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Perspectives: Jerome Underwood

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It was almost exactly a year ago that Jerome Underwood learned he had been selected to succeed James Norman, who was retiring as the long-time president and CEO of Action for a Better Community. It was a prestigious honor and the most important milestone in Underwood's career, Underwood says. And the night before his selection was made public, as he was home preparing remarks for a press conference, he says, he thought of the black community leaders he wanted to acknowledge "for their experience and historic work in this community."

Constance Mitchell, Minister Franklin Florence, Sr., Dr. Walter Cooper: "because those literally are the giants whose shoulders I'm standing on."

But then Underwood turned on the television set and heard that President Trump had questioned why the US should accept immigrants from "shit-hole countries," apparently referring to Caribbean, Central American, and African nations.

"I'm from one of those shit-hole countries," Underwood says now. "I looked at what I was writing for my remarks, and I just threw it all away. I said, 'That's how I have to begin the press conference.'"

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Underwood was born in Antigua, what locals there call "Little Paradise." One of eight children from a poor family, he immigrated to the US in the mid-1980's.

"I know that I improve the community that I live in," he says. "And a lot of my friends are also immigrants, and we know that we add value by the lives that we live and the example we set. So I was particularly offended by the president's comments, because he was talking about people like me."

Underwood is a tall, athletic-looking man with graying dreads, and though he's lived in Upstate New York for many years, he's lost little of his Caribbean patois. In many ways, he was the ideal choice to lead ABC at this time. He has a youthful quality about him that's fresh and relatable. And he's been involved with ABC for years, so he knows the people the agency serves, the resources they need, and the role ABC needs to play in the Rochester community.

"The mission of this agency is what attracted me to come and volunteer here years ago," Underwood says. He later held a seat on ABC's board, and when current City Council President Loretta Scott stepped down from her position as ABC's board president, Underwood took her place.

But it's Underwood's experience in business development, organizational management, and education – he served in senior-level positions under three Rochester school superintendents and one interim superintendent – that in many respects aligns with ABC's mission.

ABC must be an intervening force against some of the challenges city children and families are facing, he says. One of the most serious challenges is poverty, he says, which affects more than 90 percent of the Rochester children.

"Very simply put, we exist to eliminate or reduce poverty," Underwood says. The overarching goal of ABC's many programs is to help low-income individuals and families achieve self-sufficiency, he says.

ABC currently employs nearly 400 people.

"The biggest thing that we do is education," Underwood says, "because we have six Head Start centers that we oversee with just a little shy of 1,100 3- and 4-year-olds," he says. "That's where the magic happens."

But ABC provides a boatload of other services. It provides GED training and job-readiness training. It operate two substance abuse clinics through a program called New Directions.

ABC also operates Action Front Center, which provides social, emotional, and economic support to people in the black and Latino communities living with HIV and AIDS. And a home weatherization program helps people afford to stay in their home through energy-saving steps like replacing old windows, water heaters, and furnaces.

Besides the programs it directly oversees, ABC has an advocacy role in the community. For instance, ABC was among a group of allies that supported Rochester Management's plans to redevelop the senior housing complex Cobb's Hill Village.

The project has faced bitter opposition, but ABC supported it. "We know that it is going to benefit people living in economically marginalized situations," Underwood says.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

Underwood's career wasn't a straight line in the non-profit and human service field leading to ABC. But a common thread in his experience has been an evolving understanding of racism in America and how it often intersects with poverty. That education has at times been painful and began almost from the moment he arrived in the US.

Underwood has always been passionate about most sports, and it was his soccer skills that helped him get into St. John Fisher as an undergrad and later become a US citizen. He got to Fisher through the college's participation in the Partners of the Americas program and the efforts of David Ocorr, a former coach and dean at the college.

"I was a soccer player, and a pretty darn good one," Underwood says. "Literally that's what got me here and paved the path for me to go to St. John Fisher." But it almost didn't happen. Ocorr was impressed when he saw Underwood on the field, but the coach told him the college couldn't offer him financial assistance based on soccer alone.

