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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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The woman cleaning up the Urban League mess

The new leader of Seattle's Urban League, Pamela Banks, sees a transformation ahead for the organization.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Pamela Banks has spent the past six months studying the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

As president and CEO since June, she's been figuring out what went wrong and what she needs to do to make the organization more relevant and credible.

She's always been a good student, and Tuesday at a fundraising breakfast she'll outline what's ahead.

If you want a hint, the breakfast theme is Back to Basics. The organization strayed from its core mission, took on more debt than it could handle and at the same time lost contracts with the city of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools that supported some of its programs.

She walked into a mess. What the organization becomes now will be shaped by who she is.

You've probably already read that she spent the past 30 years working in Seattle city government, most of that with the Department of Neighborhoods.

She earned praise for her work, but she saw this new position as a way to leave a mark.

When Banks was growing up in Portland, her grandmother was president of the Urban League Guild. Men ran the league, and women raised money through the guild.

Today, the presidents of half the Urban League affiliates nationally are women, Banks said. And half of all presidents have been in office five years or less. All across the country, chapters are remaking themselves for a different time.

The League started in New York City in the early 1900s helping black people who were making their way north, get jobs. Financial self-sufficiency, education and equal opportunity were the goals.

You know how hard that fight has been, even here. One of Banks' predecessors, Edwin Pratt, was gunned down at the front door of his Shoreline home in 1969.

So much has changed since then, but not everything. Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for black Americans was 13.2 percent in November. The rate for Latinos was 10 percent. For white workers it was 6.8 percent, and 6.4 percent for Asian Americans.

Problems persist, but in a more complex environment. The clients Seattle's branch serves are from all racial groups. In its program to help people keep their homes, half the people it sees are white.

Banks is assembling a board that reflects Seattle — Asian, white, Native American, Latino, and black; business people and community leaders — and more of the members young than in the past.

Banks herself is comfortable in multiple worlds. Her paternal grandparents were black, her maternal grandfather was Japanese American and her maternal grandmother Chinese American.

She grew up in a black neighborhood in Portland, and most people saw her as black.

Banks, who just turned 53, was bused to a mostly white high school and felt racism for the first time.

She and her older sister were called names and spat on. There were 1,600 white students and 46 bused students, most of whom left before the end of the year.

Her father petitioned the School Board and got her transferred back to the mostly black high school in their neighborhood.

Banks was student-body president, valedictorian, a cheerleader and sports editor of the school newspaper.

She wanted to be a radio sportscaster and earned a communications degree from the University of Washington with that in mind.

Banks had a job offer in Oregon but opted to stay in Seattle, because she felt more at home here as a half-black, half-Asian woman. "I fell in love with Seattle," she said.

Now she'll find out if she can get the city to love her remake of the Urban League.

Whatever it does will be rooted in four areas: education, housing, employment and health.

In serving those needs, Banks wants to be less dependent on government money and fundraisers. She said the national organization is helping 10 affiliates, including this one, learn how to run more like a business than a traditional nonprofit. And she wants to increase the Urban League's presence in South King County eventually.

"I didn't take on the job to close the doors," Banks said.

Sometime after the first of the year, she and the board will begin turning their ideas into a strategic plan.

Banks has done her homework. Now I hope she passes the tests that lie ahead.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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