Don’t let the problem define you—start with the end in mind

When I was in high school at Edison tech, I worked as a cashier at a neighborhood meat market. I remember walking to work one day and observing that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much here… I also remember thinking, I really don’t like this job very much, but how else was I going to pay my pager and look fresh—I knew my parents couldn’t cover me.

Needing to work to pay for clothes and a pager doesn’t qualify as a major life problem, but it can leave you with that feeling of being stuck, especially if you’re a teenager.

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

Ahlia Kitwana is a member of the GS4A steering committee

When faced with a large, rather daunting problem it is easy to believe that this is the way life is and this is how it will be. In some cases it is easy to allow your current situation to define you. This can be true of an individual, but it can also be true for a community. Allowing your current situation to define you limits the future possibilities as well as the potential solutions available.

Our current situation: Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the United States with the highest rate of childhood poverty of any comparably-sized city. This is a huge problem, but it is not intractable and we should not let it define us as a community.

Rochester is more than its poverty; we have to be forward-looking. We have to have in mind where we want to be, not just where we currently are.

This is where “Beginning with the end in mind”—borrowed from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—comes in. Yes, the current situation is not great. Actually, it’s pretty dismal. But where do we want to be? The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) has a goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over 15 years.

That milestone is the end RMAPI has in mind. From there we’d have to work backwards to determine what policies and programs the community would need to implement and execute to get to that point.

So, the greater Rochester region has a current situation that is not great, but we do have an end in mind. This goal can only be reached with a huge community-wide effort that requires the successful implementation of many different solutions. A recent Democrat and Chronicle poll found that, while most people have not heard of the anti-poverty initiative, when its goals are explained, 91 percent say they support them.

One facet of this problem is the great discrepancy in the quality of public schools available to the young people in our community. GS4A is offering one important solution—socioeconomic integration of schools across school district boundaries. No, what we’re offering is not a silver bullet, but it could be one solution among many that can help us reach the end we have in mind.

Going back to my high school days, I knew I didn’t want to be a cashier forever. Somehow I got in my mind that I wanted to be an engineer back then, so I worked backwards to figure out what I needed to do to become one. I learned that I’d need a 4-year college degree in engineering. Then I found out what I needed to do to get into college. I learned that having 2 or 3 extra lunch periods a day wasn’t going to get me into college, so I started going to class. I started making small changes and achieving smaller goals to get to the end I had in mind. The sun still doesn’t shine all the time, but knowing where I’m going, knowing there are many different ways I can get to where I want to be next has made all the difference.

This is my hope—that we all recognize that we as a community are much more than our current situation. It is my hope that we can agree that working towards a goal of a 50 percent reduction in poverty is a worthy one, and one that we can work together to achieve.

In working toward this end, I hope we can all fully recognize that we need many solutions, big and small, to reach the goal. There are some solutions that will get us short-term returns, but in many ways we have to think longer term in order to achieve the transformative change RMAPI has in mind.

Transformative change is not easy to achieve. We can get there, but if we lose sight of the goal, pull back on the resources we need to reach it, or weaken our resolve, we’ll be just like the high school student who settles for the cashier’s job because staying on a career path is just too hard.