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Coalition brings multifaceted approach to anti-poverty efforts

Leonard Brock would like to clear something up: The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative is not an entity. It’s not a business. And it’s not a pass-through organization.

Leonard Brock

Leonard Brock

“It’s not an organization that is designed solely to reduce poverty. It’s a coalition. It’s a group of actors, across sectors, throughout the entire community,” the RMAPI executive director said. “It’s representative of government, nonprofit, for-profit. It’s retired community persons and even people who are directly impacted by poverty working together to identify ways in which they can change their behaviors and ways in which they can amplify the current work they’re doing to support poverty reduction.”

To be clear, RMAPI does have a backbone staff of seven, including Brock, who guide and organize the work of the coalition. It is their job to support the leaders of the coalition’s institutions in aligning their work to fight poverty.

When RMAPI coalesced in 2015, the alliance set the lofty goal of reducing poverty in Rochester and Monroe County by 50 percent in 15 years. RMAPI has taken public criticism because the poverty needle hasn’t budged, with people saying the goal was unrealistic.

Brock called the goal neither realistic nor unrealistic.

“I think it’s an aspirational goal,” he explained. “I would say that data would suggest that if we were to reduce poverty by 10 percent, or even 15 percent, in 15 years, that’s considered a huge milestone or accomplishment. I wouldn’t want the aspirational goal to stand in opposition of any progress that would be considered monumental anywhere else in the world.”

In fact, it would be difficult to measure the true level of poverty in Rochester during RMAPI’s existence, given that most data released by the U.S. Census Bureau is not real-time or actual figures. Poverty data since the 2010 Census are estimated, Brock noted.

“Let’s say the data reported in 2015, hypothetically, was for 2009 to 2013. Then for 2016 it was 2010 to 2014. The data reported in 2017 was 2011 to 2015,” Brock explained. “So when people say RMAPI hasn’t made progress, the only thing that you can closely use to determine progress is the data that came out in 2018. And guess what? That even predated the implementation of RMAPI.”

Ajamu Kitwana

Ajamu Kitwana

Ajamu Kitwana serves as vice president/director of community impact for ESL, and also is a member of RMAPI’s steering committee and chairs the coalition’s funding alignment council. Kitwana said everyone has a sense of urgency to address the poverty challenge “yesterday.”

“We’re all, frankly, embarrassed at the extent to which this is a challenge in our community. So there’s an understandable sense of urgency,” Kitwana explained. “That said, because of the complexity of the challenge—we didn’t get into this situation overnight—the solution has to be deliberate and it’ll take some time to change.”

Brock said the coalition has made some headway in key areas. Its three guiding principles are to address structural racism, address trauma and build and support the community, and they are the foundation for the RMAPI working groups.

“We’ve been able to advance policy. We’ve been able to create innovative programs that are helping people get to jobs. We’ve been able to create jobs. We’ve been able to create training programs to make sure people could sustain those jobs. We’ve been able to do a significant amount of redirecting funding to support poverty reduction in ways that haven’t happened in the past,” he said.

As the convener of the region’s largest poverty reduction initiative, RMAPI is focused on workforce development and the accessibility and affordability of basic needs.

“Those two things, in isolation to everything else, will not be able to move the needle on poverty in such a way that we’re going to see a 50 percent reduction,” Brock acknowledged. “However, in the aggregate, what’s happening within the education space, the work that’s happening in the health space, the regional economic development council and even Rochester area colleges collectively, the compound effect of all this activity may in fact be able to move the needle 50 percent in 15 years.”

In other words, RMAPI cannot do it alone.

“If you were to take the top 10 solutions that are correlated with poverty reduction, the first five are going to be straight government policies. We know wage increases, we know earned income tax credit, we know support for childcare, we know affordable housing and we know that structural issues such as racial equity, trauma, community buildings, those are all the top level contributing factors of poverty reduction,” Brock said. “And those are things we’re focused on with RMAPI.”

Candice Lucas

Candice Lucas

To that end, St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center has stepped in as the anchor organization for RMAPI’s structural racism guiding principle. At around the same time RMAPI was getting off the ground, St. Joe’s was starting its own Structural Racism Initiative, said Candice Lucas, the agency’s new executive director.

When that came to an end in 2018, and another initiative called Facing Race Embracing Equity (FREE) also was coming to its natural conclusion, Lucas and others pulled together the best parts of SRI and FREE to form the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, or REJI.

REJI has five components that include an organizational change team, a racial justice institute, a resource library, community tables and a biennial convention, Lucas explained.

“There’s a lot of energy around this, but people are working independently. We have about 35 to 40 different organizations or entities that are doing something around racial equity and social justice, but all individually, not connecting, not really moving our community forward,” Lucas said. “We’ve been talking about racial equity for at least a decade openly and we’re in the same place. We haven’t done anything.”

St. Joe’s will try to fix that through REJI, Lucas said.

