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Rochester poverty czar Leonard Brock to step down

Dec 12, 2019

Leonard Brock, executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, will step down next year.
Credit WXXI News file photo

Leonard Brock, the executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, an ambitious effort to reduce poverty in the region that has been dogged by questions about its role and effectiveness, announced Thursday that he will step down next year.

Brock has been at the helm of the coalition, known informally as RMAPI, since shortly after its inception in 2015. His resignation will be effective in June 2020, according to a news release from RMAPI announcing his departure.

The release praised Brock for his work integrating some 300 local health, education, and human services organizations, and his advocacy for policy changes aimed at lifting people out of poverty, particularly bail reform, job training programs, and legislation prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their income.

“When I became RMAPI’s executive director in 2015, I wanted to help create a coalition that would be cohesive and bold enough to tackle the deeply entrenched problems that have created poverty in Rochester,” Brock said in the statement.

“As a community, we should all be proud of how far we have come -- together -- in helping people move out of poverty and changing the conditions that have created poverty in Rochester and Monroe County for many decades.”

Census data released last year and noted by RMPAI at the time showed the overall poverty rate rose slightly to 33.1 percent from 32.8 percent between 2013 and 2017, making Rochester the third-poorest city among the top 75 metropolitan areas in the country.

RMAPI was the outgrowth of a statewide initiative announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January 2015 to reduce poverty across the state. Nine months later, RMAPI released a report that set a daunting goal of cutting poverty by 50 percent in 15 years.

Nearly four years later, Brock was walking back the aim, acknowledging that he was struggling to correct misunderstandings about the function of RMAPI and public expectations.

“An expectation should be 50 percent in 15 years,” he told WXXI News in February. “That should be an aspirational goal that we work toward.”

Brock in that interview focused on a longer timeline of moving the needle on poverty in about 10 years, saying that a reduction of 10 percent would be “a huge win.”

He went on to reiterate what he had written to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, the agency that funded RMAPI, two years earlier: The “public splash” around the launch of the effort created challenges, particularly managing public perceptions.

“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 misconceptions, Brock said, was that RMAPI was an agency, service provider, or funder. In reality, he explained, RMAPI was more of a task force charged with coordinating efforts with social service organizations to reduce poverty.

RMAPI was initially funded by a state grant of $500,000 that was intended for staffing. Brock’s starting salary was $95,000. The initiative reportedly employed five people.

The initiative was later awarded a $2.75 million grant through the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative that ran from April 2016 through March 2019 and required RMAPI to file progress reports and document challenges regularly.

One of the early challenges Brock cited in his report to the OTDA in 2017 was that “local politics continues to create friction among partners and institutional leaders.”

The news release announcing Brock’s departure did not say specifically what he would do next, but noted that Brock intended to “further help the community develop economic and wealth-building opportunities that help the community achieve equity in its pursuit of prosperity.”

A steering committee led by Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College, and Jerome Underwood, president and chief executive of Action for a Better Community, will design a search process for a new leader, according to the news release.

“We applaud the work of Dr. Brock in bringing our community together and creating a firm foundation for this very important work,” Braveman and Underwood said in a joint statement.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.