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Fellowship awarded to build community-centered change for public school systems

The Rochester Education Fellowship, led by a coalition of local child and family advocates, has named Shanai Lee as the recipient of its two-year fellowship to co-create and build a new community-centered vision for bold, transformational change for Rochester’s public school systems.

Lee brings 15 years of experience working in Rochester schools to address the long-standing, dynamic challenges presently facing Rochester’s students in the pursuit of a quality education — many of which were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials noted.

Shanai Lee

“Growing up in Rochester and being educated in the Rochester City School District, my personal experiences have shaped how I will approach this unique opportunity to secure a brighter future for Rochester’s children,” Lee said. “I am committed to my community and I know the importance of having a high-quality education. I look forward to working with families and stakeholders to create real change in our education system that will have a lasting effect on our current students and parents as well as future generations.”

Lee brings to the role extensive experience working in urban education and local government and has held leadership positions in the Rochester City School District as well as a local charter network. She most recently worked as regional senior director of Uncommon Schools and previously held several positions within RCSD for more than 13 years including district clerk, assistant to the CFO and director of minority and women-owned business enterprises program.

Lee received an Ed.D. in educational leadership and administration, a Master’s Degree in educational policy and an MBA in finance and public accounting from the University of Rochester and a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Cornell University.

The Rochester Education Fellowship Selection Committee, co-chaired by Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of Action for a Better Community (ABC) and Holli Budd, executive director of the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation (Farash Foundation), led the extensive search and selection process for the Fellow beginning in January and will provide support for the duration of the two-year Fellowship.

In January 2021, the Farash Foundation, in collaboration with the selection committee, partnered with the Mind Trust, an education nonprofit organization, to lead the recruitment and selection process for the Rochester Education Fellowship. The goal of the process was to identify candidates with a thorough understanding of the needs of the Rochester community, experience navigating existing political systems and structures and the ability to build momentum and a coalition for a partnership with the local community. The committee received robust feedback from the Rochester community around the key qualities and experiences to take into account during the search.

“After a rigorous community-focused search, we’re excited to announce Shanai as Rochester’s Education Fellow and believe she has the ideal background to bring transformational change to our educational systems in the city of Rochester,” Underwood said. “The challenges that students and families in Rochester face are both unique and reflective of the inequities present in our nation, many of which were exacerbated by the pandemic. This is an opportune time to start this community-centered effort.”

Through her Fellowship, Lee will have access to a wide variety of support from both local and national partners, including leadership development, personalized executive coaching and a commitment of support and collaboration from anchor Rochester organizations.

“The Farash Foundation is committed to the long-term health and wellbeing of Rochester’s children and catalyzing a city-wide effort to transform Rochester’s education system through this two-year fellowship,” Budd said. “We’re extremely happy to continue partnering with local leaders and organizations in support of Shanai as she begins the Rochester Education Fellowship.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

CCSI conference to address diversity, racial equity

Coordinated Care Services Inc. this week will collaborate with the Urban League of Rochester, N.Y. Inc. and Action for a Better Community Inc. on a two-day conference focused on diversity, racial equity and inclusion.

“From Theory to Practice: The Individual, the Organization and the Community. The How is Now” will take place virtually on April 21 and April 22 and will feature special appearances from Seanelle Hawkins, president and CEO of the Urban League; Jerome Underwood, president and CEO of ABC; and Simeon Banister, vice president of community programs at Rochester Area Community Foundation. Hawkins and Underwood will open the events on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, while Banister will offer closing remarks on Thursday.

Kesha Carter
Kesha Carter

“The whole idea behind that is to show that we’re all partners in this work because it’s the community and all of our workforces that benefit the most. We don’t covet that information and we actually come together to make a difference in this work,” said Kesha Carter, CCSI’s chief diversity officer. “So I’m really happy that we’re coming together to partner on all of this.”

The topic on the first day of the conference will look at dismantling structural racism in mental health, with keynote speaker Ruth Shim M.D., the Luke & Grace Kim Professor in Cultural Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. Shim’s presentation will examine key concepts associated with structural racism and provide examples of how it manifests in our mental health care system.

Day two’s keynote speaker is Rochester attorney and vocalist Danielle Ponder, whose topic will address the economic cost of racism. The talk will examine the root of the racial wealth gap and how nonprofit players can move from gatekeepers of the status quo to radical agents of change.

Lenora Reid-Rose
Lenora Reid-Rose

“We recognize the challenges that people of color face daily due to race, equity and inclusion. Every day brings a new headline of an individual or a group subjected to some injustice,” said Lenora Reid-Rose, senior director of strategic initiatives and racial equity for CCSI. “We know at CCSI that in our community people of color face these inequities on a daily basis. We see disparate outcomes across all sectors of our community. We look on inequities in criminal justice, education, housing, employment, healthcare, finance, banking – the list doesn’t stop.”

