By Afea Tucker
This week we’re spotlighting Andrea Custis, CEO and president of the Urban League of Philadelphia.
The Urban League of Philadelphia (ULP) is an affiliate of the National Urban League, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movements dedicated to empowering underserved urban communities.
Off the cusp of celebrating 103 years of service, advocacy, and commitment to Philadelphians, Custis joined Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s “Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation” steering committee.
In addition to the work that she performs on behalf of the ULP, Custis now belongs to a diverse group of external stakeholders, who will assist in providing guidance to the City as it enacts meaningful police reform, reimagines public safety, and advances racial equity.
This month, the ULP continued to host a series of events including: a virtual breakfast with JP Morgan Chase to discuss strategies and methods to help people bounce back from COVID-19, a forum on understanding and avoiding eviction in Philadelphia, in partnership with the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and a first-time home buyer webinar.
As if August didn’t seem busy enough, the organization announced a new partnership with Aramark in July, which aims to distribute free meals to approximately 65,000 students a week until August 30.
During our SUN Spotlight interview, Custis discussed the organization’s main areas of focus, ULP programming and her response to this novel coronavirus pandemic.
A Change Agent
“When I hear Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” it brings tears to my eyes,” Custis shared as she recalled participating last month’s ULP 2020 Empowerment Dinner and Community Scholarship Program.
“We played that song during the empowerment dinner and it was so appropriate for where we are,” she said. “A change is going to come.”
Custis said “pivoting was something that happened immediately. We had no time to stop.”
The 2020 scholarship and awards ceremony was already in the works and the need for aid and assistance increased due to COVID-19.
This year marks the first time the ceremony was online. Seventy-seven local high school students received scholarships. The organization recognized honorees: Lorina Marshall-Blake, president, Independence Blue Cross Foundation; Dr. Donald Generals, president, Community College of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes (D-7th Dist.).
ULP Mission and Purpose
ULP is known for supporting various community initiatives, especially those that call for the advancement of African Americans. However, there are two very specific areas Custis describes as the heartbeat of the organization.
“What I tell people all the time is, if I had to give a quick elevator speech about ULP, there are two things I would mention; social justice and economic empowerment,” she said.
Overall, there are five main areas of focus; education, workforce, housing, entrepreneurship, and health and wellness.
“We speak up and speak out on issues whether it is criminal justice reform, or parole and probation reform, to advocating for fair and sustainable wages or fair funding for education up in Harrisburg,” Custis explained. “We’re 103 years old and we have always been about social justice and economic empowerment. That’s how you lift and bring people out of poverty.”
Under Custis’ leadership, ULP offers direct services upholding the mission and value systems set in place decades ago.
“I’m just so happy that we’re able to offer direct services,” she said. “If you look at our mission [in terms of] economic empowerment, you may wonder, how do we do that?”
ULP’s economic initiatives expand beyond the income generated from workforce and entrepreneurial opportunities. They provide additional programming which creates economic impact through investments such as homeownership and investments in education and financial literacy.
“We help individuals purchase their first home,” Custis said. “We also host free home buyer sessions and then we work with you one-on-one. Secondly, we work to keep people in their homes by going to homeowners court and dealing with mortgage defaults.”
“We’re now dealing with renter evictions and our third area is financial literacy,” she continued. “That’s an area that many of us may or may not have learned in high school, college, or at home.”
Custis believes that teaching these skill sets is important for teenagers and even young adults.
“Lack of exposure and knowledge of financial literacy can lead to difficulty understanding your FICO score when you’re looking to purchase a home,” she said.
“Another area for us is entrepreneurship,” Custis continued. “Everyone doesn’t want to work for a non-profit or a corporation. Many have the dream of owning their own business.”
“We help individuals start-up a business and for those who may seem stagnant or trying to figure out how to grow their venue, we offer aid to assist with business growth and development,” she said.
“How do you lift individuals up out of poverty?’’ Custis asked rhetorically. “It’s called workforce.”
“I’m going to use one word — jobs!” she said. “You begin your career with gaining experiences through jobs.
So we are very active in helping people create a strong resume and assisting them with interview skills and then matching them and placing them with employers.”
“Another area under the workforce is re-entry,” Custis said. “We recently began a new re-entry program. I wanted to do that when I first came in four years ago and every time that was not on our agenda, I would say,’how can we be a strong civil rights organization and not have an re-entry program or pre-release programs?’ “
“We graduated our first cohort. It is a month-long intensive program,” she said. “The whole goal is to obtain a job and we’ve been very successful.”
“We have a very strong it program called Urban Tech,” Custis said. “We’ve had that now for some years. Comcast has been extremely supportive of us and now we’re going to have Google as a partner. We haven’t even announced that yet, so I’m really excited about our Urban Tech program.”
Urban Tech is an accelerated technology training program. The program includes job readiness and resilience workshops, certificate or license bearing technology training classes, and paid work based training.
Investing In Our Youth and Education
“We value the importance of education, so we’ve worked very closely with the Philadelphia School District,” Custis said. “ I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Hite and his team.”
“In comparison to other districts, his funding is not appropriate for the work that needs to be done,” she continued. “We continually work with a whole coalition of people to talk about fair funding. We’re in the school system and help the students get ready for college and prepare them for the workforce.”
“During our empowerment dinner, we presented our students with almost $130,000,” Custis said. “That’s a lot of money — and where does that come from? I have amazing board members to write checks for it. I wrote my own check for $3,000 this year and I’m so proud of that. If only you could see the joy on their faces.”
Health and Wellness
ULP’s new partnership with Aramark aims to help families in need and who struggling financially due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Feeding children in need in our community this summer is critically important,” Custis said. “We are thrilled to partner with Aramark to make this possible.
“As for healthcare, it’s our job to educate the Black community and other underserved communities,” she added.
“One of the first things that I did when I took the job was I looked in the poorest zip codes and of course what we found was the highest level of obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. That’s why when we look at COVID-19, I say it’s like a horrible, perfect storm.”
“We’re coming into the situation with all of these preconditions, on top of it, we’re mainly in those frontline jobs,” Custis said.
“We’ve stuck to our mission, because it’s absolutely targeted to the things that have occurred whether it is the killing of Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, pandemic or not. But we’re fighting even harder,” Custis said.
“I’m trying to have an even bigger impact. We’re not surprised by any of the inequities,” she continued. “The systemic racism that we see, I think other people are just opening their eyes to it, but what COVID-19 has done is it shined a Iight on it.”
“It’s under a microscope. This is the work that we do, so we’ve seen these issues. We’ve been fighting every day to change these issues,” Custis concluded.