Is Rochester finally ready for bold changes?

Who are we? Better yet, who do we want to be as a community?

Seriously, are we ready and willing to take the steps needed to solve the problems of poverty and decline that have beset us now for more than a generation? Or, will we once again, take comfort in stereotypes and settle for investing more money in the same old approaches that have failed in the past?

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Mark Hare is a member of the GS4A leadership team

Progressive values are in our bones. Rochester’s proximity to Lake Ontario, which afforded quick passage to Canada, gave rise to a thriving abolitionist community here in the mid-19th Century, and later to an active suffragist community fighting for women’s right to vote. Austin Steward, born to slavery in Virginia, became Rochester’s first black store owner and a leader in anti-slavery causes. Reverend Thomas James, an emancipated slave from New York, settled here and took up the cause, along with anti-slavery activists William Bloss, Isaac and Amy Post and the great Susan B. Anthony.

Sometimes called “America’s First Boomtown,” Rochester was the gateway to the west with the opening of Erie Canal. In the 150 years after the canal opened, Rochester innovators and entrepreneurs made and sold everything from perfume and candy, from shoe polish and beer to eye glasses and precision optics. We built ships, manufactured soap and buttons, elevators and steam engines. Photocopying—xerography—was invented here, and was consumer photography.

The rich and powerful of Rochester built theaters and art museums, endowed colleges and hospitals, donated land for expansive public parks, and, with others, invented the idea off lifelong employment with strong, growing and far-reaching companies. Rochesterians designed and implemented effective local governmental institutions, and later built the best organized neighborhoods in the United States (so said the Brookings Institution back in the 1970s).

Led by Marion Folsom (a Kodak executive who virtually invented the nation’s first retirement system and later served as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare from 1955 to 1958), Rochester organized what  might have ben the finest health care system in the county, build on collaboration among hospitals, rather than competition.

Yes, Rochester came to be known as Smugtown for a reason—an Old Boys’ Club that ran government, business and civic matters with unseemly hubris at times. And I have no interest in romanticizing the “Good Old Days;” this was not a perfect community. It was, however, a much more effective community, a place with leaders who—while they certainly had blind spots when it came to missing the racial divide of the early 1960s—were genuinely interested in solving problems.

But that Can-Do city has become the No-Can-Do city over the last 30 years, our leaders unwilling or unable to even imagine the structural changes that could reverse the decline that has emptied city neighborhoods and impoverished its schools. They have redefined success from problem solving to capping taxes.

We’re a mystery in some ways. We no longer have the corporate giants that once dominated the landscape, but we are blessed with hundreds of innovators who are building smaller, more nimble 21st century companies. We are still an incredibly generous community, with more volunteers per capita than just about any place in America, and with newer philanthropists (Dennis and Lawrence Kessler, B. Thomas Golisanso and Max and Marian Farash among them) still endowing a range of civic and humanitarian causes.

And yet, collectively, we have learned to accept some of the worst poverty and most segregated schools you can find anywhere in America. For all kinds of reasons, children who populate our racially isolated, high-poverty city schools have to beat incredible odds to graduate high school, let alone to ready themselves for work or college. Most will never reach their full potential.

Are we not embarrassed; are we not ashamed to send so many children to schools as segregated and deprived as the worst schools in the deep south before the Civil Rights era?

We have resignation, not outrage; we tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do, that if the parents of poor children would work harder, they could move to Brighton or Pittsford and get their kids  into a better school.

For 30 years we have been collectively silent as this crisis has deepened.  Not one school board, nor village or city council, or town board has even called for a discussion of alternatives to high poverty schools. The business community hasn’t offered a whimper of  resistance. Neither political party has made an issue of it. Our religious leaders have said nothing at all.

But today we have an opportunity to repair the damage, to do right by the children who most need a community behind them.

Suddenly, poverty is an issue. People are talking. The Rochester-Monroe Anti Poverty Initiative has been promised $500 million in state support for programs that will cut poverty here by 50 percent over 15 years. GS4A believes that evidence based solutions—notably socioeconomic integration of our schools— must be a part of that discussion.

We hope you will join us in supporting bold new efforts at collaboration among school districts—the kind of problem-solving initiative that Rochester once was known for.