Workshop topics include “How Individual Work Sets the Stage for Change — People of Color,” “How Individual Work Sets the Stage for Change — White People,” “The Power of Mindfulness in the Work of Racial Justice,” “Readying Your Organization to do the Work,” “Dismantling Racism at the Organizational Level: It Takes All of Us,” as well as two workshops on the community level.

Experts from within CCSI, including Carter, Reid-Rose and others, were involved in the planning and execution of the conference, working in tandem with partners from the community including the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, Rural and Migrant Ministry Inc., Rochester City School District and others who will lead the workshops, Carter noted.

“We’re targeting for-profits, but more so nonprofit partners who operate in the environment who are providing direct services to our population. We’re targeting schools, government, funders,” Reid-Rose said. “There’s something in there for everyone. There’s something for the individual, workshops that are geared toward the white individual and to the individual of color.”

Carter said CCSI examined its own internal systems and our practices related to racism, equity and inclusion prior to coordinating the event.

“I often use the phrase that we don’t want to be professional hypocrites. So we had to turn that lens internally to be able to look at how we’re functioning as an organization as well,” Carter said. “And through that process, we learned a lot through the work that we do and we want to share our journey, as well as continuing to grow with the larger part of the community. We’re really looking to share some of those challenges, as well as the learnings that we’ve had and how we’ve gotten through those. I think it will be an amazing opportunity for so many people.

The virtual event is $100 and registration is at

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
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ABC honors four individuals for their community service

action-for-a-better-community-logoFour local individuals will be honored for their community service next week at an event featuring keynote speaker Mayor Lovely Warren.

Action for a Better Community Inc. will host its 15th annual Signature Luncheon Oct. 11 at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center. The event recognizes outstanding contributions in community service to the Greater Rochester area.

This year’s Signature Citizen of the Year Award will be given to Michelle Garcia-Daniels for her commitment and advocacy for youth and education. Garcia-Daniels and her husband sponsor trips for 5th and 6th grade students to travel to cities across the country to learn more about African-American history.

Wanda Ridgeway will receive the James M. McCuller Award for Excellence to recognize her years of service to the community and commitment to families and friends of homicide victims. Ridgeway serves as executive director of Rise Up Rochester Inc., a nonfunded role in which Ridgeway coordinates a monthly support group for families and friends of homicide victims.

Janice Holland will receive the Lena M. Gantt Distinguished Community Service Award for her extensive efforts in teaching the importance of good citizenry, hard work and dedication. Holland works with students of the Healthcare Technology Youth Apprenticeship Program, a high school pipeline program for underrepresented youth who attend the Rochester City School District.

Tonia Burton will be recognized with the Elliott Landsman Head Start Community Volunteer Award. As a staff member of the Monroe County Central Library, Burton has made the Raising a Reader program a continuing success. Burton encourages families to use the services of the library and contributes to the literacy and success of children and their parents.

ABC is a community action agency that provides services to assist people in becoming more self-sufficient. ABC responds to a number of issues in Monroe and Ontario counties that affect the lives of residents including health care, early childhood education, substance abuse, employment and economic literacy, youth services and community building.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021
Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer

ABC event to connect employers with new American community

action-for-a-better-community-logoAction for a Better Community Inc. has teamed with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and the Office of Adult Career Education Services to present a unique learning opportunity for hiring managers.

A “New American Employer Lunch & Learn” event will give human resource personnel, executives and management professionals a chance to learn about the diverse “new American” community in Rochester.

Attendees will engage with a panel of peers, local workforce development program representatives and members of the new American population to hear strategies and success stories for recruiting, hiring, managing and retaining employees from the new American community.

“The Rochester area is rich with community members seeking jobs, companies across a variety of industries that need workers and workforce development programs that provide hands-on training to help people fill these positions,” said Melissa Molongo, ABC’s Office for New Americans (ONA) navigator, in a statement. “However, new Americans often face barriers to obtaining employment due to discrimination, foreign certifications being unrecognized in the U.S. and a lack of guaranteed jobs after spending months in an English language and/or skill-based training program.”

The ONA Immigrant Community Navigator Program is funded by the state Office for New Americans, which defines new Americans as any person who is currently residing in New York State and was not born in the U.S. The program works with community partners to organize events, roundtables, community conversations and trainings to improve access to services for the new American population.

The event will be held June 15 in the Flower City community room of Five Star Bank’s City Gate location.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021

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Action for a Better Community Inc. names Jerome Underwood president, CEO

Jerome Underwood has been named president and CEO of Action for a Better Community Inc.
Jerome Underwood has been named president and CEO of Action for a Better Community Inc.

Action for a Better Community Inc. has chosen a former board chairman as its next leader.

Jerome Underwood, who most recently served as the Rochester City School District’s director of family initiatives, will succeed James Norman as president and CEO of the nonprofit when he retires on Feb. 2. In his leadership role with RCSD, Underwood was responsible for programs and services that focused on parent engagement, attendance improvement, cultural responsiveness and student leadership.

