Patricia Coulter Gears Up for the National Urban League’s Annual Conference

The President and CEO of Philadelphia's Urban League plans a party for 20,000 all while pushing the Urban Jobs Act through Congress.

The National Urban League’s annual conference is at the Convention Center this month. How many people are you expecting?
Probably between 6,000 and 8,000 visitors to the city. And it’s also an opportunity for another 8,000 to 10,000 local people to participate.

So you’re basically planning a party for 20,000?
It’s a big party. We have really been working on this for the last couple of years.

The title of the conference is “Redeem the Dream: Jobs Rebuild America.” That’s an obvious reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
It’s very, very special that the conference is here in Philadelphia in 2013, because it’s the 50th anniversary of 1963. The March on Washington took place in August of 1963. That was also the year that Medgar Evers was shot and killed in Mississippi and the four young girls were bombed in the church in Birmingham. W.E.B. Du Bois died in 1963. And John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. So there were a number of different events that relate to African-American history and the country.

You were a young girl living in Cleveland then. What was the mood in your house the day of the march?
We had a black-and-white TV. We lived in an apartment building, and neighbors who didn’t have TVs were all gathered around in our living room so they could actually see it. It was a really big moment. But it was also a scary moment—at least, for my parents. Because they didn’t know how this was going to be received by the nation and by those in opposition—especially Southerners.

What’s the Urban League’s plan for more jobs?
This year we released a series of public-private investments that total $100 million to help expand what we’re calling the war on unemployment. And since 2011 we have been involved in a number of things on the legislative policy side to put urban America back to work. Chaka Fattah is one of the sponsors of the Urban Jobs Act, which is a bill that looks at 18-to-24-year-olds who are out of work and out of school. If they’re on the streets, they’re probably headed toward incarceration pretty quickly.

What are the chances the bill gets through Congress?
We don’t know, but we still have to work. At the end of the day, when these political leaders go back to their districts, there are people who are hurting. And although the Urban League was founded around African-Americans, today all across the country we work with people of every hue. Los Angeles may now be even more Latino than black in terms of the work we do there.

Some African-American leaders have been critical of President Obama for not doing enough for the black community. Agree?
I believe that with any national leader, you’re not always going to be satisfied with everything they do. So is he doing a good job? Yes. Can he do more? Absolutely.

If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing when it comes to jobs, what would it be?
I would look at how we can better utilize cities. I think of North Philadelphia, where there used to be a lot of textile factories. Those have all closed. If we could figure out how to transition those places for 21st-century companies, we could drive jobs through technology.

Think you’ll get much sleep the week before the conference?
Oh, no, no. I said to a woman in my gym: The thing I have to make sure of is that I get my exercise in. Because that is what is going to sustain me.

You can sleep in August.
August is going to be a beautiful month.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.