Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Profile / Stuart Mitchell: A passionate advocate for the rural poor

Stuart Mitchell: A passionate advocate for the rural poor

Stuart Mitchell still does not know what to make of the new competition for federal funds to aid migrant farm workers. In this year’s bidding for the U.S. Department of Labor money that undergirds the advocacy and training services of Rural Opportunities Inc., Gov. George Pataki’s administration made a grab for the federal bucks.
It was the first time anyone could recall that a state agency challenged the non-profit agency over funds to help the rural poor. It was a losing effort.
Rural Opportunities, a non-profit agency operating across six states, once again walked off with the prize: government contracts.
Headed by Mitchell since 1977, Rural Opportunities has a track record of handling its budgets well, delivering successful economic development projects and communicating with those who speak English poorly, or not at all.
Mitchell also has considerable experience communicating with people whose politics differ from his own.
“Connect with anyone who will listen,” is part of Rural Opportunities’ plan of advocacy.
But when the nouveaux concerned at the state level snatched at the federal millions, they did it on the sly.
This left Mitchell at something of a loss.
In 25 years, Rural Opportunities has not faced much competition for its “market segment” of the disadvantaged community–the desperate, transient, rural poor scattered far from urban centers of political power.
What could Rural Opportunities have done to prompt the princes of privatizing, the earls of individual responsibility, to sneak down to Washington, D.C., and bang the tambourine for migrant farm workers?
Or at least for the 2.2 million bucks the Labor Department had earmarked for the rural poor.
Though Mitchell does not know, he is still connecting with anyone who will listen, or with anyone, until they listen.
He has met with new state Commissioner of Labor John Sweeney, who acknowledged Rural Opportunities’ expertise.
Rural Opportunities’ executive director has not missed a meeting of the commissioner’s farm minimum-wage advisory council since 1980. Now, he thinks, is no time to start.
Big chunks of Rural Opportunities’ money in the past have come from state and county programs, as well as federal sources.
Legislation before Congress would rip the strings off all federal aid, leaving it to states to dish the money out. This would put Rural Opportunities’ fate in the hands of those who earlier this year went head-to-head with the veteran agency–and lost.
Mitchell has little experience with the internecine strife and rivalry that afflicts much of the non-profit community.
He owes this, as he says he owes his sense of purpose and achievement in life, to the brutal plight of his constituency.
The poverty line is a step up for migrant farm workers. The hoi polloi of the non-profit community do not fall all over themselves to get a piece of farm-worker action.
Rural Opportunities is the biggest farm-worker agency in the state. Although it runs Migrant Head Start programs for toddlers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey, it does not run the program in New York.
Another farm-worker agency does, and does it well, Mitchell says. Migrant-labor agencies for years have run on margins too tight to allow competition for the sake of competition.
If the state takes over, Mitchell fears, those margins will disappear.
“One-size-fits-all training programs will focus on the people closest to being able to get jobs and discard the tough cases like migrant laborers,” Mitchell worries.
But if the changing of the political guard throws barriers in the agency’s path, Mitchell says, they will not be the first obstacles Rural Opportunities has ever seen.
“Our services equip the rural poor for mainstream economic life by getting them over language and training barriers,” he says.
Two levels of minimum-wage law existed in New York when Mitchell started out: one for migrant farm workers and one for everyone else.
“Keeping migrant farm workers second-class citizens with statutes and keeping them out of sight with stereotypes is a terrible social cost,” he says.
“If migrant laborers were the lazy, shiftless alcoholics the stereotypes say they are, there would be no agriculture in this country,” he adds. “These are people who work 60 hours a week just to survive.”
Mitchell is unfashionably and unrepentantly clear about Rural Opportunities’ purpose: “The reason we are doing this is because there is something wrong with the system, not something wrong with the people.”
At 51, Mitchell is as ready to march cheerfully on Albany for migrant laborers as he was at age 21 to march in rural Tennessee for black sharecroppers.
In 1965, he was a college student fresh from his family’s Wayne County dairy farm, already the blend of Ivy League and grassroots that he is today.
A Cornell University student, he joined the Congress for Racial Equality. Racial equality in those days was the kind of cause that got some college kids murdered.
Pictures show him marching in the front ranks, the summer that 90 percent of the sharecroppers’ kids boycotted segregated schools in Fayette County, Tenn.
It was the start of school integration in rural Tennessee and the end of Mitchell’s plans to return to his family’s dairy farm.
Are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve been jailed in Tennessee? No.
But he grew older, calmed down and suited up for the corporate boardrooms where the charity action is, right?
No again.
After Tennessee, after getting his bachelor of science in agricultural economics and rural sociology from Cornell, Mitchell earned a master of divinity degree from Colgate Rochester Divinity School and was ordained a United Methodist Church minister.
His ministry put him to work with migrant laborers in Wayne County during the early 1970s as a chaplain, coordinator of health programs and then executive director of a multiservice agency.
By 1973, he was on board with Rural Opportunities, adding housing and economic development to the repertoire of service areas in which he is experienced.
Recent pictures show him still marching for farm workers, still in the front ranks.
Corporate boards interest him about as much as migrant farm workers interest corporate boards.
The rich, after all, do not give to the poor. The poor give to the poor and the rich give to the rich, as Mitchell reads the statistics.
