On July 24, 1994, Indianapolis welcomed the annual National Urban League conference. It will be doing the same thing this week, exactly 25 years later.
The conference, which runs Wednesday through Saturday, is expected to draw 20,000 people from across the country and have a local economic impact of $10 million. More than 600 people are registered as volunteers for the conference.
The New York City-based National Urban League is a civil rights community organization that works to promote economic and social equality for people of color. NUL’s 90 affiliates in 36 states take turns hosting the annual conference. This year’s conference theme is “Getting 2 Equal: United Not Divided.”
“There’s a little bit of something for everyone,” said Tony Mason, president of the Indianapolis Urban League, local affiliate of the national organization. “We want to throw the doors wide open to the community.”
Mason emphasized his goal is to benefit the city and local community by hosting this year’s conference.
“It’s a national conference but … we wanted to make sure we support our local community to the fullest extent possible,” Mason said. “We want a lot of people to come to this, but we want to make sure the local community can be involved in a big way.”
The conference will take place primarily at the Indiana Convention Center and will include more than 100 businesses and organizations as exhibitors, as well as technology and small business-focused summits, career fairs, workshops and health screenings.
Admission for much of the conference is free.
“The city knows the Indy Urban League well, but they don’t know the National Urban League,” Adrianne Slash, president of The Exchange, the youth branch of the Indianapolis Urban League. “I like to think of it as a gift to the public.”
Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand and Tim Ryan will speak at the conference, with half scheduled for Thursday morning and the others on Friday morning.
In addition, celebrities, news anchors and business leaders are scheduled to take part in events throughout the conference.
The candidate events, as well as a black-tie awards gala, forums and luncheons require prior registration to attend.
Conference events will largely cover topics highlighted in the NUL’s 2019 State of Black America report, particularly voter discrimination, election interference and the U.S. Census.
“There’s so much confusion in the public discussion about why voting is important for black people and why there’s so much of an effort to prevent people from voting,” said Dianne Pinderhughes, a University of Notre Dame professor and researcher in inequality in racial, ethnic and gender politics. “In many instances, people seem not to believe discrimination is happening.”
Many civil rights groups say voting rights have been weakened on numerous fronts in recent years, especially after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that found parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Bringing those issues to the forefront at the conference could lead to changes, said Luis Fraga, political science professor and director of the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame. University.
“If they have the effect of changing the perspective of local leaders to mobilize local communities to go out and register to vote and mobilize people, a conference like this is an ideal place to send that message about the importance of going out and getting to the polls,” he said.
People of color will make up one-third of eligible voters in the United States in 2020, an increase of 25 percent since 2000, according to Pew Research Center.
“A lot of the messages and experience gained at the conference will go back home, information that will hopefully inspire people, not just in voting, but to be leaders in their communities,” Mason said.
Registration for the conference is still open.