaders are driving in their organization, and it can and should be a competitive advantage for them.

Demographic trends indicate that women and minorities are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. workforce.  The United States Office of Employment estimates that by 2018, 41% of the people entering the US workforce will be minorities.  A focus on diversity and building an organization that’s culturally inclusive is going to allow you to attract and retain that top talent.

Among the advantages of diversity in the workplace are:  increased creativity, increased production, new attitudes, new language skills, global understanding, new processes, and new solutions to difficult problems.

Commitment to diversity must be incorporated as an integral part of corporate success.   Continued growth toward a more inclusive corporate culture is necessary for business success.   Customers, business partners and employees should see themselves represented in your boardroom, in your workforce, in your marketing campaigns, in the community, and the organizations you support.

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”  – Maya Angelou


Talk about a Return on Investment!

Friday, February 17th, 2012 by Phyllis Nichols | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

We often say that time marches on. I recently had an experience that reminded me that, indeed, time passes quickly. It also reminded me why I am passionate about the Urban League and why our work is so important.

I met Brandon Hardin when he was a sophomore at Austin-East. Brandon was engaged in the Black Achievers Program where I served as a mentor. He often volunteered at the Urban League even as a high school student.

 Following graduation, Brandon left us for a while. He continued his studies at MTSU, earning his civilian pilot license in 2004 and a BS degree in Aerospace Administration in 2006. He earned his presidential commission as a 2nd lieutenant in 2008 and his silver wings and the aeronautical rating of pilot from the United States Air Force in 2009. He currently flies the KC-135 Stratotanker for the 134th Air Refueling Wing at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base in Knoxville.

 I ran into Brandon one day when he was at the Urban League for a Young Professionals meeting. The high school kid had returned as a man, and an accomplished one at that. Seeing how well Brandon had done would have been thanks enough, but the story doesn’t end there.


About two weeks ago, Brandon dropped by to give me a “gift” – an American flag that he and his unit had flown over the skies of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 2011. The flag was flown during active combat in honor of the Knoxville Area Urban League. Brandon said it was his way of thanking the Urban League for being such an influential part of his life.

 We held an official flag presentation ceremony at our Annual Membership Breakfast on Feb. 15. When Brandon spoke his words of gratitude, he and I both choked up with emotion. It was a moving and meaningful moment.

 The man, Lt. Brandon Hardin, represents what is possible when adults invest our time. Today, we call this process mentoring, and I invite you to get involved. We’re actively recruiting at least 50 adults to serve as mentors for middle and high school students for our Project Ready: Mentor Program.

 Project Ready: Mentor utilizes a comprehensive, research-driven mentoring approach that assists middle and high school students with improving school performance, graduating to the next level and exploring college options. The program focuses on academic achievement, cultural awareness and service learning. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for adults to step in and have a meaningful impact on a young person’s life.

 As I issue the call for mentors, please know that I realize that mentoring is not for everyone. Last week I spoke to a successful business owner about serving as a mentor. He was adamant that his passion, expertise and comfort level would be better served working with college students or budding entrepreneurs. I’m already working to plug him into our Small Business Development program!

 If, however, if you feel the call to work with young people and want to see a return on your investment (and I’m talking about your most valuable asset –time), then talk to us at the Urban League. Or better yet, talk to Lt. Brandon Hardin, our newest mentor. 

 The fine print: Before working with our students, all adults must have a background check, receive mentoring training and be appropriately matched with a student.

Diversity Summit helps Knoxville Start an Important Conversation

Monday, October 17th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Uncategorized | No Comments

Scripps Networks is a market leader in demonstrating how diversity and inclusion make for a successful business. At last week’s Diversity Summit – hosted by Scripps in partnership with the Urban League and Knoxville Chamber – Scripps provided the opportunity to explore the dimension of diversity as an economic driver for community and business development.

The Summit was stimulating and challenging. I was honored to be part of it. However, my gnawing question is this – Now what?

