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Taking on the region’s poverty

When the work gets difficult or the hours get long, as they often do, Leonard Brock looks to the loose-leaf paper on his desk for inspiration.

It is there he keeps a handwritten note from his 8-year-old daughter, one with a drawing of a butterfly and an encouraging message. He keeps it on his desk, not far from the Bible he reads daily when the work gets discouraging.

For Brock, the task at hand is large and intricately tied to the region’s chances of success. He serves as director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, an effort convened by the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and involving dozens of local agencies and thousands of individuals to identify and address the root causes of poverty in the region.

The initiative’s goal is to reduce poverty by 50 percent in the next 15 years.

It is a deeply personal task for Brock, 34, who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in the city and has had a lifelong mission to improve conditions.

“This will be the most important thing we do in this region,” he says.

Taking on two jobs
Brock grew up surrounded by poverty. He attended the Rochester City School District and graduated from East High School, living and attending schools in the heart of the Crescent, a sliver of the city stretching from its northeast to southwest sectors with the highest concentrations of crime and poverty.

After graduating in 1999 he attended SUNY College at Buffalo but found it difficult to adjust.

“I did all right because I worked very hard academically, but socially it was a bit difficult for me,” he said. “I succeeded in the classroom because I didn’t want to be the worst student in the class, but I had to figure it out. I needed to re-program myself.”

It was also around that time Brock became a father, but amid the growing responsibilities he did not lose a step in his education. Brock transferred to SUNY College at Brockport, where he would go on to receive an undergraduate degree in communications studies and a graduate degree in public administration.

During his graduate years he started working at the Community Place of Greater Rochester in its summer employment program. Brock says it clicked.

“I realized this was something I was passionate about,” he says. “This was actually a program I had participated in when I was younger.

“When a position as an after-school coordinator became available I applied and got it and probably every different year I had a new title,” he adds.

He came in as summer program coordinator, then served as a program director, department director, divisional director, associate vice president and vice president.

“That gave me a significant amount of experience and exposure, working in every area where a person could develop their professional skills,” Brock says.

It was at the same time he decided to go back to school and get his doctorate. With the encouragement of the Community Place’s CEO, Roderick Jones, Brock applied for St. John Fisher College’s executive leadership doctoral program but at first was turned away.

“They said I had insufficient leadership experience, which was their way of saying I was too young,” Brock says with a laugh.

Undeterred, Brock decided to gain the experience any way he could.

“Essentially I had to accelerate my leadership experience, so I asked Rod if I could essentially work two jobs,” Brock says.

He was leading the young department but asked if he could also take on duties of leading the agency’s youth and family services. After a year of pulling double duty, Brock reapplied for the doctoral program and was accepted.

“It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, working full time and going to school full time,” he says.”

He completed the program in 2009, and it was then Brock again began to consider his future. He was moving his way up at the organization but was starting to think about having a larger impact.

“I had to ask, ‘what are my aspirations and the things I’m interested in doing.’ I didn’t want to just be a neighborhood leader or known as a ‘black leader,’ ” he says. “I wanted to be seen as a leader outside of the community.”

That led him to apply for a position as policy analyst at the Children’s Agenda, analyzing the city school district’s budget. The agency was also a partner in Roc the Future, a coalition of local organizations committed to improving performance in the district. Brock was tapped to serve as alliance director for the project.

It was a few years later that the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative was starting to formulate. The initiative was born in January 2015 when state officials made a public commitment of support, and for several months the work centered on bringing agencies together and holding discussions of priorities. The United Way served as convening agency, overseeing the efforts and facilitating the work.

Given his background and work on Roc the Future, Brock’s transition to director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative was seen as a logical step. Both initiatives have a heavy focus on working to support families and children in the city; both use a collective impact model that brings multiple partners to the table with a shared agenda.

The scope was different, however. While Roc the Future focused on supporting students with a heavy emphasis on third-grade literacy, the initiative took a larger focus, Brock notes.

“I call this the supernova of collective impact projects in Rochester,” he says.

Perfect fit
Many in the community saw Brock as the perfect fit to serve as the initiative’s director.

“I think Leonard is the right person at the right time to lead this poverty effort,” says Fran Weisberg, president and CEO of the United Way. “He has a unique set of skills to bring everyone together and to move this agenda, making sure everyone is rowing in the same direction and getting things done.”

Brock’s background with the collective impact model is a huge benefit, says Larry Marx, executive director of the Children’s Agenda.

