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Despite Federal Cutbacks, Urban League Director Sees Opportunities

Robert Joiner

Five months after settling in as the new CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Michael McMillan has been busy putting his imprint on the community service and civil rights organization. It’s a big responsibility, given the accomplishments of his predecessor, James Buford, who built the local group into the most successful affiliate of the National Urban League.

With a $23 million annual budget, the organization offers a range of services, from job training to utility assistance, to about 60,000 people.

McMillian takes the reins when sequestration and other budget reductions have curtailed federal spending. That could make it tougher for the group to maintain the steady stream of grants common during the Buford years.

"We rely on  government grants for 75 percent of our funding," McMillan says, calling attention to the new reality of less money for social service and employment programs.  "As the political climate changes in Washington and Jefferson City, that makes us very vulnerable."

In addition, he is finding that the group needs to do more for those who are needy but are beyond safety net assistance.

"I would say that one of the biggest surprise is the fact that we need to raise as much additional money as we can for discretionary programs.

All too often, he said, people seek help and discover that "they may earn $50 more than the federal guidelines say they can to qualify for help." That's one reason McMillan is target more of the area's needy who happen to be just above safety net guidelines.

"We need discretionary funds to help people in those situations," he says. "So we definitely have to grow. There is an overwhelming amount of need and limited capacity to deal with it."

One potential answer came during a community reception earlier this month when McMillian announced the creation of the Whitney M. Young Society, which he hopes will lead to continued growth and community support for the local league. Young headed the national league during the 1960s and was known for his work for civil rights and the eradication of poverty.

“The Whitney Young Society is a new group that is going to involve individuals in giving to the Urban League,” McMillan says. “It is for people making a major gift of $500 to $5,000 or more to help us with our annual programs and support all of our different efforts and activities in the region.”

McMillan says the organization also has an active group of young professionals committed to community service and charitable work.

"But there is more that we need to do," he says, and efforts will be made to engage more of the estimated 400,000 black people in the region to step up to the plate.

"We would like for them to become involved, so we have to do more to reach out to them.

McMillan also comes aboard as the local affiliate is thinking about plans for its 100th  anniversary. The affiliate was founded in 1918 with the mission of “defusing racial tensions, stabilizing communities, and improving the living conditions” of blacks in St. Louis.

A former St. Louis alderman and license collector, McMillan, 42,  says having been involved with the league for 26 years made it easier to make the transition from politician to CEO. He grew up in the St. Roch parish in the west end and lives in midtown.

Leading the league takes lots of energy, leaving less time for leisure. He says most of his free time is spent with his mother and cousins. "We have a pretty big group of family members, and I spend time with them when I have a free moment."

The new job has also brought him national attention. In October he made Ebony magazine’s 2013 Power 100 list of what the publication calls the nation’s most influential African Americans. He was singled out for civil rights and economic empowerment.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.