A Mission Towards Collective Impact: Judy Reese Morse and The Urban League of Louisiana

A woman of vision, commitment, inspiration, and sound experience: Judy Reese Morse is the newly elected President and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana. She welcomed me to her office, located in the organization’s busy headquarters. My interview with Mrs. Morse came toward the very end of her day, yet she greeted me with a spirit that felt like the day had just begun.  

Judy Reese Morse leads Louisiana’s division of the historic National Urban League, previously called The National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. The Urban League of Louisiana (ULLA) is one of 95 affiliates serving 300 communities. Nationwide, over 2M people benefit from the services that all affiliates provide. The ULLA’s core areas include the following:

  • Policy and Social Justice
  • Education and Youth Development
  • Workforce and Economic Development   

Due to her impressive background and record of experiences, I expected an insightful interview with Mrs. Morse. However, our exchange was far more fulfilling than mere insight could bestow. In the following pages, I detail our extensive conversation that, at times, felt like an insiders-only type of peek into the process of a major, future undertaking. I also received from our discussion a sense of heartfelt sincerity, as if sharing the wisdom of life with a big sister. We started our hour-long conversation with her experiences, so far, as President and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana.

NN: “In your short time in office so far, what are you most proud of or excited about implementing into the organization?”

JRM (Judy Reese Morse): “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on a job that I absolutely love. Although I have only been in the CEO’s role for eight months, this job provides an incredible opportunity to impact a number of issues that I care deeply about and that I have worked on for a number of years.   

When I accepted the position here at the Urban League of Louisiana, we talked a lot about statewide expansion. We have a very strong presence here in New Orleans, founded in 1938. Up until 2016, it was the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. The organization responded to the pull that it was getting from Baton Rouge. Because of the floods, there was tremendous need and the decision was made to expand the footprint, to change the name from Urban League of Greater New Orleans to Urban League of Louisiana, and to create a presence in Baton Rouge.  

The Urban League has to get to the other parts of the state of Louisiana if we are going to truly live up to our statewide name. We have been looking at: how do we establish a presence in Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lake Charles, and Lafayette? What do those communities need? How does the Urban League support the great work that is already happening in these cities? How do we work with government and the business community in those cities? How do we expand upon the relationships that we have? And how do we offer the policy and advocacy work that the Urban League is known for?

Specifically, we have focused 2019 on strategic partnerships and collaborations. We know that no matter how great we are as the Urban League of Louisiana – as a singular organization, we cannot do everything. And we can not do as much as we want to do alone. So, we have got to create those relationships and those partnerships with other organizations so that we can accomplish more and we can really meet the needs of the people that we are looking to serve.”

In 2018, Essence Festival, an annual four day festival in downtown New Orleans, brought in $280M worth of economic impact to the city of New Orleans – a record-breaking figure consisting of well over 500,000 attendees. Essence has recently returned to black ownership, with the 2019 festival being lead by its new owner, Richelieu Dennis (founder of Shea Moisture). JRM describes the exciting partnership recently established between Essence and The Urban League of Louisiana:   

“We partnered with Essence in late January of 2019. The new owner of Essence decided that he really wanted to expand the number of African American owned businesses doing work with the Essence Festival.  Essence created an initiative called the Pipeline and reached out to the Urban League of Louisiana to partner. The idea is to identify African American small businesses, connect them to Essence, have Essence share what their opportunities are around the festival, have the small businesses go through training offered by the Urban League of Louisiana through our Women’s Business Resource Center, and then position them to be able to respond to an RFP issued by Essence.  

I think there will be a really great story to tell this year about businesses that went through that process. I applaud Essence for wanting to do this and I am really honored that they chose the Urban League to partner with and build this initiative.”

NOTE: The Pipeline Initiative is expected to continue in upcoming years. No hardline criteria is set to establish eligibility outside of demonstrating the ability to complete the work.  Companies across the state of Louisiana are encouraged to stay connected with the Urban League of Louisiana and Essence for future details.  

During the month of July 2019, The Urban League of Louisiana will tour around the state to the major cities, gleaning information from leadership and local residents. They will gather details such as the overall vision for the community, the overall vision for the city, and any major challenges that residents continually face. Content from these listening sessions will be used to curate content for the Empowerment and Policy Conference scheduled for Sept 2019. JRM elaborates on the joining of forces that will produce this particular conference:  

“We also created a partnership with the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and I am just as excited about this one. I have three centers of excellence: education and youth development, economic and workforce development, and policy and social justice. The policy center is critical to the development of African American communities and to the State. Who better to partner with than the lawmakers themselves? The Urban League, as a policy organization and an advocacy organization, is partnered with the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus – and together we are going to present a policy conference.  