Underwood had been with the district since 2009, when he served as senior director of operations, managing a staff of 700 and a budget of $100 million. He previously was with Datrose Inc. and HSBC Bank, N.A.

He served on ABC’s board of directors for eight years, beginning in 2007, with seven as board chair. At a press gathering Friday, Underwood recalled how he came to be in that role.

“I remember clearly when James Norman and (then board chairperson) Loretta Scott came to Datrose, where I was working, they told me you have to come serve on ABC’s finance committee and on the board. That was about 2005,” Underwood said. “They tricked me. A year after being on the board I was board chair.”

Underwood, an immigrant who came to Rochester in 1985, earned an undergraduate degree from St. John Fisher and an MBA from Rochester Institute of Technology. It was his education that propelled his career, he said.

“My grandmother went to school one day in her life. She had one child, our mother. And from the moment I opened my eyes they said take your education seriously,” Underwood recalled. “And that became the rocket ship for me to be standing here in front of you now.”

Underwood serves as board vice chairman for the Greater Rochester Community Transportation Foundation, as a faculty member with the United Way of Greater Rochester’s African American Leadership Development Program, as a cultural broker to the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative and he previously was a director of the Rochester Joint Schools Construction Board.

Outgoing President and CEO James Norman
Outgoing President and CEO James Norman

“I’ve known Jerome for a number of years and know he’s got what it takes to lead, respond to the multiple demands and expectations that are inherent to the ABC position,” Norman said. “To Jerome, you’re going to work for the community.”

It’s the community that owns ABC, Norman said.

“And what you do in the service of the community means that you’ve got to select staff who believe in the mission, staff who have the skills and expertise that can help you advance the mission and you must continue to engage the community in the development, the implementation and the evaluation of the programs that are administered by ABC,” Norman added.

Norman also said Underwood needed to be a change agent.

“That’s what the community expects of you,” he said. “At the same time, you must also strive to be a bridge builder.”

An 11-member search committee was formed about a year ago to oversee the process of identifying candidates, said board chairman Brad Rye. The search committee was chaired by Frederick Jefferson, who served as ABC chairman from 1979 to 1987.

“The search committee and board were especially impressed by Jerome’s passion for and commitment to ABC’s mission, and to making the lives and the communities we serve better for all people,” Rye said.

James Norman, left, is joined by Sen. Rich Funke, incoming President and CEO Jerome Underwood and Sen. Joseph Robach
James Norman, left, is joined by Sen. Rich Funke, incoming President and CEO Jerome Underwood and Sen. Joseph Robach

A number of ABC directors and staff members were joined by state Sens. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, and Rich Funke, R-Perinton, as well as Underwood’s family at Friday’s announcement.

ABC is a community action partnership agency that provides services to assist people in becoming more self-sufficient. The agency was established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to fight America’s war on poverty.

ABC manages a home-based early childhood services program and six Head Start centers. More than 8,300 individuals and 2,100 families benefitted from multiple programs and services provided by ABC last year.

ABC has had just two long-term leaders: Norman and his predecessor James “Mamba” McCuller, who served as president and CEO from 1967 to 1992.

Rye noted a number of Norman’s accomplishments during his quarter of a century at the helm.

“I thought about his lifelong passion and commitment to helping others. And I thought about the respect and appreciation for him that I’ve seen time and time again from so many people in our community and around the country,” Rye said, among other things. “When I pulled all of that together, it really came down to four words that sum up the legacy of James Norman: He made a mark. Those words suit James’ modest personality, but to me they really encapsulate what he has done. He has made a mark on ABC, the people he’s worked with, the individuals and families we serve, the community action agency network around the country, the Greater Rochester community and so many other people and organizations.”

Norman said that while he is retiring from ABC he will continue to serve on some boards and committees in the Rochester area and plans to resume his adjunct teaching in sociology at Monroe Community College and will do some coaching with the Ramerman Leadership Group.

When asked to sum up ABC’s accomplishments over the last 25 years, Norman noted the agency’s internal work to develop leaders and improve management systems, as well as the establishment and expansion of connections between ABC programs and programs at other organizations.

Underwood said his first task will be to meet ABC’s founders, Constance Mitchell and Walter Cooper, and Rev. Franklin Florence, who was instrumental in the agency in its early days. ABC was founded the same year as Rochester’s race riots, and Florence was chosen as head of the steering committee of a community-based black activist organization named Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today, or FIGHT.

“It’s not lost on me that this is MLK weekend; it is not lost on me that this is the 200th year since Frederick Douglass’ birth. And it’s not lost on me that the confidence that has been shown in me to give me the keys to the car that is ABC is extreme,” Underwood said. “My intent is to build on what has been built. My intent is to be fearless. And as Mamba McCuller put it, quite simply, we work for the poor. Period.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021

Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer