Erika McConduit-Diggs is ready to hit the ground running as the new president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. She believes that New Orleans and the local Urban League affiliate both have exciting futures on the horizon, making NOW the TIME to make a difference.
Erika McConduit-Diggs spent a couple of years practicing law before she found her “professional home” as the chief operation officer for the YWCA in White Plains, NY.
“There is nothing like working for a non-profit where you absolutely believe in the mission and you are contributing to someone other than yourself,” she says.
So when she decided to come home to New Orleans, she wanted to stay in the non-profit sector. An opening at the Urban League of Greater New Orleans offered an opportunity.
One of 95 Urban League affiliates across the nation, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans is on a mission to empower communities through economic self-reliance, parity and civil rights. Returning to her hometown just a few years after Hurricane Katrina—the natural and man-made disaster that put the city’s socio-economic inequities on display for the whole world to see—McConduit-Diggs decided she wanted to be a part of that mission.
When she interviewed about five years ago for the vice president of programs position, then-President and CEO Nolan Rollins asked her where she saw herself in five years. She wasn’t shy. She told Rollins she saw herself in his job, she says.
In the meantime, she did hers. As vice president of programs and later as executive vice president, McConduit-Diggs expanded the agency’s education focus by directing and implementing strategies to empower community members particularly as education reform measures drastically changed the landscape. Under her leadership, the Urban League’s Parent Information Center grew to include an expanded Schools Expo. Urban League staff was housed in three Recovery School District family centers. The organization produced New Orleans Guide to High Schools, Hand in Hand Guide to Title I Parent Engagement Funds, and Parent Perspectives Research Study—resource publications to assist students, parents and school leaders in navigating the changing educational landscape.
Today, McConduit-Diggs’ forecast has become a reality. Rollins resigned in January 2013 to lead the Los Angeles Urban League, and McConduit-Diggs was named the new president and CEO of the local affiliate in late November.
McConduit-Diggs received her undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. and earned her Juris doctorate from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. She is married and the mother of three. At 36, McConduit-Diggs (much like Rollins before her) reflects the fresh, new leadership that the Urban League has committed to grooming and guiding into key positions within its ranks through programs like its National Urban League Young Professionals auxiliary and the National Urban League Emerging Leaders Program, a competitive, 12-month development opportunity that provides a unique chance to develop analytical and critical leadership skills in the non-profit sector.
“Erika McConduit-Diggs is one of the bright young stars of the Urban League Movement,” National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial said in a printed statement announcing McConduit-Diggs’ appointment. “Her work in the education arena, to insure the voices of parents are heard, places her at the forefront of reform issues. She is uniquely qualified to lead the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. I pledge to work side-by-side and enthusiastically with Erika as she prepares to lead one of our most important affiliates in this time of transformation and opportunity.”
In fact, McConduit-Diggs and Morial have already stood side-by-side. This past summer, he visited his hometown to present the local affiliate with a $1.5 million grant as a part of its Jobs Rebuild America initiative. It was money that then-interim CEO McConduit-Diggs said would be put to immediate use in existing programs that support the Urban League of Greater New Orleans’ areas of focus.
She is only the second the woman to hold the ULGNO’s top position in the 75-year history of the local organization. In her role as CEO, she leads a staff of more than 50 individuals whose efforts focus on workforce and community development, education and youth development, and policy and social justice advocacy.
“It is extremely humbling to be selected as the second women to lead such an important institution in the city of New Orleans,” she says. “Edith Jones was a trailblazer. I could only imagine what it must have been like for her to be the first woman to lead the organization during a time that tested it the most. And it is an honor to come in the footsteps of giants like Clarence Barney. He is a legend.”
Jones was at the helm of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans when Katrina hit. And Barney led the local affiliate for nearly 30 years from 1967 to 1996. He was a significant force in the community throughout his tenure and beyond. Today, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans has named its newest Head Start Center in Barney’s honor and also pays respect to his legacy in its regular acknowledgment of outstanding local students through the Clarence L. Barney Student of the Week program.
