Urban League of Union County hosts annual meeting at Kean

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — The Urban League of Union County recently had its annual meeting in the STEM Building at Kean University. Founded in Elizabeth in 1944, the league is approaching its 80th anniversary. Its mission is to “assist African Americans and other minority group members in the achievement of social and economic equality.”

Attendees included J. Christian Bollwage, mayor of Elizabeth; Denise Wilkerson, councilwoman-at-Llarge in Roselle; Judge James Wilson; and U.S. Rep. Rob Menendez.

They recently secured $1.6 million in funding to expand their initiative. With the funding, Urban League is getting a home, which will help them expand by building a hub for their community.

Dr. Cassandra Murphy McCray, chairperson of the board of directors, introduced Crystal A. Orr, president/CEO of the Urban League of Union County, who has recently taken this position. “Crystal has worked hard,” McCray said. “I look forward to continued growth.”

Roy Maynard, accountant, read the treasurer’s report. “Thank all of you for your generous support,” he said. He shared the financial highlights of 2023. The net income profit was $23,466. Total income from gifts, grants, program revenue and other income came to $1,049,631.

The late Donna Lowe-Alexander, retired president and CEO of Urban League, was honored. The day of the meeting would have been her birthday.

Orr thanked her for letting her take the role and walk in her footsteps.

There was also a moment of silence honoring the late Congressman Donald Payne Jr.

“Thank him for the work he has done and his legacy,” Orr said.

Orr continued to speak of the work of Urban League. “We are a … one of 90 affiliates across the country,” she said. “We are local, state (and) country. We are a powerful movement when we are all together.”

She asked her staff to join her at the podium and said, “This is the team doing the work every day. They work with passion. They work with compassion. People are calling us in dire need.”

Clifton Alexander, housing and community development director, gave a summary of the housing services in 2023, which totaled $280,131. That included food cards, mortgage, rental, security and utilities. They prevented 174 people from being evicted and helped 394 people with rental counseling.

“Our phone rings constantly,” Alexander said. “With your help, we hope to do more in the future.”

“It’s important we all work together,” Orr continued. “In North Jersey, there’s a shortage of affordable housing. How can we solve this problem?”

Cathy Waters, reconnections (re-entry) program manager, spoke about their Reconnections and New Foundations programs, which assist formerly incarcerated individuals to gain access to services and resources, so that they may develop meaningful, productive skills that they can use to make their lives better.

“We visited every prison in New Jersey,” Waters said. “They are extremely happy to see their services. They provide workshops, legal workshops, life/school workshops, mentoring, work clothes, food vouchers, housing and transportation, life skills, and education and employment support.”

The Urban League also has a clothing closet, led by the Urban League of Union County Young Professionals since 2012. Originally donating to the re-entry program, this effort evolved into community pop-up shops at the Urban League, offering free shopping experiences. In recent years, it saw a surge in donations, leading to a year-round clothing drive and closet, focusing on business professional attire alongside regular clothes, accessories, children’s items and toiletries for the homeless or those coming from prison.

Orr spoke about the Youth Entrepreneurship Program and Community Engagement Program, which features financial literacy, a voter registration drive, outreach and holiday season events, including the Angel Tree Toy Giveaway.

“We do a lot and it’s all important,” she said.

Ella Teal, president and CEO of Urban League for more than 30 years, said, “The Urban League is a family. I had my season. I will forever be a part of (the) Urban League. Once an Urban Leaguer, always an Urban Leaguer.”

Continuing, she said, “Crystal, I think your future is bright. You have done a phenomenal job.”

With that, there was a standing ovation.

“All of us make up the Urban League,” Teal said. “Always support, never tear down.”

Vice Chairperson Tamara Waye said, “The Urban League played a pivotal role in my life. During COVID, Urban League not only sustained, Urban League thrived.”

Professional scholarships were awarded to Ashley Giraldo, Jadon Solomon and Ma’Rya McCloud.

To learn more about the Urban League of Union County, visit: http://www.uloucnj.org/home.aspx.

Photos by Maryanne Christiano-Mistretta