By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Dwayne Crenshaw says a combination of real life experiences, street smarts and expertise culled over 20 years in the non-profit sector will serve him well as the new president and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Urban League. He sees the new role as a chance to “step up a level and have a broader reach.” Courtesy photo

The Greater Sacramento Urban League (GSUL) has selected San Diego-based non-profit founder Dwayne Crenshaw as its new President and CEO.

The seat was vacated by Cassandra Jennings last June, when she left to become CEO of St. Hope. It was a position she had held for five years.

The hiring process took a little over six months and was conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of a Chicago-based external executive search firm, Carrington and Carrington, a national search garnered 18 candidates and Crenshaw emerged as one of the top three contenders.

“He really had excellent experience and credentials,” Selection Committee Chair Sandra Davis-Houston said.

 “He’s an attorney. He’s worked in nonprofits all of his career. He had a lot of experience both with working within the community, as well as government relations,” she continued. “Given where we are today, and in the country, he brings a wealth of knowledge, both in terms of being able to fiscally sustain the organization, as well as to help the board and the organization move forward strategically, and to impact the community in a way that we will offer programs and projects that will help lift up the community.”

Crenshaw is no stranger to the state capital. He has family here and started his career off locally, working as an aide to such lawmakers as former Assemblymember-turned lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante and former Assemblymember-turned State Superintendent Public Instruction, Jack O’Connell. He also earned a master’s degree in government from Sacramento State University.

“I love Sacramento,” he said in an exclusive telephone interview with The OBSERVER. “I love it personally and professionally and I’m coming home.”

Crenshaw had been serving as President and CEO of Rise@Work, also known as The Humanity Movement. He ran day-to-day operations and led the organization’s policy development and advocacy work. He previously served as CEO and co-founder of RISE San Diego, executive director of San Diego LGBT Pride, the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils and director of the Jacobs Center For Neighborhood Innovation. 

Crenshaw said two occurrences in May 2020 — turning 50 and George Floyd dying under the knee of a White Minnesota police officer — caused him to do some self-reflection and ultimately led him to apply for the job with the GSUL.

“After George Floyd’s murder, I really took a close look at what I was doing personally and professionally on civil rights and social justice, and really decided to go all in on that work,” he said.

“I rebranded one of my organizations focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion work, activism, and policy. And then I saw this announcement for the Greater Sacramento Urban League and thought it’d be even greater to be a part of a national movement.”

Sacramento, he says, can be a “real power base,” not only for the local Urban League, but for Urban Leagues across the state who have the potential to influence other sister organizations nationwide. 

Crenshaw originally envisioned a career in education. The seed was planted back when he was in elementary school. He was bused in the fourth grade to an area with better schools. There he was the only Black student in a school of 600.

“This, of course, is 25 years after Brown vs. Board of Education and I knew it wasn’t right that I had two teachers, half day, with 15 in my class, while all my friends and neighbors were still stuck in a classroom with 32-34 kids,” he shared.

At nine years old, Crenshaw didn’t know the terminology for school desegregation and its impact, but he advocated successfully to go back to his original school. By the eighth grade he was tutoring other Black students.

“I realized that God had blessed me and I knew I wanted to give back,” he shared. 

His mother was PTA president and his father was a minister, who coached Little League. Because they had a copy machine in their garage, the family was popular and became “the neighborhood Kinko’s.”

“Being involved in the community has just been natural to me, but I really started at 13 because I knew that I didn’t want any other kids who were going to the school in the neighborhood to be behind,” Crenshaw said.

While he did teach for a few years, Crenshaw decided to take a different path. He earned a law degree from California Western School of Law, but isn’t a practicing attorney. 

“What’s legal isn’t always just and what’s just isn’t always legal. While I have a strong grasp of the law and I’m fascinated by the law, I don’t like the implementation of the law, in the courts in our system and I can’t be a part of that,” he says of not taking the bar exam.

Crenshaw, who left Sacramento in 1999, is scheduled to touch back down at the end of the month. His first official day on the job is February 1 and he expects to hit the ground running.

The league has great workforce development, employment services and job placement, housing and community programs in Oak Park,” Crenshaw said. “That will continue to go and hopefully grow and be strengthened even more, but I really want to position the Greater Sacramento Urban League as an influential policy maker for Black communities and communities of color and advancing policy that will do that. What we can accomplish here in California, we can also take nationally. That’s going to be a major focus for me.”