Urban League Los Angeles President, Nolan Rollins
The Sentinel recently had the opportunity to catch up with Urban League Los Angeles President, Nolan Rollins. Celebrating his one year anniversary as president of the league, Rollins spoke about his objectives, strengthening the league and what his plans are for the future.
LAS: Mr. Rollins, good morning to you. It’s been a year, can you reflect on what it has been like since you arrived from New Orleans.
Rollins: This is my third Urban League. I started out in Baltimore as a senior vice-president and COO there and then, after Katrina, I was sent down to New Orleans to rebuild. So I was there for five years …and then, of course, I was sent here.
The first year for me is understanding the operations of the organization, understanding how the community uses the organization, understanding our partners, whether corporate, civic, non-profit or government, looking at how they all view the organization and most importantly looking at our internal operations and how we deliver services because at the end of the day, I’m an “Urban Leaguer.”
LAS: And what have you found?
Rollins: We’ve had challenges over the last few years. I think it’s no secret that people know that the organization has lost some significant programming, which has really, in my mind, devastated the community.
LAS: When you say it’s lost some significant programming, would it be asking too much for you to specify what programs?
Rollins: The organization over the years lost its Headstart Program, which was a flagship program for the organization.
LAS: And we’re talking about just here [in Los Angeles]?
Rollins: Just here and it was a very large Headstart Program, I mean it was one of the larger in our Urban League Movement quite frankly—it lost work force development work, and at the same time lost youth development.
Los Angeles is very important to the Urban League Movement. This is our second largest market. The need here is incredible and to not have a strong Urban League in the city of Los Angeles, in the county of Los Angeles, is something we can’t afford.
LAS: So how have you gone about addressing some of those losses that the Urban League has sustained over the years?
Rollins: These things were lost prior to me getting here, so what I’ve done is really gone to the people who were in charge of those [organizations] to understand better what the problem was. We’ve sat down with… institutions that ran or operated the programs and talked about the problem. It’s important for me to understand their vantage point, their view of the organization; I mean that’s critical because if we don’t understand that, then we don’t know how to fix what’s broken.
For me, this first year has been spending time, understanding what’s been happening over these many years and, quite frankly, on many occasions, apologizing. When I think about an organization like the Urban League, I think of an organization that delivers at the very highest of levels. There is no excuse for delivering at a low level, there is no excuse for it not being managed properly—there is just no excuse.
LAS: So in essence what you’re saying is that you need to go back before you can move forward?
LAS: The Headstart Program, the Workforce Development Center, Youth Workforce Development Center and the one that was off of Avalon and El Segundo are strong programs that you’re losing and obviously there were a lot of Urban Leaguers who ran these—so there’s been some cutbacks… what does staff look like now? How has staff decreased?
Rollins: Five or so years ago, the organization had roughly 300 or so people here. By the time I got here, there were about 100. What I’ve done is part of the difficult job of turning around an Urban League. I am really making the difficult decisions inside the organization.
We are now at about 57 people in the organization and just to be intellectually honest, what I have to do is make sure this Urban League is here 90 more years. It’s been here over 90 years; my job is to make sure we create internal operations that are strong, stable, so that we can be here 90 more years.
I actually made some very difficult decisions coming in that were right for the organization. That were right for the people that we serve.
LAS: Coming on your one year anniversary, what is it that you’re proud of that you have accomplished in your time here?
Rollins: What I’m proud of is the time that I’ve spent with people in the community, with our partners [etc.]. One of the most important things about sitting in this job is that you relate to people, you have relationships and conversations with people that are very candid conversations. That becomes important because it lets me know we have been doing, what we haven’t been doing [and] the path that we can lead going forward.
This community wants the Urban League to be strong. I have not met a single person that says that there is no need for this organization. They want it to be strong but they want it do what it says it’s going to do.
I’m also proud of the people in this organization…through very difficult years, long before I got here; there are a lot of people who have been in the organization who continue to work hard because they believe in the institution.
LAS: You have a partnership with Walsh/Shea and you’re an outreach partner. Can you specifically say what that means?
Rollins: I think there are a lot of misconceptions… what our job in this Walsh/Shea contract is we’re building a construction careers initiative, where we’re helping people who are interested in construction, working through our worksource centers, get prepared to actually go into working in that area.
The other thing that we’re doing in that is really talking about what are the opportunities, not just with Metro, Walsh/Shea but with the city. What we’re very much focused on is the work opportunities that are going to be happening there, getting people prepared not just for this particular project but the others and letting people know what’s coming down the pike on this particular project.
LAS: Speaking of people, unemployment is still an issue. How effective has the Urban League been in addressing that issue and helping people to get jobs?
Rollins: I think we’ve been pretty effective through our Pomona and West Adams office. We have thousands of people coming through there daily.
So we’re collocated with EDD, so you have folks who are unemployed or underemployed coming to get their employment benefits. We bring those same folks in, look at them and understand what their skill sets are and begin to really test them to understand where they are and then have them placed in positions.
LAS: I don’t know if this impacted you or not, the “promise zone” grants that have since been distributed through the city of Los Angeles. What were your thoughts on how none of that money is being distributed in regions where the Urban League is operating?
Rollins: From what I’ve been reading, there were some technical reasons why it wasn’t but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be an ability to leverage that money in the areas where we are. I believe that there should fundamentally be a hub and spoke mentality.
If the resources are going into that area, we need to understand what they are, what programs are going to be run and how we actually can get some of our folks to be a part of those programs. If there are ways that there are government dollars that are actually being supported in those areas now that the promise zone grants will support, how can we shift or redistribute those government dollars to other areas where the promise zone isn’t.
Again, we’ve got to raise our level of discourse, this promise zone was one of five or six, and there are 30 promise zones opportunities nationally. We need to be lining up to go after the promise zone the next time.
If there is a no, for me, it’s just a delayed yes and our job is to find out where the yes is.
LAS: Is there anything, between now and the next year that you would really like to tackle with the Urban League?
Rollins: Over this next year, I want to really make sure that our messaging is strong: who we are, what we’re doing and that we point specifically to how we do those things programmatically. That’s key for me.
One of the first things that I did when I came in was develop a strategic frame for the organization that basically said ‘Here’s how we’re going to enter into policy, here is how we’re going to enter into programming, if it does not meet these things, we’re not going to do it’
For this next year, it’s strengthening the internal operations of the organization, which is critical, it’s positioning us to make sure we can be a strong advocate in the health, education, economic development, work force development space, strengthening our partnerships and relationships with both government, private sector, non-profits, churches, schools—it’s strengthening those things.