Knoxville Area Urban League announces retirement of longtime CEO Phyllis Y. Nichols

National search underway to identify organization’s next leader

The Knoxville Area Urban League today announced the retirement of Phyllis Y. Nichols, the organization’s longtime president and CEO and a highly regarded leader of one of the country’s best-known civil rights organizations.

Nichols will conclude her nearly 30-year career with the Knoxville Area Urban League in September and is the longest-serving CEO of the five leaders in the organization’s 54-year history in Knoxville. She joined the organization as a curriculum and education specialist in 1994 after years in public education and private business and then became CEO in 2000.

“Leading the Knoxville Area Urban League has been challenging but also the most fulfilling work one can imagine,” Nichols said in her retirement letter to the nonprofit’s board of directors. “The people I have been privileged to work with, the engagement with our national organization, our board and the community we serve have all contributed to the accomplishments we have achieved.”

Jan Brown, board chair for the Knoxville Area Urban League, saluted Nichols for her decades of service and the immeasurable impact she has made on the community.

“The Knoxville Area Urban League has been fortunate to have benefited from her leadership and dedication as the CEO for the last 22 years,” Brown said. “She has rebranded and transformed this important organization, which will have a lasting impact and legacy for so many people, organizations and businesses in the greater Knoxville region.”

While serving as CEO, Nichols earned national recognition as a strong advocate for economic and social equality initiatives. She also served on numerous high-profile commissions and committees on crucial topics such as education, equity, social justice and employment and workforce development.

Under Nichols’ leadership, the organization achieved the community development financial institution (CDFI) certification that allows the Knoxville Area Urban League to provide capital to a target market not served by traditional institutions such as startups and small and minority businesses. Nichols started Shoes for Schools, which will mark its 20th year in August and has provided thousands of shoes and supplies for children before each new school year.

Nichols also recently led the organization to partner with GEM Community Development Group, recruiting disadvantaged and Black-owned businesses to participate in all aspects of the new multi-use stadium project and surrounding development near downtown Knoxville. The project is currently offering skills training and permanent future employment in construction trades and other fields.

“For nearly 30 years, Phyllis has been the most dedicated public servant and tireless advocate, not only for the Knoxville Area Urban League, but also in our national fight for equality, civil rights and social justice,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc H. Morial said. “Her work will have a lasting impact on the thousands of individuals and families helped through Knoxville Area Urban League programming, minority businesses and communities of the greater Knoxville area, and our future ability to continue positive change in the region.

“We are grateful for her legacy of stability, growth and creativity and look forward to what we can achieve over the next decades as we continue to build upon Phyllis’ vision.”

Her awards include Senior Fellow designation from the National Urban League; Women of Achievement from the Tanasi Girl Scout Council; Phi Beta Sigma Business Image Award; Chi Eta Phi Humanitarian Award; “Be More” Person of the Year by East Tennessee PBS; University of Tennessee College of Communication and Information – Diversity Award; Lizzie Crozier French Leadership Award presented by the East Tennessee Women’s Leadership Council; and the James A. Haslam II Chair’s Leadership Award by the Knoxville Chamber.

A self-described “lifelong learner,” Nichols is an ardent advocate for excellence and equity in public education and public policy efforts impacting students of color. She received the 2019 Distinguished Service Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission, and recognition as the 2019 Equity Champion for Tennessee from the Tennessee Education Equity Coalition.

The Tennessee Human Rights Commission recognized Nichols for her advocacy for civil rights and social justice, and she was honored with the “Women of Power” Award by the National Urban League. The YWCA of Knoxville’s Tribute to Women named Nichols as one of 30 remarkable women who have impacted the community in the last 30 years.

“As we launch our nationwide search for her successor, Phyllis will continue to lead the organization and has agreed to partner with the incoming CEO during the onboarding transition process,” Brown said. “Phyllis is committed to supporting a smooth and effective transition as she enters a well-deserved retirement.”

The national search for the next leader of the Knoxville Area Urban League is underway now, led by the National Urban League and Brown as the Search Committee chair. A digital cover letter and up-to-date resume should be submitted by July 26, 2022, via email at [email protected] with a subject line of Knoxville Area Urban League CEO Position.

Nichols said, “Serving as an Urban League CEO is a calling that I was blessed to answer. I have great confidence the board will continue to support the new leadership allowing this affiliate to achieve even greater impact for those who need us and our community.”

About the Knoxville Area Urban League
Since 1968, the Knoxville Area Urban League has assisted disadvantaged people attain social and economic stability and self-sufficiency through direct services and advocacy. The League works to provide a skilled and diverse workforce; to increase homeownership; to support economic and small business development, and to enhance education efforts for our youth. The Knoxville Area Urban League is a United Way partner agency and affiliate of the National Urban League. The League’s work and results are evident in the lives of the over 11,000 people it impacts each year. For more information, call 865-524-5511 or visit