By Jeffrey Rindskopf
Hundreds of guests gathered in the Seattle Westin Hotel for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle’s (ULMS) 17th Annual Breakfast, where the League and its sponsors including Comcast honored young scholarship recipients and bid farewell to outgoing CEO of five years, Pamela Banks.
Vice Chair of the Urban League’s Board of Directors Rashelle Turner took the stage with Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist Norman Brown Friday at 7:30 a.m. to begin the breakfast, honoring sponsors and welcoming the many elected officials present, including newly-inaugurated mayor Jenny Durkan.
Reverend James Broughton III of the Damascus Baptist Church delivered a brief opening prayer, invoking the event theme—“a legacy of service”—and reminding guests there was “still much work to do” in combating “injustice and systemic racism.”
“This isn’t just any breakfast, but a jazz breakfast,” Brown said after, returning to play a relevant instrumental track titled “Better Days Ahead,” while hotel employees circled the ballroom serving breakfasts on silver trays.
The mingling and clinking silverware stopped as a short video began highlighting just one beneficiary of the League’s Career Bridge program, created during Banks’ tenure to help men of color find economic opportunities and achieve personal stability. Seconds after explaining in the video how the program put him on the path to become an ironworker after being incarcerated, client Kong Lefeau appeared onstage in person, wearing the same wardrobe of baseball cap and black hoodie.
“Career Bridge helped me care about myself again,” said Lefeau, now an apprentice. “I feel I’m a better husband, a better provider, but most of all, a better man.”
— Jennifer Estroff (@JenEstroff) December 1, 2017
“It’s truly angel work,” remarked Brown before introducing the next speaker, Mayor Durkan herself.
“This is actually my first public event for this type of thing I’ve done as mayor,” she began. “I can’t think of a better way to start than with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.”
Her speech was short and emphasized the years of service devoted to the organization and community by Banks, who spoke next. Saying goodbye to her role within the league while thanking many friends and family members, Banks’ voice began to shake briefly with emotion.
Regaining her composure, she applauded the efforts of Career Bridge, as well as a recent $30,000 contribution from Comcast to assist in completing the Urban Tech Center, set to open downtown sometime in the first quarter of 2018.
Banks recounted how she started as CEO over budget and understaffed, but in a span of five years, managed to strengthen the League’s programs and increase their operating budget from $400,000 to nearly $4 million.
“We’ve always been about making people better…about empowering individuals and families through self-development,” she said. “This isn’t goodbye, it’s just bye for now.”
A piano in one corner of the room began tinkling, playing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as attorney Craig Simms gave a rousing call to action, which he joked was indebted to his father’s sermons as a Baptist minister. Guests were given donation envelopes as Simms invoked the song’s lyrics and told how “the power of the envelope” can change lives—just as it did his by providing funds he needed for law school.
Next came Comcast representative Leron Lee, who talked about the company’s “flourishing relationship” with the Urban League and an additional $150,000 contribution toward their initiative to boost diversity in the tech sector.
“Diversity and inclusion cannot just be a catchphrase,” said Lee.
Though the tight schedule stopped him from listing the recipients’ individual achievements, Lee called six students of color by name to come receive their scholarships for $5,000 apiece, plus a surprise gift of brand new laptops from Comcast’s Black Employee Network (BEN).
Brown and Turner were in the midst of introducing the event’s keynote speaker Angela Rye, when she approached from behind to interrupt.
“I don’t want you to read my bio if you couldn’t read the bios of those six young people,” said Rye, the CEO of political advocacy firm IMPACT Strategies.
Her impassioned speech touched upon the influence her father had on her activism from a young age, the imperative to serve in the present day, and the need to support black-owned business, especially banks that ensure the community’s economic viability.
“Hating the oppressor is a waste of time, because you should be focusing on loving the oppressed,” Rye said.
Nonetheless, she went on to catalog a few of the federal policies threatening black communities—including voter suppression in Alabama and efforts to ramp up the drug war by Attorney General Jeff Sessions—and stressed the importance of “leading with faith, not feelings.”
“Activism has to be drive by faith, not by what you see—because right now, things look bad.”
Her speech and the event ended by honoring the long legacy of service of another guest—her father Eddie Rye, who came onstage alongside his daughter and Banks to accept the League’s Edwin T. Pratt Legacy Award.