Great Challenge, Great Opportunity
And while veneration for those who came before her is in order, McConduit-Diggs says she is ready to guide the organization in what she calls a transformational stage for both the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and the city.
“This is an exciting time in the city,” she tells The Tribune. “There is a lot of change and growth happening all around us. I want to encourage all of the people who have previously had a relationship with the Urban League, those who currently have a relation with the Urban League and those who have not yet established a relationship to please get engaged. Now is the time. We have an exciting future ahead of us.”
Along with the change and growth, McConduit-Diggs also sees a pressing need to address “tremendous challenges” in order to ensure that every New Orleanian has equal access to the exciting opportunities of which she speaks. That is where the Urban League steps in, she says. The organization’s history of working to remove barriers to equality and access make it a vital organization in New Orleans.
One of the key areas she has promised to continue and even increase Urban League efforts is in workforce development.
“We have a tremendous challenge in this city from an equity standpoint when it comes to workforce development,” she says, mentioning the staggering statistic that indicates that more than half of all African-American men of working age in New Orleans are unemployed. “For us that represents a great challenge and a great opportunity. We have been a leader in making sure African-Americans can access quality employment, and we are excited to expand our footprint in the workforce development space.”
Through its Community and Economic Development Center of Excellence, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans operates programs that assist individuals in gaining the education and training needed to make them viable in the job market. The organization also assists clients with addressing potential barriers to quality employment, such as criminal pasts. For instance, the ULGNO’s Training to Work (T2W) program offers workforce development and training services to more than previously incarcerated individuals to assist them in re-entering the labor market. The program, which serves more than 100 people for a three-year period, also provides participants with support services up to six months prior to their release from a Department of Correction’s work-release program and up to nine months of follow-up after their completion of the T2W program.
Meanwhile, this is also an area in which McConduit-Diggs is ready to use new, innovative tactics. She believes that many of the individuals who struggle to get jobs because of criminal records have skills sets and training they could use to build businesses of their own. Instead of focusing all of their energy and effort on trying to get employers to look past their records, she believes the Urban League can assist them in becoming “reputable business people” ready to take advantage of the economic development opportunities available throughout the community. And the ULGNO’s Business Resource & Entrepreneurship Center is already designed to provide business training and technical assistance for budding and existing entrepreneurs. Moreover, McConduit-Diggs says she wants to make certain the Urban League is ready to assist its clients in preparing for opportunities for economic development in promising fields where the potential for investment and growth are expected to be great.
“We need to focus on areas like coastal restoration,” she says. “How do we ready our small business and our workforce for opportunities in these areas?”
As for education, McConduit-Diggs, says she still sees plenty of work that must be done. The educational landscape in New Orleans has changed over the last eight years, but that does not mean that every child is still receiving a quality education, she says.
“We still have a lot a work ahead in terms of making sure all children in New Orleans have the opportunity to attend high-quality public K-12 education,” she says. “Much work has to be done to create an equitable landscape and to make sure all the seats are high quality seats.”
This is an area in which public participation and engagement is integral, she says.
“All of our community members must be fully engaged,” she says. The Urban League of Greater New Orleans has worked to facilitate that participation over the last few years through its Parent Information Centers, annual School Expo and resource publications.
More than anything, McConduit-Diggs looks forward to working with individuals and organizations across the city and state to continue and to intensify the work of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. She intends to put in lots of time and energy building and maintaining relationships with parents, program participants, churches, neighborhood associations, elected and appointed officials, civic and business leaders.
“Not just me—our board of directors, volunteers, auxiliary organizations—it is important that we foster relationships. Urban Leagues are bridge builders. We are the conduits that link various stakeholders together. For us, this is how we have continued to be as impactful as we have been. So I plan to be connected and stay connected with all of the people that make our city whole.”