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Sitting around the table with Bill Gates

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 | 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 | 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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Non-profits: How do they “profit” our community?

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 | 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.

All Things Being Equal

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011 | Latest News, Volunteers | 1 Comment

Welcome to “All Things Being Equal,” our new blog. Why a blog? It’s simple, really.

As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Knoxville Area Urban League, I meet and engage with many people in this community, in our state, and across the country. I often hear, “I’ve heard of the Urban League, but I’m not sure what you do.”

It’s not possible to sum up what we do in only one word, or even a few. Education and youth? We do that. Job readiness and employment assistance? We do that, too. Foreclosure assistance, new homebuyer education, budget and credit counseling? Check, check and check. We also have a thriving small business development program.

I’ve learned from Cynthia Moxley, my good friend and Board Chair Elect, that communicating who we are and what we do is important. That’s why I’ve decided to use this space to share the many stories of the Urban League. And, like the Urban League, I expect the stories to have many sides. I hope you will enjoy them.

As I close, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge Cynthia and her public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, for doing much to boost the visibility of the Urban League.

At our recent Annual Membership Meeting I presented our inaugural President’s Award to Cynthia, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving. She has embraced our mission, and we can see, feel and touch the impact that she’s had on our organization in the past few years. And as you learn more about the Urban League, I hope that you too will want to support our work.

To Cynthia, the Moxley Carmichael team, and the hundreds of other Urban League volunteers, I say, “Thank you. We wouldn’t be where we are without you.”

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