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Structural racism, diversity, and inclusion in Rochester the focus of long-term project

Dionne Jacques, of PathStone, organizes support checks before they are given to young clients in need.
Dionne Jacques, of PathStone, organizes support checks before they are given to young clients in need.

Rochester has its own unique, complex, cocktail of different racial and ethnic groups in the city, and like many parts of America, it has some traces of poverty.

As a placement and career services developer at PathStone, a not-for-profit organization providing services to low-income families and economically depressed communities, Dionne Jacques sees the crippling effects of poverty in Rochester every day. She describes her clients as predominantly young, African American men, whom are in and out of the criminal justice system.

The mission at PathStone, according to Jacques, is to help find opportunities for those who have been left out. PathStone, for example, provides clothing to its clients for job interviews. Jacques said that structural racism and other barriers can make it more difficult for the young men to be taken seriously in the workforce, and also in the courtroom. 

“I tell my clients all the time, unfortunately you don’t have a skin color that will provide you with a sort of invisibility when it comes to law enforcement,” Jacques said.

PathStone has taken another step in its advocacy work. It’s one of 28 local organizations joining forces to achieve an ambitious goal: trying to find new ways to combat racism within the institutions they work for. The hope is that the new outlook will help these companies change the way they serve their clients. 

The Structural Racism initiative is a two-year effort created by officials at St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center with the help of grant funding.

As part of the local initiative, the Neighborhood Center brought in Ken Hardy, a nationally-known clinician, author, and trainer. He has made a career of teaching people how to have more progressive conversations about race.

The primary focus of a late-March workshop Hardy taught in Rochester began with understanding structural racism. Though many of us have lived long enough to see schools and eating establishments desegregated and the inclusion of people of color in leadership roles in corporate America, Hardy said racism remains a structural problem in the United States.

According to Hardy, society is structured in a way that excludes substantial numbers of people from minority backgrounds from taking part in social institutions.

“I think there’s a sort of marriage that exists between individual racism and systemic racism,” said Hardy. “The institution is at fault, but institutions are made up of people. My hope with this group is to get them to see the ways in which we all have subscribed to these racial notions.”

Around 180 people representing the various organizations taking part in the project attended Hardy’s two-day workshop held at Glendoveers banquet facility in Penfield.

He challenged them to consider the subtle ways that race plays out in everyday interactions. Hardy asked the group to look within for conscious or subconscious racist behavior, and to then begin to tackle how it’s affected their companies.

So far, that’s been easier said than done. Though, collectively, the group devoted time to tackle a complicated subject head on, some struggled with identifying their own race. Hardy asked early on whether participants saw themselves as white or black - a question that was difficult for some of the Hispanic people to answer.

“I identify myself as a white Latina woman, and I’m in the process of feeling comfortable saying that,” said Elisa DeJesus, director of the family services department at Ibero American Action League.

DeJesus said the concept has prompted her to ask her small circle of friends, “What is your race?”

“Some of us think, ‘Oh my race is Latino, or I’m Hispanic, or I’m Puerto Rican,’” she said. “But I know that’s not our race.”

Ibero primarily serves Hispanic clients, but there’s a good representation of people who are black and white. While DeJesus identifies as white, some of her colleagues consider themselves black. These choices help them better relate to all their clients, she said.

"You can throw all the white people out and put black people in charge of everything, but if their consciousness isn’t raised about how patterns of inequality are embedded in policies, practices, and so forth, they’ll just do the same thing other people have done," James Norman, CEO of Action for a Better Community.

“When people come to work with us, they think Ibero is a Latino agency, serving only Latinos, and only employing Latinos,” DeJesus said. “That’s not true.”

James Norman, CEO of Action for a Better Community, has been involved in several past initiatives focusing on systemic racism in Rochester, like R.I.S.E, the Rochester Initiative for Structural Equality, and FR=EE, Facing Race, Embracing Equity.

“Getting to a level playing field, so to speak, can happen,” Norman said. “But that’s, at this point in time,  an ideal that won’t be reached for some years.”

So, what makes this structural racism initiative any different? According to Christine Wagner of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, it has to do with the two-year curriculum and the extensive experience Hardy brings to the project.

“We thought it would be a little thing that would be an adjunct to what we already do here at the Neighborhood Center, and then it got so big it took on a life of its own,” Wagner said.

The staff at the Neighborhood Center is considering whether to extend the project another year, beyond its scheduled end next spring, once they determine the effectiveness of work Hardy has assigned.

“We have been talking to some experts about how to measure impact on, what is in some ways, a very intangible concept,” Wagner added.

On the second and final day of the workshop, Hardy left participants with tasks to complete before he returns to Rochester in September for a follow up session, including the tall order to form active structural racism committees within their organizations.

DeJesus said the committee at Ibero is in the infancy stage. Jacques is preparing to update staff at PathStone about the Structural Racism initiative she’s been a part of, but she has concerns about how her colleagues will react.

“They’re uncomfortable and they’re sort of exhausted by it,” Jacques said.

But, she said, being tired is no excuse, especially when she thinks of the young clients who rely on her.

“I’m there for them. I’m their voice at this table.”

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.