The inaugural Empowerment and Policy Conference will take place Sept 27 & 28th, 2019 in New Orleans at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to bring people from across the state to New Orleans to begin to have the kinds of conversations, discussions, and debates that look at the systems that either propel us forward or hold us back. We have got to have a structured way to examine those systems and be able to have the conversations about what we see or what we don’t see; and then to have a way to bring what people care about to life. After the conference, we plan to set up policy workgroups that take what comes out of the conference and study it to see what could potentially become legislation in the future; this could potentially feed into the next legislative session.”

NN: “You spent over ten years in D.C. Anecdotally, that area is perceived as a hub of prosperity for the black business community. From your experiences and from your expertise in helping create opportunity for black businesses: what are the differences that you see in a black business community here in New Orleans versus what you have seen in a black business community such as D.C?”

“I think there are a couple of things. First, I loved every day of my life living in Washington D.C. I lived there for 13 years and I cannot recall having one bad day. I am sure I had a slew of challenges, right, because it’s life and it’s 13 years. But I really, really loved being there. Part of why I loved being there is a partial answer to your question.  

All within close proximity, there is the District of Columbia, the state of Maryland, and the state of Virginia. So, you really are talking about I wish I could say three states, but, a district and two states – and there is seemingly so much opportunity within your reach. You could live in Washington D.C., work in Maryland, go to church in Virginia, and there is just so much to access and so much information. It always felt like I couldn’t take all of it in because it was just so plentiful and so powerful.  

Because it is D.C. and the seat of our nation’s capital, there are people from all over the world in the space. So, in addition to the wonderful people who were born and raised in that area, you had this constant infusion of people coming from across the country and around the world. There was a level of excitement, this energy, this activity – there was always something happening.

Here in New Orleans, there is a strong black business sector that continues to grow while it continues to push for opportunities to compete and gain access to capital. And while the scope of opportunities in New Orleans doesn’t compare to the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia triad, whatever does exist must allow for equitable distribution. That’s part of our work at the Urban League of Louisiana: to counsel and train businesses to secure economic parity and to support an environment of success for entrepreneurs.  

NN: “The State of Black America Report was recently published. What were your thoughts on that in general as well as its implications to New Orleans and the state of Louisiana?”

“I was in Washington D.C. at the National Press Club when our National Urban League (NUL) President and CEO, Marc Morial released the report during the National Urban League’s annual Policy Conference. Every year, NUL calls on all of the affiliate CEO’s and other staff and volunteer leaders to go to Washington D.C. We also go to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and other policymakers.

The report this year focuses on the importance of voting and addressing voter suppression. The report provides an in-depth look at what the country is facing, but it also offers solutions that can transform cities across the country. I recommend it to everyone. We also talked a lot about the 2020 Census at the Policy conference, which is critical to African Americans and other people of color in Louisiana. We know that a lot of Federal funding decisions are made based on the number of people that are counted in the Census. And we know that reapportionment is based on the number of people that are counted in the Census. A lot of people feel very far removed…they don’t understand the connection between filling out the Census form and their ability to be able to access resources and services from our government. We at the Urban League and many of our partner organizations, we have got to do an unbelievably strong job of helping people understand that connection. At the same time, making sure that there aren’t efforts taking place to suppress the effort. This is a lot of what the Urban League of Louisiana is going to be focusing on – starting this summer and continuing through the Census period, which officially starts April 2020.

One of the new initiatives that we started last year is called Wake Up The Vote, Louisiana.  It’s a statewide initiative that focuses on voter education and voter mobilization. We are a non-profit organization, so we do not back individual candidates. But we do play a very important role in informing the public about important issues in the African American community. We have to continue to help people to understand the connection between something that is impacting their lives every day – a law that exists or does not exist – and their ability to impact lawmakers. They can add their voice to the discussion.”

JRM also discusses the year 2045, its importance to her, its consequence to The Urban League of Louisiana, and its significance to the African American community at large:

I have no idea if I will still be here on this earth, God willing, I will be. But that year is so critical because we know, and it has been widely accepted, that in 2045, the demographics of this country will be different. This will be a majority black-brown country; in Louisiana, 50% white, 50% black-brown. So, what can we all do today to prepare ourselves as a community, as a city, and as a state for that demographic change? What should we be doing? Who should we be working with? What should we be focused on? What are the issues? If we pay attention in this small window of time: what shift could we bring about? What transformation could we lay the groundwork for so that everything is better for everybody?  

