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Helping to create a vital agenda

Larry Marx serves as the executive director of the Children’s Agenda Inc. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

 

Last year, Larry Marx made a request that would help lead to the largest and most coordinated attempt to address poverty in the region’s history.

Marx, executive director of the Children’s Agenda Inc., urged the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and state Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle to travel to Albany and ask for increased funding for home visitation programs that aid parents and children.

The leaders made the trip at the end of September, asking the governor’s staff for $25 million over the course of five years to expand three separate home visitation programs.

“We went to make the request, but more than asking for money we were working on providing new and innovative ways of integrating those (three programs), sharing information and helping them connect with other resources,” says Peter Carpino, president and CEO at United Way. “We proposed a new way of conceptualizing how these might be delivered, and that was the impetus for the governor’s staff to think bigger and broader.”

That way of thinking has blossomed into the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, a wide-ranging effort involving both state and local agencies and representatives in developing a coordinated approach to addressing poverty.

While Marx, 54, played an important role in kicking off efforts to address poverty, for years he and the Children’s Agenda have taken a leadership role in promoting solutions to help children and youth in the region. The agency advocates for evidence-based solutions, championing the cause at local, state and federal levels.

Marx has overseen growth at the agency, which now has eight employees and reported total revenue of nearly $700,000 at the end of 2013, the most recent figure available. The Children’s Agenda moved from space it shared with the Rochester Area Community Foundation into a larger space on South Washington Street.

Through Marx’s leadership, the Children’s Agenda has also kick-started addressing problems facing children, bringing the non-profit sector together with business and government leaders to advocate for greater child-care subsidies for workers and expanded programs that connect medical experts and counselors with new and expectant mothers.

Narrow margin
Marx may have been just a fraction of 1 percent away from a different career path.

In 1989, while he was living in Milwaukee and working as field director for the Wisconsin Action Coalition, Marx ran for the Democratic nomination in the 19th District of the state Assembly. He lost the nomination by a margin of 138 votes, falling to the eventual winner of the special election, who defeated Marx with 2,060 votes to his 1,922.

While he did not end up as a politician, Marx still was involved both in politics and as a policy advocate in Wisconsin. He worked on dozens of issue and election campaigns in Wisconsin and across the Midwest. Much of his work was on a community organizing level.

At Citizen Action of Wisconsin he helped the lobbying group grow to more than 70,000 dues-paying members. The organization advocated for issues such as better control of lead paint in the city of Milwaukee.

In the late 1990s the group led a campaign to control lead paint hazards in the city of Milwaukee that culminated in the creation of Community Lead Safe Zones that required home owners to control lead paint hazards and pass health department risk inspections.

Marx also worked in philanthropy, serving as executive director of the Donor Collaborative of Wisconsin Services Inc. He built and coordinated a network of 25 major donors who gave $2.3 million over two years to more than a dozen advocacy organizations. He was also program officer with the Proteus Fund Inc., leading a national research project and publishing a 182-page report on pro-democracy reforms for national funders.

But five years ago, Marx and his family came to a decision point.

“We were starting to make decisions about what school district we wanted to raise our kids in, and had no family in Wisconsin,” he says. “My wife is from Brighton and went to school there, so we moved back to the area. Now we live on the same block as my brother- and sister-in-law, and the kids have uncles and aunts and grandparents nearby.”

Marx joined the Children’s Agenda in 2010 as director of development.

As the strategic plan was completed in 2012, the Children’s Agenda was also undergoing a structural change. The organization’s then-executive director, Jeffrey Kaczorowski M.D., became president and chief children’s advocate while Marx took over as executive director.

In his role, Marx was given operational oversight, including staff, finances and budget as well as strategic planning and advocacy, and overall management.

“Our skills are very complementary,” Kaczorowski says. “I have the background of research and science, and he has worked with national organizations and knows what kind of will it takes for the community to achieve these things.”

In an organization staffed with experts in childhood health, education and policy issues, Marx is clear about his own role.

“I feel like a complement to the incredible strengths of Jeff Kaczorowski and the staff,” Marx says. “I’m not able to comb through budgets or give expert analysis on healthy weight issues, but I see myself as a generalist and someone brought in to increase advocacy impact and collaborative community ownership. I’m trying to engage the entire community in the work we’re doing.”

The needs are dire, he says.