"Something inside me died," Underwood says. But then the coach asked: "How are your grades?"

Despite coming from a poor family, Underwood had excelled in school, and he told Ocorr: "If you like my soccer, you're really going to like my grades."

"I tell young people all the time that soccer opened the door for me, but it was my grades that got me here," he says.

The thrill of playing soccer at Fisher was short-lived. Underwood had been in the US for only a few weeks when an opposing team member called him the N-word during a game.

"I was so full of rage," he recalls, "because I'm just six weeks off the boat from Antigua, where 99 percent of the people are black, and I'm like, 'Oh, hell no.'" He knew that hearing the word was a predictable side to living in the US, "but not that quickly," he says, "and not on what is a sacred place to me, a soccer field."

After earning his bachelor's degree, Underwood went on to work for Marine Midland Bank. The company, which later became HSBC, made him a vice president within a few years, recognizing his talent for working with small and medium-size businesses that needed loans and banking services.

Even though state and federal banking regulations had begun targeting discriminatory lending practices, minority-owned businesses were an ignored market. Unlike some of his colleagues, however, Underwood sought out black and Latino business owners as well as white ones, going into city neighborhoods looking for people who needed banking services.

"As a lending officer," he says, "I didn't know until somebody called to my attention that I had the most diverse portfolio."

Underwood was later responsible for designing commercial lending programs that worked for business owners in low-income neighborhoods across the New York State.

Underwood went on to earn his MBA at the Rochester Institute of Technology while working for Datrose, a local business services company.

Underwood also has a long history of working with children. He coached roughly 600 children ages 8 to 14 in the Flower City Soccer League, where he used sports to teach young people life skills, he says. And despite having no formal training in education, his experience with children plus his business background attracted the attention of then-Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.

Brizard hired Underwood to supervise the Rochester school district's IT department, and later made him head of operations, which included food service and transportation, two of the district's largest and most complex services. And successive superintendents have seemed to seek him out because of an innate ability to navigate different organizations and cultures.

He helped organize former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's efforts to boost lagging attendance rates. And he worked with interim Superintendent Linda Cimusz and, up until a year ago, Barbara Deane-Williams.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

After nearly 10 years working in the Rochester school district, Underwood has developed some strong, sometimes controversial views about why the district has struggled to improve.

He agrees with the district's state-appointed Distinguished Educator, Jaime Aquino, that turnover in the district's leadership is a major concern. But that's not Underwood's main concern about the district.

Turnover isn't unique to the Rochester district, he says, and it shouldn't viewed in isolation. "There's a significant challenge across the country in these urban districts," he says. "This work is not for the faint of heart."

The pressures of running a large district are extreme, he says, and they become more extreme when student performance is low and progress is lagging. Stress comes from every direction and seems to feed on itself, he says.

"Nobody who has any sort of common sense is satisfied with the student outcomes coming out of the city school district," Underwood says. "There's no silver bullet, so the question is, 'What do we do?'"

"There's no one simple answer," Underwood says.

But, he says: "Let me put this out there: I happen to think that the Rochester City School District is adequately funded." The challenge, he says, is allocating money in a way that's equitable. Some schools receive too few resources to address the needs of their students, he says, while other schools receive too much.

One of his biggest concerns, however, is systemic racism in the Rochester school system.

"Every institution, every corporation, has to be overtly anti-racist as opposed to non-racist," Underwood says. "The difference is basically action. A non-racist is going to see or hear something and sort of close the shades. But an anti-racist is going to say, 'Hell, no! Not here, not ever are we going to allow that kind of behavior or treatment."

Though there's been a lot of discussion over the years about the fact that most teachers in the Rochester school district are white and the majority of students are black or brown, that's not Underwood's main concern, either. He'd like to see more teachers of color in city schools, but the more important issue, he says, is cultural competency.

"I am convinced that regardless of who the teacher is, you can have success with the children in city schools," he says. "I've seen it happen. I've also seen black teachers who should not be in classrooms, and I've seen white teachers who should be."

What's important, he says, is "the relationship between the teacher and the student."

