As the first woman to become president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, Seanelle Hawkins knew she might encounter challenges.
“Just the role of being a woman leader and being respected, that’s going to be a challenge,” says Hawkins, who started her job on June 3, 2019. “I’m sure any woman, even if they were not a person of color, they could speak to that.”
Hawkins brought to the position the drive and energy that have taken her far from the low-income Brooklyn neighborhood in which she was born. During her nearly two years at the helm, the nonprofit has helped local entrepreneurs survive the economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and started building low-income housing in Rochester.
The Urban League also has led efforts to attack the racial inequity that afflicts the Rochester area, helped residents get vaccinated against the coronavirus and taken other steps to better the community.
“She is energetic, she is visionary, she is passionate,” says Essie Calhoun-McDavid, who serves on the Urban League’s board of directors. “She cares about the community and making a difference.”
The Urban League of Rochester, an affiliate of the National Urban League, was born in response to the racial bigotry and unrest that seethed in Rochester in the mid-1960s. Those conditions sparked a three-day riot that began on July 24, 1964. By the time it ended, 350 people were injured, five were dead, and 250 stores had been damaged or looted. The local Urban League opened its doors the following year.
“The mission of the Urban League is to enable African Americans, the Latinx, the poor and anybody who is disadvantaged to secure economic self-reliance, parity and power, and civil rights,” Hawkins says. “We do that through advocacy and strong programs.”
Local entrepreneurs and business owners can turn to the nonprofit for assistance to start up or remain open. Homeowners can find help to avoid foreclosure. The organization also provides employment services, educational support programs for youth, in-home aid for the elderly, assistance for the developmentally disabled and other services.
In the fiscal year ended March 31, 2020, the Urban League had total revenues of nearly $4 million, down $335,971 from the prior year, according to its most recent Form 990. Government grants accounted for roughly half of its revenue. The organization, which offers more than 30 programs, posted a deficit of $252,430, compared with a $73,841 shortfall the year before, and its net assets declined to $1.4 million from $1.7 million.
Hawkins says the Urban League’s finances turned upward in the fiscal year ended last month, with revenue rising by approximately $1 million, primarily due to an increase in state, county, and local business grants. And the organization finished the year in the black. Final numbers from auditors are expected in late June.
The Urban League served about 4,000 adults and youth in 2019 and has roughly 100 employees.
Pathways out of poverty
Hawkins knows what it’s like to have limited resources. She spent her early years living with her family in a poor section of Brooklyn, one of four children.
“For a long time, we lived in low-income communities,” Hawkins says.
Seeking to advance through education, both of her parents acquired college degrees. Hawkins’ father ended up teaching for the New York City Department of Education while driving a taxicab. Though Hawkins’ mother was blind from the age of 13, she became a medical transcriptionist in the office of the New York City chief medical examiner. Their successes taught Hawkins a valuable lesson.
“I knew education created a pathway out of poverty for my own parents,” she says.
Hawkins learned other lessons after becoming a single mother at the age of 15.
“I found that through education, mentorship, and the right people and programs to support me, I was able to navigate my way out of poverty,” she says.
Hawkins continued to advance toward her career and educational goals.
“By the time I was working on my doctorate (at St. John Fisher College), I had three children,” she says. “My youngest daughter was in the library with me many nights.”
She’s now the married mother of four children, including a two-year-old.
Through the years, Hawkins has held a number of leadership positions that allowed her to put her skills and knowledge to use for others. Prior to taking charge of the Urban League, she was the executive director of Sojourner Home and Wilson Commencement Park. Both serve women and families in need of housing and other services.
“I always wanted to support mission-driven organizations that are helping women and children create a pathway out of poverty and create a better life for themselves and their children,” Hawkins says.
She has also sought to be a model for other women who are striving to advance despite their humble beginnings.
“That can make a difference not just for themselves and their families, but for their community,” Hawkins says.
Making a mark
Hawkins looked forward to heading the Urban League, but knew she’d be viewed as a newcomer. William Clark, her predecessor, headed the Urban League for 25 years, and William Johnson Jr., who came before him, was in charge of it for 21 years before he stepped down to become mayor of Rochester. She also knew that some of her colleagues might question her qualifications for her new job.
“Do you have the same skill set as a man?” Hawkins says. “Can I trust your decisions?”
Confident of her abilities, Hawkins set out to demonstrate that she had what it took.
“The first year is when you show your skill set. You sort of validate, ‘Ah, this is why we hired her,’” Hawkins says. “That was important to me.”
Hawkins has made her mark on the Urban League in a number of ways. Calhoun-McDavid chaired the Urban League’s 54th annual luncheon, but Hawkins put her stamp on it. At Hawkins’ suggestion, the November 2019 event was titled “Equity & U: Not Your Average Luncheon.”
“That was the opportunity for us to say we want to see a more equitable Rochester,” Hawkins says. “The end goal is eliminating poverty and making sure that everyone has access to good housing, home ownership, affordable jobs, quality health care and lending.”
Hawkins also proposed that the luncheon be more interactive. Once the keynote speaker was finished, attendees brainstormed about pathways to equity.
“We actually had facilitated table discussions,” Calhoun-McDavid says. “It was a new approach.”
The gathering, which was sponsored primarily by the Greater Rochester Health Foundation, drew more than 400 business people, government officials, Urban League employees and members of the community.
“It was a pleasure to work with her on that and see the energy that she placed on that and her creative thinking,” Calhoun-McDavid says.
Interrupting racism and a pandemic
A digital attack on a webinar that the Urban League hosted last May for local businesses led to another effort to fight racism. Someone Zoom-bombed the session, shouting racial slurs and throwing a Nazi swastika on the screen. The incident spurred the creation of a new program.