“Industrial business needs an expendable minimum-wage work force to drive the cost of fast food down and the price of stock up,” Mitchell says. “Business is not interested in training people who only have a fourth-grade education to start with.”
And as for charity–don’t say the “c” word to Rural Opportunities’ executive director.
“Charity is a code word for racism used by privileged people who feel they got to the top because of something they, personally, did,” Mitchell says.
“They cannot see that others–mostly persons of color–don’t have the boot-straps to pull themselves up with. They will not admit that they are privileged and that privilege carries responsibility.”
One local deep-pockets philanthropist was shocked that Rural Opportunities’ board is run by farm workers.
“He said we should have people with connections into the philanthropic establishment,” Mitchell recalls. “But grassroots input keeps us honest. Just because our board does not understand the politics of the rich, does not mean they don’t understand what they need to become real participants in the economy.”
Mitchell ditched an invitation to the Ryder Cup to attend the graduation of five migrant workers from machinist training.
The idea that five people now have full-time, year-round jobs excites him profoundly. Moving people from annual income levels of $4,000 to the $15,000 range–in seven weeks of training that cost only a few thousand dollars–Rural Opportunities’ newsletters are full of such successes.
Mitchell manages a high-tech administrative infrastructure that tracks dollars and performance with a precision worthy of any large corporation. It covers everything from emergency aid to poor families in crisis to a rural venture fund for new businesses.
“Rural Opportunities has survived for 25 years because we operate at a level of institutional sophistication that makes people take us seriously,” Mitchell notes. “They know we deliver a good
product–training, jobs and housing–and that their money will be protected and well-spent.”
Rural Opportunities has not survived day-to-day, hand-to-mouth, on hostile territory without friends like the United Way Services Corp. and developers including affordable-housing partners Mark IV Construction Co. Inc. and Wilmorite Inc.
Karen Noble Hanson, vice president of Wilmorite, was executive director of Rural Opportunities when Mitchell arrived. Last year, she brought the clout of Rochester’s largest real estate developer to bear on Rural Opportunities’ side when it bought the 524-unit Crossroads Apartments in downtown Rochester.
Crossroads residents pay 30 percent of their income for apartments that would have converted easily to pricey condominiums.
Given Rural Opportunities’ to-the-penny fiscal expertise and its economic development power, the United Way and developer alliances are understandable.
But given the politics–or lack of political power–of the farm-worker constituency, other old allies are harder to explain.
Grower Gerald Verbridge is someone you would expect to find on the other side of the table from the farm-worker advocate.
“The problem with that picture is that anyone who starts out on the opposite side of the table from Stuart is looking across that table at the best in the business,” Verbridge says. “He is a tireless worker of tremendous ability. He does not make it easy to refuse to work with him.”
Then there is William Johnson Jr. The rural poverty agency is not now nor has it ever been likely to get many votes for the Rochester mayor.
It was not politics that brought the two together, Johnson recalls. It was the poverty of the non-profit community.
In the early 1980s, Johnson was head of the Urban League of Rochester N.Y. Inc. and trying to sell his board on what then was a radical idea.
Mitchell already was proving that non-profit groups could help fund themselves with appropriate profit-making activities.
Johnson picked Mitchell’s brain for his position paper and convinced the Urban League board non-profits “could and should” earn part of their own way. The two became friends.
Johnson says he is “delighted that Stuart has moved his family to Rochester.”
Mitchell began to call Rochester home only recently, after 50 years of country life.
Heidi, his wife of 18 years, served as pastor of a Methodist congregation in Wayne County for much of that time. This year, cancer took her out of the pulpit and put her in a wheelchair.
The Mitchells’ new home in Rochester is closer to her doctors. Navigating his wife’s wheelchair, Mitchell says, “gave me a whole new view of barriers–just when I thought I had seen every barrier there is.”
Jennifer, 25, Mitchell’s daughter from an earlier marriage, arrives in town soon to help care for Heidi. Son Stuart, 29, lives in New Hampshire.
And daughter Anna, 14, is “having the time of her life in Rochester.” She is, Mitchell says, “unbearably excited” about finding other African-American children. Adopted five years ago, Anna is of African-American and Korean heritage.
Mitchell cannot say what is in Rural Opportunities’ future. He is not even sure how long he will be able to talk about it, given pending legislation that would restrict what non-profit groups can say.
Any agency with a better grasp of the problem of rural poverty is welcome to give Rural Opportunities a run for the dwindling aid money, he says. His organization has been competing on the merits of its programs, and winning, for a long time.
It was roughly 21 years ago that the Labor Department first instituted competitive bidding for funds to help migrant farm workers. Rural Opportunities’ small activist core was irritated it had to leave the fields to hurdle government red tape.
The fact of competition did not bother Rural Opportunities. It was the motive behind the competition that stung, according to a verse written by Hanson, then Rural Opportunities executive director:
“Today in Washington we learned that we must spend the next two months
–competing to continue to serve
–competing with groups that have
no farm worker constituency
no farm worker or minority staff
no past experience
–groups that have only a disdain for the poor
and a desire for money.”
What Rural Opportunities now faces is a similar turn of the cycle that periodically threatens funds for the rural poor, says the Wilmorite executive, who wrote those words in 1974.
“We saw it in 1974, we saw it under Nixon and we are seeing it now,” Mitchell’s predecessor says. “State agencies are not inclined to provide services to those who are very hard-working, and still very poor. They don’t want to do it and they don’t know how to do it.”
Of Mitchell, who must meet the challenge, she says: “(He) lives simply and cares deeply.”

