Urban League’s Christie Kuhns pushes for progress in eliminating poverty, violence

Photos by Wendell Gibbs Jr.

After asking Christie Bryant Kuhns three times why she has dedicated her life to social justice, it becomes clear that she does not have a good answer. Or an answer at all. She is not being evasive; it feels more like asking somebody why the sky is blue.

Kuhns is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, a job she has held since 2022. Her work is a natural progression for a woman born and raised in Cincinnati, who has spent her life working for equity and fairness. 

Christie Kuhns of the Urban league of Greater Southwest Ohio
Christie Kuhns, president and CEO of the Urban league of Greater Southwest Ohio

This year marks the chapter’s 75th anniversary, a remarkable run of driving equity and financial empowerment for African Americans in Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Dayton. In August, the Urban League opened the Holloman Center for Social Justice, a base of operations for its work to address regional social justice issues, including police reform. 

Kuhns is aware of the Urban League’s history and knows she will be measured by how much she can move things forward. “A lot has happened in those years, there are a lot of shoulders that I am standing on,” she said. “I feel the weight. I feel the weight of ensuring we have 75 more years.”

Kuhns goes about her job with the pragmatism of somebody who has been working to make a difference for as long as she can remember. Her parents let it be known that community involvement was not an option. It was a duty. “My mom was a social worker,” Kuhns said. “It was always important in my family to give back and to never look down on anybody. Ever.”

Kuhns remembers singing and dancing and then talking in front of the Cincinnati City Council as a teenager to support the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati. While a student at Walnut Hills High School, she successfully petitioned the school to create an AP Latin class for students who felt like Latin 4 was simply not enough. Asked if this is as nerdy as it sounds, she says yes. Defiantly.

Kuhns was a student at the University of Cincinnati in April 2001 when a Cincinnati police officer shot and killed Timothy Thomas, who was unarmed. The shooting sparked civil unrest and rioting. She was asked to serve on one of the committees tasked with making Cincinnati a more peaceful and equitable city. She was just a college kid, and it was not the most glamorous role, but it was a chance to help rebuild Cincinnati and make it better. During that time, Kuhns met lawyers who were able to make a real difference. So she went to the UC College of Law. 

After graduation from law school, Kuhns went to a large downtown law firm and then went to work for American Family Insurance. However, public service called again and she won an election for the Ohio House of Representatives. Finally, she returned to the public service sector at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where she worked as vice president of operations and community relations, and chief of staff to the COO.

Over the years, Kuhns always volunteered in Avondale, eventually spending much of her time at the Urban League. It was not a surprise to many when she was asked to run the organization on an interim basis,and less than six months later the job was hers. 

“I am Cincinnati born and raised,” Kuhns said. “I know my city, I love my city. I was ready.” 

Appealing to the bottom line

While she loves the city, she does not go about her job with a pie-in-the-sky optimism. When she is talking to corporate leaders about jobs and money, she does not do so with the intent of creating fairness or equity. That will come another day. No, she appeals to their bottom line. She knows that every company needs qualified workers and consumers.

“I don’t talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. People need employees. They need people as workers and consumers,” Kuhns said. “No matter what your political persuasion is, if you run a company you need workers and consumers. And you cannot fill all the jobs without people of color.”

If this sounds transactional, it’s because it is. “The people that I serve cannot wait. They don’t have time to wait for people to change hearts and minds.”

This approach is on mission for the Urban League, which has always had a practical focus. The organization is all about workforce development, job placement, financial empowerment and career planning.

“Christie knows how to work with businesses, governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, and, let’s be honest, she knows how to work with people,” said Brendon Cull, president and CEO of Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “She’s a regional leader, with stature and influence, and she’s the perfect person to lead the venerable Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio. Christie uses all of her talents for good – to grow businesses, to help people build new skills, and to help people strengthen our civic fabric. But the best part about Christie? It’s the phone call where you know right from ‘hello’ that she’s going to be very direct. Thank goodness for those phone calls. It’s why she’s respected and effective.” 

In addition to her ability to work with business leaders and political leaders, Kuhns may be at her best working with people who may need a little help. She learned a long time ago that people are, as she likes to say, “imperfectly perfect.” This was an everyday lesson from her mother, who taught her that people can make mistakes and still be worthy of our love and admiration. It is the imperfectly perfect people that she wants to help the most. 

The hardest step, she knows, is walking through the door the first time. “I am super sensitive to how we treat people who walk through these doors for the first time. Asking for help is not easy.” 

This organic empathy, Kuhns said, is a byproduct of how her parents raised her and her two sisters. “Every accomplishment that I have is because of my mom and dad.” 

Christie Kuhns president and CEO of the Urban league at the Holloman Center for Social Justice
Christie Kuhns at the Holloman Center for Social Justice

Steps toward economic security

Kuhns believes a series of manageable steps can take people a long way.

She wants people who come to the Urban League to start working immediately on their credit scores. “A good credit score can level the playing field. The freedom that comes with good credit is so important.”

Chara Jackson is president and CEO of Cincinnati Preschool Promise and has known Kuhns since she was serving in the state House. And in May, they were both honored as YWCA Career Women of Achievement. Jackson said Kuhn’s commitment to helping others was obvious as soon as they met. And so was her know-how. 

“I was impressed by her commitment to the community and her ability to navigate the political landscape in a way that was meaningful to those she served,” Jackson said. “She is the perfect leader to bring together ULGSO’s work of advocacy, education and empowerment. She is a trusted partner and leader that we have and will continue to count on.” 

Kuhns wants people to move past jobs and into careers. She wants to see an increase in home ownership in Urban League clients. She wants to see a decrease in violence in poor communities. And not just for the ordinary reasons. 

“All of it is important. A good credit score makes a loan easier. A job that becomes a career has more opportunities for growth and salary increases,” Kuhns said. “Eradicating violence matters because violence helps keep property values low. This eliminates the opportunity for wealth to move from generation to generation.”

When everything is connected, everything matters. And that can be tiring. “All of it is important and that is difficult. But we are ready to work. The Urban League will work with anybody who can help.”

Progress, Kuhns knows, can be incremental, but she is not intimidated by the work required. “By focusing on the contributing factors of poverty, by working on one at a time, we will see progress. It’s inevitable.”

So Kuhns will continue to work with anybody so that everybody has a chance. When companies say they will hire the trained workers coming out of Urban League programs, Kuhns is not concerned with why they are helping. Frankly, it does not matter to her or the people being hired. 

She knows that if people are given the chance, they will succeed and become agents of change. But that is not why they get hired. “Nobody cares. All that matters is can they do the work? Can they finance a car, and can they use my bank to finance it?” 

Kuhns has learned this by asking people who find their way to the Urban League two simple questions. “What is your immediate concern, and how can the Urban League help you solve it?”

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