The death of Daniel Prude broke open deep wounds in the Rochester community. The incident itself, followed by a six-month delay in a public accounting for it, has wrought anger, division, and a lack of confidence in both government and the current criminal justice system. This is not the first incident of its type. We saw the same unrest in 1964 — when pain, bigotry, hate, poverty, and distrust boiled over. And while many changes were made back then, they certainly didn’t go far enough. Here we are almost 60 years later, facing many of the same issues. The stark reality of structural racism, bias, and socioeconomic injustice has been a heavy weight for our community throughout late summer and fall.
At a recent Greater Rochester Chamber full staff meeting, I was touched by comments made by three of our hard-working and dedicated team members. With one individual close to tears, they expressed the challenges and pain that they and their families have experienced as women of color in Rochester. We are at a point where we can no longer ignore or excuse away what so many of our neighbors are facing in their daily lives. We cannot be successful as a region when so many of our people are living in abject poverty. We cannot be successful when we accept substandard results from our education systems. We cannot be successful unless we focus on long-term problem-solving, resolutions, and change.
It is my belief that to effectively address enormous challenges like those we are facing here in Rochester, it’s best to address one aspect at a time and build momentum.
Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce is proud to participate in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge that is being led locally by the United Way of Greater Rochester. The Chamber has already signed on as a partner and full supporter of this effort, and we encourage everyone to do the same. It is our hope that this challenge will bring about a deeper understanding among employers, employees, and community leaders of the issues that we and our neighbors face here in Rochester every day.
Greater Rochester Chamber also recently kicked off our “Colors of Success” event series and diversity, equity, and inclusion training program. This initiative focuses on both the science and the practical application of adopting equity lenses and inclusive practices to make your company more competitive, productive, and profitable.
We know that there are many organizations in the community offering similar content, and we support their efforts. If we are all focused on equity within our own organizations, then we are all making progress. As Mother Teresa said, if each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole world would be clean. If each of us takes the time and effort to make changes in our own respective companies, families, and spheres of influence, we will have a profound impact on the Rochester region.
By virtue of our large membership, Greater Rochester Chamber represents hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Rochester region. I believe that the most significant impact our business community can have is to look inside our own respective organizations and make changes in terms of how we hire, retain, promote, and support employees, especially those from underserved communities in Rochester.
The Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors have had two recent meetings focused on the topics of economic and social justice. Our Board consists of over 50 leaders representing top businesses in our region, along with college and university presidents and not-for-profit leaders who represent a broad cross-section of our economy. There is a deep commitment among these leaders to be part of the needed change going forward. The Rochester business community has a long history of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy, going back to George Eastman and carried on by outstanding leaders today.
Every person in every organization has biases, even if we may not realize it. We all need to look in the mirror and understand that some of the things we are unconsciously doing might be negatively impacting others. We need to check ourselves for this implicit and unconscious bias. We need to understand what we can do differently to provide opportunities for success. That includes giving people a chance and helping them to overcome the challenges they may face by offering access to support systems like transportation, child care, advanced educational opportunities, internships, promotions, co-ops, and mentoring. It includes helping people feel welcome in our organizations, no matter their background.
Diversity is not just a buzzword. Diversity is not about numbers and quotas. Diversity is not about checking a box or having a yearly training. Diversity is about true equity and inclusion. About ensuring historically marginalized and underrepresented communities have a meaningful seat at the decision-making table. Diversity is about building strength in our organizations to better serve our employees and customers. We as a business community need to be introspective and take a deep look at our current practices, learn from the companies here that have a track record of great success in that area, and model those behaviors.
Our leaders need to hold themselves accountable for social and economic justice. Our leaders need to help create opportunities and break down barriers that are holding back our neighbors and the economic vitality of our entire region. These changes will help us to prosper. The more we reduce poverty, improve quality of life, and elevate people into a strong middle class, the faster Rochester will grow past the current pain and embarrassment that we have been enduring.
We often depend on political leaders to lead these changes. Political leaders are elected to serve and follow the community’s lead and direction. The Rochester business community, though it has had ups and downs over the decades, continues to be a powerful force. We have talent, passion, and ability. We just need to execute on a strategy. We can no longer step aside and wait for others to take action. There is no doubting or excusing away the issues that Rochester faces. This is the time to put a stake in the ground. It is a time to come together to listen, to learn, to understand, and then take action to address the many inequities that exist in this region.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our organization and many others have spent countless hours every day working on the issues emanating from the pandemic. Imagine if we could all devote the same amount of time and effort to fighting the epidemic of institutional racism, bias, and socioeconomic injustice.
While I have been critical of the many past studies, commissions, and unimplemented plans that have stocked shelves throughout Rochester over the past decades, I am encouraged by the creation of RASE — the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity. This effort, chaired by former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, Arline Santiago, and Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, has recently begun its work. These leaders have a long history in Rochester and a deep understanding of the issues that face us. I have great respect for the work that they are doing and look forward to helping the business community support its recommendations going forward. I would urge that a community scorecard be established with both assignments and accountability attached to these recommendations, so we don’t fall prey to the inertia of the past.
I also would like to commend the Black Lives Matter leadership here in Rochester for their passion and persistence following the public announcement on the death of Daniel Prude. Whether you agree or disagree with everything they stand for, their ability to stay focused on their goals is something to be admired and emulated. Rochester tends to have amnesia following major incidents of public alarm. More often than not, when the anger subsides, so too does the passion and commitment for true positive and systemic changes. BLM Rochester has stayed focused on its mission, and they are a reminder of our region’s legacy.
Social justice runs through our veins. Rochester is the home of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, and yet, we should be embarrassed by our recent lack of progress. Let’s take this moment to get back on track. It should be our mission to eradicate the issues that have plagued Rochester and other communities across our country throughout our modern history.
I have often noticed how friendship, camaraderie, trust, and confidence is built when people are working together on a project. This is one effort where the business community can stand shoulder to shoulder with labor, not-for-profits, and everyone across this region to address these issues.
Many hands make light work. If we can all come together to address these critically important issues, we can move forward with a much greater spirit of unity, respect, and teamwork. I can think of no greater asset to propel Rochester and the Finger Lakes into the future.
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.