x

Check Also

Remote work: are we missing valuable social interaction? (access required)

William H. Whyte was arguably our keenest observer of corporate America. He was a staff writer for Fortune magazine and ...

Ten tips for evaluating a small business income statement (access required)

The income statement serves as an effective gauge of a small business’s financial health and provides helpful information for making ...

Before raising prices, consider these strategies for combatting inflation (access required)

Soaring gas prices. Higher cost of goods. Rising rates for services. Inflation has an impact on every business across every ...

The Bonadio Group (access required)

The Bonadio Group announces the addition of Christopher Wagner as assistant accountant to their staff, as well as the promotions ...

Preventing employee burnout and supporting mental health in the workplace (access required)

Among the mental health concerns that were exacerbated by COVID-19, one that impacts employers of all types and sizes shows ...

Flexibility in the workplace isn’t a free-for-all (access required)

Over the past few years, we’ve all expanded our policies and evolved our cultures to accommodate flexible work arrangements. That’s ...

Mindless scrolling through social media can wear on mental health (access required)

Kathryn DeVinney reaches for her phone to check the weather before going outside.“Five minutes later, I haven’t checked the weather, ...

Converting Proactive Thought to Proactive Action (access required)

Writing this column is surprisingly similar to posting on social media, which is not something I anticipated when I started ...

Don’t forget the golden rule in times like these (access required)

Well, it’s official – we’re now in a bear market!  Stocks, as measured by the S&P 500 Index (a proxy ...

State, city of Rochester strive for social and economic equity in cannabis industry (access required)

When state lawmakers approved the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in March 2021, one of the key provisions in ...

N.Y. initiatives provide momentum for adult-use cannabusiness to move forward (access required)

From propagating plants to educating about equity opportunities, this summer will be anything but a time for rest for those ...

Thoughts about the recent market turmoil (access required)

Investors are currently experiencing one of the worst stock markets in years and one of the worst bond markets in ...

Cannabis ventures face getting enough startup money so entrepreneurs can reap benefits (access required)

Talk about the potential value of the legal cannabis market in New York and you’re talking big money — very ...

Seen 6/3/2022 (access required)

Seen Embrace Your Sisters  May 1, 2022 - Embrace Your Sisters raised $50,000 at their 15th annual Tea at Two ...

Bountiful careers are like well-tended gardens: we reap what we sow (access required)

I was working in a vegetable garden last week and got to thinking about how growing vegetables is akin to ...

Treat your employees more like your valued customers (access required)

"My boss goes to great lengths to recognize our longtime customers even to the point of sending gifts for special ...

Best hedge against inflation is keeping emotions at bay, trusting your plan (access required)

You have to go back to the mid-1970s to early 1980s to find inflation rates near where they have been ...

