Profile: Arva Rice, President & CEO of New York Urban League

We had the privilege of talking to Arva Rice, President and CEO of the New York Urban League, about her accomplishments and inspirations as a leader in a community-driven, historical organization. NYUL is a non-profit organization deeply rooted in New York to surmount educational and economic obstacles for African Americans and other underserved communities. Their mission is not only to improve social and economic conditions, but also to be an advocate to the young and old, working and non-working communities, through a multitude of programs and services. They offer employment and education opportunities, family and housing services, and health programs – just to name a few. Since joining NYUL in 2009, Arva has made incredible headway in furthering the organization’s goals and strategies towards eliminating economic, social, and educational barriers still faced by many African Americans today.

Q: How and why did you first get involved in the New York Urban League?

 A: I first came to know about the New York Urban League shortly after college.  I was working for a youth leadership organization and we were encouraged to reach out to the New York Urban League to assist with support for our parents.  Dennis Walcott was CEO then, and I thought one day I would love the opportunity to run that incredible organization. 

Q: What is your proudest achievement since becoming the President of NYUL?

A: Just one!  I am so proud of the new Board of Directors that we have recruited to help provide visions and leadership for the organization.  They are a dynamic group of entrepreneurs, CEOs, Executive Vice Presidents, thought leaders, and game changers.  They inspire me to be a better leader every day.

I am also proud of the young people who have sent to and through college through our Whitney M Young, Jr Scholarship.  Over the 40 years of the program we have given and leveraged over $20 million in scholarships to young New Yorkers.

Q: What has been the biggest obstacle you have faced as President, and what are some of your future goals to overcome this obstacle?

A: The New York Urban League is a 93-year-old civil rights organization steeped in history, tradition and culture.  This history is one of the reasons why I felt called to lead this organization that helped integrate trade unions, co-founded institutions like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies, and introduced and paid for thousands of students to go to historically black colleges and universities.  On balance, the institutional history of the Urban League is a challenge.  Times are different, the non-profit landscape is much more competitive, and the priorities of the organization’s main constituent – African-American children and families are complex.  With an African-American President, there are some that truly believe we are living in a post-racial America.  So my challenge is to re-invigorate this incredible institution and convince donors and sometimes other African-Americans that until every child has the educational options of Sasha and Malia Obama New York needs the New York Urban League. 

Q: Who are some of your all-time greatest inspirations, and who continues to inspire you today?

A: Almost fifteen years ago I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa as part of a delegation of non-profits leaders.  Our agenda was filled but a visit to the country’s most well-known hero was absent.  Still I was obsessed with reading all thousand pages of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom before my trip. I wanted to know South African’s greatest hero.  When I arrived in the Soweto village and spoke to community members – often by candle light - I realized that their heroes were a brother who died in the liberation struggle, a cousin who perished in a bombing, or a teacher who never came back to school.  Their heroes were people who lived with them, loved them and worked to create better opportunities for their countrymen.  In their stories I found my commitment to working on issues related to poor children and families strengthened.  I look forward to continuing my support of every day heroes. 

Q: What makes you passionate about working in New York City and with the communities here?

A: Since I was a little girl, I have been dedicated to community service.  Being the first generation to go to college and the children of share-croppers in Arkansas instills this in a person. I have had the wonderful opportunity to spend my entire professional career in the nonprofit field, specifically in organizations where I had increasing levels of responsibility.  From serving as a tutor in I Have a Dream to leading a microlending program and the New York Urban League, every one of these positions have allowed me to follow my passion.  My belief that a committed group of individuals can make change drives me to work harder and keep reaching for better outcomes for children who attend schools with no libraries and homes with no hope.  It drives me to work on behalf of children who have teachers who don’t teach and televisions that don’t educate.  I work on behalf of boys in zip codes where their chances of going to Riker’s far exceed any dream of college let alone the NBA.   My commitment to helping students attend college, and assisting adults find jobs is rooted in family and stronger than ever.