The board of the Greater Sacramento Urban League will announce soon that, after a nationwide search and a review of 125 applications, it has selected former mayoral adviser Cassandra Jennings as the next leader of the 48-year-old nonprofit.
“Her selection is the end result of a massive search that I think was extraordinarily competitive,” said Chet Hewitt, the president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation, who led the search committee. “It just affirmed that she was the best person to take on the assignment at the Urban League, after the retirement of James Shelby.”
Shelby left the organization last September after serving as its leader for about 20 years in total. Jennings stepped in as an interim leader in October.
“When I came out here, just in an effort to help out, I thought, ‘This is really what I do. This is community development with an economic twist,’ ” Jennings said. “The kind of work that I’ve been doing, in transforming communities and the lives of people who live in them, is what this Urban League is all about.”
The 59-year-old Jennings told me that she was born in the segregated South but grew up in the Maryland suburbs that bordered the District of Columbia. Both her parents were teachers – her mom, math; her dad, chemistry and physics – and that they left North Carolina to pursue opportunities not available to them in a world that was separate and not at all equal.
Jennings said she’s known how it feels to be made to think that you are part of an underclass and to pull yourself up and rise above other people’s perceptions. She earned a bachelor’s degree in urban studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and did her first fieldwork in a tough D.C. neighborhood. In one of her first projects, she said, a grocer that she refused to name was setting up shop and residents wanted an area included where they could drive up and put groceries in their cars.
You know how they say, ‘You don’t have to go far from home to help somebody’? We don’t have to put on a big lens or get a telescope to find it. It’s right here in our community, and that’s where we should definitely be.
Cassandra Jennings, incoming CEO of the Sacramento Urban League
The negotiations failed, Jennings said, but they whetted her appetite for trying to bring quality services, housing and businesses to people living in disenfranchised neighborhoods. She came to California because her then-fiancé, Rick Jennings (now a Sacramento City Council member), was playing for the Oakland Raiders.
Cassandra Jennings went to work for the city of Oakland in 1978, staffing a blue-ribbon committee with graduate students, who looked at ways to improve redevelopment in that city. After working in Oakland’s housing department for a while, she applied for and landed a position with the nonprofit Neighborhood Services of America. While at the organization, leaders encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, with a concentration on nonprofit management, at the University of San Francisco. She did.
The couple moved to Sacramento after Jennings’ husband got a job here with Xerox, and she took a part-time job with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency in 1987.
“Bina Lefkovitz, who is (Sacramento City Councilman) Jay Schenirer’s wife, … hired me part-time with the mortgage credit certificate program, which was a first-time homebuyer program,” Jennings said. “It was a public project and it worked all across the nation. … They would give you a (tax) credit to buy an existing home, so you could buy in any neighborhood. You didn’t have to buy in just a new development.”
The Greater Sacramento Urban League focuses on bringing economic sustainability and teaching self-reliance to individuals and families.
She eventually got a full-time position with the redevelopment agency and worked on projects there for 18 years. One of her most memorable assignments was the transformation of Franklin Villa in south Sacramento into what is now the Phoenix Park development. In articles in The Sacramento Bee’s archive, residents described Franklin Villa as a war zone riddled with crime and blight.
“If you go back in the history, Franklin Villa was beautifully designed to be housing for seniors,” Jennings said. “Part of it was ... fourplex buildings with condominiums, all two bedrooms. ... The challenge was they were all owned individually, so you could have a building with four owners in it.”
Many people bought the units and began to rent them out, Jennings said, and there were senior citizens and families with young children who were living next door to people involved in illegal activities. It was common to read reports of shootings and deaths in the neighborhood. Jennings said she ended up taking the lead for a community revitalization project that required the city to exercise eminent domain and buy most of the properties.
“We had to go to court,” Jennings recalled. “We had to deal with every agency from federal to local to make sure all the resources were there. It was just very complex and complicated. Because we had … homeowners associations, we had to take over some of them. Even though we had a lot of the units, and we voted ourselves in and I was the rep, they wouldn’t let me vote. We had to go in with our lawyers.”
Residents sued the city and its representatives, Jennings said, and there were times when they had to bring in armed guards to ensure safety.
“Long story short, it took us about four years, and we rebuilt half the units,” Jennings said. “We got control of them, and a nonprofit management owns them now. I’m on the board of it. We have consistent management. There are three homeowners associations left. They are working cooperatively. There are pools. There’s a Head Start. There’s an after-school program. There’s case management. There are services.”
Since that time, Jennings has worked as an assistant city manager tasked with finance, information technology, human resources and general services. She also has been an adviser to Mayor Kevin Johnson, leading initiatives such as Sacramento Steps Forward and For Art’s Sake. She serves on the boards of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation and Golden 1 Credit Union.
Jennings said she sees opportunities to make a difference every time she drives to work at the Greater Sacramento Urban League, based at 3725 Marysville Blvd., a short walk from Grant High School. The organization’s eye-catching headquarters, she said, is virtually surrounded by untended, vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.
“You know how they say, ‘You don’t have to go far from home to help somebody’?” she said. “We don’t have to put on a big lens or get a telescope to find it. It’s right here in our community, and that’s where we should definitely be, first and foremost, to have a presence.”
The organization focuses on bringing economic sustainability and teaching self-reliance to individuals and families, Jennings said, offering GED courses, job training, employment opportunities and other assistance to people who often struggle to survive. The organization served more than 5,000 individuals in its last fiscal year, including 183 who completed its GED program and roughly 200 who found employment in construction, custodial and other industries.
Jennings is focused now on ensuring that the organization’s programs are top-notch, going to companies and foundations to cultivate or expand partnerships, delivering upon the promises made to current partners, and finding dollars to serve a wider range of people than her $1.5 million budget now allows. Once she’s comfortable that the nonprofit is firing on all cylinders, she said, she will look to be a catalyst or even an agent for redevelopment.
“My opportunity out here is to really look to be a community developer, to work with the partners out here to help be a catalyst,” she said. “The building’s already here, and it’s big and sort of mighty out here. We want to be a leader to help turn this community around. I sort of joke that … this is Marysville Grand Central. For Del Paso Heights, this could really be a central place. It could be a gathering place. I’m not sure what could be over there and over there. Let’s see what the vision is for 2016 and beyond.”