Thursday, April 29, 1999

Sheila Adams: building more than bricks

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's just a building. Just bricks and mortar. The headquarters of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati is set slightly back from Reading Road on an apron of bricks bearing the names of people who bought them for $50. It doesn't scream prosperity but says it quietly, with a certain dignity.

        Pinkish brick with a snappy dark green trim, the relatively new building is pictured in an issue of Equal Opportunity Journal. In the foreground is Sheila Adams, president and CEO of the Urban League. She is wearing a suit that matches the trim.

        Accidental? I think not.

        That seems like a detail she would plan.

        Not to dwell on it, but this building is huge. Not sizewise. It is 23,000 square feet. Substantial, but not gigantic. The big part is that she has presided over the construction of the first and only African-American organization in the Cincinnati area to build its own headquarters.

Collective power
        It was built on a rough, uneven plot of land in the heart of Avondale, Cincinnati's largest predominantly African-American neighborhood. More than 80 percent of the construction dollars went to minority vendors and 53 percent of the construction force was composed of people of color.

        “This represents something people said couldn't be done,” she says. “It's more than bricks and mortar. It says to the African-American community that you can build. You can own. There's a collective power you can see in this building.”

        The Urban League raised the $4.4 million to build it in 18 months. Doors opened — “on time,” she says firmly — in 1997.

        “Sheila sets stretch goals,” says her friend Miriam West, head of the mentoring program at the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. “She puts a lot of pressure on herself.” The two have been friends since college days at the University of Cincinnati.

        Sheila Adams came to the Urban League in 1990. Her budget was $300,000 and staff numbered eight. Now, the annual operating budget is $1.5 million, and there are 28 staffers. United Way funding, she says, was nearly three-quarters of the budget. Now it's about 35 percent.

        “Driven” is the way some people describe Ms. Adams.

        “Focused” is how she describes herself. “Passionate about what I do.”

        She says she got that from her father, a plaster contractor. He told her, “If it is up to me, excellent it will be.”

Employment gap
        We are relaxing a little, both of us. I am swigging the lemonade she gave me, and she is showing me pictures of her kids and grandkids. She is telling me that she's a bowler “in the 150-range” and is learning to golf. She talks a little about retirement. A little. And very carefully.

        There's still a lot to be done. The employment gap is critical. “When unemployment is 4 percent overall, African-American unemployment is between 12 and 15 percent. For males 10 to 30, it's over 40 percent.” She says the Urban League is forming partnerships with companies and with other agencies.

        “We are getting a core of people willing to speak up and face the issues.”

        They will come together in a handsome office on the strip of Reading Road that was the site of rioting in the 1960s. Kids will study there. Teen-agers will be told about postponing sex. Parents will learn how to help their children succeed. Computer classes will be scheduled. Employers will recruit. Job applicants will be counseled and trained.

        This will happen at 3458 Reading Road, home of the Urban League, now in its 50th year.

        Sheila Adams thinks it's more than just a building. She thinks it's a symbol. She says so quietly, with a certain dignity.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio and as a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at