“Interrupt Racism was born,” Hawkins says. “That’s something I’m really proud of.”
Collaborating with Rochester Institute of Technology, Interrupt Racism set out to determine the scope and effects of racial inequities in the Rochester area. In early June, the program surveyed Rochester-area residents and organizations about the racism-related issues they considered urgent, and the strategies that could be used to address them.
“We were able to create a platform for people to have their voices heard,” Hawkins says.
The 2020 Interrupt Racism Report was one of the results. Released on Jan. 15, the document details the effects of racism in education, police-community interactions, housing, employment and other areas, along with suggestions for combatting it.
In addition to researching racial inequities in the Rochester area, Interrupt Racism hosted a two-day 2020 Virtual Interrupt Racism Summit on Oct. 20. Altogether, 536 people from around the country came together during the two-day online event to discuss ways to combat racism.
Finally, Interrupt Racism offers a number of integrated, multidisciplinary educational and advocacy services that foster anti-racist thought and practices. These include training and workshops for individuals, groups and organizations.
While fighting racism, Hawkins has also guided the Urban League’s response to COVID, starting with the shutdown that occurred after the pandemic hit.
“We went from an organization that frowned on working from home to being a team that worked from home,” she says. “We got that up and running within three days.”
Rates of coronavirus infection have been highest among the county’s Black and Latino residents, who are also among the most prone to vaccine hesitancy. When vaccines became available locally late last year, the Urban League worked with radio station WDKX to inform the public about their benefits and potential side effects.
“We were able to leverage our partnership to do some education on the radio targeted at Black people and communities of color,” Hawkins says. “We believed it was our role to help educate the community’s members so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to get the vaccine.”
Those who wanted to be vaccinated could call the Urban League to schedule appointments at Trillium Health, a community health center in Rochester.
“We ensured the equitable dissemination of the vaccine, and we continue to do that,” Hawkins says.
As more public vaccination sites have opened, the Urban League has continued to help those it serves get the injections they need for protection against the coronavirus.
“They can just call our staff and we’d make that appointment for them,” Hawkins says.
Shots in arms
The nonprofit’s efforts to help underserved populations get vaccinated against COVID gained widespread attention on Feb. 18, when Hawkins presented them to a nationwide Zoom meeting that included Marcella Nunez-Smith M.D., chair of the Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, and representatives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The purpose of the meeting was to serve as a key input in understanding the variety of the nationwide vaccine distribution processes, and how community-based organizations, faith-based organizations and Black medical practitioners can play an integral role in the rollout,” Hawkins says.
The Black Coalition Against COVID-19, which hosted the Zoom meeting, subsequently included the steps the Urban League has taken to encourage vaccination in its guidebook “Driving Racial Equity Outcomes in COVID-19 Vaccine Administration.” Hawkins made her Zoom presentation at the invitation of Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.
On April 22, due to difficulties filling appointments, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced that all county vaccination sites will accept walk-in patients forthwith. County residents can still register to get their shots ahead of time, and the Urban League’s staff is willing to help them sign up.
“Daily, we’re getting phone calls from folks,” Hawkins says.
Some of the nonprofit’s employees also volunteer at a vaccine clinic hosted by a local church.
In addition to helping those the Urban League serves stay safe from coronavirus, Hawkins has developed partnerships with local banks to help Rochester-area small businesses survive the pandemic.
“From June of 2020, we’ve been doing small-business grant relief efforts,” Hawkins says.
Two of those efforts focused on small, minority and women-owned Monroe County businesses in the service, lifestyle, health and wellness, and hospitality industries. Last May, the nonprofit began dispensing $100,000 in small-business stabilization funds from KeyBank. Only businesses that could not obtain aid from the U.S. Small Business Administration were eligible to apply for the grants, which could come to as much as $7,000.
Starting in January, small, minority and women-owned Monroe County businesses in those fields were able to tap into an additional $300,000 from the ESL Federal Credit Union Charitable Foundation’s Sustaining Small Businesses and COVID-19 Relief Grant Program. Eligible businesses could obtain grants of up to $10,000, which would be used to pay mortgages, rents, utility costs or other business expenses.
In addition to helping small businesses stay afloat, Hawkins has been the driving force behind L2P Westside. The $13 million project will build 41 single-family ranch-style and two-story homes for low-income city residents on vacant city-owned lots in Rochester’s southwest quadrant. Those qualified will initially rent their homes.
“The individual lives in the home for the first 15 years, leasing the home,” Hawkins says. “On the sixteenth year, they have the option to purchase the home for, we estimate, between $25,000 and $30,000.”
The energy-efficient homes will feature front porches, off-street parking and other amenities, and will be priced to be affordable to those earning no more than 60 percent of Rochester’s median yearly income, which currently is $35,590.
The Urban League is financing L2P Westside with some of its own money, but most of the project’s funding comes from the New York State Homes and Community Renewal program, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, the Rochester Land Bank and other outside sources.
A crew broke ground on the first of L2P Westside’s sites in December, and nine homes are now in various stages of completion.
From the way Frederick Jefferson speaks of Hawkins, such accomplishments are not surprising. Jefferson, a professor emeritus of the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and longtime community leader, has mentored Hawkins practically since she took over the Urban League.
“Every time she and I are in conversation, there’s always new ideas,” he says. “She’s part of her generation’s view of ‘We need to do it now.’”
When asked what she hopes to accomplish in the coming years, Hawkins offers an interesting answer.
“Close the Urban League,” she says. “We create such a community that we don’t need the social services of the Urban League any longer.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.