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Celebrating the Knoxville Area Urban League

Throughout the week, WBIR Channel 10 is celebrating the impact and legacy of the Knoxville Area Urban League.

The Knoxville Area Urban League's story starts in 1968 at the height of the civil rights movement. Over the next couple of decades it would dive head first into providing equal opportunities for the Black community. 

More than 50 years later it is in Knox, Blount and Anderson counties.

It now stands as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, community-based organization. 

This week on WBIR Channel 10, reporter Gabrielle Hays highlights the history of the Knoxville Area Urban League and their impactful work today. 

Impact, History & Legends

Current president and CEO Phyllis Nichols believes the Urban League's impact is not lost on anyone.

"The impact that the Urban League has, and I think most people would agree with this, we are a trusted community resource and ally," Nichols said. 

It is a history that comes with a long list of legendary people. Those of the past and those still with us. You can get to know them here. 

They are people like Sarah Moore Greene, a lifelong educator and civil rights activist.

"I said I'm going to give up for this and run for school board, and I believe I'll get elected so I did," she said when being honored with the Whitney M. Young Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

There's also people like Gloria Garner, one of the first members of the Knoxville area Urban League. Someone who spent more than 38 years with the organization and dedicated her life to her community. 

"Gloria Garner single-handedly has helped more African-Americans find jobs in institutions and corporations in Knoxville than anyone I know. but in addition to helping people find jobs Gloria was about family and she was especially proud of being from Lonsdale," Nichols said after a street was named in Garner's honor.

Meet more of these legends here.

'It takes a village' 

One of the core pillars of the Urban League is workforce development. 

But its mission is much bigger than just offering job help.

"I always say a community is only as strong as it's weakest link," the Knoxville Area Urban League's Terrence Carter said.

For Carter, it is also about changing lives and uplifting not just one person but the entire family.  

"We cannot have pockets of our community struggling and challenged and the affluent part not have any challenges," he said. "We are all better when we all succeed."

Lives like Eric Campbell who is now celebrating one year at a new job.

"It made me feel empowered to get some things done finally," he said. "It allowed me to better myself especially for my future."

Vinchelle Mobley feels that way too. 

"I got my GED," she said. "I've been in the nursing field, I've kinda done a lot but a lot is experience that's how I look at it."

But even after several different jobs, Mobley is dreaming of future things she plans to do. 

Credit: WBIR

"I want to start a men's home, help them with their credit and help them build themselves up," she said. 

However, she does not feel like what she wants out of this life has to end with one goal. She wants to do more. 

"I have my CDL so I really want to go into trucking but I want to be the mind behind it," Mobley said. "And hey who knows, maybe I can give the men in the home a job."

Housing help, COVID-19 impact

Millions of people have struggled with housing, food and joblessness during the pandemic. The Knoxvlle Area Urban League like many non-profits as stepped in to help where it can. 

That work is part of Felix Harris' job. He's the vice president of programming and community engagement. 

"People might be losing their homes due to COVID..or renters may be evicted due to COVID," he said. 

That's where the Urban League is stepping up to help.

"We've been helping people with mortgage assistance, renters assistance and utility assistance," Harris said. 

However, Harris said though the pandemic has amplified their role in people's lives - it isn't necessarily a new barrier.

"It is a difficult conversation, but it's not an old conversation it is just that we are having more of the conversation right now," he said. 

In fact the Knoxville Area Urban League has been helping people with housing almost as long as it's been around.

"So, the Urban League is a HUD certified agency. One of the first nonprofits to have that certification since 1971," Harris said.

Harris said the Urban League started helping people buy homes back then and that continues, on top of providing financial education to show people where the process begins in the first place.

But again that help can look different depending on people's needs and what is happening in the world at the time.

"We are trying to help people save their homes, we do rental counseling and rental assistance," Harris said. "Right now we have people buying houses and people at risk of losing their houses so you get to see a different end of the spectrum of what is going on."

The Knoxville Area Urban League helps hundreds of people each year, but COVID could mean that number looks a little different."

"We help about 300 people each year about 100 purchase homes," Harris said. "But I can tell you right now within the last week we've helped 50 people either from being evicted or from being foreclosed on."

"We want them to be able to stay in their homes and we want them to know that's why we are here," Harris said. "We want to empower them."

Building for the future

We started The Urban League Impact Week highlighting the legends, those who fought for desegregation, love and equality. 

We shed some light on change-makers like Sarah Moore Greene, Rev. Harold Middlebrook and many more.

"The Urban League could not exist without the legends who contributed to the success of the Urban League," president and CEO Phyllis Nichols said.

However, according to Nichols, the work also includes investing in the future.

"Resiliency, that's the thing I have seen with our scholars this year," education and youth services coordinator Janea Peterson said. "I have been inspired by how resilient they are and able to roll with the punches."

She works specifically with the National Achievers Society, a program primarily for 10th, 11th and 12th grade students.

"The whole purpose of it us to make sure they understand that education is a gateway to success that is something we believe," she said. 

Students like Aaliyah Riddle who the Urban League awarded the Empowered Youth of the Year Award.

"They sent me a laptop and official letter and I also got a glass trophy," Riddle said. 

The Urban League also has a program called Shoes for School, which provides thousands of shoes, book bags and school supplies for students each. Ebony Petty works on that project but its mission is personal for her.

"I am a single mother and at the time, I was trying to get back on my feet when I heard about Shoes for School," she said. "I later put in my application and now I work for Shoes for School."

She said for many families, all it takes is one person being willing to lead you a helping hand to make all of the difference.

"Just to have that support, knowing that you have individuals who are not just doing it to be seen but who know the need, it really is a blessing," she said. 

You can learn more about the Urban League's programming and how you can donate here. You also won't want to miss the virtual Urban League Impact even on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. Info below.

Tonight, don't miss the virtual Urban League Impact event on Thursday, October 29 at 4 p.m. 

You can learn more about the Urban League's programming and how you can donate here.

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