“We have more than 50 percent of the kids in the city of Rochester living in poverty and have one of the worst infant mortality rates and high school graduation rates, which are all entirely preventable,” Marx says.

That is where the non-profit organization steps in, he says, identifying the programs most effective at making a difference in these preventable areas. The approach starts with prenatal care and goes through programs for school age and teenage children.

“This is why we were created,” Marx says. “We were not created to run services ourselves but instead to fearlessly say this works or this doesn’t work and it shouldn’t be funded.”

Rochester is already seen as a leader in many areas of early childhood issues, Kaczorowski says. The Rochester City

School District has an extraordinary rate of enrollment for pre-kindergarten enrollment, he notes.

While he has a laser focus on child-related issues, Marx tries to stay well-rounded outside of work. He is a member of the community relations committee at the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester N.Y. Inc. and enjoys spending time with his wife and daughters.

Marx organizes a men’s poker group and hones his creative side. He writes poetry and enjoys listening to music, having just converted a large library of vinyl records to a digital format. Lately Marx has been listening to the new album from rapper Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Advocacy work
Marx would rather be a workhorse than a show horse.

“When I approach my work, I think back to when Hillary Clinton first joined the Senate and talked about how someone told her there were two kinds of senators—workhorses and show horses,” Marx recalls.

Marx is modest about what the Children’s Agenda does—and what it does not do. The agency conducts research on programs and the effect of budget cuts but does not operate programs of its own.

Collaboration is key in these efforts, Marx says, and he is careful to credit the work of others while staying out of the spotlight himself.

Momentum is already building for early childhood issues, Marx notes. In March a group of more than 65 local government and non-profit leaders endorsed the Children’s Policy Agenda, an effort convened by Morelle. The agenda contains a list of four priorities delivered to the state Senate, state Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office for budget deliberations.

The Rochester Business Alliance Inc.’s Community Coalition also has made child care funding a priority, an issue Marx says is growing among the business community. He points to Xerox Corp., which has advocated for increasing child-care subsidies to keep employees in the workforce and not worried about providing safe and reliable care for their children.

Ultimately, Marx says, the Children’s Agenda needs to make people feel uncomfortable.

“Part of our job is to create hope, but we also have to create tension that what we’re doing is not enough,” Marx says. “It’s a slow-moving train wreck what’s happening every day to blameless little kids in our community, and as a community we’ve not been standing up enough for them.

“If we keep people in their comfort zones this will just keep happening, and it’s a moral and economic outrage for kids in our community.”

Looking ahead
While momentum is starting to build behind early childhood issues, Marx says there is still much work to be done.

Programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership, Building Healthy Children and Parents as Teachers, all of which provide at-home instruction for families, are vastly underfunded, Marx notes.

There is some optimism for these programs, nevertheless. A Medicaid redesign is expected to make the home visitation programs Medicaid reimbursable, and Marx says that would be a game changer.

He is also optimistic about the work of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and looks to Britain for an example of what it might accomplish.

During the recent worldwide recession, Britain invested money into pre-kindergarten programs and child care subsidies while raising the minimum wage and adopting monthly earned income tax credits. These public policy changes helped cut poverty at a time when it increased in the United States.

“That just shows you the importance of public policy and how much of an effect it can have,” Marx says.

These efforts in Rochester have an important asset in Marx, Carpino says.

“Larry is one of the most thoughtful leaders that I have ever worked with,” Carpino says. “He is very deliberate in his work, very intentional, and this is a mission for him. Our community is very fortunate to have him and the Children’s Agenda serving as a voice for children who can’t speak for themselves.”

While there is still a ways to go and much work to be done, Marx says he believes the community can accomplish its goals related to poverty and early childhood issues.

“We’re starting to see the community step up in a way that it never has before,” he says. “There is always room for despair, but we just can’t allow ourselves to fall into that. We need to have a pessimism of the spirit and an optimism of the will.”

Larry Marx
Position: Executive director, the Children’s Agenda
Age: 54   
Education: B.A. in political science and philosophy, University of Illinois, 1982
Family: Wife, Deb Rosen; daughters Natalie, Naomi
Residence: Brighton
Activities: Music, poetry, reading
Quote: “We’re starting to see the community step up in a way that it never has before. There is always room for despair, but we just can’t allow ourselves to fall into that. We need to have a pessimism of the spirit and an optimism of the will.”

4/3/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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