Claiming "mission accomplished," Minneapolis Urban League president and CEO Clarence Hightower, renowned for his low-key demeanor and behind-the-scenes leadership style, resigned Tuesday.
After 10 years at the agency, he's leaving to become executive director of the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties in St. Paul. He'll start his new post in August.
Hightower, 53, is credited with raising the league's visibility with a just-completed 10-year strategic plan and its first capital campaign, which led to new headquarters in north and south Minneapolis.
His departure comes just as the organization, a community-based nonprofit that provides social services and advocacy for about 20,000 people of color annually, embarks on a new three-year strategic initiative.
Between calls from well-wishers on Tuesday, Hightower said he has accomplished what he set out to do. "I now have another exciting opportunity ahead of me, and I'm looking forward to the challenge," he said.
Hightower will go from leading a 100-employee staff with roughly a $6 million annual budget at the Urban League to overseeing 300 employees with a $20 million annual budget at Community Action.
Hightower said that while the Urban League has a sound and clear direction, supporters believe his decision to go work on the other side of the Mississippi will create a void in Minneapolis, where he has spent nearly 30 years in the social services field.
Before joining the Urban League, Hightower was president of The City Inc.'s alternative schools for five years. He also served as executive director with the North Community YMCA in Minneapolis for nearly a decade.
"A lot of people are heartbroken," said Urban League board member the Rev. Randy Staten of the Coalition of Black Churches/African-American Leadership Summit. "Clarence had the confidence of the common folk, the business community and city leaders to accomplish some major objectives."
Urban League board chairman F. Clayton Tyler said talks were underway with Hightower on a three-year contract extension when he announced his departure.
"To see him go saddens me, but I wish him well in his endeavors," said Tyler, a member of a committee that chose Hightower after the 1997 death of former president Gary Sudduth.
Board member Ora Hokes choked up as he said Hightower did a "yeoman's job" that led to the Minneapolis branch being recognized as one of the top 10 Urban Leagues in the country.
"I've never seen an occasion where he has raised his voice or been disrespectful," Hokes said. "He's always been consistent."
Hightower's steadying influence was key in easing often tense relations between Minneapolis police and community leaders. Those parties are trying to wrap up tasks that are part of a federal mediation agreement set to expire in December.
Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said Hightower understood the department's obligations but repeatedly "held us to task" on key issues such as minority recruitment and retention.
"He talked softly but carried a big stick," Dolan said.
Worries over future
Dolan's frequent adversary, Ron Edwards of the Police Community Relations Council, also praised Hightower. Hightower "brought the Urban League through some tough times," Edwards said, further commending him and his staff for the agency's annual sweeping analysis of the state of black Minnesotans.
Still, Edwards, who has held various positions with the Urban League over the years, is concerned about how future advocacy efforts will fare without Hightower.
"This creates a significant void at a time when the African-American community needs meaningful leadership," Edwards said.
Hightower said it's unfortunate that the community is still grappling with such issues as unemployment, youth violence and now a swath of foreclosed homes.
The Urban League soon will launch a search for a new CEO.
At Community Action, Hightower will join another long-standing organization involved with creating public policy and helping to reduce poverty for the disadvantaged.
"We're excited to have him on board," said Abukar Ali, Community Action's board president. "He's an experienced manager with a great personality.
"It's not an easy job, and we sifted through a long list of candidates and he came out on top," Ali said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
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