Since their effort is still very much in the formative stage, I'm sure the leaders of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative are getting tired of being criticized, by me and by others. Clearly, everybody involved in the Initiative is worried about poverty, wants to do something about it, and hopes that their effort will be successful.
Maybe it will be. If it is, I'll be among the first people to say I was wrong. But so far, it's hard to be optimistic. Everything I see indicates that we're going about this in the usual Rochester way. See a problem? Form a committee of representatives of the usual institutions and organizations, talk about the problem, and come up with a plan. Get state or non-profit funding to seed the initial effort. And then....
And then, despite the enthusiasm and the hope and the commitment, the problem proves larger than the solutions devised by the usual organizations and institutions. And the initiative kinda peters out.
I'm not saying that some of the solutions this group comes up with won't be important. I'm sure they will be. But they seem destined to be things like having local service providers do their jobs well, coordinate their efforts with one another, and adopt "best practices."
Unless I'm reading all of the Initiatives' literature wrong, and unless I'm completely misinterpreting the conversation I had with its leaders a couple of months ago, the Initiative won't tackle the big, big things: the things that might actually put us on the path to substantially reducing the poverty that is dooming thousands of Rochester residents and is holding this community down.
Because we've seen this show before. We've tried to combat major community problems previously, in the same way. And we've gotten the same sad results.
So now we've launched yet another attempt to solve a major community problem - this one the biggest problem of them all. This latest effort has the adrenalin shot of support by the governor of the State of New York. And it has secured $500,000 in state funding, half of which will go to pay for... a staff.
The staff will be headed by a director and a deputy director, who, according to the ads for the position, will report to the United Way's president and CEO. They'll work with public officials, "stakeholders," and volunteers and will carry out the initiatives and goals devised by the Initiative's 26-member steering committee.
Who's on the steering committee? Social-service agency leaders, educators, business leaders, elected officials: representatives of everybody except the poor themselves. It is true that some steering committee members grew up in poverty - most significantly, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, whose success is both impressive and inspirational - and that's important. But those steering committee members aren't living in poverty in the inner city right now. They aren't representatives.
The Initiative's leaders emphasize that poor Rochesterians will participate in the work groups that are an important part of the efforts of the Initiative. But they don't get to sit at the head table, so to speak. They're not among the 26 steering committee members.
I can't think of a logical reason why they're not. And regardless of the intent, the clear message from their omission is this: "The folks at the head table want to hear from you. They welcome your input. But the folks at the head table were chosen for a reason. And they know what's best for you."
It's all so very, um, Rochester, yes?
I so want to be proved wrong about this. I really, really do. Because the problem of Rochester's increasing poverty is beyond serious. It is a crisis. And even if we're able to keep it bottled up for generation after generation after generation, it is doing terrible damage to thousands of human beings every single year.
That is a moral stain on this community.