Janice Lee knows the spotlight is on her — figuratively, and later this month, literally.

Lee, who spent two decades in senior leadership positions before embarking on her latest career challenge, is the new chief executive officer of the Tacoma Urban League.

On May 30 at the Evergreen State College Tacoma campus, she’ll do something familiar to those who came before her: address the state of Black Tacoma, providing a sober, data-and-expert-driven analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing the local African American community.

Under the direction of Lee’s predecessor, state Senator T’wina Nobles — who was named Tacoma Urban League CEO in 2017 and officially departed last year — all of this happened under the banner of the organization’s now annual “State of Black Tacoma” event, now in its sixth year.

Scheduled in conjunction with the yearly release of the National Urban League’s State of Black America report, which dates back to 1976, the Tacoma Urban League’s State of Black Tacoma program is designed to offer what Nobles described as a reality-based, localized progress report — accompanied by direct, tangible calls to action for those in the audience.

Lee officially took the reins of the Tacoma Urban League late last year.

Last month, she said she feels the full weight and responsibility of leading such a storied organization, which today provides resources and direct assistance to Black residents and other vulnerable, under-served populations with a focus on education, economic empowerment, health, housing and justice.

As CEO, Lee follows in the footsteps of local civil rights heavyweights like the late Thomas Dixon, the Urban League’s founder, Harold Moss, who stood beside him when the organization was launched more than 50 years ago, and current Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, who served as president and CEO during her time as a City Council member.

Over the last five-plus decades, the Tacoma Urban League has been at the forefront of every social justice issue the city has faced, she noted, from redlining and housing discrimination to the ongoing fight for equal education and employment opportunities.

This year’s State of Black Tacoma event will be Lee’s first as Urban League CEO.

She’s ready to meet the moment, she said, motivated by the work that remains to be done.

“I’m in the community. I’m talking to families, talking to businesses, talking to individuals … and Black Tacoma hasn’t gotten far enough,” said Lee, who grew up in the Puget Sound region and previously worked in strategic planning roles in the fields of education and behavioral health.

Despite notable achievements and hard-fought legislative wins in recent years, Lee said long-standing issues like flagging home-ownership rates, a lack of career advancement opportunities and a deficit of affordable housing continue to negatively impact the lives of Black Tacoma residents.

All of it and more — including pronounced local health disparities, systemic racism and continued public safety concerns — will be discussed and dissected during next week’s State of Black Tacoma event, she promised. Guest panelists include Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore, Shellie Willis, the senior director of collective impact at WorkForce Central and Gary Sterling, deputy director of the Foundation for Tacoma Students.

As the Tacoma Urban League’s point person, it’s Lee’s job to forge the path of progress, she said.

“The potential of the Tacoma Urban League is unlimited,” Lee told The News Tribune.

“As CEO, it’s my responsibility to take leadership. … It’s my job to say, ‘This is where we’re at right now, and these are the solutions we’re going to work toward.’”

Nobles, who first announced her intention to step down as Tacoma Urban League CEO not long after being elected to the state Senate in 2020, ultimately stuck around for the duration of what proved to be a lengthy search for a successor.

Last year, she spent roughly four months mentoring Lee before working her last day at the agency’s well-known offices on Yakima Avenue.

Nobles agrees: The job is as important as ever, with executive challenges ranging from sustained fundraising to meeting the needs of the next generation of Black Tacomans.

She believes Lee is up to the task.

The stakes are too high to fail, Nobles said.

Like they’ve been since the day Tacoma Urban League was born.

“The Tacoma Urban League belongs to the community. It doesn’t matter who the CEO is, the goal is providing services and a connection that includes as many people as possible,” Nobles said.

“People won’t remember a face or who held a title, but they’ll remember what happened to them at Tacoma Urban League,” she continued.

“Whoever the leader is, there has to be for the community and love for the organization to move the work forward.”

State of Black Tacoma 2024

Thursday, May 30 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus,1210 Sixth Ave.

Registration and live streaming information online at thetacomaurbanleague.org/events

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