It’s not a long period of time. It’s not very far at all. What could we be doing and what should we be doing to prepare African Americans and others to create opportunity for change to happen? That first day in 2045, what will it look like or feel like? What will the Urban League be able to look back on and say that it did? I want to be able to say that we did our part.”

NN: “I want to complete our time together with your thoughts on a few current events. Kim Kardashian has been involved in the last several months with letting 17 people out of prison. We know that criminal justice reform is a major part of the agenda for the African American community, the Urban League of Louisiana, and many Presidential candidates. In your opinion and as a leader for the Black community: how should we feel about Kim Kardashian’s participation in reform efforts?”

We talked earlier about strategic partnerships and collaborations. And that is one of the themes for the Urban League of Louisiana this year – and, really, all the time. Any time someone is willing to work on behalf of issues that positively impact the African American community: they should be applauded and they should be welcomed to join the movement. And I feel very strongly about that.

In my opinion, if there is somebody who shows up and they present themselves as being serious about addressing issues that impact the people that we serve here at the Urban League: I want to meet them, I want to listen to them, I want to potentially work with them. Even if we can’t work together, I want to wish them well, I want to support them in spirit and, perhaps, even in deed. Because no one organization or no one individual can do all of this work – alone. We have to be able to find each other; we have to be able to see each other.  We have to be able to work together in order to address these complex issues that are holding us all back. And the term that I am very interested in these days is ‘collective impact.’ It is this idea of organizations coming together, maybe unlikely organizations – unusual suspects – finding each other and focusing on addressing very complex issues.  

NN: “Nipsy Hussle was a great loss to our community and to the world. His death caused conversation on several different levels. What I would like to ask you about is the debate that comes from a famous, successful, black business perspective: do you go back to the hood to do the work, possibly risking your life, or do you give back from afar?”

“It’s an excellent, excellent question. And actually, I was just talking about Nipsy Hussle earlier this week. We had a conversation with Dr. Denese Shervington. Dr. Shervington is an amazing Doctor of Psychiatry and Master of Public Health who is the President and CEO of the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies, also known as IWES. She is nationally renowned and an incredible public servant to the African American community and to the mental health issues of the African American community. We had a discussion with her, here at our headquarters, because she has recently written another book called Healing is the Revolution.  She talked during her presentation about what Nipsy Hussle was attempting to do in Los Angeles and how unfortunate it was that his life was taken.  But she also talked about the mental health of the young man who took his life; looking at how young African American men often times relate to each other and to other people. It’s not just the act of crime or violence that they may commit, but it is important to really look at the why – to understand how they got to the point where they are in a situation or in a position that they believe that that is an appropriate way to respond or handle a situation.  So, we were taking a deep dive into some of the situations that we are dealing with here in New Orleans and urban areas across the country.

So, in response to your question: I think you have to do both. I think you can work from afar, but then I think you have to get into communities and do what you can. But, more than anything else, you have to know yourself and you have to know what you have to offer. Not everybody is going to be a Nipsy Hussle, they are not going to have his intellect, they won’t take his approach, they won’t have his comfort level with the community. In so many ways, he was really put here to do exactly what he did. How sad for all of us that his time on Earth was so short.

But then there are other people who have other gifts. Those gifts look different, they show up in a different way, they present themselves in a different way. And they’re not to be thought less of if they are working farther away, but still have an impact that supports a Nipsy Hussle to be able to do what he does in the community. So, I think the answer is both and I think you get to the answer by knowing who you are, what your gifts are, and what you have to offer. For me, I am honored to serve as President and CEO of the Urban League of Louisiana and to work with members of our community to serve them. We all have to figure out what our gift is, and what our talent is. Is it to address policies that make it easier for the person that is in the community to be able to do what he or she does, or is it to be the community advocate?  So we have to know what our gifts are, what our comfort level is, and where we can do the most good.

But this thing I do know for sure: it takes both. This is not an either or – it is all us together. It all has to be working and it all has to be connected in some form or fashion. Which brings me back to the idea of collective impact: everybody has got to figure out where they fit in.  We have to figure out how we can organize ourselves in such a way that together we can advance the work.

Nicole Nixon is a dedicated wife and mother who values leadership and business. Motivated by her husband and her son, she is vested in the empowerment and positive commercialization of black men in America.

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