Former pro baseball player is still in a league of her own

These days, Maybelle Blair clocks her pitches in years rather than miles per hour. So, when the former All-American Girls ...

Tips for planning a business succession  (access required)

Planning for retirement and creating a contingency plan in the event of an unexpected exit from the workforce are critical ...

Succession plans critical for survival of family-owned businesses (access required)

While family-owned businesses are commonplace in the United States, those that are multigenerational remain rare gems. According to Cornell University’s ...

Is your strategic plan both strategic and a plan? (access required)

There is a lot of discussion about strategic planning in not-for-profit circles lately. Evidently, moving through a global pandemic and ...

What’s so great about the 2022 Great Places to Work? (access required)

It’s my favorite time of year: Great Place to Work just announced the 25th Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work ...

Loyalty programs – what you should know about compliance with the CPPA (access required)

From the straightforward “buy 9 smoothies, get 1 free,” to sophisticated frequent flyer programs, loyalty programs are a staple in ...

Are cover letters really necessary? Hiring professionals have differing opinions (access required)

“I’m a hiring manager at a local company looking to fill several positions. I’ve noticed that about two-thirds of our ...

Investment acumen or inside information? (access required)

If you had known, in early 2020, that you might be working from home during a multi-year, global pandemic, would ...

Opining on Dick Vitale’s courage, more Bills nicknames, stadium names

By the time he finished delivering a motivational speech that would have made Knute Rockne proud, Dick Vitale looked like ...

The importance of female mentorship, leadership, and innovation in banking (access required)

In my 10 years at Tompkins and 35 cumulative years in the banking field, I’ve witnessed the industry undergo several ...

Highland Hospital Gala (access required)

This year’s casino-themed Highland Hospital Gala raised its second highest amount ever, with more than $650,000 gross net income thanks ...

Inflation: How did we get here and what can be done about it? (access required)

If you’re in your 50s - o.k. early 50s - you probably remember a time when a gallon of gas ...

Reflections on pediatrics, the pandemic, and the Golden Circle (access required)

Imagine this: Your business has been open for only five months and is doing really well. Revenue is higher than ...

Will 2022 be the year of the vacation home? (access required)

With some COVID-19 restrictions relaxing and others already lifted, the smell of tourism is in the air. Demand for leisure ...

Transition services valuable for aging population (access required)

What do you need to stay safe in your family home, even if your home is getting to be too ...

Elder transition planning: Family mediation for older adults & their loved ones (access required)

The journey of aging is rarely a smooth one. As older adults and their families face emotional, financial and health ...

Senior living communities consider how to be more diverse, inclusive, accessible (access required)

The nation’s senior population is the largest and most diverse in history, according to the most recent census data from ...

Why is inflation so scary for my retirement plan? (access required)

Over the past decade, investors experienced a best-case scenario of relatively low inflation and strong investment returns from both stocks ...

A thoroughbred racehorse whose impact was not lost on us

It seemed like a good deal at the time – a rattletrap Ford van with more than 100,000 miles on ...

Ensuring your financial plan can withstand negative conditions  (access required)

Financial plans differ based on individuals’ incomes, future goals, age and tolerance for risk, but often unconsidered in those plans ...

Boomerang employees: tips on how to welcome team members home (access required)

Every manager at every level has experienced it — that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when one ...

Spring cleaning: Considering program sustainability (access required)

There has never been a better time to consider the sustainability of your program activities and take action to address ...

Financial advisors can guide through tough times (access required)

With the country facing rising inflation and interest rates, as well as the lingering COVID-19 pandemic and the war in ...

Are you discriminating against employees with caregiving responsibilities? (access required)

As the world enters year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has issued a warning ...

Rochester accelerates its pace to become top tech hub in America (access required)

Rochester is on its way to becoming a national hub for technology innovation. Experts predict that it has the highest ...

A simple game for investors: How would you play? (access required)

Some years ago, financial author and advisor, Bill Schultheis, devised a simple game to illustrate the difficulty faced by investors ...

You need to improve your technology, but where do you start? (access required)

Technology is advancing at warp speed and certainly some innovations could benefit you and your company, but it’s easy to ...

Innovation advancements on display as Rochester continues to grow its technology ecosystem (access required)

From LIDROTEC, a company with patent-pending wafer dicing laser machines for the semiconductor industry to Stratio, which provides artificial intelligence ...

Milo the Dog has had a golden impact on Red Wings baseball, community

They had trained together five days a week for nearly six months in the backyard solitude of Josh Snyder’s rural ...

