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Urban League takes REJI under its wing

The Urban League of Rochester has been named the new steward and agency administrator for the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI). The program will be combined with the Urban League’s antiracist educational initiatives under the Interrupt Racism name as a primary focus of its newly-created Equity and Advocacy Division.

Dr. Seanelle Hawkins
Dr. Seanelle Hawkins

“The Urban League is an ideal fit for REJI because racial equity work is our primary mission, and a comprehensive education component like the one that REJI has developed will complement and enhance our Interrupt Racism initiative,” said Urban League President and CEO Seanelle Hawkins.

REJI is a community-wide initiative that addresses racism by building community capacity for racial equity and focusing on change at the individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels. Through St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, REJI has worked with more than 40 organizations and 400 leaders in the Rochester community across two cohorts in dismantling racism.

“We can think of no better organization to take over REJI than the Urban League,” said Sister Christine Wagner, executive director of SJNC.

She characterized the initiative’s work as “shining a light on the evil of structural racism.”

“It is with confidence that we put this important program in their hands,” Wagner said.

The Urban League plans to continue and build upon the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Both pre-existing REJI cohorts will receive ongoing support and resources from the Urban League, officials said.

“The need to continue this work is increasingly apparent, especially during the current climate, and we are so grateful to be handed the baton in stewarding REJI,” Hawkins said. “We are receiving more requests than ever from organizations to assist with tackling complex issues associated with all aspects of racism and creating spaces that demonstrate a more equitable Rochester.”

The Urban League has more than 55 years of advocacy and human service experience in the Greater Rochester area and will return to its roots in facilitating civil rights initiatives and actions in the creation of a distinct division centered on Equity and Advocacy.

To do so, the organization has named Kiah Nyame to head up the division as the Equity and Advocacy officer, a position that Hawkins likened to a “community DEI officer.” Nyame will also join the executive leadership team of the Urban League to augment the focus on equity in each of the more than 25 programs therein.

“The work of Interrupt Racism will build on the current foundation of REJI while also transforming it to utilize a holistic approach model that ensures all community stakeholders are heard and advocated for,” Nyame said.

Sashanna Mitchell, REJI’s program coordinator at SJNC, will continue in that capacity as the coordinator of Interrupt Racism. Applications to join the first Interrupt Racism cohort under Mitchell’s leadership will be available in April 2021.

“I am committed to this work, not just my individual job and program, but to real change, and I’m honored to continue it here at the Urban League,” Mitchell said. “The reason why I’m so committed is that I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have had to go through as a Black woman with respect to pay inequity, internalized racism and oppression and questioning my own worth. There are systems at play in Rochester that haven’t allowed me and other Black Rochesterians to live our best lives. When I realized that this struggle was by design, I committed myself to interrupting that process for my community. I won’t give up, and the Urban League won’t give up.”

Interrupt Racism began in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in late May 2020 as the Urban League of Rochester’s response to the public outcry for racial justice and equity. In just three days, Interrupt Racism moved from conception to execution as a “community-wide suggestion box” and collective impact platform for racial inequities in Rochester, officials noted.

The Urban League developed Interrupt Racism into a racial equity educational initiative, culminating in the first-ever Interrupt Racism Summit on Oct. 20 and 21, 2020. This innovative virtual conference brought together seven keynote speakers, more than 30 presenters and workshop facilitators, and more than 500 attendees from across the country to interrupt racism.

“This is just the beginning of the equity and advocacy work we have envisioned for Rochester,” Hawkins said.

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