Humble roots lead Michael Alexander to public service
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
“I understand how to serve a community, because I grew up in one,” said New York-raised Michael Alexander, who has taken the reigns as the Urban League of Portland’s 13th president and chief executive officer.
A Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield executive in Portland for the past seven years, Alexander was selected to guide the local civil rights and community service organization because of his success as a leader in business and public service. He has worked in large healthcare organizations for the past 25 to 30 years, but came looking for a unique opportunity like this one.
“I wanted to spend the last couple years of my career where I started,” Alexander said in an interview with the Portland Observer.
The Urban League began its search for a new leader in March after the resignation of former League president, Marcus Mundy in December. Among a pool of highly-qualified candidates, Alexander took the position in August.
“The Urban league is a critical voice in advocating and elevating the interests of Portlanders and Oregonians who want and deserve to share more fully in all this very special city has to offer,” he said.
Humble New York beginnings, working hard alongside three brothers, saving money for college as a lifeguard, and doing a job no one else would as a claim adjuster in Harlem, pointed him to a life dedicated in the humanities and touching the lives of others, said Alexander.
His highest degree, a Masters in Social Services from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, helped guide his rich work history in social work as a community organizer and mental health director and later, a behavioral health manager for multiple large health divisions and corporations including Aetna, Magellan and Regence.
Alexander moved to Portland in 2005 to become vice president of account management at Regence. Since his arrival, he has served on boards for Lifeworks Northwest, Portland Parks and Recreation, the Oregon American Leadership Forum, and the cabinet for United Way of Columbia-Willamette.
Of all the cities he’s lived in, Alexander says he loves Portland the most.
“It’s a peculiar paradise,” he said. He likes the city’s progressive bent and that Portland doesn’t just tolerate, but invites differences among its inhabitants.
There’s room at the table for everyone,” he said, but that doesn’t mean the city is without its failings.
Alexander said he’s never lived in a city where the African-American community has been the smallest minority.
“There is a rich history here that unless you seek it, it’s not apparent,” said Alexander, who says after moving here, he became a student of the local African-American community.
He says the community is no longer defined by geography, but by gentrification, displacement and urban renewal.
The people are impacted, he said, pointing to social stabilizers that define quality of life issues that are put out of reach for so many.
Portland’s “numbers,” the streets and neighborhoods east of 82nd Avenue, have not been built to support the displaced populations who live there, he said.
As the Urban League’s new leader, he calls for a pre-urban renewal mindset, where robust communities are sustained to support families
Alexander said these challenges won’t be heard by city officials, downtown, unless “we stand on bully pulpits.”
Asked about the Urban League’s many changes in leadership over its 67-year-old legacy and last year’s controversy surrounding the League’s misappropriation of funds, Alexander said he is confident that accounting and ethical standards at the Urban League are in place.
“There will clearly be shared accountability, governance and oversight in terms of the challenges we faced last year,” he said, “This was a difficult time and it took away from a strong legacy and many folks working hard.”
Alexander says he is “excited, pleased and humbled” to be Urban League’s new leader and “yes” he is up to the challenge. “For as long as I have it, I’m going to bring it,” he said.