|Urban League Leader Gives Back to Webster |
Civil rights, education drive Buford
For 22 years, College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board member James Buford has led the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, fulfilling a personal dream to be an advocate in civil rights, education, and economic empowerment for African Americans.
In two decades at the post, Buford has had his share of controversy and, most importantly, success: His organization has grown from a budget of $2.5 million in 1985 to $15 million. Last year, 66,000 people benefited from its services, which include initiatives for education, civil engagement, leadership development, and assistance for the impoverished and homeless.
Buford stirred some controversy in the summer of 1999, when he was among those leading protests that shut down Interstate 70 in St. Louis to call attention to the lack of jobs and public contracts for minority-owned construction businesses. The demonstrations helped spur agreements that summer to increase job training and contracts for minority entrepreneurs. But the issue was still hot a year later, when Buford raised it in his address as speaker for Webster’s 2000 Commencement.
“It caused a stir,” Buford says, “but I believe I did what [University President] Dr. Meyers asked me to do, and that was to say something that got the students thinking.”
True to his beliefs, Buford never regretted challenging the Commencement audience.
“It’s said that ‘a man who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything,’” says Buford, who clearly stands for a few things close to his heart. “Life is simple. You’ve got to act for what you believe in. As Martin Luther King said, no one respects a man who doesn’t respect himself.”
"Life is simple: You’ve got to act for what you believe in."
It was President Meyers’ invitation to do more with the University that led Buford to join the College of Arts & Sciences Advisory Board. Through University Trustee and fellow Advisory Board member Michael DeHaven, Buford met Dean David Carl Wilson and was excited by what he heard.
“David talked about the need for a new building,” Buford recalls. “About growing the College, expanding the facilities, building the capacity to serve more people, and that was exciting to me.”
Close To Webster
Still, Buford didn’t have to be sold on the merits: He has always felt close to Webster. From an early age when he attended nearby Prep Seminary, Webster was often in his sight.
“On the way to school, I used to walk by the University every day,” he says. “My sister and I both used to perform in piano recitals there. And my sister received a scholarship from Webster. As a Catholic myself, the founding Sisters of Loretto tradition appealed to me, too. But I look at it this way: Webster has always given to me, so whenever I can give back, I will.”
“Plus, Webster serves an important role in this community,” Buford says. “For a long time, a lot of African Americans have matriculated there. Even back in the day when African Americans, for whatever reason – be it lack of funds or not feeling welcome – often weren’t matriculating, Webster was always accommodating and welcoming.”
Such an environment resonates with Buford, who was too young to be an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a missed chance that he says made him “distraught” – and pledge never to miss another one.
“That’s why when the Urban League position came open in 1985, I wanted it very badly,” he says. “I had worked successfully in the public sector, in politics, in sales, but I figured: Anyone can sell mouthwash. There are only 100 of these positions nationwide. It’s like the Senate. It’s a rare opportunity.”
Buford saw the opening as a chance to make a significant, long-term difference, and he’s proud of what his organization has done and continues to do. “I’m proud of our growth, proud that we continue to increase our capacity. We’ve grown our education services, our scholarships, our NULITE Youth Initiative, our civil rights involvement.”
Public Schools: A Critical Issue
All of these initiatives are in play with what Buford believes is the biggest issue facing the region: public schools. St. Louis’ public school district was recently unaccredited and taken over by the state, fueling passionate debate among parents, educators, and politicians on how to move forward.
“This is simply critical,” Buford says. “We as a community are no better than our public schools. It’s critical for the health of our community. It’s even important from a human resources perspective: We must have educated, talented citizens, or companies will not come here. Our people will not thrive if urban education is in decay. That holds true for any community.”
As one who served on the district’s board and has been involved in many capacities, Buford pledges to keep working for what must be a long-term, long-developing solution.
“My priority is to do whatever I can,” he says. “But we just need to settle down and move forward. There will be litigation, and that is people’s right – I can’t stop that. But we need to realize that what’s done is done. We must move forward with what we have, help our schools, and increase the percentage of graduates who are competitive in this world.”
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