M&A middle-market activity: What businesses need to know (access required)

 Understanding the ins and outs, trends and activities going on in M&A markets can help businesses make informed decisions including ...

5 things to consider before deciding to work for yourself (access required)

When people ask me what I do, now that I’m out of television, I simply say, “I have my own ...

M&A lawyers keep busy despite pandemic barriers (access required)

2021 was a record-breaking year globally and nationally for mergers (combining two separate businesses into one new legal entity) and ...

Ending violent crime requires building trust between police, community (access required)

Rochester has recently been the recipient of many state, federal and private investments that create a true path for transformational ...

Former UR assistant Jay Wright continues working his hoops magic

Mike Neer likes to joke that he doesn’t get enough credit for helping Jay Wright become the best-dressed coach in ...

Four ways to prepare your business for the future of digital payments (access required)

Digital transformation continues to sweep the country — especially as more companies and their customers embrace digital payment technologies.Here are ...

Managing Our Manufacturing Plants in 2022 (access required)

There have been dramatic shifts in both the needs and the realities of manufacturing the United States over the past ...

“Rounding Errors” Can Add Up Quickly (access required)

It’s time to talk about time. For many employees, their lunch break is a time when they can step away ...

Just In Time production method becoming obsolete with supply chain issues (access required)

Just In Time (JIT) is a production method pioneered in the 1930s by Toyota Motor Corporation as a means to ...

Rochester firms embrace 3D printing for multiple purposes (access required)

Firms are using 3D printing to create unique tools, parts and other objects right here in Rochester, allowing for new ...

From mentee to mentor: the benefits mentorship provides for women in business (access required)

March marks Women’s History Month. It is a time to honor the strong, brave women who have broken down barriers, ...

Working across the ages: multigenerational teams offer multiple benefits (access required)

Quick: How long is the average career? If you guessed 40 years, you would’ve been right a few years ago. ...

Energy, dedication drive entrepreneurs at any age (access required)

Younger women who grew up with technology and worked in the gig economy may be more comfortable with the pace ...

Opining on Brandon Beane, SU hoops, a poor investment, baseball’s return

If you pressed me to rank the most indispensable Buffalo Bills of this glorious era, I’d go with quarterback Josh ...

Topics that don’t focus on COVID-19 for nonprofit leaders (access required)

For obvious reasons, COVID-19-19 and the many elements of disruption it has caused continue to dominate conversation at organizations of ...

March worldwide water, climate events are close to home (access required)

March marks two worldwide awareness events for the environment: World Water Day and Earth Hour. In Rochester, New York, these ...

Revisiting Art Schlichter’s sad tale of gambling addiction

Monday’s seismic news that Atlanta Falcons star receiver Calvin Ridley had been suspended for the 2022 season for betting on ...

Mentoring is an art passed from one generation to the next (access required)

Ahhh, what to say about the important art of mentoring? It is certainly an art and, in preparation for this ...

Protect intellectual property from the start (access required)

When it comes to intellectual property (IP), the old English idiom “penny wise and pound foolish” never goes out of ...

A loving team helped Chris Lillis ascend to Winter Olympic gold

Bernie Lillis points with pride to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece above the fireplace of his Fairport home. There ...

Three takeaways from Super Bowl ads to apply to marketing (access required)

Super Bowl ads deliver on a few recurring themes every year, and this year was no different. Whether it’s nostalgia ...

I Bonds: A rare bright spot for the income investor (access required)

Investors have a natural affinity for income-producing investments. A steady stream of investment income is comforting even if it is ...

What AG report on ‘credential stuffing’ hacks mean for your business (access required)

In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report summarizing the findings of a broad investigation into so-called ...

Data privacy and security concerns with rise of online betting, gaming (access required)

As of January 8, 2022, New York State joined the ranks of more than a dozen states that have legalized ...

Potential headwinds are coming — what this means for your business (access required)

An abundance of liquidity and market exuberance in the world’s recovery from COVID-19 have made this a promising time for ...

Rochester’s Roland Williams hoping his Rams do it again

Eric Weddle is one of those feel-good stories that Rochester tight-end-turned-broadcaster Roland Williams has followed closely in recent weeks. Late ...

Villa of Hope awarded grant for telehealth services   (access required)

Villa of Hope was awarded a $15,000 grant to support its telehealth services for substance use.   The funding will allow ...

Monroe County small business may be eligible for forgivable loans (access required)

Small business owners impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic may be eligible for up to $25,000 in forgivable working-capital loans through ...