Urban renewal: Pamela Banks leads Urban League from near-death

Eight months ago the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle had no CEO, no board members, just two employees and a handful of contractors.

Then Pamela Banks became CEO and got to work. And there was plenty to be done: The organization, which has been a force of change for the black community in King County for more than 80 years, hadn't raised any money in 18 months.

"I didn't realize how difficult it would be," Banks said, laughing. "I really came in thinking, 'Oh, in about a year we'll be good.' But now, (I realize) I need three to five. Come see me in three to five and I'll be good."

Banks' progress has been slow but significant. In December, the league had its first fundraising event since 2010, raising about $100,000. That's about half the roughly $200,000 that was usually raised at the league's annual breakfast in previous years. But Banks describes the event - and the more than 550 people in attendance at the Westin Seattle - as a testament to the community's unwillingness to lose the league.

"I think historically (the Urban League) can sometimes serve as almost the glue that holds the community together," said Donna Moodie, owner of the restaurant Marjorie, which sits on the edge of Seattle's Capitol Hill and Central District neighborhoods.

Moodie, who is black, has not been involved with the league but has attended some of its breakfast fundraisers in years past. Moodie said she's been impressed with Banks the few times she's met her, and she's optimistic the new leader's "roll up your sleeves," budget-conscious attitude will get the league back on track.

"I think there's a little image damage and I think they are bouncing back," Moodie said. "It might be a journey that takes a little bit of time, but I think they're definitely on the path."

Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, president of the Northwest African American Museum and a former board member and longtime donor and supporter of the Urban League, said Banks still has a lot of work ahead of her.

"I'm worried," said Rice, now president and CEO of The Seattle Foundation. "It still hasn't made it. I think it's been stabilized and now it's a matter of, 'Can the community rally around it and give it the support that's necessary to move forward?' It takes a whole community to build a league and people have to gain confidence in it and see it as an asset."

When she joined the Urban League in June, Banks left her position as program manager at the city of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, taking a $25,000 pay cut for the opportunity to rebuild the image of the Urban League. Since joining the Urban League in June, Banks has tried to frame the organization's comeback around the slogan "back to basics."

At its height, the league had about 40 employees. When Banks started, it was down to two employees and seven contract workers.

Now she's putting together a new board and has been hiring in earnest. Twelve people work in the small space the group rents in the building it used to own, the Central Seattle Building on East Yesler Way and 14th Avenue South in the Central District. The operation went from occupying 39,000 square feet to 6,600 square feet. The league sold the building for $2.7 million and used the money to pay off some of its debt.

Banks is recruiting board members from major businesses to bring corporate support and credibility back to the league. Leadership now hails from Eli Lilly, along with local businesses and nonprofits including the Perkins Coie law firm and Craft3, a local community development group. In March, Banks and the board members will start strategic planning for the league's comeback and fundraising. Former King County Executive Ron Sims, a longtime African-American leader and politician in Seattle, has agreed to serve as an adviser.

Banks doesn't have the institutional knowledge - or baggage - of someone who has been with the Urban League for a long time. But the longtime league donor and former volunteer did see things she wanted to fix.

"In this kind of business, you need board turnover," Banks said. "Some of the (previous) board members had been there for a very long time."
She instituted a term limit to ensure board members don't get stale. After two three-year terms, a board member has to take a one-year break before returning.

Banks also has added checks and balances to ensure fiscal responsibility, including limits on the size of checks she and others can write without a second signature.

Despite the challenges, Banks is ebullient. She smiles widely and often, even as she apologizes for mountains of boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling in the hallways outside her office.

The league still hasn't finished settling into its smaller space. Banks speaks optimistically about the league eventually owning property again, but in the meantime she's focused on returning to the core goals of the organization.

By some accounts, the league's problems started when a significant portion of its revenues relied on one source: contracts with city government.
In 2010, a league staff member working on the city's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative left for another nonprofit, which wound up winning a $500,000 city-run violence-prevention contract the league had hoped to get.

At that point, the league already had been sapped financially by building the $18 million Northwest African American Museum and housing project attached to it. The museum, which was funded with a combination of private and corporate donations and public grants, commemorates the history of African Americans in this region.

Then, in 2011, the state auditor's office started investigating the Seattle School District's small business development program, which sought to ensure that more of the school district's smaller contracts were going to minority-owned businesses. The state auditor found that money was improperly funneled to a handful of contractors, who often didn't deliver commensurate services. Silas Potter, a former Seattle Public Schools manager, was charged with more than 40 felony theft counts and remains in jail awaiting trial.

The Urban League's now-defunct Contract Development Competitiveness Center (CDCC) was swept up in the scandal because it had contracts with the school district, although it wasn't connected to Potter and the alleged thefts. The CDCC was formed to help women- and minority-owned construction companies and contractors become more competitive in getting construction work through a variety of services, including developing business plans and obtaining licenses and bonding. The league's contracts with Seattle Public Schools supported that effort.

The league is not under investigation, although a state audit of the school district's contracting program found the nonprofit's records and billing were poorly documented. One $25,000 contract for building a database of contractors was particularly problematic, because district employees never used it and the vendor said it wasn't functional. Then-state Auditor Brian Sonntag questioned whether it deserved public funding.

The bad publicity led to other local government agencies canceling their contracts with the Urban League, for a nearly $1 million loss, Banks said.
Before disbanding in 2011, the league's former board eliminated the contracting program associated with the school scandal.

Now the organization is focusing more on getting people jobs, rather than getting business owners new contracts. Serving the individual need is more in line with the league's historic goals and, Banks believes, will be more appealing to donors.

Under her leadership the league is working on a new jobs campaign called "I am empowered." Part of the emphasis is an effort to help people learn how to expunge criminal records - which can be a major obstacle to finding work.

Former board chairman and real estate broker Paul Chiles said he supports Banks' move away from contracting and toward individual employment.

"It's absolutely prudent and appropriate," said Chiles, who resigned in 2011 after 12 years. "We've just gone through a recession and it is about survival of an institution that's extremely important in the community and she is doing what is necessary."

In addition to jobs, the league is placing an emphasis on education and housing.

Those are the basic problems the black community is struggling with in Seattle, Banks said, so that's where they belong.

"I think given the economy that's a great approach to take," said Moodie, the owner of Marjorie restaurant. "Given the (schools) scandal, it's also a very smart way to look at recovery." | 206.876.5439