Action for a Better Community Inc. was at a crossroads in 1992. Its leader, James McCuller, had died at age 52, and a search committee was charged with finding his replacement.
Enter James Norman, a candidate from Michigan.
“We’d never had anybody from out of town before at ABC,” says Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott, who was on that search committee.
If they hired him, would he stay? Would he have the energy and passion of his predecessor?
“He was not a firebrand,” Scott says. “But he was very measured.”
ABC needed someone willing to move the agency forward.
It helped that Norman, now 68, knew the history of the community action movement and knew what he was up against. In 1964, he was a teenager when President Lyndon Johnson announced a war on poverty. That summer, race riots erupted in Rochester and other cities, drawing further attention to the needs and grievances of the city’s black and poor citizens.
This led to the passage of the federal Economic Opportunity Act, which gave rise to Rochester’s Action for a Better Community, one of some 1,000 community action agencies tasked by the federal government with implementing a variety of anti-poverty programs—from job training to Head Start—many of which continue today.
But the attention and commitment directed at anti-poverty efforts would vary as the political winds blew. By 1967, new federal legislation began undermining earlier anti-poverty efforts. Nonetheless, the national poverty rate, which hit 19 percent in 1964 was cut to 11.2 percent 10 years later. Then the trend began to reverse, as the national initiative suffered further cuts and was handed off to the states in the form of block grants in the early 1980s.
Into this backsliding commitment walked Norman, having earned his master’s degree in social work focusing on policy, planning and administration.
“We are inheritors of ‘the war,’” he says. “The war itself was over by the end of the ’60s, but you had symbols of it left over.”
Action for a Better Community was one of those symbols.
A consistent goal
The overarching goal then, as now, is to move people to self-sufficiency, a task Norman has embraced for the duration of his working life.
The organization today has 378 employees. Its annual budget totals $24 million with the bulk of its funding coming from the federal and state governments.
Since taking over the organization, Norman has overseen multiple restructurings and adapted to new demands, changes in funding and new requirements to retain funding.
“I do it because I see over and over again people who come in with a high level of need, who, when they interface with our programs and our staff, leave at an improved level of functioning, an improved level of self-sufficiency, and that makes our community better,” Norman says.
“So I’ll suffer writing reports and reading the emails and going to meetings to be able to go to a graduation ceremony where someone dropped out of school, never considered themselves as being successful,” he adds. “They’ve gone through one of our programs and now they have everyone from their kids to their cousins there—and it’s a big deal!”
Every success story has the power to touch dozens of other lives, of children, siblings, parents and friends who see someone they know working to escape poverty, Norman notes.
“It can be done,” Norman says of the goal to end poverty. “It can be done.”
He saw what was accomplished in the mid-1960s, put his shoulder to the wheel and hasn’t given up.
Offered the job in Rochester after his wife was transferred here by Xerox Corp., the Normans made a home in Webster where they raised four boys. Norman joined the Omega Select Chorus where he sings as a baritone, got appointed to a wide variety of boards and community groups and assembled a group of golf buddies.
“He has certainly fulfilled the promise. He has helped to guide us through some very rocky terrain,” Scott said, a sentiment echoed by others who know Norman.
His patience is noted by many.
“I’ve never seen him lose his temper,” says Ken Bell, who has been playing golf with him for roughly 15 years.
Even on the golf course, “he immediately forgets his bad shots,” a trait Bell clearly admires.
That quality makes him easy and fun to be around, friends say.
He can be competitive on the golf course, but he is playing against the course, not his friends, says Dale Trott, another longtime Rochester friend.
Bell remembers at one point, Norman taking him aside to urge him to “relax—we’re trying to have fun.” Bell took it to heart.
Not surprisingly, the ability to handle stress would prove to be important on the job.
Tough times at start
Norman arrived at the agency when nonprofits were under intense scrutiny. Head Start, a preschool program for the poor run by many of the community action agencies, was criticized as ineffective after several studies found the benefits wore off in time. Continued funding was in jeopardy. Though, in the end, the program survived and grew at ABC with higher performance standards—a point of pride for Norman.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton said he would “end welfare as we know it.” And if that wasn’t enough for a new leader, a 1998 report by the Center for Government Research Inc. suggested Rochester had too many nonprofits and too much duplication.