“We don’t have a common vision, a common goal and purpose and direction,” she said. “So we’re trying to give some of that, being in a leadership role. We can do this better together.”

Through REJI’s first component, work will be done with individual organizations to help them look at internal policies and procedures to root out structural racism and inequities. REJI’s first cohort of 28 included all nonprofit organizations. The next cohort, which begins in the fall, is open to all industries and sectors, Lucas said.

“It’s a year of intensive training, work, deep reflection and looking at racism, not just at the structural level, but at all four levels: the individual/internalized level, the interpersonal level, the organizational level and the systemic or structural level,” she explained.

Really being the anchor organization for structural racism is where St. Joe’s sees itself, Lucas said.

“And helping that to spread across our community, because we don’t see ourselves as the expert necessarily,” she said. “There’s expertise out there, but we do want to help people move and pay attention to it and lend support and consultation and leadership wherever we can.”

RMAPI had a number of other successes last year, Brock noted. Perhaps the most notable was its participatory budgeting initiative, which had the community coming together to decide on projects that a pot of $200,000 would help fund.

“Not only was it a community driven process, the community decided the projects that would be awarded, and we’re giving the community the agency to develop their project plans and they’re going to go off and do their work, with the support of the backbone (of RMAPI) to monitor and track progress,” Brock explained.

The process works because it gives the community ownership of the projects.

“Participatory budgeting is not designed solely to be a program as much as it is a practice that will continue to permeate a lot of the decisions that we’re making throughout the Rochester community,” Brock added. “You have organizations like ESL who are asking us questions like, for those programs that weren’t the top five that were awarded, what can we do to support the others?”

Brock said initially the state was slated to fund the project, but when there were challenges, ESL stepped in to help with the $200,000 necessary to make the participatory budgeting work.

“They are a remarkable partner,” Brock said. “They understand this coalition work and collective impact and they’re one of the primary sponsors. We have all the local foundations’ support in the work, but between New York State and ESL, they’re the primary financial sponsors of RMAPI at this point.”

Kitwana said RMAPI’s collaborative approach to addressing poverty is “exactly the type of effort we believe is important in our community.”

“So we’re really proud to support it,” Kitwana said. “We’re a financial institution that’s committed to the Rochester community. Our success, we believe, is really tied to the success and thriving of the Rochester community. So we see it in our best interest to do everything we can to support success in a thriving and prosperous Rochester community.”

The funding alignment council comprises leaders of organizations such as ESL, the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and Rochester Area Community Foundation that fund projects and programs locally, Kitwana said.

“Our work starts with trying to be intentional about understanding a shared goal and purpose around how we can be partners in addressing and working to solve our challenges around poverty,” he explained. “And based on that understanding, working to align the efforts that we do in ways beyond just having intentions to support (anti-poverty work), but to really have informed intent around really aligning the investments we make to support the strategies that have been agreed upon within the context of the anti-poverty initiative.”

For example, the council found that the nonprofits they were funding spent a great deal of time filling out dissimilar paperwork and reports for each of their funders. Funding council members will look at streamlining that process by using the same reports, thus freeing up time for the nonprofits to work on poverty reduction.

Other 2018 RMAPI successes include the growth of the Young Adult Manufacturing Training Employment Program, or YAMTEP. YAMTEP is a 90-day job training program designed to help individuals with low incomes prepare for careers in manufacturing. YAMTEP works with 30 companies to help place individuals in higher paying jobs.

Adult mentoring programs Bridges to Success and Family Independence Initiative address the need for self-sufficiency by connecting individuals with professional mentors or peers working to create change. The programs are administered by Catholic Family Center, Action for a Better Community and Community Place of Greater Rochester.

RMAPI’s first progress report recommended providing better access to the area’s public transportation, and the city of Rochester and Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority’s vanpool project addresses that need. Two vans take workers to outlying employers each day. The project will expand with a $300,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation.

RMAPI has taken on several institutional changes including backing the Raise the Age initiative and housing discrimination legislation. RMAPI’s 2019 policy agenda includes bail reform, eviction prevention, low income family tax credits and RGRTA funding.

“We’re also looking to strengthen our community engagement efforts, because this work does not get off the ground if it’s not inclusive and involve all stakeholders and all persons across communities,” Brock said. “We’re looking to strengthen what the organizations and institutions are doing.”

This year will see a robust workforce development strategy and partnership with the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council, Brock said, which he expects to lead to a stronger pipeline of individuals receiving workforce training and sustained employment.

“We are trying to serve as a connecting tissue to hold people accountable to align and coordinate activity. And when we talk about we, we’re not just talking about the backbone, we’re talking about the entire community,” Brock said. “If it’s not organized, if it’s not coordinated, if it’s not aligned and if it continues to be siloed, poverty will continue to go up.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com/585-653-4021/@Velvet_Spicer

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