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Urban League Chief Melds Acumen and a Mission

October 17, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Blair Taylor is at home in two worlds.

With a background in business, he understands the language and the logic of corporate America. With a long history of involvement in the African American community, he understands its problems and possibilities.

Taylor's experience helps explain why he discusses the state of black America and the future of U.S. business with the same passion -- and often in the same sentence.

"I've tried to make the marriage between those two," Taylor said. "To some extent, I've had a foot in both worlds."

Last Thursday, the 42-year-old Ladera Heights resident was named president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Urban League, assuming the position long held by John Mack, who retired in June.

With the selection of Taylor, the Urban League injects youthfulness into the esteemed 84-year-old organization.

"He's got big shoes to fill, with the kind of legacy, the kind of track record, that John Mack so effectively built during his tenure," said Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, where Taylor and his wife are members. "I view Blair as a young Joshua assigned to follow in the footsteps of a great Moses. I believe he's the man of the hour."

Taylor is of the generation that benefited from the civil rights movement; Mack, 68, belongs to the generation that produced it. Mack was born in the South and educated at a historically black college. Because of his civil rights work a bounty was once placed on his head.

The two leaders have much in common, Mack said. "Blair and I share a very similar vision about the Urban League and the plight of African Americans in Los Angeles," said Mack, who met Taylor in the late 1980s. "As I think about the contrast between 1969 and 2005, the bottom line is the playing field is still not level for African Americans."

Mack assumed leadership of the organization in 1969, when racism was virulent and blatant and the organization's emphasis was more on civil rights. In 2005 the key issues confronting the community are what Mack called the "mis-education" of African American students and the need for economic development, two areas Taylor is well-equipped to handle, Mack said.

In his 36 years as head of the Urban League, Mack was viewed as a consensus builder, someone able to speak to corporate America and the community. He was a persistent voice representing the community, speaking against police brutality, for example, without the shrill, threatening pitch of some activists.

Though his is hardly a household name, Taylor has spent 15 years building a resume that reflects his business acumen and social concerns. In an Urban League conference room filled with plaques lauding Mack and the organization, Taylor made it clear that he had not come to this position with a sense of awe but with a sense of purpose.

"I actually believe, this is my opinion, that this is the most critical point in the history of African Americans in this country -- and possibly the most critical point for our Latino brothers and sisters too," he said. "The reason is if we don't figure this out now, we will be relegated to a permanent second-class status."

The challenge is to stop a perpetual cycle of African Americans being "a click behind the curve of leading-edge wealth creation in this country."

When the economy switched from agrarian to manufacturing, African Americans still toiled on farms, he said. When it switched from manufacturing to service-driven, African Americans were still in manufacturing.

"The problem is now the cycles are going faster," he said, with the global economy driven by technology.

Though the African American community is still behind, he says, the inner city will become a key workforce and marketplace for the future. He urges businesses to recognize its value as workers and consumers and the community to recognize that it has something to offer in exchange. Their fates are tied.

"If America is going to stop itself from sliding back from the global economic powerhouse that it has been ... we have to figure out how to engage people, not only by giving them a job but also helping to put them on a path for college," he said.

Taylor has arrived at his conclusions after years of experience in the world and in the workplace. He held positions at companies that include IBM and PepsiCo. Those jobs did not call for him to be involved in community work, but he created "adopt-a-school" programs and encouraged corporations to support community-based organizations.

"I tried to bend it to be that," Taylor said of using his corporate position to promote social change. "I tried to make a way."

A commitment to making a difference socially and politically was inherited from his parents, Taylor said. His father was a lawyer, his mother an educator. Both earned degrees at Yale and both were deeply involved in New York's Westchester County, where Taylor was raised.

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