Urban League’s information man says, ‘Know yourself’

Shawn Lewis (Photo courtesy of Shawn Lewis)

There are some Black professionals who are not only good at their jobs, but they also exemplify outstanding community service, commitment to their line of work, and have vast knowledge of their profession and the community they work in. Shawn Lewis, currently an information specialist for the Workforce Development Department at the Minneapolis Urban League, fits the bill and then some.

“I had a chance to work in two divisions of the Urban League, and that’s been very helpful to me,” said Lewis. Before working with the Urban League, he was a grant writer for the United Way, an organization that helps people build pathways out of poverty by connecting them with resources for education, jobs and housing.

“When I think about my workforce development past, I began working on the grant-making side at United Way,” explained Lewis. “I assisted with funding programs dealing with basic needs, which included aspects such as shelters, transitional housing and employment programs.

“I had a rotation where I had to review and fund those types of agencies,” continued Lewis. “When I came to the Urban League, I was on the side of the agency who receives funding. Going from the grant proposal side to the recipient side, [in addition to] dealing with case management and helping people find jobs, is unique and an interesting aspect to me. Usually people go from the community-based side to the funding side.”

Lewis started at United Way in January of 2000 distributing resources and funding money. Before that he was in the First Call for Help unit, which later became United Way 211, an information referral service.

Currently Lewis holds rental fair housing workshops every two weeks on Mondays at the Urban League. “In my world, I try to find out what people need. I usually ask the basic screening questions such as, ‘Do you face any barriers such as credit, UD’s [unlawful detainers], or a criminal record,’ and ‘How do you plan to pay rent?’ I then try to assist them with receiving public benefits or finding a job, or refer them to a job counselor.”

Lewis sated that this tied in perfectly with his customer service and library skills background. “I had no idea I would be working with housing and finance,” said Lewis. As an information specialist working with the community, Lewis has seen various changes in the neighborhood, North Minneapolis in particular.

“The big thing for North Minneapolis was the Sumner neighborhood where they had public housing that was torn down,” Lewis recalled. “There were people of different ethnic groups protesting some of the units, for them not to be torn down. This has taken place in Chicago as well,” said Lewis.

Lewis was referring to similar public housing tear-downs that have occurred in major U.S cities across the country, such as Cabrini Green in Chicago, St Bernard and Calliope (B.W.Cooper) in New Orleans, St. Nicholas in Harlem, and Bowen Homes in Atlanta. He pointed out the key signs of gentrification: an increase in coffee shops, road construction, development, and communities where people of color who were once the majority suddenly become the minority.

“That was a concern for the North Side many have expressed, especially with the potential of the light rail coming through the community,” said Lewis. “I don’t think people thought about the ramifications… When we take away those [housing] units, will people be able to find another unit?”

Lewis went to school primarily in South Minneapolis, from attending Lyndale Community to Susan B. Anthony Jr. High, and attended the University of Minnesota.

“The shrinking of high school graduates is leading to worker shortages in some industries.” said Lewis. He recalled how in high school he wanted to be a scientist and engineer. A Honeywell Defense Scholarship, with the goal to reach more people of color to that particular field, made that a possible career opportunity.

“I ended up in the Institute of Technology, but when I found out I didn’t have the aptitude like I thought I did in high school, I decided to pursue liberal arts and political science,” said Lewis.

Lewis said he’s often faced being stereotyped. “I remember telling some students I didn’t know very well that I was in IT [Institute of Technology] and they didn’t believe me. I showed them my fee statement and they were surprised. As an African American male, it is assumed you are either an athlete or musician and not given the same attention for your intellectual capacity.”

Lewis said this challenge definitely prepared him for the real world in terms of advocacy and being the minority. “I would go to the African Student Cultural Center [now the Black Student Union] and I would be the majority. When I went to work or to class, I would become the minority. I would feel tension and stress from it, but it prepared me for the workforce, especially here in Minnesota.”

The best part of his job, he said, is actually seeing people achieve what he’s helped them work toward. He recalls, for example, a man featured on a WCCO segment by Reg Chapman who was at one time homeless, got trained in construction, obtained a room for himself and began finding regular work opportunities.


“That’s the most rewarding part to me,” Lewis said. He encourages those who want to pursue their dreams to do so.

“Think about what your values and principles are, what you are good at, and see where it takes you,” said Lewis. “Knowing yourself and the type of work you want to do is important.”


For more information on resources provided by the Urban League, contact their office at 612-302-3100. They are located at 2100 Plymouth Ave in North Minneapolis.

Ivan B. Phifer welcomes readers’ response to iphifer@spokesman-recorder.com.