Story and Photos by Deborah Lynch
“I am a believer that anything you want to be or do you can do it. It may take some work, but chase your dream. That’s what happened to me. I’m very passionate about that. If I can do it, anybody can do it, but I think the issue is we have to continue to encourage.” — Richard Utley
Richard Utley is still just a boy from Pittsburgh, but dreams to make a difference led him to Harrisburg where he’s been influencing the state and the community ever since. His current projects include the Central PA Black Business Directory, publications on “My War Too, Blacks in WWII,” and the many boards he sits on including those for the Camp Curtin YMCA and Hamilton Health Center.
A friend from Pittsburgh who published a black business directory inspired Utley to revive something similar in the Harrisburg area more than 10 years ago. He was just finishing out his career as a deputy auditor general for the Commonwealth. He knew business and he knew history. The directory and other community involvement was a natural segue for him after retiring from the Commonwealth.
The goal for the directory is twofold — to provide exposure for businesses that do business with the African American community and to include a venue for African Americans to showcase their businesses. The directory also includes articles, usually on history. “I want it to be knowledge,” Utley says because “knowledge is the key. … I’m under the impression there’s a lot of things about us we don’t know about. Therefore, since we don’t know about it, it’s important for me to tell the story. I’m a big believer that we as people of color have to take some ownership on who we are. Other people define that for us.”
The 2020/2021 directory features five articles by noted Harrisburg cultural leader Lenwood Sloan. From 2005-2011, Sloan was director of Pennsylvania’s Cultural and Heritage Tourism Program. He’s currently executive director of the Harrisburg Peace Promenade (International Institute of Peace through Tourism — IIPT), which works to conserve historic and cultural monuments along Harrisburg’s Riverfront Park. The articles include “The Language Used in the Institution of Slavery,” “Deconstructing Dinah,” and “Four Pathways to Freedom” among others.
The directory also includes information on the emancipation Proclamation and slavery as well as details about civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The remainder of the directory lists businesses and ads broken down into categories including attorneys, auto repair, banks, barbers, beauty, consultants, engineering, entertainment, insurance, churches, universities, agencies, and much more. The directory indicates minority- and women-owned businesses. While not comprehensive, the goal is to highlight as many businesses as come to light for the African American community and to fill a void.
Utley’s partner on the directory is Marsha Blessing, owner/publisher/CEO/president of Orison Publishers. They met through a mutual friend and have worked together on the directory, its editorial direction, and sales since its inception.
“A good thing to say about Richard is that he is extremely authentic … he is so authentic to his own experience. I think that has been very helpful because he is in no way, shape, or form promoting an agenda,” Blessing said.
Blessing said Utley’s gift is passion and in giving solid business advice to help new black-owned businesses avoid becoming a “flash in the pan.” She says it wasn’t popular to publish this type of directory when they started it, but that Utley had a calling. “He’s doing this because of a burden, not because it’s the newest bandwagon to jump on,” she said.
Utley runs to — not away from — challenges. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a member of the track team and is still a member of the Pitt Varsity Club. He’s on the wall of fame at his former Pittsburgh area high school — Westinghouse High School. Today, he continues to train athletes locally on speed and agility. Formerly, he was the head track coach at Steelton-Highspire High School.
Perhaps he’s a sprinter in life thanks to his father’s first simple words of advice. “Make sure you graduate from high school in order to provide for yourself.” He wrote in the bio on his directory webpage that “College officials doubted my skills as the Chairman of a nascent campus organization called the Black Action Society, and countless politicos and bureaucrats underestimated my survival skills. Most of my life consisted of clearing the bar of low expectations others set for me.”
Clear them, he has. After retiring as one of the highest ranking African Americans in state government, he has continued to leave his mark in Harrisburg. He serves on the United Way Impact Committee, is a member of the Harrisburg Rotary, and is a CARE Court Mentor (Court-Assisted Re-Entry program) along with his roles on the boards of the Camp Curtin Y and Hamilton Health Center.
Understanding that health is a key area where disparity must be addressed, he works to help ensure that Hamilton Health Center is a top-notch healthcare provider for all people. “The things that I look at in my mind is if I want to have an impact in my legacy and life, it is health as well as politics — where we need to go and where we should go,” Utley said.
He also sees the importance of mental health and raising up the children of a community, which means he is a daily presence at the Camp Curtin Y. “We are looking at things from a different standpoint now — we’re looking at mental health, we’re looking at educational programs, we’re trying to take the typical YMCA about basketball — which is a great thing — but we also want to prepare our young people for other kinds of careers as well as giving the opportunities and exposures to other things about life that they might not see in the community.”
The Camp Curtin YMCA takes area youth on bus tours of colleges; it offers a golf program, a lacrosse program, and academic camps. It provides that exposure that Utley sees as necessary. In addition to the programs for youth, the Y has distributed meals throughout Covid. Utley also supports Y Director Jamien Harvey’s vision for housing and development, too.
The Y is hoping to break ground Aug. 1 on its planned housing development through a partnership called Cornerstone in Uptown Harrisburg at Jefferson and Woodbine streets. The project has been Harvey’s dream-in-progress for the last five years. “The initiative will build single-family owner units with sustainable and affordable housing programs to attract new tenants, families, and first-time owners,” according to the YMCA’s website.
“We have our environment inside, which is really nice, but we need to expand beyond our walls,” Harvey said, noting the need for a safer community surrounding the Y. “He’s [Utley] been very supportive in that. He’s very involved.”
Harvey now is executive director of both the Camp Curtin YMCA and the East Shore YMCA, and is the first African American to lead the latter Y. The vision he and Utley have is to merge the two Ys with youth using Camp Curtin and adults using the downtown East Shore Y.
In addition to summer camps focusing on academics, the Camp Curtin Y is also introducing vocational skills to the youth. Harvey said the Y will provide scholarships to 18 to 24-year-olds for vocational development and hopes to have them working on their development site. With Utley by his side, Harvey is poised to put his grand vision in place.
“I believe in giving back,” Utley said. “That’s the most important thing to me. … I’ve always believed that I need to give back to the community I serve. I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I just think that’s what I need to do.”
Utley gives back with a weekly podcast as well. Listeners can find “Did You Know? Hosted by Richard Utley on Facebook or The Voice 17104. It’s a show about empowerment with political commentary that highlights issues affecting the African American community as well as the positive stories of individuals, and includes guests weekly.
The Black Business Directory of Central Pennsylvania is available in participating businesses and online at www.centralpablackdirectory.com