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What happened at the Chicago Urban League?

Crusader Staff Report

A big shakeup is underway at the Chicago Urban League after the stunning announcement that President and CEO Shari Runner will step down as part of a major restructuring effort of the 102-year old organization. Also out is Chief of Staff Danielle Parker, who has already left the organization.

The Board plans to appoint business affairs strategist Barbara Lumpkin to serve as interim CEO as the Board launches a search to fill the position.

The moves have raised questions about the stability of one of Chicago’s most prominent institutions. Urban League officials say the restructuring will allow them to focus more on community initiatives and fundraising, but questions remain whether the organization can effectively serve the Black community without a leader at the helm. The move comes as another prominent Black institution, the DuSable Museum of African American History, was forced to push back its fundraising gala after eight members of the Board resigned without explanation over the Memorial Day weekend.

Now, the Chicago Urban League is in the spotlight as its leader prepares to make her exit.

On Saturday, June 23, Eric Smith, Chairman of the organization’s Board of Directors sent out an email, saying that they discussed Runner’s departure with her last week as they set out to “restructure the leadership of the League.”

Smith said Runner will step down at the end of the month. Following Parker’s departure, the chief of staff position will be eliminated.

“Shari and Danielle have each made significant contributions toward advancing our mission during their time with the League, and the Board is grateful for their service,” Smith said in a statement.

Runner took the helm of the Urban League in 2016 after her predecessor, Andrea Zopp, left to run an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senator. Prior to ascending to the top job, Runner served as senior vice president of strategy and community development at the Urban League. She has an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Smith also announced that Zopp has agreed to join the Board of Directors in the wake of leadership change.

Under Runner’s leadership, the Urban League relaunched the Research and Policy Center and issued notable reports, including research on racial segregation in housing and the impact of opioid addiction among Black Chicagoans. Over the past year, Runner has led efforts to connect individuals with new opportunities, including creating a partnership with the Lyric Opera that enabled 30 Chicago teenagers in the EmpowerYouth! program to perform an original production on the Lyric stage, and the League’s annual Citywide Job Fair this week with nearly 100 employers, which attracted roughly 6,800 job seekers.

She also initiated a new approach to the League’s upcoming annual SUMMIT, which will feature a talk by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Runner turned heads in 2016 when her organization filed a lawsuit against Illinois and Governor Bruce Rauner, saying the state’s system for funding public schools hurts minority students who live in poorer school districts. The suit was settled in 2017.

Under Runner, the profile of the Urban League in recent years gained prominence during its annual Golden Fellowship fundraiser. With star power like singers Diana Ross and Kenny “Babyface” Edmond, the sold out events reenergized the organization and generated millions at a time when corporations were giving less to Black non-profit organizations.

Sources said Runner’s decision to step down was not her own. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Urban League generated $6.6 million in revenue in 2017 and had an operating surplus of $87,000. The publication said the Urban League’s Golden Fellowship Dinner last year with singer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds generated $2 million.

Prior to becoming chief of staff last year, Danielle Parker served as Director of the Center for Student Development, where she introduced and implemented new initiatives that include a STEM summer camp and an international ambassador program that has sent a group of Chicago youth to China for the past six years. This year’s trip, which will proceed as planned on June 29, will include 16 local high school students. Parker also led the EmpowerYouth! program.

“I want to assure each of you that the Board remains committed to the mission and long-term success of the Chicago Urban League, and we are excited about the future,” Smith said in a statement.


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