Keynote Speaker Luke Visconti, partner and co-founder of DiversityInc Media, challenged our area’s lack of education, business and community alignment around diversity and encouraged us to: “Build a future that makes everybody’s children want to come here.”

In the late ’90s, I watched as my two daughters left Knoxville after finishing their education because they didn’t see our city as a welcoming place or one flush with career opportunities. When one daughter recently returned with her family after 13 years, she acknowledged that we’re improving.

We are a more culturally diverse community than ever before. Successful businesses understand how this fact creates opportunities for them to attract talent, fill jobs, and connect with new customers. As important as diversity is to the business environment, the community environment is equally important.

If your employees only see this region as a job and not a welcoming place to live, play and raise a family, they will not stay here. You lose. We all lose. Knoxville is changing, but it’s not going to be what we want it to be unless we all work together.

As I told the audience at the Summit:

I issue the Urban League’s Call to Action. Looking at the today’s audience is a little like singing to the choir – but that’s why we have choir practice!

The concept of diversity today has evolved. In my not-too-distant past, when we talked about diversity, the conversation was mainly a black and white issue. Today’s reference to diversity is far more encompassing. Dimensions of diversity include age, education, ethnicity, family status, gender, income, military experience, sexual orientation, and spiritual or religious practice.

. . .

Diversity and inclusion begins with the conversation, like what we’re having today, conversations that recognize differences – not just differences in color, or of gender, but all human differences – add real value to business.

It’s not about problems. It’s about solutions. It’s not about numbers. It’s about profits and smart growth.

It’s about business. The collective brainpower of talented people from different backgrounds coming together will help your company succeed in today’s market.

And the opportunities created will benefit people at all levels of society – by making the greater Knoxville area a destination of choice for investment, for talented individuals and their families, and for the leading businesses of tomorrow.

Society can only achieve its full economic potential when every member can achieve theirs.

If you’re ready to explore how to develop your company’s diversity strategy and participate in an inclusive community, I invite you to call the Urban League and let’s begin the conversation.

Sitting around the table with Bill Gates

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Education, Latest News | 2 Comments

You may have noticed that it’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry. I assure you that my absence from the blogosphere has nothing to do with lack of material. The past month has been a blur of activity, and I’ve been involved in some very interesting things.

At the end of July, I attended the annual National Urban League Conference in Boston. The conference is always a great opportunity to network with colleagues from across the country, get new ideas and be energized, motivated and revived for the mission of the Urban League. I always come back from conference ready to conquer the world.

But, as you may have guessed from the title of my blog, that wasn’t the most exciting thing I’ve participated in of late. During the conference, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend private time with Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates!

Along with my colleagues from Urban League affiliates from Tennessee and Pennsylvania, 10 of us sat around the table with Bill Gates to talk about education in our states and what we’re doing to bring “Equity and Excellence” to our communities.

Equity and Excellence is an initiative funded by Gates designed to build more effective and impactful advocates for education reform. Remember my blog about attending a conference in Washington, DC aimed at reversing the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in minority communities? That conference was part of Equity and Excellence.

When I tell people about my meeting with Bill Gates, two questions generally come up:

1. How did Tennessee get selected?

2. What was it like meeting Bill Gates?

First, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose Tennessee because our state has demonstrated a willingness to engage in education reform in a significant way as Tennessee was one of the first states selected for Race to the Top. Their Foundation wasn’t looking for states making minor tweaks; they wanted states willing to “change the course of the ocean liner.” Tennessee has demonstrated the political will to make vast institutional changes in how we educate our children. Over time, we should see how those changes help move our state up from its lowly position near the bottom in state-by-state education rankings.

As to the second question, meeting Bill Gates was even better than I had hoped. Bill Gates was friendly, humble and engaged. He paid specific interest to each person at the table. When talking with me, he knew the size of Knox County’s student body, its minority population, and the achievement gap of minority students.  He had been well briefed.

