Not sure what the Urban League is? Kaleem Caire is out to change that.

The new president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison is bursting with strategies — from walking South Park Street and greeting business owners to brainstorming with young professionals on lake cruises — to tune up the organization’s profile and mission.

The goal for the league, one of Madison’s oldest civil rights groups, is to set a course for developing programs to prepare students and workers for the demands of the emerging workplace.

“Madison is the innovation capital of the Midwest,” Caire says from his office in the Urban League’s new Park Street headquarters in the heart of South Madison. “What I do is sit down and listen to people and hear their dreams and aspirations and then figure a way to bring that vision together so people can see themselves in it.”

That kind of leadership has been sorely missing in Madison of late, Caire says. “I don’t hear a lot of vision coming from leaders here — whether it’s the city, the county, the community. I don’t hear a lot of it and it’s a problem.”

He wants to lead people who have been left behind in the past down the path of economic development to family-supporting jobs. And a strategy to engage them can’t come a moment too soon. “We can do things here. We’re not broken. But we’re at the tipping point,” says Caire, who can see the apartment building where he grew up from the Urban League’s new Center for Economic Development and Workforce Training at 2222 S. Park St.

South Madison used to be a tight-knit community, where black families owned the houses and people jostled for a good place to set their lawn chairs when the Southside Raiders played at Penn Park. “People weren’t scared of South Madison then. People were afraid to play us, but they weren’t scared of South Madison,” laughs Caire, 38, who played on the storied youth football team. Today, he stops to speak with everybody he meets on the way to his office for an interview, offering bantering encouragement.

Things have changed since Caire was raised by an aunt across the street from Penn Park at a time when adults didn’t hesitate to scold neighborhood kids who got out of line, and parents took on second jobs to make ends meet. Today, there is more “hard core” poverty, more crime, and much less sense of place, says Caire, who still can recite which families lived up Fisher Street and down Taft.

The supportive community of his boyhood began disappearing in the 1980s, as young parents moved in from Chicago to escape poverty and could not find the training and jobs they needed, Caire says. People started to lose their way. In a speech this month to the Madison Downtown Rotary, Caire said he has counted 56 black males he knew growing up that ended up incarcerated. “Most of ’em, you would never have seen it coming.”

Caire, once a consultant on minority education for the state and advocate for voucher schools, left Madison a decade ago and worked with such national nonprofit organizations as the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Fight for Children. Later he worked for discount retailer Target Corp., where he was a fast-rising executive, he says, until he realized his heart wasn’t in capitalism, despite the excellent managerial mentoring he received. 

The sense of community that nurtured his youth has disappeared in cities across the country, Caire remarks. So he’s not trying to recreate the South Madison of the past, but rather to build connections that will ground people from throughout Madison in the community and inform the Urban League’s programs.

A century-old organization traditionally aimed at improving conditions for blacks, the national Urban League in recent years has broadened its scope to embrace all chronically unemployed communities, which often are largely black or Hispanic. This year, the national group is calling on Congress to spend $168 billion over two years to provide jobs. The Urban League of Greater Madison, which marked its 40th anniversary in 2008, also has broadened its mission in recent years to include all underemployed communities and sharpened its focus on economic development.

The Urban League has job training, youth tutoring and home ownership programs, but its past efforts were hampered by the organization’s location in an inadequate converted house on East Gorham Street far from its core constituency. Last fall, the organization moved into its new building at The Villager after completing a challenging fundraising campaign to build the new center and underwrite programs.

It was critical to raise the profile and capacity of the organization, says Annette Miller, chair of the board of directors. “People didn’t know what the Urban League was doing. We had no space for programming, and even what we were doing well, people didn’t know it was part of the Urban League,” she reflects.

The Urban League’s challenge in raising $4.1 million to build and launch its new headquarters steepened as the economy contracted in 2008, then became more daunting still when former CEO Scott Gray left in May 2009 to head the Urban League in Minneapolis.

The good part of that mid-campaign stunner, says Miller, is other Urban League leaders and friends had to step in. “We all owned the success of what happened. People were skeptical that we would be able to complete the campaign. But we executed it.”

The campaign came down to the 11th hour, with donations large and small stacking up just in time to claim a challenge grant from the Kresge Foundation that put the effort over the top. The effort’s success is a testament to the recognition of how badly the community needs economic development, Miller says.

The board of directors wanted a new CEO with strong vision and leadership who would take the organization to the next level, says Miller. Energetic and outspoken, Caire “is ruffling feathers at times; he’s ruffled ours. We know we need it,” she says.

If the Urban League’s mission is to bring the chronically unemployed and underemployed out of poverty and into the middle class, the trick is identifying the industries that hold the potential for good jobs after practical training programs. Caire has some ideas of his own — tapping into emerging biomass and electronic medical records technology and fostering small business-services enterprises — but he wants to hear from everyone and has arranged several ways to do it.

Caire is recruiting businesses and other organizations for volunteers who will canvass city neighborhoods door-to-door to survey people about what they think their community needs and what role the Urban League may have in delivering it. Young professionals are invited to brainstorm on their roles on a pair of day cruises on Madison lakes. The black community is invited to bring ideas to a forum at Urban League headquarters July 8. And a special effort is being made to reach out to the Latino community, which is invited to a forum on July 22.

And then there are the neighborhood walks. Caire introduced himself to several Park Street proprietors one recent afternoon and made an impression on Carl Ihm, who owns the Park Street Garage. “They’re really making an effort, which I appreciate,” Ihm says later. “They’re getting out and talking to people.”

Ihm has worked at the garage for 42 years and seen lots of changes in the surrounding neighborhood, which he traces to an influx of poor families to large apartment complexes. As the buildings age, they fall into disrepair and attract tenants with poor rental records and other problems. “We need more owner-occupied housing,” Ihm says.

Caire not only got high marks from business owners down the street in South Madison, he made a good impression, too, with the downtown crowd.  Madison attorney Jim Ruhly is the Downtown Rotary program chairman who booked Caire to speak to that group this month. “He presented a compelling case that Madison is a wonderful community but with lots of room to grow,” Ruhly says. The Urban League has the potential to be a powerful voice in the community, he says.

John Odom remembers Caire from his earlier days in Madison, when the two men crossed paths in their work in support of civil rights. What Odom has heard so far about Caire’s plan for the Urban League sounds “ambitious and good,” he says.

Odom says he agrees with Caire that there’s been a lack of leadership on civil rights issues like justice, equity and economic development. “It just seems it’s all getting pushed to the back burner,” Odom says. A lot of leaders in that arena are gone — retired, relocated or dead, he says.

Miller, too, remarks the local ranks of social justice activists seem depleted. “A lot of us are a little worn out. Kaleem brings back the belief that we can make a difference. He’s pushing people not to be mediocre, to be willing to do hard things. We need that right now.”

Caire reflects how grateful he is for the grounding he has in Madison. “There are a lot of people who respect me here.” And he’s on pins and needles, he says, hoping to fulfill the high expectations for a hometown kid who’s come home.

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