Originally published: June 4, 2021
By: Joyce Gannon
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

As she prepares to step down after 27 years as president and chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, Esther Bush is proud of accomplishments she said the agency achieved during her tenure including starting the city’s first charter school, increasing housing and food supports for marginalized families, and advocating for social justice .

But much more work needs to be done by civic and business leaders to make Pittsburgh equitable for Black people and all of its residents, she said.

“Pittsburgh has sufficient resources to pull it off,” she said, referring to large corporations, foundations and health care institutions that call the city home.

“But who’s going to take the first bold step and not apologize for it?” she said Friday during an interview at her office in the Warner Centre, Downtown.

The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, founded in 1918, is an affiliate of the national Urban League and provides social services, education, career preparation and other assistance for Black people and other struggling individuals and families.

Ms. Bush, 69, plans to retire Aug. 31 but said she will stay on the job until her successor is named so that she can assist with the transition.

The nonprofit this week said it has launched a national search for its next leader.

Ms. Bush was the first female top executive at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, and also was the first woman in prior positions she held for the Urban League in New York City and Hartford, Conn.

The Pittsburgh native started her career as a high school teacher in Baltimore after graduating from Morgan State University, and found her calling for advocacy when she taught a course on job- and life-planning skills.

“I fell in love with it,” she said, “particularly helping African-Americans prepare for economic self-reliance. I believe that was the foundation that got me to where I am today.”

She earned a master’s in guidance and counseling from Johns Hopkins University and while working in the career planning and placement center at Coppin State University in Baltimore was recruited to work for the National Urban League in New York.

“I loved the organization because it was totally focused on helping African-Americans do better,” said Ms. Bush. “I thought, ‘Oh. They’re going to pay me for this?’”

After the Reagan Administration cut funding for a program she was helping direct that placed women in non-traditional jobs, she was laid off.

She opted to stay in New York and tapped her seamstress skills to launch a business that sold hand-made Christmas stockings to businesses to give to employees.

A year or so later she joined the New York Urban League and directed its branches in Staten Island and Manhattan, before becoming chief executive of the affiliate in Hartford.

She wasn’t looking for a job in 1994 when she saw a posting for the job in Pittsburgh, but a former chief executive of the local Urban League asked her to apply.

Her parents were still living at the time, said Ms. Bush, who grew up in Lincoln-Lemington and was a cheerleader at Westinghouse High School.

When she returned to her hometown and drove through her old neighborhood, she told herself, “All these things you learned in other places could benefit the friends and family who helped nurture you.”

The Urban League’s annual budget was about $5 million when she became chief executive and now exceeds $7 million, said Ms. Bush.

She expanded fundraising and convinced donors their gifts were critical to continue administering advocacy programs.

The local staff has about 50 employees and did not cut any jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its three family support centers, in the North Side, East Hills and Duquesne, received pandemic relief funds through Allegheny County to provide essential services including food distribution; and rent, utility and mortgage assistance.

“Our programs were beefed up and my staff stepped up.”

It also helped spearhead a campaign with Downtown-based corporation Koppers that raised $65,000 for pandemic supplies including toilet paper, sanitizer and masks that were distributed in primarily Black communities in the Hill District, Homewood, North Side and Duquesne.

The Urban League is partnering with UPMC on a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Duquesne and outreach to the entire Black community to help educate them on the vaccines.

Many Black people have resisted the vaccine, Ms. Bush acknowledged, but “by arming them with information,” she’s hopeful the country will achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of the U.S. population receive one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 4.

Despite racial and economic inequities that persist in the Pittsburgh region — where Blacks comprise about 23% of the city’s population and about 14% of Allegheny County’s population — Ms. Bush believes there can be positive change.

“Anybody who sits in this chair has to be an optimist or you can’t do the work,” she said.

More focus must be directed at attracting and retaining Black executives, she said.

Cain Hayes, a Black man named chief executive of Gateway Health in 2018, is leaving later this month to head the newly combined Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan in Massachusetts.

He was among the few Blacks in Pittsburgh’s corporate c-suites, Ms. Bush noted, though Duquesne Light Co. earlier this week named Kevin Walker as its first Black chief executive.

“How are other corporations not finding them?” said Ms. Bush.

“If Duquesne Light can do it, others can do it too.”

She suggested current corporate decision makers “not get bonuses [and other perks] if they don’t hire people of color.”

With Pittsburgh positioned to elect Ed Gainey as the city’s first Black mayor — barring a challenge to the Democratic primary election winner in the November general election — the city “has an opportunity, not just Black folks,” said Ms. Bush.

“Black and white people have to support him and support equity,” she said. “He’s going to have to be bold, with his shoulders back.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make Pittsburgh one of the best places to live for everybody.”

Ms. Bush, who is single, plans to stay in her Highland Park home when she retires and looks forward to downtime because “running the Urban League is not a 9-to-5, five-days-a-week job.”

She’ll reduce her outside board obligations but will remain active in some organizations including the International Women’s Forum, and may teach a college course.

The majority of her family members live in the area and she wants to continue “many family traditions that are very important to me that my parents established.”