BY JON CRONIN
At the beginning of an already-flourishing career in public service, Dennis Walcott got an opportunity he could not refuse.
In 1990, after five years as executive director of the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, Walcott was offered the position as president and CEO of the New York Urban League.
“It’s about social justice and civil rights,” Dennis Walcott said of the Urban League. He saw it as the premier organization for the issues that he cared deeply about. “The opportunity was extremely attractive,” he noted.
It was a position that kept Walcott entranced for over a decade.
The New York Urban League was created in 1919 as the first institution of its kind in New York City, helping African Americans to find stable work after their migration north. The league provided emergency support for New Yorkers during the Great Depression.
Over the next 40 years, the league came to be known for what it is today, an organization that advocates for black New Yorkers’ education and place in the workforce.
Avra Rice, the current president and CEO of the New York Urban League, said that she has not known Walcott for as long as she has known of him. Rice said that Walcott’s name is now synonymous with the Urban League. She said that when she introduces herself at events as the head of the Urban League, people often say, “Oh! I know Dennis Walcott.”
She said that during his tenure at the Urban League, “Anytime there was an issue facing blacks at the time, [the media] would ask Dennis.”
Rice came to the organization in 2009. She noted that Walcott no longer has an official role with the Urban League, but said, “Once an Urban Leaguer, always an Urban Leaguer.”
“Whenever I reach out to him, he’s always there to provide help,” she noted. “He’s always working for community and about community,” she added.
She said Walcott offered advice when she was coming into the Urban League on how to reengage some of the lapsed stakeholders, like individual donors, participants or staff.
While at the Urban League, Walcott established the Jeter’s leaders program, which focused on youth leadership and is still quite popular. Another popular program in the ’90s was the Bridge to Brotherhood, which created a kind of rite of passage for participating kids.
He also helped to coordinate the federally funded Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership, which focused on young mothers during pregnancy.
Rice said one of Walcott’s strength’s is that he is “constantly bringing people together; it is one of the great things about him.”
Walcott noted that he was particularly proud of the 140th Street Block Initiative, which took the worst street in Harlem in the late ’80s and early ’90s and initiated the creation of a better environment. The Urban League created a small satellite office in 1994 and focused on community building, awareness and lobbying for better services on 140th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.
It were successful in its efforts.
He was also happy to participate in deciding on recipients of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Scholarship program at the Urban League.
Walcott recalled that a man recently visiting the Jamaica Central Library saw him and thanked him for the creation of that scholarship program. He said his son wouldn’t have been able to afford college without it.
Rice said she usually sees Walcott now at Urban League special events, which he often helps coordinate.
She noted that when former Mayor David Dinkins appointed Walcott on the board of education, “He had a huge impact. The fact is, no matter where he went, he never forgot the Urban League.”