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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 22 April 2009

Marc Morial wants to see Portland become a symbol of this nation's commitment to green job training.

The president and CEO of the National Urban League visited the Portland affiliate this week in a West Coast tour. The purpose of the tour was to make sure each local Urban League office was able to support its community during the recession. The Urban League helped 18,000 people find employment, about 2,500 people become homeowners and served nearly 200,000 children last year. With a recession in full swing, he says, the need for the Urban League will only increase.

"A nation divided economically," he said. "is a nation divided socially, a nation divided politically, a nation that has a difficult time competing in a world economy."

Morial said his organization gives President Barack Obama high marks after his first 100 days, although Morial said measuring any performance after an artificial mark in time doesn't do justice to the ongoing complexity of the housing, employment or banking crisis. Forming a green job economy, he says, needs to be high on the list of both President Obama and Portland's local leaders, and they need to be sure it doesn't create a "green apartheid."

"Portland has to have a green economy plan, and the cardinal principal of that plan should be inclusion," he said. "How do you make sure that these green jobs, if its housing retrofits or building retrofits, don't bypass communities on the bottom of the economic ladder, working people, communities of color?"

Morial says he wants the Urban League to take the lead in the new economy.

"We have an emerging green jobs initiative," he said. "We've proposed to the Department of Labor that they contract with the Urban League to train people for green jobs. Going green should mean helping people benefiting from going green, not just the end consumer, but the people who do the work."

Along with education, the Urban League deployed a number of certified housing counselors to assist homeowners in renegotiating terms with their banks in order to avoid foreclosure.

For a nearly 100-year-old organization, Morial said there is always a push to keep fresh ideas and new people in the works.

"We've tended to survive as an organization where you didn't have to talk about the good things you do," he said.

Under Morial's leadership, the Urban League has been much more vocal about the good work it does. He said it has helped grow the number of young people involved and drawn attention to the Urban League's programs. Self –promotion is also a personal attribute for Morial.

"I'm a non-red meat eater," he said, when questioned about his personal health regimen. "Now, that doesn't mean I don't touch red meat, it's just rarely. … I exercise three times a week, I try to drink a lot of water, and I try to go to the doctor at least once a year."

Promoting affordable health care and proper physical education in schools is a top priority for Morial. Current policies have a number of "people in their mid to late 20s and it's the first time in their life that they've felt their heartbeat increase and broke a sweat."

He's also concerned about reform in the criminal justice system.

"The criminal justice system is in shambles, utter shambles," said Morial, who practiced law for 10 years. "The quality of justice you receive relies in large measure on the quality of your own lawyer."

He said the biggest area in need of reform is the incarceration policy concerning non-violent offenses when more effective options are available.

"We're feeding a fire of expenses, of money, of the prison industrial complex, of contractors, of suppliers," he said. "And has it, as a matter of course, reduced crime in this nation? The purpose of jail is to punish and deter. If we're not punishing or deterring, we need to rethink some of these things."

The Urban League advocated for the passage of the Second Chance Act, a law that helps people transition back into normal life after having been incarcerated.

But the most important aspect of improving the lives of Americans, he says, is education. He dreams what society might look like if 25 percent of spending on prison construction was instead diverted to schools.

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