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Anti-Poverty Initiative working group participants feel slighted

At an early meeting, RMAPI solicited input from the community at a neighborhood meeting.
Veronica Volk
At an early meeting, RMAPI solicited input from the community at a neighborhood meeting.

When the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative was announced, it promised to involve members of the community in the process toward reducing poverty.

But that led to misconceptions about the initiative's mission. 

A few years ago, Isabelle Bartter was invited to join a working group with RMAPI.

From the beginning, one of the main goals of RMAPI was to include people living in poverty who could speak personally about barriers to economic independence in Rochester. Bartter grew up poor, and is an activist.

"I was used to working with my community to find a good idea and then being ignored, you know?" she said. "Then RMAPI came along and I thought, 'Wow, there’s really a lot of money behind this, there’s really a lot of political will behind it, and this could really go somewhere.' "

RMAPI was announced in 2015 with the goal of reducing poverty in Rochester by 50 percent in 15 years. One of their first steps was to organize groups of people from all different backgrounds to come up with solutions to some of Rochester’s systemic problems.

There were eight groups focusing on different areas like child care, transportation and public safety, and they all came up with specific recommendations.

"We thought we were going to propose these ideas and that’s gonna be that," Bartter said. "I got the sense and I think a lot of other people got the sense that these things are going to happen, and they’re going to happen within the next couple of years."

When asked how she feels about it now, Bartter laughed.

"I mean, within weeks of the last meeting that we had, it became quite clear that there was a lot of political will and money behind having meetings, and there was zero political will and money behind making the ideas we came up with a reality."

The groups came out with 33 recommendations overall, which were released in a report in late 2015. Bartter says she’s not sure what happened with the recommendations made by her working group, which was focused on housing and included things like offering loans to people to buy homes in their own neighborhoods, and establishing rent caps.

But Leonard Brock, the executive director of RMAPI, said they are being put to use.

"Many of the recommendations are in fact informing major decisions that have been made," Brock said. "But I think the expectation was that the staff would execute these strategies or that there would be specific funding."

Brock said RMAPI does not have the agency to make those recommendations a reality on their own. And since RMAPI is not a funder, they can’t necessarily force these recommendations through.

So who is responsible for fulfilling the goals spelled out by RMAPI?

Jamie Saunders is the CEO of the United Way, which oversees funding to RMAPI. She also used to serve as the co-chair of one of the working groups. She said agencies partnering with RMAPI are all responsible for incorporating its big-picture ideas into their agendas.

"It is absolutely looking at solutions of the day," she said. "But the broader institutional changes take time."

She said because organizations are collaborating, using RMAPI as a resource, they should all able to hold each other accountable for pushing their common agenda forward over time.

Whether that system proves effective remains to be seen. A recent report showed poverty has actually increased between 2013 and 2017.

Saunders said she understands how a longer timeline can be frustrating to people like Bartter, but that doesn’t mean they won’t see those recommendations happen eventually.

"If I'm living in poverty and giving up my time and my input and my valuable insights on how to help, and yet the changes are years away -- there is that understandable gap of expectation and deliverables."

But she said now that the program is more defined, they’re trying to communicate a more effective message about what to expect. Both Saunders and Brock said they expect the new RMAPI model to show reduced poverty in about 10 years.

Veronica Volk is a senior editor and producer for WXXI News.
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