Jonathan Peck moved to Tucson from Chicago 14 months ago to work as the new president and CEO of the Tucson Urban League. One goal is to implement I Am Empowered, a campaign by the National Urban League that addresses education, employment, housing, health and specific local issues regarding immigration and criminal justice. The Urban League also offers utility assistance; Peck says the agency has distributed $1.5 million in utility assistance and has an additional $1.5 million to distribute. For more on the Tucson Urban League, go to tucsonurbanleague.org, or call 791-9522.
Why did you decide to move to Tucson?
My wife has been here for 10 to 12 years. (Zelda Harris) is a professor at the UA and runs the (law school's) Child and Family Law Clinic. I met my wife in Chicago when she was working as a juvenile-justice trainer and expert.
What did you do in Chicago?
I was associate director for the Southwest Youth Collaborative; it's an agency on the South Side. I was there the last 17 years organizing, and took a small agency with four staff (members) and grew it to 40 staff working at 12 to 15 sites with about 5,000 kids and families. The mission is the same as the Urban League: to inspire youth and families.
Was it difficult to leave Chicago?
Well, after 17 years working as a community organizer, it was time for me to move on. ... My wife has tenure. It made sense to make my home here.
You've come to Arizona at an interesting time.
We, as Americans, forget we have a unique history, and that's what we need to understand in order to humanize the situation. ... Slashing certain budgets might not be the best thing to do. I'm not saying I believe in big government or small government, but I do believe in a government that works for and by the people. Putting people out on the streets in Arizona isn't bringing people together, and maybe we need to sit back and realize that what's taking place right now is a little too much.
How do you see your job at the Tucson Urban League?
My job here is to retool this agency for the 21st century and realign programs and primary services, through specialized counseling and tutoring, to meet the needs of families. Of course, part of our mission is civil rights, and has been since the Urban League has been in Tucson, (over) the past 40 years. And as an affiliate, we've also been charged at the national level to reinvigorate our civil-rights agenda
How many people are you serving right now?
About 18,000 people are coming to us every month for utility assistance. We distribute about 1,000 diapers every month. That may not seem like a lot, but for a mother of four who is balancing rent, utilities and putting food on the table, (diapers can be) something she doesn't have to worry about. We aren't just a homeless agency, a housing agency, a health agency or a senior agency, but a multi-issue service agency. When a family comes in for help, it's not just to get a check for utilities. We look at everything. That's our mission, and that's how we change lives.
How do you work with other organizations in Tucson?
That's different than (in) Chicago. In Chicago, we have about 3,000 African-American leaders. You can go to the person you know can help you. Here, we don't have that flexibility, but we also don't have a choice of not talking to each other, so we have to work together and not feel attacked by new ideas.
What is your agenda with the Urban League?
It's a change agenda, and about service. I often tell my own story and use it as an example of what this city should be about. I was born in Vietnam, of an African-American father and Vietnamese mother. I was adopted by a white couple and grew up in Williamstown, Mass. My parents worked to desegregate schools in Williamstown, and my father, as an athletic director of Williams College, worked to bring in more African-American faculty and coaches. Change is a scary message, for every single person—left, right and middle. If you're in a position of leadership and influence ... you have to change. This place is going to change with or without us, for better or worse. The question for us, as leaders in the nonprofit community: Are we going to be ahead of this, or let this situation get to where we can only be reactive instead of proactive?