Shortly after the conference, Bill Gates sent a letter thanking me for meeting with him. In the letter, he says: “Melinda and I believe education is a civil right; that all students – regardless of race, ethnicity, or where they were born – deserve an education that prepares them for success in the college or career of their choice. The foundation looks forward to continuing this important work, and we are grateful for the National Urban League’s support.”

I’m a firm believer that education reform and academic achievement are about much more than what happens in the classroom. At the Urban League, we have programs in place to engage students of all ages in out of school learning opportunities that we believe will help them perform better in the classroom, make them more likely to go to college, and in the process help our school district meet its performance goals.

There’s a place for everyone to contribute to the education of our children. If you’re trying to find your place, I invite you to join us here at the Urban League.

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Facing the Foreclosure Giant

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Latest News | 2 Comments

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

Today I started my day like most others, with a cup of coffee in one hand and the News Sentinel in the other. (I like the new format.) While reading the article, “Knoxville man caught in foreclosure maze,” I wanted to shout, “We could have helped you – for free!”

In case you didn’t read the story, it’s about Chris and Amanda Beckendorf, a West Knoxville couple who struggled with unemployment and subsequent mortgage problems, tried to personally handle their mortgage problems, and ultimately filed bankruptcy in order to save their home.

I imagine the article caused an assortment of responses. Some people probably quickly scanned the article and thought it didn’t apply to them. Some may have gotten angry at the government or banking industry. Others may have looked for ways to blame the couple for their dilemma.

While it might be more comfortable to assume that people facing foreclosure are in a bind because they “bought too much house” or did a poor job of managing their finances, today’s reality is that many foreclosures are the result of job loss. No job… no income… no way to pay the mortgage.

It’s a spiraling downfall that affects people from all walks of life. And, while Realty Trac may indicate the foreclosure crisis is easing, try telling that to the Beckendorfs or the many others in our region just like them.

The Urban League sees lots of people who have reached a crisis point in their lives. People who never needed help from a social agency before, and they only come to see us when they have nowhere else to turn.

Fortunately, we’re often in a position to help. I’ve got some great stories about people we’ve helped find employment and/or keep their homes. Ask me about them sometime, and I’ll be happy to share.

Since shouting at the newspaper wouldn’t have done any good, I’m going to take this opportunity to say to you what I wanted to shout to my paper:

  1. The foreclosure problem is still real. Ask the 278 people who have come to the Urban League since January.
  2. Trying to prevent foreclosure is a time consuming, difficult process. The good news is that homeowners don’t have to go at it alone. The Urban League is a HUD-approved non-profit counseling agency. We’ve been helping people keep their homes since 1971, and our counselors are here to offer valuable assistance — for free.
  3. If you’re in a state of crisis, beware of sharks! There are fraudulent companies who will take advantage of your situation. If you need help, be sure to go to a HUD-approved agency that doesn’t charge for its services.
  4. Help is available. Don’t let pride get in the way of asking for help, and don’t make the mistake of waiting until the 11th hour to seek help. It’s far better to seek assistance before the foreclosure notice appears in your mailbox.

Finally, if you have a job and a home, count your blessings and be thankful. I know I am.

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Brown v. Board: Is our nation’s education system equal?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Education | 1 Comment

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

I recently attended a conference in Washington, DC aimed at reversing the dropout crisis and closing the achievement gap in minority communities. People from throughout the country were there – Hispanic, African American, Asian, Pacific Islanders and Native American. It was an amazing and informative conference that invigorated my enthusiasm for education, shed new light on the common struggle minorities share in the educational arena, and heightened my sense of urgency to do something about the problem.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 established that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Nearly 60 years later, our nation still struggles to carry out the legacy of that decision and ensure that all students receive an equal education.

As I listened to my colleagues across the table, I learned that there is still much work to be done. It was eye opening to see that across the spectrum we shared the common thread of a significant problem. Nationally, graduation rates for students of color and Native students hover near 50 percent, lagging up to 25 percentage points below white students.

