She is ruthless in her pursuit of what she thinks is right for the Columbus residents she serves through the Columbus Urban League.
Stephanie Hightower, President and CEO, Columbus Urban League
Previous positions: Vice president of advancement, CCAD; special assistant to Mayor Greg Lashutka; communications director, Ohio Department of Mental Health; school board president, Columbus City Schools
Education: BA, communications, Ohio State University, 1981
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Resides: Near East Side
Personal: Single; one adult son, recent graduate of Fisher College of Business
In 2012, a former Bloods gang leader from the South Side of Columbus turned in a job application to the Columbus Urban League after 20 combined years of incarceration and three years of joblessness, and without a high school diploma. Somehow, he was given a job at the century-old nonprofit mentoring youths living in the city’s urban core. The first time he heard the CEO of the Urban League, Stephanie Hightower, speak at a staff meeting, the impression left him doubting he would be there very long. “I thought she was no-nonsense,” he says. “I thought me and Ms. Hightower weren’t going to mix—two strong wills.” But it lasted. In May of this year, Urban League employee Adrian Jones will graduate from Ohio State University with a 3.8 GPA, having made the Dean’s List every semester he attended. The opportunity to meet and pass these milestones was given to him in part by Hightower, who—in addition to hiring him during an extremely vulnerable time for the Urban League—personally gave Ohio State a call after it initially denied his application. Jones also received the Jonathan Jasper Wright Award from the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice in 2018 for his work with youths susceptible to gang involvement. “She kicked that door down for me and I ran through it,” he says. He expresses surprise about how things have turned out for him. “If somebody would have told me that I would be a mentor for youth in gangs and getting ready to graduate from Ohio State, I would tell them they got the wrong person.”
If you ask Hightower, the eighth president of the Urban League and first woman to hold the position, what she believes the disadvantaged people she serves really need, she’ll be frank—stop talking about “poverty, poverty, poverty” and start thinking in terms of resources instead of money. She offers an example to her point—imagine a kid from Dublin and a kid from the urban core both are given $1 million. The one from Dublin will have the resources in place to get the most out of it possible. However, the kid from an area such as the South Side has too many obstacles in the way to truly benefit from the money. No access to transportation, no working family members, no credit and no way to get it, exorbitantly higher interest rates and a long history of generational poverty all mean the $1 million is used to “dig out” of those piled-on impediments. “By the time they dig out one day, they’re already down to $100,000,” she says. “And what are they going to do with $100,000?
“Without going back and digging up the past and talking about blaming and who did what—no—how do we figure out in this community how to level that playing field for everybody, and especially for our babies so that everybody can start fresh?” she says.
Jones is an illustration of her point. He says if he wasn’t given a job at the Urban League three years after getting out of prison, he would have given up and gone back to gang life. “I think that that would have been it for me,” he says. “Especially from an organization that was supposed to restore African-American citizens in the community.”***
“Plain-spoken, strong-willed, tough-minded,” are the three hyphenated attributes Hightower’s longtime friend and colleague, Donna James, uses to describe her.
“Sometimes her plain-spokenness and clarity in being direct, being that she’s a woman, I think people notice it more,” says James, managing director of Lardon & Associates and fellow member of the African American Leadership Academy Advisory Board. “If she were a man they’d notice it, but I don’t think as much.”
Hightower says she learned these qualities in part as an almost-Olympic hurdler. Her first opportunity to go to the 1980 Olympics was stymied when the U.S. boycotted them. Her second opportunity ended at the Olympic Trials in what appeared to be a four-way tie. Judges decided she had come in fourth in what may be the closest Olympic Trial race in history. She never went. She says although these experiences should have taught her patience, they didn’t.
Prior to the Urban League, Hightower was on the Columbus school board, eventually becoming its president. People will ask her, “What would you change about that experience?” She answers, “Nothing.”
“Every one of those experiences, whether they were good or bad, helped me to get to my next,” she says. “You know if you are a religious person or a spiritual person [you might say that] in every experience God is getting you ready for your next. I am a true believer of that. Whether it was Bill Moss pounding on the table with a shoe, or John F. [Wolfe] saying, ‘Give me 30 reasons why,’ in an editorial board [about] why they’re not going to fund [my] levy.”
For Hightower, a great indicator of whether she will pursue something is if people believe she can’t.
“I’m going to go out and prove you wrong,” she says. She tells the story of a dinner party with her friends Yvette McGee Brown, former Mayor Michael Coleman and Janet Jackson—all elected officials at the time. “I was like ‘OK, I’m going to run for school board because I’m tired of everybody complaining about the schools.’ And they all looked at me like I was nuts.” Hightower was urged by Jackson, if she was really going to run, to seek out influential local businessman David Milenthal for his thoughts on the matter. She went to see him and his opinion was that she didn’t really have the name recognition to win election, so naturally, she ran—and raised the most money and got the most votes. Now-Mayor Andrew Ginther also ran in that 1999 race, though he didn’t win a seat. “I think I came in eighth,” he says.
