RMAPI director walks back initial poverty reduction promise
In January 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of a new initiative that vowed to reduce poverty by 50 percent in 15 years, but four years later, the mission and the function of the initiative is still widely misunderstood.
Four years ago, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul opened that first meeting with a quote by anthropologist and author Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
"I’m looking out at a room full of committed individuals," she added. "And we are going to change the world and it’s going to start right here, right now."
Surrounded by government officials, nonprofit leaders, and community activists, Hochul was there to announce a new plan to tackle poverty in Rochester and Monroe County. Right now, Rochester is the third-poorest major metropolitan area in the country; about a third of its residents live in poverty.
The plan was this: Establish a task force, a group of people from all different backgrounds, to identify what it is about jobs, housing, and social services that makes it so hard for people to provide for themselves and their families.
Then, use these findings to inform all the work being done in Rochester in local government, job creation, and nonprofit work.
Congressman Joe Morelle was the majority leader of the New York State Assembly then.
"Our vision," he said, "it may be a daunting one -- is to eliminate poverty."
Over the next few months the vision was narrowed, and given a name, and in September of that year, the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, or RMAPI, released a report, where it made a big promise: to reduce poverty in the Rochester and Monroe County region by 50 percent in 15 years.
But now, four years later, people involved in RMAPI are reframing that promise.
Leonard Brock is the executive director of RMAPI.
"An expectation shouldn’t be 50 percent in fifteen years," he said in a recent interview. "That should be an aspirational goal that we work toward."
Since his appointment in May 2015, Brock says he’s been struggling to correct misunderstandings of what RMAPI is, and what it is not.
"The communications around RMAPI, the public splash, was wrong," he said. "And that led to many false expectations and what some people have seen as failure."
One of the main misconceptions about RMAPI, Brock said, is that it’s often confused with an agency, service provider or funder. That’s largely because in the early years of RMAPI, the initiative was tied to a big chunk of money awarded to the region by New York state. But that money was divided up between agencies across Rochester and the Finger Lakes, and RMAPI was never intended to manage any of it. The money that RMAPI does receive comes through the United Way, and pays the salaries of their 5.5 employees.
But Brock says people thought he specifically was sitting on a giant pile of money.
"I was getting criticized – hammered – for money I never had."
He said he was called a liar, and accused of hiding and hoarding hundreds of millions of dollars.
"When the reality is I never touched those dollars."
Public perception -- and misconception -- got so bad, Brock says it started to affect his personal life.
He got calls from neighbors asking for help with food and housing. His home was vandalized. He said he was not prepared for the way this role would affect him personally.
"My life is not the same by far," he said. "More importantly, my family life has changed drastically. But my wife and kids, they believe in the work, so they've been able to weather the storm, so to speak."
But if RMAPI isn’t a funder or an agency, and it doesn't provide direct services, what does it do? Brock defines it as a "community coalition and a group of actors working together to identify specific strategies that organizations could take responsibility for executing to reduce poverty."
Rather than work directly with the public, his vision for RMAPI is to coordinate between organizations and institutions.
They have three guiding principles, which are to build and support the community, address structural racism, and address trauma. The goal is to incorporate those principles into all of the decision-making that happens in the region – from government to business to nonprofits.
Over the last four years, Brock says they’ve only just started working toward that kind of systemic change in Rochester. It will be a while before people see results, and he doesn’t want their progress to be derailed by that initial promise.
"Let me put it this way," he said. "If people expect that we're going to reduce poverty by fifty percent in fifteen years and they will be outraged or upset, they probably should expect to be outraged and upset. I'm not gonna say that it's not realistic, but I'm not saying it’s something we should realistically hold ourselves accountable for."
But without specific benchmarks and tangible goals, it is harder to hold RMAPI accountable, or even know what to expect. This past summer, a Census report concluded poverty actually increased in the city of Rochester between 2013 and 2017.
Brock is focused on a longer timeline, one that promises to start moving the needle on poverty in about 10 years. He says even a 10 percent reduction would be a huge win for the city.