President and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League Glenton Gilzean Jr. started his first nonprofit at age 26. Educate Today represented the first of many times Gilzean would create a space for those voices in the community that don’t otherwise have a platform, providing a safe environment for disadvantaged youth to continue their education after school. Shortly after, he moved to Step Up for Students, where his skills were put to use as vice president of family and community affairs. In 2016, he joined the Central Florida Urban League, where he quickly gained recognition for his work. While the circumstances of life and work this year have required a lot of adaptation, they have also led Gilzean and his team to look to new ways to amplify voices and provide opportunities for those they serve. Here, he talks about his experience leading through the recent revolution in the fight for civil rights, the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what everyone in the community can take away from this unique moment in time.
What did you want to be growing up, and why?
From a young age I enjoyed helping people, so it makes sense that growing up I wanted to be a doctor. In the community, and in the media, it is always a highly regarded position, synonymous with success and family.
What inspired you to start Educate Today?
While working at the Florida Department of Education, I would often hear parents complain about the large amount of homework their children had to complete. Even students who attended after-school programs had two or three hours of work once they returned home. Educate Today combined the safety and fun of other after-school programs with a high-quality, academic setting where students could complete their daily studies.
In your role at Step Up for Students, you worked to give young people and families access to the right educational path for their needs. What kinds of roadblocks to the right path are often in the way, and how do we clear them away?
Education does not exist in a bubble; it competes for funding with other interests like health care and transportation. Often, people — especially politicians — cannot agree on the best way to distribute funds, which leads to a lack of resources and money for our schools. Students must come first. Clearing the path means advocating for legislation that helps minority and low-income students get the education they deserve so they can be successful.
What brought you to the Central Florida Urban League?
I saw an opportunity to expand my advocacy to include the families of the students I had been working so hard for. I can fight for a child to get a great education, but at the end of the day they still have to go back to the same poverty-stricken community. Overcoming the challenges of living in a low-income neighborhood is an uphill battle. The Central Florida Urban League has a broad reach that allows me to help not only the child, but also the entire family and neighborhood. By focusing on the three E’s — education, employment and entrepreneurship — we have created a road map for ending generational poverty.
What challenges did you face when you came on board as president in November 2015? How did you overcome them?
When I joined the Central Florida Urban League, the organization was $1.2 million in debt and on the verge of closing. I basically worked for free for nine months because there was no money to pay my salary. I leveraged all the relationships in my network for investments in the organization. I promised to show them a return on investment with the number of students receiving tutoring services and adults obtaining job-training skills.
What kinds of challenges has the COVID-19 pandemic created for the education sector? How does this particularly impact underprivileged communities?
COVID-19 has shifted education to an almost entirely virtual model, which doesn’t work well for everyone. For children of color living in low-income neighborhoods, school is sometimes the safest environment. Schools provide social and emotional growth and can also be the only source to meet a child’s nutritional needs. The pandemic has disrupted the health and safety of our most vulnerable students.
What are some steps being taken to find solutions?
The Central Florida Urban League is looking at new ways to provide educational programming for students that would give families more options when it comes to schooling. We are also developing initiatives that provide parents and caregivers advanced-skills training to obtain jobs they need in order to better support the family as a whole. We are proud to be the first Urban League in the country to offer a Microsoft Office Specialization Certificate, a program that will lead to better employment opportunities for our community.
What kinds of programs does the Central Florida Urban League offer, and how have you adapted them in the wake of COVID-19?
In addition to our efforts with education and employment, we are working with community partners and financial institutions to protect and foster entrepreneurship. A recent study reported that more than 40% of Black-owned businesses have closed or will close due to the pandemic. We know that schools and Black businesses are the major anchors of Black communities, so the Urban League is working with the Black Business Investment Fund and the African American Chamber of Commerce to address the dire needs of Black businesses.
How does technology intersect with education in Central Florida, and what kinds of possibilities can it present?
Research shows that individuals who possess a Microsoft Office Specialization Certificate earn about $17,000 more than their counterparts. During the pandemic, a majority of layoffs from high-growth industries, including health care and construction, were due to the fact that employees could not work from home. We need to create a talent pipeline by developing the skill sets needed for jobs of the future so people can support themselves and their families.
What might education look like moving forward? What kinds of resources are needed?
As we move forward, I believe education will become more customized to individual learners’ needs instead of remaining fixed to a system. Right now, money goes from state governments to local governments to be disbursed among educational institutions. In the future, I see educational funding going directly to families who can then choose from a variety of providers and services to educate their children.
In light of the recent surge in protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, what has it been like to lead through such a pivotal moment for equality and civil rights?
It is truly a humbling experience. I see myself as a bridge builder, someone who can move between all the different groups affected by this struggle and come up with solutions and plans for lawmakers. It has been rewarding to see our communities and allies come together to uplift the Black community.
How have you adjusted to the new normal?
Like many of us, we are spending a lot more time on Zoom calls and leveraging technology as best we can. Change is always a challenge, but we took time to regroup, look critically at our processes, and figure out a stronger infrastructure going forward.
And finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My momma said to me, “Baby, ain’t nobody goin’ to hire you if you can’t read, and ain’t nobody goin’ to invest in you if you don’t have work experience.” I knew then that education and employment were the keys to entrepreneurship. If we can work on these three goals for the Black community, we can end generational poverty.