“It’s a complicated thing, this collective impact model, as it works across sectors and silos and brings together the business sector and the non-profit sector,” Marx says. “He did that so well at Roc the Future and now the Anti-Poverty Initiative is starting to see the benefits of it as well.”

Marx has been involved on the Anti-Poverty Initiative as a steering committee member and says Brock has a unique ability to bring the participants together and move them in one direction.

“I believe the lessons he learned at Roc the Future have really put him in a place for success,” Marx says. “He really does a great job chairing the meetings. He keeps the focus of the group on the vision and the necessity of moving forward.”

The transition was a bit difficult at first, Brock says, as the Anti-Poverty Initiative was in place for months when he joined.

“By the time I got here, the train had already left the station,” he says.

Brock credits the team at United Way, which was working together as an agency to lead the efforts, for making his transition as easy as possible. The initiative has moved continually forward, issuing a report on the depth of poverty and outlining the next steps needed to begin addressing it.

“We had a year of community planning, scores of institutions and more than 1,000 people who contributed to the work,” he says. “With that we were able to come up with principles that will underscore the work.”

Brock also is aware of the role he plays, serving as an external leader and in many ways a face for the organization but not working in isolation. It is a point Weisberg emphasizes as well.

“He’s a wonderful team member and leader, but the work is so large that it’s too much for any one person,” she says. “If you try to put it all on one person, it would just be a recipe for failure. This is something that needs the entire community moving together and staying together, and he really realizes that.”

Brock has blossomed in his role as director, Weisberg adds.

“I’ve seen him just grow enormously in the few months he’s worked on this,” she says. “He really understands the gravity of what we’re trying to do.”

Moving forward
The easiest way for Brock to describe the work the Anti-Poverty Initiative has done to date is by grabbing his pen and paper. He draws a picture of a skyscraper being built high into the air, while below a foundation spreads deep beneath the ground.

“When you look at a skyscraper, you can only really start seeing the work once it gets above ground level,” he says. “But what we’ve been doing is building this foundation, aligning partners and making sure institutions and facilities are all there. Before there’s work on the ground, there’s all this work beneath the surface.”

The above-ground work is about to start as well. In March the city of Rochester announced a partnership to create an Urban Village concept in three city neighborhoods, one that takes priorities from both the Anti-Poverty Initiative and the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge report issued in January.

“The goal is to remove those barriers to poverty, addressing things like child care and transportation,” Brock says. “Job training is also important, and we’ve got to connect people to the jobs that are out there now and available.”

Brock grew up on William Warfield Drive in the city’s northeast, an area high in crime and poverty that is now involved in the city’s Urban Village program. Brock lost family members to violence and sees the effects poverty has on the neighborhoods and across the school district.

Brock has not left the city. He still lives in the same city neighborhood where he grew up, now with his wife and two children.

With a busy schedule at work, family time is important, and about once a year Brock is able to escape his work for travel and some time away. Jamaica is a favorite destination.

“In Jamaica, I’ve never seen a stressed out person,” he says. “It just puts me in that mindset when you hear everyone say, ‘No worries, no worries,’ and you can’t help to not worry.”

Brock says he is sometimes charged with being too positive in his approach to the Anti-Poverty Initiative, but says his work is grounded in concrete data and that optimism is the only way forward.

“There’s been skepticism and cynicism, but I don’t know about too many of those -isms that do anything positive or have created sustained, positive change,” he says. “If this is truly going to work, we can’t have the same thinking that we have that created the problems that we’re dealing with. We can’t think negatively and if we can’t look positively to the future, we’re setting ourselves up for another 15 years of demise.”

The numbers are stark, Brock says, with Rochester among the worse cities in the nation across several measures of poverty, including childhood poverty. The dire situation for many city residents lends gravity to the work and leads Brock to remember the Susan B. Anthony quote, “Failure is not an option.”

“It’s going to work,” he says. “It has to.’’

Leonard Brock
Position: Director, Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, United Way of Greater Rochester Inc.
Age: 34
Education: B.S. in communications studies, 2003; M.S. in public administration, 2005; SUNY College at Brockport, 2005; Ph.D. of education in executive leadership, St. John Fisher College, 2011
Family: Wife Keda; son Isaiah, 14; daughter Island, 8
Residence: Rochester
Activities: Travel, reading
Quote: “There’s been skepticism and cynicism, but I don’t know about too many of those -isms that do anything positive or have created sustained, positive change. If this is truly going to work, we can’t have the same thinking that we have that created the problems that we’re dealing with. We can’t think negatively and if we can’t look positively to the future, we’re setting ourselves up for another 15 years of demise.”

4/1/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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