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Urban League takes REJI under its wing

The Urban League of Rochester has been named the new steward and agency administrator for the Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI). The program will be combined with the Urban League’s antiracist educational initiatives under the Interrupt Racism name as a primary focus of its newly-created Equity and Advocacy Division.

Dr. Seanelle Hawkins
Dr. Seanelle Hawkins

“The Urban League is an ideal fit for REJI because racial equity work is our primary mission, and a comprehensive education component like the one that REJI has developed will complement and enhance our Interrupt Racism initiative,” said Urban League President and CEO Seanelle Hawkins.

REJI is a community-wide initiative that addresses racism by building community capacity for racial equity and focusing on change at the individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels. Through St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, REJI has worked with more than 40 organizations and 400 leaders in the Rochester community across two cohorts in dismantling racism.

“We can think of no better organization to take over REJI than the Urban League,” said Sister Christine Wagner, executive director of SJNC.

She characterized the initiative’s work as “shining a light on the evil of structural racism.”

“It is with confidence that we put this important program in their hands,” Wagner said.

The Urban League plans to continue and build upon the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Both pre-existing REJI cohorts will receive ongoing support and resources from the Urban League, officials said.

“The need to continue this work is increasingly apparent, especially during the current climate, and we are so grateful to be handed the baton in stewarding REJI,” Hawkins said. “We are receiving more requests than ever from organizations to assist with tackling complex issues associated with all aspects of racism and creating spaces that demonstrate a more equitable Rochester.”

The Urban League has more than 55 years of advocacy and human service experience in the Greater Rochester area and will return to its roots in facilitating civil rights initiatives and actions in the creation of a distinct division centered on Equity and Advocacy.

To do so, the organization has named Kiah Nyame to head up the division as the Equity and Advocacy officer, a position that Hawkins likened to a “community DEI officer.” Nyame will also join the executive leadership team of the Urban League to augment the focus on equity in each of the more than 25 programs therein.

“The work of Interrupt Racism will build on the current foundation of REJI while also transforming it to utilize a holistic approach model that ensures all community stakeholders are heard and advocated for,” Nyame said.

Sashanna Mitchell, REJI’s program coordinator at SJNC, will continue in that capacity as the coordinator of Interrupt Racism. Applications to join the first Interrupt Racism cohort under Mitchell’s leadership will be available in April 2021.

“I am committed to this work, not just my individual job and program, but to real change, and I’m honored to continue it here at the Urban League,” Mitchell said. “The reason why I’m so committed is that I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have had to go through as a Black woman with respect to pay inequity, internalized racism and oppression and questioning my own worth. There are systems at play in Rochester that haven’t allowed me and other Black Rochesterians to live our best lives. When I realized that this struggle was by design, I committed myself to interrupting that process for my community. I won’t give up, and the Urban League won’t give up.”

Interrupt Racism began in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in late May 2020 as the Urban League of Rochester’s response to the public outcry for racial justice and equity. In just three days, Interrupt Racism moved from conception to execution as a “community-wide suggestion box” and collective impact platform for racial inequities in Rochester, officials noted.

The Urban League developed Interrupt Racism into a racial equity educational initiative, culminating in the first-ever Interrupt Racism Summit on Oct. 20 and 21, 2020. This innovative virtual conference brought together seven keynote speakers, more than 30 presenters and workshop facilitators, and more than 500 attendees from across the country to interrupt racism.

“This is just the beginning of the equity and advocacy work we have envisioned for Rochester,” Hawkins said.

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

Programs to reduce poverty get $1M in state funding

Three Rochester-area poverty-reduction programs will receive nearly $1 million in state funding through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI).

“Through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative, we are empowering communities to connect people with opportunities that help move them on a path out of poverty toward economic independence,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a news release Monday. “I look forward to these programs delivering results and commend Rochester for (its) efforts to get to this point.”

The three poverty-reduction programs approved for funding in Rochester include:

  • Young Adult Manufacturing Training Employment Program—$750,000 to be used to help adults acquire the skills to maintain a living wage job in the manufacturing industry. The program will teach basic work habits and social skills required to work in manufacturing. The pilot will train and employ up to 200 people, while also serving as a model for other employers to emulate in their fields.
  • Rochester Rehabilitation and Action for a Better Community—$75,000 each to create a virtual map showing how individuals progress through agencies delivering services, finding opportunities for greater efficiency, ways agencies can collaborate and areas where individuals may need more support.
  • St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center—$76,000 to expand the organization’s Structural Racism Initiative, with a goal of training 200 individuals from 29 organizations. The program helps local agencies and businesses better understand the issue and develop effective ways to combat it within their own organizations.

“Strengthening our community through education and job-readiness is a long-term solution to helping individuals and families escape poverty,” said Sen. Rich Funke, R-Fairport. “We have companies that want to be here, and I continually hear from employers that they need more trained employees. Hopefully these efforts will help create that connection.”

The governor’s office announced ESPRI in 2016 and 16 communities statewide formed local task forces to oversee efforts and administer state funding. The state modeled ESPRI after the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, part of a broad coalition of state and local government, businesses and nonprofit representatives working together to redesign and coordinate efforts to address extreme poverty here, officials said.

“Through continued partnership and collaboration, the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative is supporting the development and implementation of community-driven plans that are confronting head-on the specific challenges facing families and individuals living in poverty,” Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle said. “I am grateful to Gov. Cuomo for delivering funds that will enable these efforts to continue serving and uplifting those in our community who are most in need.”

The fund approval will allow RMAPI to continue its efforts to create systemic change that addresses the root causes of poverty, RMAPI Executive Director Leonard Brock said.

“In the coming year, these efforts will bring higher earnings and increased participation in the labor force, increased effectiveness of benefits, increased accessibility of basic needs, increased funding alignment around the community’s common poverty-reduction agenda and decision-making among key stakeholders that is community and data driving,” Brock said.

[email protected] / 585-653-4021

Follow Velvet Spicer on Twitter: @Velvet_Spicer