Norman says, at the time, local nonprofits found themselves called together by others, like the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc., rather than organizing on their own behalf. That led Norman and others to create the Council of Agency Executives and seek out other ways to work together.
“We did some self-reflection, then we set about to present a more balanced picture of our value and our impact in the community,” Norman says.
Over time, the sector built a more professional reputation, emphasizing collaboration and promoting best practices, he says.
If those were some of the low points that put advocates on the defensive, Rochester’s commitment to the anti-poverty movement was re-energized, not coincidentally, Norman argues, after data showed Rochester as tops in child poverty and extreme poverty for a city its size.
“Today, what we have is a resurgence of a professed interest in addressing the needs of the poverty community. So part of the driving force, again, in my view, is an effort to create a better image for the community,” Norman says.
Whether Rochester can move the dial will depend, as always, on whether the effort is sustained after the spotlight moves off. What the area will not see is Norman giving up.
“I trained to do this work,” he says.
And when it comes to policy, planning and administration, “I have a love for that.”
It is an attitude that impresses those who know him.
Says Bell: “I continue to be amazed at his positive approach to what’s probably the biggest problem in our community. The easy thing is to become discouraged.”
That Norman does not get discouraged does not make him naive, however. After getting his degree, one of his first jobs in the field was helping individuals find jobs.
“I had one particular customer; he just taught me a lesson,” Norman recalls. “He just put me through the wringer. I got him a job, a good job, he blew that job. I got him another job; he blew that job.”
Norman quickly learned that time spent helping someone who is not ready was time away from helping someone who was.
“So I’m not discouraged then when we don’t have success with all of our customers. That’s just the way life goes,” he says.
These folks are the outliers, however. Most people want opportunities and will take advantage of them when given the chance, he notes.
That was one of the reasons Norman and ABC jumped at the chance for a federal grant to train people for jobs in health care through a Health Professional Opportunity Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Pulling together 10 different organizations, ABC submitted an application for the grant, and Norman says he was pleasantly surprised to land the $1.6 million in funding over five years that will help low-income people get training and support to work at one of the many health care facilities in the Rochester area.
“It’s perfect in many ways,” he says, pointing at the wide variety of hospitals and health care facilities in the region expecting a growing workforce.
Supports include providing enrollees with a mentor to help them plan and take the necessary steps to be successful. It also includes funding to deal with challenges such as paying for work clothes, a testing fee or transportation problems.
In some ways, Norman has come full circle. He launched his career working to help people find jobs and now, through the Health Professional Opportunity Grant, he is at it again as his career draws to a close.
“In a very few years, my tenure will have expired,” he says when asked about the possibility of retirement. “The joke in my family, among my nephews, is that Normans never retire. So I’ve taken the challenge. I plan to prove them wrong.”
But before he goes, Norman wants to ensure the grant program is successful and the Head Start program continues on firm footing. He also has started a small endowment for the agency and wants to see that grow before he hands the reins to a younger leader.
In the community, Norman wants to see the city get serious about improving the high school graduation rate and better prepare students for college and career. That is in part because he sees the impact of poor preparation on the students he teaches at Monroe Community College, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching sociology. He hopes to continue to teach in retirement.
Norman wants to see the city do more to address the issue of violence as a public health threat and recognize its contribution to trauma in poor neighborhoods. He hopes a new city school code of conduct is implemented and successful in ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
It is a tall order, perhaps, especially for a man who’s seen the nation’s commitment to its poorest citizens ebb more than flow in his lifetime. After decades of steadfast, patient work to help the poor, how has he not lost his mind?
“Sometimes I do,” he admits with a grin. “I just get it back.”
Position: President and CEO of Action for a Better Community Inc.
Education: bachelor’s in psychology from Mercer University, Georgia, 1970; master’s in social work from Western Michigan University, 1972, where he also took postgraduate classes in public administration.
Family: wife, Lois Williams-Norman; sons Alexander, 38, Howard, 34, Brandon 33, Adam, 28
Hobbies: Playing golf, singing as a member of the Omega Select Chorus
Quote: “I do it because I see over and over again people who come in with a high level of need, who, when they interface with our programs and our staff, leave at an improved level of functioning, an improved level of self-sufficiency, and that makes our community better.”
11/4/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.