Adams, Sheila J. 1943–
Sheila J. Adams 1943–
Sheila Adams has made it her life’s work to bring greater economic opportunity to those people who have yet to realize the American dream. For over a decade, she has served as president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, overseeing a broad range of services designed to strengthen the African American community. In her view, it is a fitting legacy for the great-granddaughter of a slave who escaped to Canada through Ohio’s Underground Railroad to teach other African Americans how to escape economic hardship by developing marketable skills. “It’s that old adage about if you give a person a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a person to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime,” Adams told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
Born in Cincinnati in 1943, Adams was the youngest of seven children in the Thompson family. She was educated at local schools, but it was her father’s example that set the tenor for her life. Adams’s father owned a well-regarded plaster contracting company. His motto—“If it’s up to me, excellent it will be”—soon became his daughter’s work ethic as she strove to excel. After graduating from Withrow High School, she attended Central State College for a year before transferring to the University of Cincinnati. In 1964, Adams earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She recalled in an interview with CBB, “I wanted to do all this great stuff for the world, but I eventually realized that economic improvements were what would really help people.”
During her junior year of college, Adams married a professional basketball player. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she opted to raise a family while her husband lived the life of a professional athlete. Adams raised two sons and a daughter, putting her homemaking skills to the test when her sons were young. She highly valued the roles of wife and homemaker. According to Adams, American culture does a disservice when it devalues women’s work in the home. “The most important work for a mother at home is home life,” she said emphatically in her interview with CBB. “Whenever I speak to women, I make sure they know that motherhood is valuable and they should value their contributions to society by being good mothers and homemakers.”
Adams eventually divorced her husband, and entered the workforce. She served for nine years as a personnel officer and chief planner for the Employment and
At a Glance…
Born in Cincinnati, OH, on June 1, 1943; married, 1963 (later divorced), married Alexander Adams (retired college professor), 1992; children: Derek, Brian, Ariana (from first marriage). Education : University of Cincinnati, B.A. (sociology), 1964.
Career: City of Cincinnati. Employment and Training Division, personnel officer and chief planner, 1971-81; Private Industry Council, president, 1982–89; Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, president and chief executive officer, 1990-.
Selected awards: YWCA Career Woman of Achievement, 1988; Withrow High SchoolHall of Fame, 1991; Cincinnati Enquirer Woman of the Year, 1993; Delta Sigma Theta Economic Empowerment Award, 1995; Enterprise Award—Individual of the Year, 1996;YMCA Character Award, 1997; Black Career Women, Inc. Legacy Messenger, 1997; Dr. MartinL King J. “Dream Keeper Award” for Individual and Corporate Achievement, theArts Consortium of Cincinnati and the City of Cincinnati, 1998: Distinguished Black Women Award, Black Women in Sisterhood for Action, 1999: Cincinnati Bell Building Bridges Award, 2000.
Selected memberships: Ohio Council of Urban League (chair); The Cincinnati Youth Collaborative; Family and Children First Executive Committee; Black Career Women; Cincinnati Links; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; delegate for the President Clinton Summit for America’s Future, 1997.
Addresses: Office —Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, 3458 ReadingRd., Cincinnati, OH 45229–3128.
Training Division of the City of Cincinnati before becoming president of the Private Industry Council in 1982. In these positions, Adams gained important knowledge of the business world, and realized her goal of “making a difference” by promoting economic opportunities for some 30,000 greater Cincinnati area residents. She also learned to balance her family and work roles. As she told CBB, “I knew that I had to juggle family and my job, so I put support systems in place. I’ve always been fortunate enough to have jobs where my family responsibilities were understood. And I was able to do my job well despite the occasional emergencies that come with family life.”
In 1990, Adams took the helm of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati. This organization, founded in 1949, strives through training and development programs to promote self-sufficiency. Among its many programs, the Urban League runs after-school educational support programs where students receive tutoring, homework assistance, and access to computer-based learning. The educational programs are staffed by volunteers drawn from the African American church and the larger community. Other programs help urban youth to develop academically, personally, and socially. Several programs teach youths about the risks of contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, and the need for sexual abstinence. For parents, teachers, and community leaders, the League offers parent empowerment training and violence-resistance training. It also offers a welcome program for new members of the Cincinnati community. In the workforce development arena, the Urban League provides computer training, high school equivalence diploma courses, job counseling, resume and interview classes, and job referrals. Its Youth Works jobs-readiness program helps 14 to 17-year-old students prepare themselves to enter the workforce for the first time. Adams’s role involved overseeing all of these programs.
Adams is a graduate of Leadership Cincinnati X. This program helps prepare participants for future leadership roles by bringing aspiring leaders together to consider community needs and how they might be met. Since less than a fourth of the participants were members of minority groups, Adams decided to create a similar program. She founded the African American Leadership Development Program in 1993, with the goal of nurturing leaders who would then make a direct and positive impact on the African American community. Businesses and organizations in the Cincinnati area sponsor participants in this popular ten-month development program.
In 1995, Adams launched a capital campaign to build a 23,000 square foot facility which would serve as headquarters for Urban League programs. When the facility opened two years later, it was equipped to serve thousands of families. The 4.4 million facility stood as a testament to the partnerships between business people, civic leaders, and philanthropists who funded its construction and support Urban League programs. It also reflected Adams’s vision and skillful leadership. Although Adams noted some improvement in employment and education prospects for African Americans, “things just aren’t there yet,” she told CBB. “Until the playing field is level, there will always be a need for the Urban League to speak for people and lift them up.” Adams confirmed her long-term commitment to the Urban League and its goals. “I can’t afford to give up,” Adams remarked to CBB. “I see little babies coming out of school, passing my office everyday. I cannot afford to get discouraged. I cannot give up. Every time I look in the eyes of little children, I think of how they deserve a future. That’s not to say I don’t get discouraged sometimes. I do, but not for long. All of us deserve what society has to offer.”
Essence, September, 1998.
Opportunity Journal, August, 1998.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from The Urban League of Greater Cincinnati’s site on the World Wide Web, at http://www.gcul.org\; and from an interview with Sheila Adams on April 27, 2000.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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