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Low-key leadership for the Urban League

William Clark, president and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester Inc., shifts in his seat, glancing around the modest conference room.
The small room on the fourth floor of the Urban League’s North Clinton Avenue headquarters has a slightly unoccupied air, as if someone were just moving in or out.
The walls are bare. Awards and plaques honoring Clark’s predecessor, Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr., sit haphazardly in a cardboard box, shoved into a corner as if awaiting pickup.
“Our biggest challenge? In the current climate, I’d say it’s to remain as visible as possible,” Clark says, answering a reporter’s question.
For 13 years a behind-the-scenes money man for the organization, he took over as Urban League president last year after Johnson, who spent 20 years in the post, made the move to City Hall.
As manager and later vice president for finance and administration for the Urban League, Clark was intimately acquainted with its financing and funding sources. Yet Clark confesses that he found the fund-raising burden resting on the Urban League president’s shoulders to be the least-expected aspect of the job.
“I’m still getting used to it,” he says, whistling soundlessly through his teeth.
Public speaking, he admits, also is a job requirement “I’m getting better at, but I’m still getting used to.”
A soft-spoken man who leaves one with an impression of diffidence, Clark, 43, projects a sort of well-tailored, non-threatening blandness.
It is hard to imagine him leaning too hard on potential corporate sponsors, especially in a climate of discredited liberalism and corporate downsizing under which organizations such as the Urban League are seeing government and corporate support recede.
Clark stands in some contrast to his predecessor, who as Urban League president was something of a gadfly–one who publicly and vocally criticized city schools, former Rochester Mayor Thomas Ryan Jr. and local corporations, the former for poor performance and the latter two for what he saw as inadequate minority hiring.
In 1989, Johnson called Bausch & Lomb Inc.’s minority hiring and promotion record “pitiful,” and similarly bemoaned Ryan’s poor affirmative-action record at City Hall. A year earlier, he had accused Ryan of betraying the black community by delivering less than he promised after seeking Johnson’s and other local black leaders’ support in a close-fought Democratic primary against John Erb, then a member of the City Council.
In the two years since Clark replaced Johnson at the Urban League, little heat–at least of the directly confrontational variety for which Johnson was noted–has emanated from the CEO’s office.
Indeed, Johnson says that for some Urban League board members, Clark’s “low-key” persona was a stumbling block.
As do many public- and private-sector organizations, the Rochester Urban League first wanted to launch a national search for a CEO to succeed him, Johnson says.
“I told them: “You can look all over the country, and I’m sure there are a lot of highly qualified folks out there. But I think you got the guy you need right here.”’
Clark in many ways is his own polar opposite, Johnson observes, but as Johnson was in his own time, Clark is the right man for the job.
“Bill has his own unique skills and approach,” Johnson says. “I urge people not to compare us. He’s very detail-oriented. He knows every nook and cranny of the organization. He’s very low-key, but he gets along with everybody.”
When Johnson took over the Urban League in 1972, it was in fiscal and organizational crisis. He became its sixth CEO in three years.
Clark inherited a roughly 1,500-member organization with a $4.4 million budget and a menu of programs including a $100,000 revolving-loan fund for minority- and woman-owned businesses, low-income housing programs, and a $1.2 million fund to provide financial aid for promising black students.
In fact, the organization has grown slightly since Clark took over. But Clark is quick to point out that its apparent growth is misleading.
“We grew, but it wasn’t the way we wanted to grow,” he says, wryly.
Like many of the top 25 non-profits on the Rochester Business Journal’s list, Clark says, the Urban League grew by absorbing a program–the former Service Corps, a youth job program it took over last year and renamed the South West Area Youth Prevention Program–that had lost other funding.
The funding battle for the Urban League, as it is for virtually all non-profits, is a rear-guard action, Clark says.
While it costs more to do business, government and private aid sources are drying up.
This year, for example, the Urban League’s state money is 20 percent less than it was a year earlier, Clark says. If Gov. George Pataki’s first aid proposal had gone through, the agency would have lost all state money.
“Every one of us is competing more for fewer dollars. If I spend more time (on funding), it’s because I need to compete against so many others,” he sighs. “You put more in, and get less in return.”
Tomorrow’s annual ball–a major fund raiser for the Urban League for the past 10 years–is expected to net some $7,500 on an expected $10,000 gate.
