Leadership Rochester: Opening the City’s Eyes

Nov 27, 2015

Constance Mitchell Jefferson, daughter of Connie Mitchell, the first African American council person in Rochester, addresses Leadership Rochester in a 2014 retreat.
Credit Kelly Mullaney

Rochester native Bob Duffy has been a busy and versatile man over his career, going from Rochester police chief and mayor, to lieutenant governor of New York state, and now head of the Rochester Business Alliance. Before all of that, however, Duffy was a graduate of Leadership Rochester, a program that gave him some useful perspective.

“I thought it was a great eye opener,” said Duffy in a phone interview. “It was a terrific experience, and one that I’ve always valued, and one that I think, really did, help shape a number of views that I had down the road.”

What is Leadership Rochester? The organization, now in its 23rd year, is a program that seeks to take an inside look into the city of Rochester. Its programs range from learning basic police and fire training, to visiting the Quaker House downtown to study the 1960s race riots, to an education day that dives into the Rochester school system.

Leadership Rochester’s mission is to find 35 to 45 emerging leaders each year and bring them together to discuss the most significant issues affecting Rochester and Monroe County. These meetings  include many field trips to landmarks and workplaces in the city, panels of people giving their take on strong and powerful issues that affect them, as well as thematic presentations. At the end, a formal graduation ceremony is held.

The program’s executive director, Josanne Reaves, finds her job to be particularly rewarding. “I really love that ‘aha’ moment,” said Reaves. And in an ambitious program like Leadership Rochester, these “aha” moments can happen almost monthly.

The program runs for nine months and meets one Friday each month to have a daylong program on a specific topic. As Doug Escher, CEO of Dale Carnegie Training and Leadership Rochester graduate put it, “I’ve been a resident of Rochester for 41 years, and I finally got a look at what makes it tick.”

That “aha” moment can come in a different program for each person. For Dr. Rick DeJesus-Rueff, vice president of Student Affairs and University Initiatives at St. John Fisher College, this moment came on “Justice for All Day.”

On this day, Leadership Rochester members go to the Public Safety Center and perform “judgement shootings.” These are meant to simulate high stress situations in which a police officer is forced to make a split-second decision on whether to shoot a perpetrator. In one situation, DeJesus-Rueff was placed in a school setting in which a student had a gun. He chose not to shoot and was shot himself in the simulation.

“It was a very instructive experience because it showed, at least for me, from the perspective of a police officer, how you have to make decisions in the heat of the moment and what hesitations can mean for you,” said DeJesus-Rueff. “It made me a little more sympathetic to the perspective of a police officer.”

Vice President of City Council Dana Miller facilitating a timeline of Rochester for Josanne Reaves at a Leadership Rochester program in 2008.

For Caridad Sosa-Blackwell of RochesterWorks, this moment came on “Who Takes Care of Whom Day,” when Leadership Rochester looked at how human service and government agencies assist the neediest people of Rochester. Sosa-Blackwell pointed out that Rochester has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation, and that it is an issue she is passionate about fixing.            

“We have these human service agencies in the community, we have agencies for the homeless,” said Sosa-Blackwell. “What are the obstacles that are preventing the people that need these services from receiving these services?”

Leadership Rochester has more than 1,000 graduates, according to Reaves, and many of these graduates are linked to each other in one way or another. It is very typical for a graduate to have a colleague or family member join on a recommendation. For example, Reaves  is not a graduate of the program herself,  but began working for it after her husband graduated  in 1996.

Sosa-Blackwell herself graduated from the program in 2010 and has already seen her mother and son also pass through. As for Escher, his son graduated  in 2012 and got him to participate in 2015. He already has one colleague in the class of 2016 and is not stopping there, stating, “I’m going to continue to recruit and get people to look at joining.”

Leadership Rochester also has many members who like to give back by helping out on program days. DeJesus-Rueff, for example, stated that he tries to help with a program day each year and has assisted with “Education Day” and “Building Common Ground Day” in recent years.

While the Leadership Rochester program itself is for emerging leaders and professionals, the program also has components for the community’s younger leaders. Six years ago, the organization partnered with the University of Rochester to create “Urban Fellows,” a program geared towards college students.

In this program, 20 college students are selected each year to work in urban agencies on a $2,000 stipend for the summer. While Leadership Rochester has backed off its involvement over the years, U of R still runs the annual program.

Leadership Rochester also has a youth program for high school students. This program is the only one of its kind in this area, according to Reaves, and has run for the past six years, taking on about 20 students a year. Reaves said that the program is important because it brings together city, suburban, and rural youth and looks not only at issues in Rochester but the commonalities all the students have.  

Leadership Rochester, overall, has been an enduring tradition for the past two decades. Maybe just a bit too enduring. “I don’t know how much has changed over the years,” Duffy said. “I sense that the model has remained pretty similar, and I believe that every program, to be successful, has to reinvent itself.” Duffy added that generational differences, specifically how millennials differ from preceding generations, are the reason for his suggested update to keep the program successful.

In 2017, Leadership Rochester will be graduating its 25th class and the list of alumni will continue to grow. Leadership Rochester is many things, but it is before all else a leadership organization. It is intended to give people the tools to create a better tomorrow. This upcoming spring, another group of leaders will receive a graduation certificate, eyes wide open, ready to create a brighter future for the area.


Notable people who have been through the Leadership Rochester program include:

Donna Dedee ‘99, President & CEO, School of the Holy Childhood

Robert Duffy ’93, former Lieutenant Gov & current CEO, RBA

Minister Clifford Florence ‘01, Central Church of Christ

David Koon’96, former Assemblyman

Brian Kolb ‘95, Assemblyman, Majority Leader, New York State

Sister Beth LeValley ’94, VP Church & Society, St. Ambrose Convent

Willie Lightfoot, Jr. ’07, Monroe County Leg, Rochester Firefighter

Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez ‘08, Dir. Community Partnerships, RCSD

Jack Marren ’13, Supervisor, Town of Victor

Patrick O’Flynn ’92, Sheriff, Monroe County

Sandy Parker’92, retired CEO, RBA

Jim Sheppard ’05, Retired Police Chief, Rochester Police Department,

This story by James Bailey is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, readers.