The Urban League of Columbus has chosen a nonprofit executive from Yuma, Ariz., as the organization’s new president and chief executive officer.
The woman selected for the job is Brooke Burgess, a Virginia native, who most recently served as director of Marine Corps Family Team Building.
Burgess, 40, was introduced to the community Friday during a press conference at the Urban League headquarters, 802 1st Avenue. As a white woman, her selection breaks the decades-long tradition of black men leading the local organization.
Burgess, who described herself as a “proud military spouse,” said she and her husband have already purchased a house in Columbus and are looking forward to settling in the area.
The board chose Burgess after months of trying to rebuild the Urban League, which was stymied by political divisions in the black community. The last president and CEO was Reginald Pugh, who resigned from the organization in August 2012 amid the controversy.
In February, a transitional board was installed to search for a new leader and move the organization forward. At the news conference, Burgess said she’s been received warmly by Urban League staff and board members and is looking forward to making an impact on the community.
“I am just excited,” she said. “We’ve already talked about some of the things we want to do in the coming months — securing funding, really strengthening our programs, looking at our board and building them up and focusing back on the community and what we should be doing for them. And so, what an opportunity! I’m just absolutely excited to be here.”
Susan Cooper, chair of the Urban League transitional board, and Robert Anderson, an advisory board member, led the news conference. They said Burgess was the ideal candidate for the position, pointing to her fundraising abilities and 12 years of experience in the nonprofit sector.
From 1996 through 2008, Burgess worked for the United Way in Hampton Roads, Va., in the Washington, D.C. area; Lawton, Okla.; and Jacksonville, N.C., according to the news release. She also worked for the national headquarters of the American Red Cross in the stewardship department.
At the Marine Corps, “she passionately served military families with programs in family readiness, life skills, and military life management,” according to the news release.
“Brooke brings the right amount of experience, the right amount of talent at the right time,” Cooper said. “She’s an experienced nonprofit veteran. She has served as a the leader of a national nonprofit organization. Exceptional leadership skills. Exceptional fundraising and programming skills.”
Cooper said the Urban League of Columbus was founded in the 1970s by a biracial group of community leaders who wanted to eradicate racial tensions in the community. So, it’s not necessary for the leader of the organization to be black.
In a text message, she wrote that the National Urban League was founded by a white woman and a black man — Ruth Standish Baldwin and George Edmund Haynes.
“This is a ground-breaking, historical moment for the Urban League of Columbus,” Cooper said. “The only reason we decided to go this route? It had nothing to do with race or color. The best, most qualified candidate is what we selected.”
At the news conference, she thanked the transitional board for their leadership and said each member will have an opportunity to transition onto the new board. She said the organization will also be accepting resumes from local residents for officer and board positions. Elections will be held in January.
“The transitional board kept (the organization) afloat, kept all the necessary paperwork, the fundamentals, we kept it together until we could hand it off to the new CEO and the new board,” she said.
However, some in the black community reacted negatively to the board’s decision. Gloria Strode said there were several young black professionals in the community who applied for the job who were just as qualified. She pointed to her nephew, Travis Chambers, as an example. She said Chambers, who owns a real estate company, didn’t even get an interview.
She said Chambers grew up in Columbus, has a master’s degree, worked as a rehab counselor for Goodwill Industries and was vice president of career resources at Synovus.
He’s also been active in the Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Georgia and recently received a “50 under 50” leadership award from Albany State University, Strode said. Chambers confirmed the information but refused to comment on the selection.
“All of those things and he couldn’t even get an interview at a historically African-American based organization in his own hometown?” Strode asked. “I’m sadly surprised.”
Nadine Moore said it’s a prime example of why Columbus can’t keep black talent in the city. She said she knows six or seven people who applied for the position and should have been considered.
“We have a lot of talent in this city,” she said, “And they go and do this? What kind of message are they sending to young black adults in this community when they skip over them?”
Cooper said she couldn’t comment on any specific application because of confidentiality. “What we’ve done has been very thorough, thought-out and the selection is warranted and justifiable,” she said.
Cooper said the board developed a list of minimum qualifications that each candidate had to meet.
The main one was that they had three years’ experience leading a nonprofit organization.
“So, if someone did not get a call for an interview, that meant that they did not meet the minimum criteria,” she said. “And most candidates did not meet the minimum qualification of running a nonprofit organization and that eliminated most of them.”
When asked the salary for the position, Cooper said she would have to check with the national organization before releasing the information.
At the news conference, Anderson explained the selection process. He said the search began in June when the Urban League requested applications through the Georgia Department of Labor, the National Urban League and local newspapers.
He said the organization received over 25 applications for the position. Six people were brought in for interviews, then the list was narrowed down to three. The board then sent two of the three to the National Urban League for certification. He said the board met a month ago at the library and interviewed both of the candidates.
They met again to discuss the matter, and at the final meeting they voted and selected Burgess. On Thursday, the board was notified that Burgess had accepted the position and she was introduced to board members.
“Today we’re here just to celebrate the fact that we’re ready to move on to a new venture for the Urban League and I’m happy to be part of the process,” he said.