Ruben Anthony aspires to be a Renaissance man, and he’s made some pretty decent progress since he was born 55 years ago into a working-class family in Yonkers, New York.
The three-year president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison worked for two Wisconsin state agencies, developed the concept for the state’s local roads management system, helped boost minority participation in state transportation projects, earned one bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and a doctorate, runs transportation consulting and meat-smoking businesses on the side, and is married with three adult children and six grandchildren.
And with the approach of Memorial Day, “You can find me at Tenney Park with some short pants on, looking to see where the bluegill and crappie are running,” he said. “That’s my favorite thing to do.”
He’s also looking forward to the Urban League’s 50th anniversary celebration Oct. 12 at Monona Terrace.
Was it difficult moving from budget- and administration-focused positions with the state to your current, more community-focused position?
I like the challenge of making a difference in the lives of minority workers and minority businesses and so that’s the link to this. This gives me the opportunity to do that part of what I like and so having the metrics and then driving results is what I was used to doing. For example, (in 2017) our goal was to place 250 people into jobs; we placed 315. If we have hospitals right now needing workers, we’ll go there and work with the hospitals. If we have Exact Sciences and they need workers, we work with Exact Sciences.
How have things changed for people of color in Madison and Milwaukee since you moved to the state for the first time in 1980?
I would say that when I first came to Milwaukee (to attend Marquette University), Milwaukee hadn’t gotten to be the dangerous place that it is today. It’s dangerous now and I see more of the breakdown of the African-American family. African-American kids are being mis-educated. It’s hard to point to one reason for why this is the case. The disparities in Madison are the worst for when you compare African-American kids and white kids. We have a big-time disparity because white kids do so well and black kids do so poorly, and so the question is, why is that? That seems to persist in Madison until when we got here (in 1988) until the time now. We still haven’t been able to close the achievement gap and figure out what we can do to make sure that African-American kids can learn and be effective here.
What do you think we should do?
An urban leadership academy would be an academy that would train principals about how you need to teach diverse populations. How do you need to teach that hungry kid that comes to school and may not be able to function today, or how do you teach that homeless kid who slept in his car three days in a row and didn’t have clean clothes when he came to school? We can’t put it all on the schools. Parents and families have a responsibility; (the) community, with all the resources that we have, they have a responsibility; and kids have a responsibility. Parents have a responsibility for putting kids in a safe environment, working, being good providers. To be responsive to the schools — when the schools need them to be there, they need to be there. The community has to bring those resources to bear, whether social, psychological resources, food resources and things like that, they have to bring those to the table. Parents have a responsibility to make sure that the kid is going to sleep at night and not on the (video) games or social media at night. And students have to know that you’re in the best place for resources, probably, in the country. If you want to be successful, students have to put the time in and they have to put the commitment in. If we have a Schools of Hope program at the middle school then get there and take advantage of the tutoring. Get a mentor because 100 Black Men (of Madison) and all these other organizations have mentors where you can get a mentor and get help.
Is it difficult in an area that’s still overwhelmingly white and has these large racial disparities to be something of a spokesman for the black community?
I’ll make the time to learn about the issues that there are, and I want to be a subject-matter expert on issues in education, issues with employment, issues with housing because I want to be able to better serve the community. It’s not necessarily to be the leader or a speaker but to be a resource for the community.
Are you comfortable in the role?
I’m comfortable in the role. Whether I’m in this position or not, I stand on the shoulders of many people. People opened up the doors for me so I have an obligation to give back. Everyday I get to help somebody. I pull my team together and we get to change a lot of lives in a year.
— Interview by Chris Rickert