To get that $7,500, Clark had to persuade corporate sponsors Time Warner Communications and Marine Midland Bank N.A. to help bankroll the affair and to underwrite the cost of bringing in celebrity guest Ben Vereen.
The added cost of a celebrity guest–Vereen is the first the Urban League has used as an attraction–is “the kind of glitz you need now,” Clark says.
Meanwhile, the irony of his own role as a salesman to the very corporate constituency that put Pataki in a position to reduce the Urban League’s cash flow is not lost on Clark.
But despite the current fervor against government anti-poverty programs and affirmative action, even the staunchest Gingrichians realize that the poor–especially poor minorities–will not disappear, he says. In such a climate, “there are opportunities for (non-profit service) organizations that are well-designed. That’s why I see the Urban League growing.”
In terms of programs, that means maintaining the quality of service the organization developed under Johnson, and looking for new areas to pick up.
In addition to the youth jobs program it took over, the Urban League last year won U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approval to develop and manage a $7 million home for the developmentally disabled. The facility in Brighton is nearing completion.
Fiscally, it means a certain amount of schmoozing with Rochester’s corporate elite, along with a grassroots push to increase support for the Urban League among its own constituency.
Last year, $42,000 of the $92,000 the organization raised came from black churches, which in turn are responsible for much of the increase in individual memberships and donations.
Even as Clark is struggling to redefine the Urban League as a “well-designed” non-profit for the 1990s, he is taking pains to see that it does not lose its hold on the national Urban League’s original focus–race relations.
A cause celebre for him, albeit a somewhat quixotic one, has been city residency for public employees.
The idea that teachers, administrators and police officers on the city’s and the city schools’ payrolls–the majority of whom are white–should live in the much blacker community they serve is hardly new. It is an idea that has lost rather than gained ground, however.
The issue has been debated since whites started fleeing Rochester for its suburbs in the 1960s. The question is moot for the Rochester police, who stand on a state ruling saying that residency requirements cannot be imposed on them. A Rochester City School District policy stating that administrators must live within the district has been on the books since the early 1980s. Clark says it has been ignored, however, and the number of administrators living out of the district is on the rise.
American society, Clark says, is taking “what really appears to be a step back. Racism is re-emerging. Not that it ever went away, but now it’s more overt again. It’s OK.”
Shortly after he was named Urban League CEO, Clark wrote an opinion piece for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle calling for residency requirements for city and school-district employees.
While not much has come of it, Clark says, he intends to keep pushing the idea.
“I did it to create a dialogue. I put it out there as a discussion piece,” he says.”I want to see the dialogue continue.”
Johnson, while acknowledging that his own hands are tied by the Rochester Police Locust Club’s contract, applauds Clark’s position: “It’s something that really needs to be out there.”
At the same time, Johnson adds, it also is appropriate that Clark use the Urban League presidency less as a bully pulpit than he did.
“He’s in a much different place,” the mayor observes. “When I came, the organization was not too favorably viewed. This is a much different era. Bill’s got to be his own man.”
By birth a small-town southerner, Clark grew up in Riverside, Ga., a resort town of 17,000 that sits on the Atlantic coast between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla.
He spent summers with his grandmother in Rochester, however, so his ties to this area run deep.
Clark admits to fostering a dream of someday retiring to Riverside to live by the sea, but when he left to join the U.S Air Force in 1970, he says that he did so with the idea of getting out of a town where opportunities for anyone outside the hospitality industry were virtually non-existent.
After four years in the Air Force, where he attained the rank of staff sergeant, Clark entered Monroe Community College, earning an associate’s degree in accounting in 1976. Two years later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in management from St. John Fisher College, then went on to earn an MBA from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1984.
Clark says he had not intended to stay in Rochester after getting his bachelor’s degree, but shortly after he graduated from St. John Fisher, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of the Rochester Area offered him a job as an auditor. He also had married a Rochester woman, so he stayed.
The marriage ended in divorce nine years later. The older of the couple’s two daughters, now 16 and 15, has lived with Clark for the last three years.
After two years at Blue Cross, Clark moved for a year to the Genesee Hospital as general accounting manager before landing his first position with the Urban League in 1981.
Johnson, who hired Clark then, now calls him “a worthy successor” to himself.
Still, even comparing the nearly moribund Urban League he took over 20 years ago to the well-oiled machine he passed on, Johnson says, Clark in today’s funding climate faces a far greater challenge than he did.

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