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With an eye to the future, group seeks equity to drive distribution of COVID-19 recovery funds

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Simeon Banister, executive vice president of The Community Foundation, and Mayor-elect Malik Evans hug Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, during a news conference launching the North Star Coalition.

As massive amounts of COVID-19 recovery dollars continue to flow into the region, a wide-ranging group of leaders have pledged to direct large chunks of the funds toward minorities. Monroe County, the City of Rochester and Rochester City School District are expecting more than $900 million in combined aid.

Municipalities and other government organizations are expecting anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The initiative is called the North Star Coalition, named after one of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ Rochester-based newspapers.

Led by the Rochester Area Community Foundation’s Simeon Bannister, members of the coalition — which includes representatives from federal, state, city and county government as well as the nonprofit sector — showed support of an effort to make sure the funds go to economically disadvantaged people.

Comparing the opportunity to the New Deal, Bannister said an equitable distribution of funding could be transformative for the region. He’s quick to argue that the coalition isn’t another program but a group of leaders who intend to move in concert in their various roles.

“We recognize that economic disparity is the precursor to economic decline,” said Bannister, who spearheaded the coalition. “Or said differently, economic equity is the foundation for economic growth.”

With an eye to the future, he said that “equity is key to economic innovation.”

“If we solve for that, we not only transform the lives of historically marginalized communities but we strengthen the entire region,” he continued.

Bannister specifically mentioned the exclusion of minorities from programs like the post-World War II GI Bill. He also mentioned redlining, which prevented many people, including African Americans, from buying houses in certain neighborhoods.

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Jerome Underwood with Action for a Better Community speaks during a news conference launching the North Star Coalition.

Action for a Better Community’s Jerome Underwood said these funds create an opportunity to right some of those wrongs. He also said it’s likely that not everyone will agree with what the group will push for. He compared the approach to injecting a needle into tight veins, saying it they will likely hurt some people.

“So we have do things that will get the 'are you kidding me?' reaction from some people. Because it starts with justice,” Underwood said. "When we do this collectively, everybody’s not going to want to come, because for some folks, things are OK. Not the folks we serve. Things are not OK. And we can’t let the rubber band snap back to February 2020.”

Underwood argued that some of the resources should be used to create a BIPOC birthing center in Rochester to improve outcomes among minorities giving birth and to push for what he called "greenlining,” or mortgages for communities affected by redlining.

One of the center spokes of the group’s agenda is connecting people with available resources. Its website shows funding opportunities ranging from the arts to environmental and labor and employment grants. Bannister said one of the group’s first campaigns is informing family day care providers, which he said are often owned by minorities, about the many state funding options available for their programs.

It's this connectivity approach that excites Rochester Mayor-elect Malik Evans. He argued that resources are important but mean little without access to them.

“We want to do everything that we can to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table, and to make sure that everyone who wants to eat, can eat because there’s a lot of mouths out here in Rochester who need to get fed,” Evans said.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.