“I’ve always been one of those people,” says Hightower. “The same thing happened [at the Urban League]. I got here and it seemed like everything was starting to fall apart. You started peeling back the onion and you kept finding more and more things. The former CEO at the YMCA invited me to lunch and said, ‘OK so when are you leaving?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ ”***
The Columbus Urban League is an affiliate of the National Urban League that has had a presence in Central Ohio since 1918 and is ranked among the top 5 percent of all affiliates. However, a century is enough time for an organization to experience its share of ups and downs. The Urban League Hightower stepped into was decidedly down. She says when she began talking with people about the Urban League they were respectful of its historical reputation, but “there was always the ‘but.’ ” Some issues were known, such as the $85,181 theft from the organization from 2004 to 2010 by its former director of education services. And some she discovered after taking the position in 2011. Shortly after she became the CEO, she found out two Urban League workforce development programs were going to end with no funding. Eventually, $7 million of the funding for Head Start, which offers preschool to low-income children, was cut. In all, Hightower’s $13 million budget dwindled to $2 million within a year and a half. To top it off, she also had inherited about $250,000 in debt. “The brand was broken,” she says. “The credibility of the organization amongst funders was probably at an all-time low.” Not a quitter, she went out and drummed up funds. “I basically said to people, ‘If we haven’t righted this ship, if we aren’t getting the results that we’re supposed to be getting based upon what we said we were going do for this grant, then take my funding because we don’t deserve to be here.’ ” She recognizes how foolhardy the move was, but she steered the ship back on course.
“She has a way of keeping people honest on matters of social and civic importance without offending them, which has the value of keeping people at the table,” says Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler. “She’ll hold folks to account but does so productively.”
Now, the Urban League has 21 initiatives including helping children learn to read, helping fathers become reintegrated into their families, curbing neighborhood violence, re-entry and building credit. Last year, the Huntington Empowerment Center opened—the Urban League acquired the empty building at 780 Mt. Vernon Ave. and renovated it under Hightower’s leadership. It now houses a portion of My Brother’s Closet, a program giving low-income men business attire, a Minority Business Assistance Center and KEWL (Kids Empowered Will Learn) Academy and a STEAM learning lab for middle- and high-school students. “Columbus has always been a great affiliate,” says National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, based in New York. “In our business, being a great fundraiser and being a politically savvy community leader are two really important qualities, and [Hightower’s] got both.”
A recent focus for Hightower has been figuring out how to scale the 700 Credit Score Program, where the waiting list clocks in at 150. “We haven’t even really publicized this program,” she says. But in the three years since it began, participants’ credit scores have jumped by as much as 70 points. Many who finish go on to take the Urban League’s homebuyer education program. Hightower says there’s definitely an affordable housing issue in Columbus, but “[the Urban League] can’t really deal with the affordable housing issue,” she says. Instead, it focuses on how to help people become homeowners, increasing their wealth and economic stability. Last year, the program turned out 72 people who were able to purchase homes for the first time, for an average of $150,000. “That was about a $10.8 million economic investment back in the community,” she says. In five years, Hightower sees the Urban League being viewed as a “thought leader in the area of economic mobility through wealth creation for the under-resourced.”
Ginther says she has helped the idea of “digital inclusion”(all people understanding how to use technology for education opportunities, job opportunities, mobility, etc.)become top-of-mind for him. High-speed internet and other digital tools are only useful if they can be leveraged. He says the city will be working with Hightower to give people the skills they need to use the tools. “It’s like any tool you and I are given,” he says. “My wife would tell you that you can give me lots of tools, but if I’m the most unhandy man on the face of the planet, I don’t know how to use them.”
Hightower’s work reaches the whole city—she was instrumental along with Nationwide CEO Steve Rasmussen in securing the 2018 National Urban League Conference, attracting 4,500 out-of-towers to the event at the Greater Columbus Convention Center who collectively spent $4.5 million. All together, the event drew nearly 20,000 people. “I think in large part they came here because of the will and commitment and engagement of Stephanie,” says James. “She’s a team in and of herself.”
Experience Columbus CEO Brian Ross says her accomplishments and reputation as one of the top national Urban League leaders helped secure the conference. When they traveled to New York to pitch it to Morial, they brought her along. “This was truly a very important convention for our community to have for our brand and for our image, as well as the overall economic impact,” he says. The Harlem Renaissance Gallery Hop was underway during the convention, along with other efforts to cater to those coming into the city. “It played a major part in raising our profile and our image nationally as an up-and-coming destination for visitors,” Ross adds.
In total, Hightower serves on more than a dozen boards and neighborhood agencies, one of them being the advisory committee for the search for a new Columbus Police Department chief.
