A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Vanessa Allen

A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Vanessa Allen

“Success is possible, but you have to avoid taking the scenic route,” says Dr. Vanessa Allen, CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana.

The mother of two, grandmother of four describes herself as a collaborator, motivational speaker, facilitator, and powerful leader in the community. Allen was born in Detroit, Michigan, raised in Chicago and later moved to Gary, Indiana. She chuckles as she talks about attempting to embark on a career path minus a degree and the irony that today the mantra she walks and talks is success through achieving a college degree.

Allen graduated from Horace Mann High School in Gary, Indiana. After graduation she decided not to attend college because her goal was to make money so she could move out of her parent’s home. Her first job was at K-Mart and afterward she was hired at Gainer Bank as a secretary. After a while, the position of administrative assistant was posted, but Allen was unable to apply because she did not have a degree. Allen said the biggest blow to her was that she had to train the person who was hired for the position. It was at that point that the lesson hit home.

Between 1977 and 1986 Allen’s career continued without earning a degree. In 1989, she was hired at Purdue University to work as a secretary to Sue Panther, Director of Programs in the Educational Talent Search Office. Panther encouraged Allen to take evening classes while working. In 1991 she earned her Associates degree.

In 1993, Allen went to Calumet College of St. Joseph where she earned a degree in Organizational Management. She said it was difficult returning as an adult. If she had listened to her mentors and parents she would have completed her Masters by 1993. While earning her degree Allen continued to work her way up and moved into the counseling office as Office Administrator in the Ronald E. McNair Program. She attended college on weekends and evenings.

After Panther left to become Dean at South Suburban College, she contacted Allen and invited her to apply for a position at South Suburban. By that time Allen had earned her Masters degree. She moved from her position at Purdue to South Suburban and became Director of Student Development having oversight over 5 different student services programs.

Her next position was with the Gary Community School Corporation where she was Director over the federally funded college readiness program that was responsible for targeting and tracking students from 7th grade until graduation by engaging them in college readiness opportunities. Allen felt this was the best opportunity for her as it afforded her the opportunity to come back to Gary so she would not miss out on overseeing her daughters. Allen said of when eldest daughter was having problems with reading, she was able to be home to help tutor her. Allen said she made an arrangement with her daughter to help increase her reading skills by having her daughter reading out loud while Allen did the dishes. Looking back on the opportunity, she was thankful to be able to be there to assist her.

Allen says she has always been community driven, a leader with the skills to encourage, motivate and move people forward. She also became the expert on keeping sane and staying on the straight and narrow.

In 2009 the Gary Community School Board decided they wanted to make changes in the District and they recommended five or six administrator position be eliminated and/or changed. The Board relieved Allen of her position and she was placed on a State mandated paid leave. In October of 2009, the Board asked Allen to come back and she was assigned to work with the principal of Banneker elementary. In the meantime, friends encouraged her to apply for the position at the Urban League that was vacated by the transitioning of Eloise Gentry. There were thirty-nine applicants and Allen was selected to be among the top 3.

Allen said she was impressed that so many people applied for the position. She said she felt she was the best candidate for the position. Prior to applying she did her homework and became prepared for the position. She says she tells the students who apply for scholarships and jobs with the Urban League to “do your homework; understand what the position is all about.”

The Urban League is over 100 years old. It was one of the primary organizations that promoted equality and justice for African Americans who migrated to the north. The Urban League was behind the scenes being looked upon as a training organization. After being interviewed by a panel of nine members, Allen was appointed to the position on January 15, 2010.

“Some would say that the God I serve shook my foundation with the school district in order for me to move forward, and that’s the truth,” Allen said. “It was ordained and part of the spiritual journey that I was on. I would have stayed with the District because I enjoyed working with the parents and the students. “

Allen said there were many challenges to the office. Because of Gentry’s failing health, many services had become inactive. Allen worked to restructure the board and reintegrate the Urban League back into the community.

Beaming with pride, Allen boasts that today when you walk into the office, you will find that many of the services have been reactivated and enhanced – employment/job services, job fairs, tax assistance, college opportunities with 1,300 students that come from Lake, LaPorte and Porter Counties including students in Michigan City and Valparaiso.

There are scholarship fairs that provide on the spot scholarships with attendance and participation that increases each year.

Under the guidance and direction of the Board of Directors, Allen said she has been able to form community partnership with NIPSCO, Horizon Bank and many other companies. She was also able to develop and promote the Diversity and Inclusion Luncheon that promotes the strategies that businesses use internally and within the community. Last year more than five hundred were in attendance. This year’s Luncheon will be held on March 19 at the Avalon in Merrillville.

“It promises to be bigger and better,” says Allen.

Membership roles have increased. Allen says her proudest moment was to receive a certificate in honor of re-establishment and recognition as one of the fastest moving affiliates since her inception.

Allen said she always wanted to return to school to get her Doctorate. One day while attending a funeral at Robinson Funeral Home in Gary, the owner, walked past her and said “Hey Doc.”

Allen said she responded by saying, “Don’t call me Doc. I am not a doctor.”

He said, “You look like a doctor and you act like a doctor. You should be one.”

She was introduced to his mother, Florine Robinson who was an advisor at Argosy University in Chicago. Allen said she wanted to begin taking classes in 2007. When she began experiencing difficulties with a cousin who became ill with a brain aneurism and her mother began having health challenges while she was attempting to apply for acceptance, Allen began making excuses for not completing the process.

When she told this to Robinson, her response was “I will expect your application on my desk in two weeks.” Allen said while I was trying to have a nervous breakdown, she would not let you. My application was completed and submitted and I began working on my Doctorate in 2008.

Today Allen says she applies the same technique.

“I will allow a person to have the breakdown while telling me what is happing,” says Allen.” You have to employ good listening skills. You have to meet them where they are. Give them the opportunity to express themselves. Once they have gotten it all out, we begin to work on moving forward so that they can reach their goal, because life happens. You see my experience, life, professional, personal while on my scenic tour has given me a foundation that I can relate to.”

Allen received her Doctorate from Argosy University in 2013. She enjoys family and singing. In addition to singing in her church choir, she also sings with Voices of Love Choir, which consists of eighty plus members from Indiana and Illinois.