Keeping up with Eugene Young, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, is not for the cardio-challenged.
It’s not just the gait of the 6-foot-7 former Division 1 ball player, which allows him to eat up city blocks like he did game minutes at University of Maryland Baltimore County in the early 2000s. You also have to account for all the stopping and starting.
What should be a routine, one-minute walk from the Community Service Building to the Market Street BrewHaHa! can cost you half a lunch break if you tag along with Young.
He’s not the mayor of Wilmington. But it sure feels like he is.
“Two-hundred and thirty-four votes,” Young recounts, tapping the side of his mocha milkshake for emphasis. “Not that I sit around thinking about it. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t want to do that.”
The number, which reflects the vote margin that separated him and victor Mike Purzycki in the 2016 mayoral election, is critical for another reason—it reminds Young of the potential in the shadows.
“I didn’t have an income of wealth and means—I was brought up on the East Side, lower-middle class,” Young says. “But I had the opportunity to work on Senator Cory Booker’s campaign. I had many mentors. Had it not been for that, I know there’s no way I could have ran for mayor. I’m very real with myself—there is someone out there who is 10-times the candidate I was. And if that person had had the same resources and support, could have done better. But that person might say, ‘No one knows me. I don’t have the money.’ And we never find them.”
Or, worse, to Young—that person leaves Delaware.
“As a state, we’ve gotten it wrong when it comes to grooming our young people. We’re more of a net exporter than a net importer,” he says. “Some of the most talented individuals that I grew up with, they left. The resources and mentorship they needed wasn’t here.”
So not long after Young graduated from UMBC in 2004, he and close friends Logan Herring and Shannon Watson started the nonprofit Delaware Elite, which sought to coach young, talented athletes and mentor them in academics and character development. Delaware Elite, now disbanded, ushered almost 200 young men through its program.
Auto mechanic Keith Hicklin was one of them. Hicklin, who laughs at “Mr. Young”—“It’s Coach Gene to us,” he says—traveled the east coast with Delaware Elite.
“Coach Gene opened up a lot of doors for our basketball team and myself. But the biggest thing in my life that I want to thank Coach Gene for was funneling me toward St. Mark’s,” Hicklin says. “Coming up, there was a lot of bad public schools around my area, and it was easy to get caught in the swing of things and not really pay attention to my education. But Coach Gene saw something better in me, something that I didn’t even see in myself. I can really thank him for the man I am today.”
After the 2016 election loss, Young channeled the same energy into Network Delaware, which strives to leverage citizen-led community empowerment, research analysis and leadership development to enact lasting socioeconomic change.
Bottom line—groom citizens. Mentor citizens. Keep citizens.
Even Young struggled with the “keep” part.
“I thought about leaving,” he says. “I was a 22-, 23-year-old kid, college educated, and my job was working at the Hotel DuPont from 10:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m., just to put money in my pocket to put into Delaware Elite,” he says. “I’m not saying someone owed me something. But I believe that if people felt more tied to the community, that would have created more opportunities. I wondered, ‘Why stay here and valet cars and shine shoes when I could do the same thing in another city that would give me more opportunity?’ But an obligation to the young men we were trying to serve kept me close.”
Young’s life growing up as a tall, awkward kid on E. 5th between Pine and Lombard wasn’t unusual, he says, save for parents that deeply championed him and the many shoulders of male mentors on which he found solid footing.
Young credits his school teacher mother with his penchant for helping folks. “She was a very giving person,” Young says. “Always trying to do something for someone.”
Young’s father, an Air Force veteran turned Boeing machinist, brought out the political side. “He watched CSPAN constantly. I remember even when I was a kid, he always wanted to talk politics.”
Young lost his father in May. “My father, to me, is the highest level of man to have ever touched this earth,” he says. “But with him are many men throughout my life who have mentored me—[city inspector] Mike Dorsey. Chris Novak, my 7th grade teacher. Cory Booker. UMBC Coach Randy Monroe. So many others who have shaped my life. I believe in paying it forward. You have an obligation … its bigger than you.”
As Young, then a baby-faced 33-year-old political powerhouse, galvanized support across key issues in his mayoral campaign—and helped bring other young people into civic life—Dr. Tony Allen was quietly watching.
