Growing up in a Yonkers ghetto just north of the Bronx, Ruben Anthony – new head of the Urban League of Greater Madison – stayed out of trouble by studying hard and playing sports. He said his parents – union members who challenged him to do well – also helped him keep on the straight and narrow.
But Anthony, 52 and a former deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said he was confronted on a daily basis with the poverty and violence in his neighborhood.
“There was a lot of crime, crack addiction and young people getting arrested, so there were many opportunities for kids to go the wrong way,” recalled Anthony, who assumed his post in May. He replaced Kaleem Caire, who resigned in March 2014.
Anthony said he believes his experiences growing up in Yonkers help African-American kids relate to him. And vice versa.
“My life path helps me talk to young African Americans because I grew up in an urban area where I’ve seen a lot of my friends go to jail or even die,” he said. “I lived in a community where there was a vicious cycle of poverty, failure in education, homelessness and things like that.
“It gives me a perspective,” explained Anthony.
Anthony pledges his commitment to reducing the disparity between African Americans and whites in Madison’s unemployment and arrest rates, while at the same time raising minority test scores.
“When I look at Madison, I don’t see things as dire as many other people see them,” he said. “I see that we have some major problems here. But coming from an extremely impoverished neighborhood like I did, I see hope, too.
“I understand what some of the kids go through here. A lot of times there aren’t (high) expectations for African-American boys and negative stereotypes for African-American boys and girls. I’ve faced that in my experience, so I can tell young men that you can overcome things despite low expectations people might have for you.
“If you have big dreams, the sky is the limit. But nothing comes without hard work, despite your circumstances, you have to work really hard at things.”
Anthony moved to Wisconsin 35 years ago to attend Marquette University on an academic scholarship. He later attended UW-Madison and ultimately earned a doctorate in urban planning from UW-Milwaukee. He spent the first five years of his career as a budget analyst in the Department of Veterans Affairs and then found his niche at the Department of Transportation, where he rose to the level of chief operating officer.
During his DOT tenure, he said he spent a lot of energy working to break down employment barriers for minorities and women, primarily on construction projects that included the massive Marquette Interchange reconstruction. He said more than 25 percent of the businesses and workers on the project were minorities.
He then joined a Minnesota consulting firm as a senior vice president dealing with civil rights and hiring for construction projects. He started his own company and later worked for Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele on hiring issues.
Anthony said he’s convinced that by helping black-owned businesses, African-American families can rise out of poverty.
“That was one of the most rewarding things I’ve been able to do in my career,” said Anthony, who called former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson a role model. “I thought if he did this in Atlanta with the airport and help grow the (black) middle class, we could do it in Wisconsin. That’s how I found myself at the Urban League today. Having worked with African-American owned businesses in the transportation industry for more than 20 years, I’ve really seen the difference that it makes.
“We hired 64 minority and women-owned businesses to work on the Marquette interchange. Seeing some of these companies start up from scratch and grow is something. It changes lives. When you bring in diverse companies, it helps the community at large.”
Anthony, who has a reputation as skilled collaborator, said he’s looking forward to working with different Madison groups to bring about change.
“My collaborator skills will help because this community has the type of heart where so many people want to be part of the solution,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of rolling up our sleeves, sitting down and talking about our differences.
“We are not a perfect community, and there are certainly some big problems here, but at the same time there are some big hearts and great commitment among the non-profits here. There are also great commitments from our city and county governments and some in state government as well.”
He also had praise for companies that have shown they “want to be active in this partnership in making this the best community that it can be.
“With these types of ingredients, I’m pretty confident that we have a bright future here,” he said. “Shining the light on disparities that we found through the Race to Equity study has showed us that there is a whole lot more work to be done. People are not shying away from those statistics, which is a good thing.”
Anthony lauded Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham for efforts to raise black academic scores and work with groups like the Urban League, United Way, 100 Black Men and others to create tutoring programs like Schools of Hope and 21st Century Careers.
“They are moving this in the right direction,” he said. “I’m not saying they are solving all the problems, but they are making progress. It’s a cliché, but I often say it takes a village and collaboration by multiple entities to help students do well in school.
“The schools have responsibility to create high expectations, build confidence in students and have staff updated on the most recent teaching methods. It also takes parents at home who instill in kids that they go to school and do their very best.
“And students need to recognize that if you want to go to college, you have to put the effort forward. If you are having trouble with math and you need help, it’s up to the student to get that help after school. It takes a whole collaboration to move our kids forward. The leadership in our schools understand that.”
Anthony called the March shooting death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by a Madison police officer a “tragedy” from which the community is still reeling. He said the May decision by Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne anot to charge Kenny also upset many people.
“We were open until 9 or 10 p.m. that night (in May) to talk with people in the aftermath of the decision,” he said. “We had people crying up until late at night saying we are grieving all over again.”
But Anthony said the healing process has begun, and he praised how Madison police handled the non-violent demonstrations after Robinson’s shooting, allowing peace keepers to be intermediaries between protestors and the police.
“But there is a lot of work to do,” he said. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to serve the Urban League at this critical juncture.
“We want to continue this discussion about how Madison can get over (being) a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and be the best city for all, not just the best city for Caucasians. But for African Americans, Latinos and anyone else who wants to come here and make a contribution, too.”
— By Brian E. Clark