NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - After 48 years of leading the charge for change in New Brunswick, Dr. C. Roy Epps can still be found quietly working on weekends in The Civic League of Greater New Brunswick offices.
The tireless commitment of the 77-year-old President and CEO of this non-profit has helped provide residents access to a variety of health, housing and education services over the decades.
But he’s far from being done. He has no plans for retirement or leaving his office at Throop Avenue and Townsend Street. In fact, he’s always looking for a new challenge. “Give me another system and I’ll consider changing it,” Epps said.
“He’s funny at times but very hardworking.” said Diane Tucker, an intake specialist who’s worked with the Civic League for 18 years “One thing I like about him is that he will take your opinion and really listen.”
Epps defines the Civic League in terms of its responsibility to make sure the minority community receives the services they need and its efforts to help them develop strategies to be their own advocates.
In a perfect world, however, he would hope the Civic League would not be needed. “My greatest wish is that they don’t need a league, that people feel empowered enough to take on systems and advocate for themselves and their families,” he said.
Epps was originally from the South Bronx, N.Y., but his grandparents were one of the first black families to settle in New Brunswick in the 1920s.
As Epps was pursuing a degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio, his father died and his mother relocated to the New Brunswick to help her ailing parents. After graduating Wilberforce, Epps was drafted into the U.S. Army at the dawn of the Vietnam War.
“I was a little apprehensive, but luckily I was stationed at Fort Dix and 90 Church Street in New York,” Epps said.
After the Army, Epps worked in the personal products division of Johnson & Johnson in Milford, N.J.
He later became a research scientist with Colgate. As protests and riots shook the state, including the cities of Newark and Plainfield, Epps was stuck in Colgate’s labs. That work left him bored, he said, and gave him “the itch to get involved with something on a volunteer basis."
He became the nonprofit league’s third full-time employee in September 1967 and never left.
Established in 1945, The Civic League — then The Urban League of Greater New Brunswick -- focused on providing social services to the area’s minority community, which at the time was predominately black. For the first 20 years, Epps said, this about getting people jobs and minorities into schools.
It wasn’t until Joe White, Epps’ immediate predecessor, became president and the began work towards changing systems,
“When it (the league) was first mentioned to me, I said ‘No I don’t want to work there, they don’t do nothing,” said Epps. “But talking to Joe and hearing his philosophy and where he wanted to go, he encouraged me to come on board.”
The Urban League began taking stands on issues like welfare reform. In 1970, Epps rose to President and CEO of the league.
The decade marked with struggle and success. In 1971 the league pushed the city housing authority to develop affordable housing as part of a George Street Urban Renewal Project. Epps said that although the head of the housing authority saw the Urban League had the best plan, the city had other ideas.
“Of course city hall didn’t want us to get it. They thought, ‘This black organization thinks it’s going to take off with this $8 million project?’” Epps said. “So we fought.”
The league lost that fight, but kept fighting and got 222 affordable housing units included in the project. The contractor used the league to recruit minority contractors on site, Epps said.
“We gained a hell of a lot of respect downtown for how serious we were, that we couldn’t be bought off,” Epps said. “That put us at the same level as some of the big boys because we wanted some big-time money.’”
During this same time the league successfully sued 23 municipalities in Middlesex County, and then became one of the plaintiffs in the landmark 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court Mount Laurel ruling, establishing affordable housing requirements across the state.
“Without Mount Laurel as a restraint, we wouldn’t have the profile of the housing that we have right now,” Epps said. “Then what started as a race issue really became an economic issue.”
The struggles brought recognition to the league, which broke from the national organization to become The Civic League of Greater New Brunswick in 1985. However, by 1980s investors pulled back from much of the development. The league managed units until they before leaving housing altogether in the 1990s.
Instead, the focus shifted to education and youth development. “We get young people to understand what they can do and fight some of this negativity that’s out there,” Epps
Now the league offers after-school and year-round programs for New Brunswick youth.
“You don’t make a hell of a lot of money,” Epps tells potential league educators. “But this place serves as a kind of reservoir of where you can come if you’re really concerned about students.”
Cebreice Edwards, a recent Rutgers University graduate who teaches at the Civic League’s after-school program in Paul Robeson Community School, tries to be a role model.
“I try to be a figure that represents that you can come out of whatever situation, whatever environment you were in,” said Edwards. “It’s good to give back and for kids to see that because then they model that behavior as they grow up.”
In addition to academic classes and work skills - such as filling out paperwork - the league programs can provide an emotional outlet for students to open up.
“There’s a lot of stuff the kids don’t get to talk about anywhere else,” said Jian Bland, site facilitator at the Robeson School site.
Students also receive exposure to science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics or STEAM programs. Much of that comes from New Brunswick Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Aubrey Johnson, who Epps calls a godsend to the area’s children.
“That gives me hope,” Epps said. “If I thought it was going to be the same old stuff I would have left a long time ago, but I see hope in the students.”
“One thing I tell people when they leave this area is ‘When you come back, there will be a building that you can come to on the corner of Throop and Townsend,’” said Epps.