The problem is largely attributable to the fact that those students are often concentrated in the lowest-performing high schools in the country. A recent study by the Alliance for Excellent Education revealed that students of color or Native students are six times more likely than their white peers to attend a “dropout factory,” one of the nearly 2,000 high schools that produce half the nation’s high school dropouts.

Addressing the problem is more than a moral imperative. Doing so is also an economic necessity. Students of color and Native students are quickly moving from the minority of the student population to the majority. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, and the nation cannot afford to continue graduating just over half of the fastest-growing group of students. We struggle to have an adequate workforce now. Imagine what it will be like in 15 to 20 years if we don’t take action to stem the tide.

So, where do we start? It’s like eating an elephant. One bite at a time. We may not be able to reach the entire country, but we can impact our own communities.

Among our many educational endeavors, the Urban League is part of the Equity and Excellence Project, an initiative designed to build more effective and impactful advocates for educational improvement. One of our partners, the Educational Testing Service, emphasizes: “The family is America’s smallest school.” We share the belief that family is a child’s first teacher. Children do better in school when they depart a stable home where parents are employed, read to them every day and ensure they attend school. Sadly, many families are struggling, and their struggles contribute to the achievement gap separating low income and minority students from their more affluent peers. Education reformers have focused on what happens inside the classroom, but the impact of family means that school reform alone cannot eliminate the achievement gap.

The Urban League is committed to working with parents and students to ensure their academic success. We hope that you will join us in our endeavors.

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Got Shoes?

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Education, Volunteers | 2 Comments

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

For most of us, we’ve never had to think about having decent shoes or school supplies. No big deal. They were simply there. But for kids who don’t have them, it’s a big deal!

Last week, I talked about my love of reading and how important it is that parents read to their kids. Research shows that reading aloud to children – especially from birth through age five – plays a key role in a child’s emerging literacy and preparation for success in school.

While I’m guessing that no Education Association or Literacy Foundation has researched the importance of a new pair of shoes to success in school, here at the Urban League we do a little “research” of our own every August with our Shoes for School event.

Shoes for School, a mammoth undertaking that gets bigger each year, provides new shoes and school supplies to about 1,000 area kids who are most in need. It’s a carnival-like atmosphere that includes about 35 booth sponsors and hundreds of volunteers who provide games, food and school supplies to the kids. The crowning prize of the day is a new box of shoes ordered especially for each child. I’ll never tire of seeing the look of delight on the kids’ faces when they tear into their box and retrieve their prized pair of shoes.

Why are shoes important? If you have to ask, you’ve never sat at a desk with your feet tucked far beneath your seat so that no one would notice your worn-out, paltry, little shoes.

A few years ago we got a call from a mother whose son had lost his shoes at the event. She said the poor kid hadn’t stopped crying since he realized his shoes were gone. Fortunately, we found the shoes. The surprising thing about this story isn’t that a boy lost his shoes and he was sad about it. It’s that the “boy” was 11 or 12-years old, not six or seven like we expected. Like I said, new shoes are a big deal.

I realize we’re not changing the world by giving kids in need new shoes and school supplies, but I like to think we’re making a small change in our part of the world. By arming these kids with shoes and school supplies, we’re helping them feel more confident and comfortable with their peers, which is a critical piece of the puzzle.

We’re in the process of signing up corporate booth sponsors, and we still have room for a few more. Participation includes setting up a booth or a tent, providing an activity, a game or something to engage the kids, and giving away school supplies as their reward. This is an excellent opportunity to get your employees/associates/members working on a one-day community service project. Let me know if you’d like more details.

We also need your financial support. Through a special corporate partnership, we’re able to purchase shoes for the amazingly low price of $10 each. Every $10 you donate means another happy child will start the school year “on the right foot.”

Take a quick look at last year’s video for more details.

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In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Uncategorized | No Comments

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

Growing up, my favorite thing to do was read. In fact, when I hadn’t cleaned my room or done other chores around the house, my mother would spur me into action by saying, “You can’t read until you’ve…” You can fill in the blank. I was more than willing to do whatever needed to be done so that I could pick up a book and explore new people, places and things.

On Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of reading to about 200 preschoolers at Sam E. Hill Preschool as part of the Urban League’s “Read and Rise” early literacy initiative. It was such a treat to share my love of reading with these enthusiastic 3 and 4-year-olds and to watch their faces as they immersed themselves in the story before them.

As a former educator I felt comfortable being “back in school,” and it was a pleasure to visit Sam E. Hill – a vibrant, engaging learning facility that makes you feel good as soon as you enter the doors. The day I was there they were holding graduation ceremonies, and the building was full of proud parents and grandparents.

While reading to the children at the preschool, I couldn’t help but think of my granddaughter, Bella, a 14-month-old with a voracious appetite for learning and a remarkable vocabulary. Bella loves nothing more than being read to. She has a basketful of books and already makes the connection that a thicker book means extra time for reading and staying engaged. I always love it when she comes to me with a thick book.

I have no doubt that Bella will enter kindergarten at or above reading level, but far too many children don’t. In fact, national research indicates that 40 percent of 5-year-olds begin kindergarten unprepared to learn to read. Of those, 74 percent never catch up. The same holds true in Knox County. Why is that?

Pointing fingers and placing blame won’t solve the problem. Instead, we must work together as a community to engage parents in teaching their kids to value reading and to get parents reading to their children at an early age.

Early reading experiences are now recognized as being of such importance that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians prescribe reading activities along with other instructions given to parents at the time of well-child visits.

So, as I stand on my soapbox I’ll close with these words:

Parents, put down your cell phones and iPods. Turn off your TVs. Schedule a few less activities. Spend time reading to your kids. It’s an investment with lasting returns that you’ll never regret.

Non-profits: How do they “profit” our community?

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 by Phyllis Nichols | Latest News, Membership, Volunteers | 2 Comments

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

Here in the Volunteer State, we’re known for our willingness to step up and help those in need. The longstanding success of the United Way of Greater Knoxville’s annual fundraising campaign and the solid individual and corporate support of our many area non-profits stand as testament to our area’s philanthropic spirit.

But when we think about non-profits, how do we view them and their significance in our community?

Since Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett presented his FY 2011-12 general budget proposal earlier this month – complete with funding cuts for many area non-profits – there has been much discussion regarding the role of non-profits in our community and how they should be funded.

Opening up dialogue is always a good thing, and I want to take this opportunity to share my thoughts.

In today’s economy, people are struggling like never before. Many of those coming to non-profits for help never dreamed they’d be in a position of needing that help. Businesses have closed, while others have had to downsize and lay off employees. In the aftermath, many loyal, hardworking citizens in our community have found themselves without a job.

A lack of employment quickly leads to problems paying utility bills and the mortgage and an inability to provide basic necessities like food and medical care. It puts things in a whole new perspective.

Recently, we were selling Urban League memberships at the offices of one of our corporate partners. A young lady came to our table and said, “When I saw you all out here, I just had to come buy a membership. You helped my mother keep her house.”

For that young lady, our foreclosure counseling services took on a whole new level of importance. It’s like that. You become a champion for whatever cause has personally touched your life.

My hope is that we’ll all become champions for those things that make our world a better place, not just those things that affect “me and mine.” That we’ll support cancer research not because cancer has affected our life or the life of someone we love but because that research will help others down the road; that we’ll invest in non-profits that help people find jobs, keep their homes or feed their families not because they helped us, but because those services benefit our community as a whole.

I encourage you to take a moment and think about the people in your life. I’d be willing to bet that at least one person in your family, friends or work network has needed help from a non-profit. When you think of the services that non-profits provide, don’t think of those we serve as “them.” Think of your brother or sister or close family friend who is struggling. What resources would you hope to be available for that person you care about?

Now, I ask that you take action to make sure that help is available to those who need it. Give money if you can; volunteer your time and talents to a worthy cause; and speak up in support of the non-profits who serve our community.

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