The Tri-County Urban League has been addressing community needs through its education and employment programs since 1965.
When she first got involved with the Tri-County Urban League, Laraine Bryson was just 14 years old. Entering the organization’s summer jobs program, she thought she might like to be a teacher someday, and was placed in a position at a local Head Start facility. “It did really solidify for me that that’s what I wanted to do—work with young kids,” said Bryson. She went on to graduate from high school, obtain a degree in education from Bradley University and teach in Peoria’s District 150. Her placement with the Urban League did exactly what it was supposed to: “It really sparked that first job and first career for me,” recalled Bryson.
Bryson’s ties with the Urban League remained strong throughout her college years, as she worked in the organization’s accounting department during summer breaks. She continued to do so after becoming a teacher. “It was a really great fit because by the time I got tired with the kids, I would come work with numbers, and by the time I got tired of the numbers, it was time to go back to the kids.”
But after teaching for seven years, Bryson decided to make a career change and enrolled in law school. Upon graduation, she worked as a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before moving on to running the affirmative action and personnel departments at Illinois Central College. At that time, she accepted a volunteer position on the Urban League’s board of directors and was hired full-time as vice president in 1992. After being groomed for the role of president for 11 months, Bryson moved into her current job when the organization’s original president, Frank Campbell, retired in 1993.
After becoming affiliated with the National Urban League in 1964, the Tri-County Urban League began offering services to the community the following year. It became a member of the United Fund—now known as United Way—in 1967, the same year in which the League began offering its summer jobs program.
Contracting directly with the Department of Labor, the Urban League received grant dollars to hire disadvantaged youth with no work history. The 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds who met the program’s guidelines were referred to local nonprofit organizations for placements that would provide job training. Each participant worked with job counselors at the League to learn how to write resumes, present themselves appropriately and deal with conflict on the job. They were also given supervisors who mentored them at the organizations for which they worked. “It was a way for [youth] to be exposed to careers…plus they got a little money during those summer jobs,” said Bryson. The same referral model is still used today by the Urban League’s employment department for participants of all ages.
Back in the 1970s, when Bryson utilized the summer jobs program, “if you walked in with that referral, you pretty much were guaranteed that job,” she recalled. “Now when someone comes to us, they have several other barriers to get through before you can get them ready to send them to the job referral.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Serving more than 5,000 disadvantaged people each year—whether economically, educationally or socially disadvantaged—the Tri-County Urban League offers a number of avenues for those with barriers to employment. “In [our educational programs], we focus on the GED because many times, disadvantaged people have not finished school. They’ve not had a good experience in the traditional setting, so we provide an alternative,” Bryson explained. Working mostly with the chronically unemployed—those who have no work history or have been unemployed for over a year—the Urban League’s unemployment department helps each client find the path they need to finish their education and obtain gainful employment.
Sometimes, clients are able to obtain part-time placements while still working on their GEDs. The goal is to get their foot in the door, build employment history and continue working with the League to find a permanent, full-time position. “Unfortunately, sometimes disadvantaged people need something really fast,” said Bryson. “They want a quick fix, and, of course, they want to jump in at the top as opposed to working their way through. So that’s a process in and of itself, and keeping them engaged is sometimes a challenge.”
In addition to teaching job skills and GED classes, the Tri-County Urban League offers pre-GED, literacy and computer classes. These days, having a GED isn’t enough, explained Bryson; applicants must have basic computer skills as well. Wayne Cannon, employment coordinator for the organization, emphasized that his programs are becoming more tech-savvy in efforts to produce workers with the skills that today’s employers are looking for.
The local building trades and organizations like the Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council also work with the Urban League to recruit minority workers into their field. Various grant dollars have provided funding, not only for the recruitment process, but also for the education necessary to bring applicants’ math skills up to the levels required for the trades’ entrance exams.
The Urban League’s stated mission is to improve the educational, economic and social well-being of African Americans and similarly disadvantaged people. “You don’t always have to be low-income to get services,” Bryson explained. “And we don’t only serve African Americans. We’ll serve anyone who wants to get a GED, anyone who needs education assistance, employment assistance or counseling assistance. And [the latter] is more prevention, working with the child welfare system and building and strengthening families.”
Its affiliation with the National Urban League allows the Tri-County Urban League to take advantage of branding and training opportunities. “We have a movement,” explained Bryson. “There are 100 Urban League affiliates throughout 36 states and Washington, D.C., and the national [organization] has a five-pronged agenda.” This agenda focuses on empowerment in the areas of education and youth, economics, health and quality of life, civil engagement and leadership, and civil rights and racial justice.
In light of the lingering effects of the recent recession, the National Urban League released its 12-point Jobs Rebuild America Plan in January, calling for a variety of job training initiatives, expanded small business lending, tax reform and other measures designed to assist those most affected by the ongoing recession and address many of the underlying causes behind its inordinate impact on urban communities. These days, it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.
And our own local affiliate is on the front lines, an economic first-responder in the ongoing effort to ease the burden of those most profoundly affected by the recession. “As the economy gets worse, people who are not used to coming in and asking for services are now being forced to do that,” said Bryson. She noted that they have even started receiving calls from seniors who need to go back to work but have found their lack of computer skills to be a barrier.
Through the support of the Heart of Illinois United Way, grants, fundraisers and private donations, the Tri-County Urban League continues to offer its programs at minimal or no cost to any disadvantaged person looking to improve his or her situation in life.