Remarks by Andrea L. Zopp at the 50th Annual Golden Fellowship Dinner
As I was standing back there I made an important note to self: Put speech before emotional, moving video next year.
You all just had an opportunity to share, in part, with my experience since I had the privilege of taking on the leadership of this amazing organization last year.
Everywhere I go, I run into people like those you saw in the video who tell me how the Chicago Urban League has had a positive impact on their lives. The video shows you a small example of what I have seen and heard and know—that the Chicago Urban League is, literally every day, empowering communities and changing lives.
Before I go on I want to thank our wonderful co-chairs, Mellody Hobson, James O’Connor, Jr., Anne Pramaggiore and Rick Waddell. Thank you all for accepting the challenge to lead the fundraising efforts of this milestone gala, and for all your tireless efforts to make this event a success.
To our host committee led by Ralph Hughes and Joe Moore, thank you for your hard work and commitment to the Urban League. To Tony Anderson and best board of directors that any president or leader of an organization could ever ask for: thank you for your leadership, guidance and support. To my great staff, thank you for sticking by me in this, my first year at the Chicago Urban League.
And last but not least, to our sponsors, friends, family and special guests, thank you for being here tonight. All of you in this room are clearly empowering the future.
I also just have to take a brief moment to recognize my family, my mother in-law and sister and brother in-law. My three children, Alyssa, Kelsey and Will, who had so much fun last year they brought their posse this year and now have their own table! And, of course, my best friend, my rock, my husband Bill.
Our theme tonight is “Honoring Our Past, Empowering Our Future. I am a lover of history and I have always seen the Chicago Urban League’s long history and legacy as its real strength. But I have come to realize that not everyone sees it that way. Some people, particularly younger people think our longevity simply means we’re old. Not old in a wise, seasoned, experienced kind of way but old, in a slow, stodgy, boring irrelevant kind of way. “My teenage kids are all looking at me like “That kind of sums it up Mom”.
This issue is of real concern. Because if young adults do not see the Chicago Urban League as engaging, innovative and relevant to them and their lives, we will not be here for long much less another 95 years. This is one of the reasons we have spent time this past year developing a social media presence. Because, as our friends at Nielsen have told us, that is where young black Americans are.
But, in addition to reaching out to our young adults, it is also critical to help people see, as our theme suggests, that honoring, understanding and appreciating is important. We cannot go forward if we do not know where we have been.
Those of you who were here last year know I like visual aids, once a trial lawyer always a trial lawyer. And I have one tonight.
I found this picture in the National Civil Rights Museum – Memphis Tennessee. For those of you who don’t know it is attached to the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. If you have an opportunity to go, do.
This powerful picture that in many ways speaks for itself, says a lot but I want to draw your attention to the date…1962. One year after this dinner was founded.
This dinner was started 50 years ago in l961. Before the Civil Rights Act, before the Voting Rights Act, before the March on Washington. Lunch counters, hotels, and bathrooms were still segregated. School districts across the country were refusing to follow the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education and black people were still being lynched in the South for looking at a white person the wrong way.
But despite this hostile environment, where so many walls still stood between blacks and whites, here in Chicago a courageous, dedicated and diverse group of individuals, led by then Chicago Urban League Executive Director Bill Berry, and then board member Hank Schwab who is here with us this evening, said: “We will not let hatred and division stop us.” They said the work of the Chicago Urban League in helping African Americans find jobs, find housing and stay in school, was crucial work. They understood that a strong black community in Chicago meant a stronger, better Chicago.
Their strength, their courage, their commitment to overcome racism and to work together to make the city better for all of its residents…that is the history we honor here tonight.
But there is another reason why it is so important to appreciate and value our history. Because as George Santayana said “Those who can’t remember the past are destined to repeat it”. And, here’s the thing, when the past comes around, for the second ride – it does not look exactly the same. It looks a little different in small, subtle ways.
And if we don’t understand or know where we come from, we will be moving backwards before we know it.
We know African Americans have made significant progress since 1961. We have overcome so much on our way to becoming a better society. We have elected Barack Obama as our President.
Yet, despite all this progress, African Americans still lag on almost every critical social, economic and educational statistic. Academic performance, graduation rates, unemployment rates, foreclosures rates, health impacts. We know there is still work to be done. And there are signs in some areas that our forward progress is stalled and maybe even moving backward.
You may have heard about a new crime increasing in the past year. It is the crime of “educational theft”. This “crime” has occurred in places where children were consigned to substandard and underperforming schools. Schools that when the children walked in the door, even if they did everything they were supposed to do, even if they attended every day, even if they did all of their homework, even if they passed all their tests and moved forward and passed each grade. Even if they did all those things, when they graduated they still would not meet the state standards or be prepared for high school or college.
The parents of some of these children said, “No! I want my child to have a chance.” And they enrolled them in school districts that had better schools but where they did not reside. When these school districts found out they were charged with crimes.
In one well publicized case in Ohio, the mother was convicted on felony charges served time in jail. In another, a homeless woman was arrested and charged with a crime for enrolling her son in a district that was not near the homeless shelter in which she lived.
So think about what is happening in the cases for a minute. We limit the educational opportunities for poor, black children, we confine them to largely segregated and inferior schools and then when their parents push back and try to get what we all want for our kids –a quality education — we jail them. It’s not exactly like the legally segregated schools of our past or the state troopers barring the doors of schools to avoid integration. But it is closer than we’d like to admit.
And this is important because, we know, as our parents did, and their parents did, education is the key to opportunity. Without it we have little chance.
Let’s look, briefly, at another area that has been central for African Americans progress – voting. There are an increasing number of laws being passed that limit how and when people can be registered to vote, the kinds of identification that will be accepted for people to vote and the times and places when people can vote.
At first blush these laws may seem reasonable. But understand that they are, in essence, increasing restrictions, placing limits on who, how, when and where we can vote. I think of my history, of my grandfather, whose own father was born a slave. My grandfather wanted to do one thing in his life …vote. But he never could because in Mississippi where he lived he was told that in order to vote he had to recite the Bill of Rights to the constitution from memory. When you take a closer look, from a perspective informed by history, you might question laws that restrict our right to vote rather than enhance, encourage and create opportunities for citizens to exercise that right. You might see these laws as a step backwards.
The promises of the Civil Rights Movement have not yet been truly realized and whether you believe that progress for African American has slowed or that in some places we may even be slipping backward, it is clear that the Chicago Urban League’s work to ensure that African Americans can fully access the opportunities that our country and city have to offer and can fully contribute to growing and building stronger communities, is as important now as it was at our founding 95 years ago or when this dinner was started 50 years ago.
Our history, our longevity is not a weakness or a liability, it is a strength. It is the foundation on which we will ground our efforts as we refuse to go backward and we most decidedly and assuredly step forward.
We will step forward into an empowered future where parents are honored, not jailed, for fighting for their children’s right to a quality education and where the only pipeline we talk about is a pipeline to graduation and a career, not to a jail cell.
We will step forward into an empowered future where African American businesses can participate in the work and opportunities that are being created by government and private investments in their city and neighborhoods.
We will step forward into an empowered future where individuals are not living in fear of losing their homes to foreclosure; where their neighborhood is a thriving, safe neighborhood. Not block, after block of boarded up, crumbling and abandoned buildings.
We will step forward into an empowered future where the graduation of a young black man from high school or college is not an exceptional event but an expected one.
Empowering the future happens in the present. The present lies with us. With your support the Chicago Urban League will continue to work for that empowered future, to push forward to insure that we do for our children what our parents did for us, leave a world better than the one we entered.
Thank you and enjoy your evening.