“Eugene changed Delaware politics in a way that people won’t be cognizant of for years to come,” says the Delaware State University provost and executive vice president and former MWUL president. “To be a challenger, at his age, who, for all intents and purposes, would not be the likely candidate to be the chief executive office of the city; who didn’t have the traditional support in Delaware, and to become within an inch of the office? We went after him.”
“We,” being the WMUL, with roots that go back to Jim Gilliam Sr., the founding president in 1999, who was a leading national housing advocate. “In short form, the Urban League is an institution that is helpful because it is meant to be as effective and connected in places of significant decision-making as it is in the community it serves,” says Allen. “Jim gathered a group of folks, and I was fortunate to be one them, to establish the vision—and it was organized quicker than any other Urban League at the time.”
Gilliam was adept in key areas of decision-making, in the political or corporate arena, which Allen says helped engender trust and build up resources and support. “Jim had a unique vision—the Urban League has historically been involved mostly in direct-service providers across the country, but Delaware had enough direct service-providers at the time … I believe upward of 2,000 nonprofits in the state, with 600 just in Wilmington. That model would have provided competing if not duplicating effort. But what we were missing was a real advocate voice for the folks that we were trying to serve, particularly people of color.”
After Allen stepped away as president and CEO in 2004, Congresswoman Lisa Blunt-Rochester took over. “What she brought, besides her massive energy, was a connection to state government,” Allen says. “We knew we’d be able to dip our toes into more programs. Lisa helped convince Mayor Baker to back the HOPE commission, which became a key focus on criminal justice reform in the state.”
But Blunt-Rochester stepped away, too. The MWUL soon fell back to the traditional direct-services model. And even worse—it didn’t have an executive.
“Even though I left in 2004, the Urban League was my baby,” Allen says. “Jim Gilliam was my best friend and set me on a path I’ll never forget, and I still had a consultant role. We went a few years without a leader. It was risky. But we couldn’t just hurry up and put just anyone there. It was critically important that we find the next great leader. That voice for the agenda of the black and brown people that we wanted to serve was slowly going away.”
Young’s door isn’t closed to anything, so his was the voice that answered the League’s call in 2017.
“I knew that while they didn’t have a leader, the organization had a strong board, so it was a solid landing place,” Young says. “It was going to be similar to running a startup, which was exciting—you can’t expect anything.”
Challenge one for Young: Change the narrative. “We’re back in business, continuing Jim Gilliam’s original vision,” he says. “And we’re not going anywhere. There was concern: ‘How solid is this organization? Will it stay afloat?’ My focus is to build legitimacy, develop a staple program and be fiscally sustainable.”
Just don’t suggest that the name “Eugene Young” carries with it a certain brand of legitimacy.
“This is not the Eugene Young league,” he says. “The Urban League is so much bigger than Eugene Young. The moment I believe I’m lending my name to it, it’s over.”
Within the first 45 days of Young’s tenure, he and his team developed their signature offering, the James H. Gilliam Senior Fellows Program. The 10-month immersive fellowship is awarded to young people aged 22 to 35 who learn to navigate the state’s political, legal, economic and political arenas, with thoughtful leadership provided by state leaders and educators. You’ll find Young in the thick of it with the fellows, too.
“We’re creating agents of change, but also preparing these young people to be at the forefront when it comes to policy,” Young says.
Another critical branch of the League’s outreach is Achievement Matters, focused on closing the academic gap. Young, disturbed by underperforming schools in the Christina School District, says League resources will be dedicated to academic enrichment, curriculum-based leadership programs and tutoring services out of area schools.
“Within the city, we have these pockets of extreme wealth and extreme poverty,” Young says. “And I think we need to move to a place where we look at each other and see one another as a reflection of ourselves. In such a relationship-driven state, there’s not enough of that. If there’s a child on the East Side that’s not getting a quality education, that’s my child. If there’s a child in Laurel who isn’t—that’s my child. That’s the only way to get to the Delaware we all want.”
Ask Young, the father of two with wife, Nicole, about future plans, and he demurs. “I take what the world offers,” he says. “Right now, I’m here. And I love ‘here.’ But love, in many cases, forces you to look at the hard issues to make whatever you love better. And we have work to do.”