The Rochester region begins 2014 with a large lead in the race to the bottom.
At the close of 2013, the Rochester Area Community Foundation (RACF) released its report on regional poverty with the City of Rochester and the Rochester City School District ranking among the poorest in the nation and state, respectively. The report’s findings also illustrate the spread of poverty beyond urban neighborhoods into surrounding rural counties and gateway cities of Western New York and the Finger Lakes, including Batavia and Geneva.
To confront the region’s growing poverty, Edward Doherty, the principal author and researcher of the RACF report, and Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College and the newly-elected chairman of Rochester Business Alliance, have called for action in the form of coalitions comprised of community leaders. They hope such efforts will result in “concrete recommendations.”
Braveman cites how such efforts worked for an anti-poverty commission in Richmond, VA. One of the most compelling insights within the RACF report, however, comes from a simple yet profound quote by Doherty. He says:
“It is useful to ask whether…poverty is really important. The more than 65,000 poor people who live in the city of Rochester could certainly answer the question better than this author.”
Despite his acknowledgment of those most affected by poverty, both men still suggest how collaboration between business and community leaders will generate the best solutions. Perhaps this premise is inherently incorrect. Doherty’s commentary provides an alternative vantage point, which may yield opportunities for the City of Rochester and other community organizations.
Instead of initiating the dialogue among leaders, what if we chose to first connect with people most affected by poverty? Instead of a detached analysis of quantitative data alone, what if community leaders in positions of power and privilege asked open-ended questions first? And what if those of us who are privileged, myself included, resisted the temptation to label and categorize the poor as we see fit? If you agree with the notion that any one of the 65,000 poor people in Rochester could provide a wealth of information about the daily realties of living in poverty, these are the types of questions we must address head-on.
Confronting poverty in our community requires a serious reexamination of who we include at the table as problem solvers and ultimately, who we designate as leaders to turn this race back toward achievement at the top. Coincidentally, these new leaders are likely to come from many places we currently perceive to be at the bottom.