Hightower says she has learned personal lessons as she has rallied the Urban League throughout her tenure. One such lesson came in the form of a lawsuit. Last year, two former employees sued the Urban League, claiming they were fired because of their sexual orientation. Hightower said in a statement that they were actually fired because of “performance and policy violations.” She also said the Columbus Urban League board, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all investigated the allegations and found no cause, and those at the Urban League are confident the lawsuit, which remains open in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, will be resolved in its favor.
Hightower chooses her words carefully as she explains her thoughts on the situation.
“The irony of that lawsuit for a lot of my friends was—I’m trying not to say the wrong word—disappointing,” she says. “Because if you knew the number of folks from the LGBTQ community that are a part of my immediate group of friends and stakeholders, it’s almost laughable. I’m a strong proponent of you love whoever you want. I’m not here to judge.”
That being said, Hightower has sought counsel for how to navigate those situations in the future. She and Urban League leadership sat down with Black, Out & Proud, a local group of black LGBTQ residents. “With the millennial generation there are different expectations about behavior and what we should know, so this was a great eye-opening opportunity for me.” She doesn’t believe she’s done anything wrong, but she is glad for the experience because it educated her. “I go to sleep every night,” she says. “When I stop going to sleep at night because of something I’ve done, it’s time for me to quit.”***
With a poverty rate higher than the national average (15.9 percent versus 12.3 percent in 2017), Hightower has her work cut out for her in Franklin County. She says she wishes there was no need for an Urban League, but the truth is that it has been needed for 100 years, and it remains as necessary as ever. Hightower agrees Columbus is a “smart city,” and she hears buzz about the Columbus Way. She credits the business community as one that is open to hearing about the challenges facing Columbus’ economically disadvantaged residents, but the truth is those residents are not benefitting from the monikers. “What we cannot do is continue to dismiss that [these residents] exist if we really want to say that we are a smart city and that we all are prospering, because we’re all not,” she says.
“Two thirds of this city is doing better than ever before, but a third of [them] have been left out of the Columbus success story,” says Ginther. “Having great partners like the Urban League helping us to leverage our collective resources to support and work with folks that have been left out of our juggernaut you’ve seen over the last five or 10 years is important.”
Hightower’s sights are unflinchingly fixed on how to elevate those she serves so that they can be economically equal to Columbus’ thriving—she backs it up at work but also at home with the way she has chosen to live her life. She resides in the neighborhood where she works in part because she wants her neighbors to see what they can accomplish—especially her young neighbors. She is a believer that “our kids can’t be what they can’t see.”
Adrian Jones’ graduation day is coming up, but the road to get there hasn’t always been the easiest one. Hightower shares a memory she has from a year ago when Jones’ cousin became a victim of gang violence, and the urge to revert to old ways of dealing with things was strong for him. Hightower remembers jumping in her car and driving to his house immediately after a worried coworker phoned her. “We just hugged and I said [to him], ‘We cannot do this.’ ” He didn’t.
Hightower is looking forward to seeing him graduate. “This whole building will be out there and we’ll probably be the loudest in the stadium that day, because that’s a huge accomplishment,” she says. She also is planning a celebration for him in the form of a block party so neighborhood children and Jones’ friends can see his success.
“Ms. Hightower saved my life,” Jones says frequently.
“When you get to have somebody tell you that, that’s important,” says Hightower with tears in her eyes. “We really, really do have an impact.”
As former president of the Columbus City school board, what do you think our education system needs in Central Ohio?
I’m not sure that I think we want a complete takeover from the governor, but I think there should be some hybrid of it where maybe the community has the ability to elect half of the board, and then either the mayor or someone else appoints the other half. You have to understand that is a $1.3 billion enterprise. There are business decisions that have to be made and you need to have people with the business acumen sitting at the table to help guide how the money is spent and to help guide the superintendent. Superintendents or educators, they’re not businesspeople. When you have folks who really don’t understand the economics around it, it makes for the kind of contentious relationships not just with the business community, but with everybody in the community. I wish her well—but I’m not sure that [new superintendent Talisa Dixon] has the ability in the short period of time to come in here and get us out of F status. I just don’t think it’s doable.
How has the business community supported your goals at the Columbus Urban League? How can it continue?
Under Alex Fischer’s leadership as president and CEO of the [Columbus] Partnership, on many occasions he has afforded me the opportunity to add to the discussion at the Partnership level. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of our business leaders who don’t have this experience. I don’t believe we should be critical, but [it’s] important that all business leaders have people in their shops who are on nonprofit boards or participating in volunteering.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in a leadership position? Do you think double standards exist?
I’m speaking to another woman—you know that there are always double standards. What I’ve found is that when you’re passionate about [or in] your leadership, you don’t get the same recognition as a man who’s passionate, and then being a minority female—there’s also other stigmas attached to that. So I would say it’s been a great honor.
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.