Underwood is a huge supporter of educational consultant Joy DeGruy and her theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a condition she says is the result of multi-generational oppression of Africans and their enslaved descendants.

DeGruy argues, and Underwood agrees, that healing the syndrome – which is affecting many city school children and their families – requires an understanding of the cultural and philosophical differences between people of European and African descents.

Underwood's African heritage is so important to him that he sometimes refers to himself as an African living in America instead of as an African American. And he was instrumental in bringing DeGruy to the Rochester school district for training in cultural competency and anti-racism. The goal was to get past the emotionalism of discussions about racism and look at the data. For instance, even black teachers over-suspend black students, Underwood says.

DeGruy's critics argue that PTSS serves as an excuse for student behavior problems and low test scores and doesn't help black students improve.

Underwood isn't moved by those arguments. Instead, he cites research suggesting that intergenerational trauma could be trapped in an individual's DNA. Trauma, that research says, may not be entirely environmentally driven. It may be passed on physically in our cells.

The issue was explored in a 2018 New York Times article, "Can We Inherit Trauma?" Trauma, some research says, leaves a "chemical mark" on the genes, which is passed on to subsequent generations. Research about trauma suffered by prisoners or soldiers of the Civil War, the Holocaust, and World War II seems to suggest that some type of genetic reshuffling occurs. If epigenetic transmission is possible, the Times article says, (and some scientists argue that the evidence is thin), it could mean that "past human cruelties affect our physiology today."

Certainly Underwood believes that they do. But does that mean that all kinds of student disruptive behavior are the result of PTSS?

Of course not, says Underwood. But teachers who have anti-racism training and cultural competency can learn how to build relationships with their students. They teach their students with a curriculum that's culturally relevant rather than one that's Eurocentric. And they're more apt to understand some of their behavior and guide them through restorative justice or provide the appropriate interventions rather than resort to punishment.

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Another concern for Underwood is the push to have city students attend schools that are racially and economically diverse. He's among a group of educators and community leaders critical of the Urban-Suburban Program, for instance because it doesn't address the systemic racism in the Rochester district. And he argues that in suburban schools, students are taught that the Eurocentric version of the world is better, that they're taught to become what he calls "Negropean."

"When that person comes back to the black or Latino community, that's what they're bringing back to us, as opposed to grounding their education in their history or culture," Underwood says.

"If you're not teaching students about their history and culture, what are you graduating?" Underwood says.

He also doesn't support Great Schools 4 All, the effort to create a magnet school that would draw both low-income students from the city and higher-income students from the suburbs.

"The argument is that an economically diverse classroom is better for everybody," he says. "That's not my experience, because hey, I went to school in Antigua. Everybody in my class was poor."

The evidence of racism in city schools is undeniable, says Underwood. He cites Tyquan Rivera as an example of a lack of a sense of urgency among many district teachers and administrators. Rivera was convicted of shooting Rochester police officer Anthony DiPonzio in the head in 2009. Rivera was only 14 at the time, and he hadn't been attending school for two years.

A more recent example is Trevyan Rowe, the 14-year-old who walked away from school one morning last year and drowned in the Genesee River. Although he never entered the school that day, some of his teachers marked him present.

These types of events are examples of what can happen in a school culture with racist, low expectations, Underwood says. "You think some shit like that could happen in Pittsford, Greece, or Fairport and there not be complete and total outrage?" he says.

"There are some awesome people working in the district," he says, "but I saw a number of people who were just disconnected from the mission."

The community's continuing struggle to eliminate racism makes ABC's job of reducing poverty tougher. Statistics concerning Rochester's poverty fall alarmingly along racial lines, he says. The two issues are clearly interconnected.

And even though Rochester non-profit agencies have spent millions of dollars over decades trying to reduce Rochester poverty, new Census data show that the city's child poverty rate is growing worse.

Mayor Lovely Warren was spot on, Underwood says, when she talked about Rochester's experience being a "tale of two cities" in her first campaign for mayor. A mile and half from ABC's office, there's abject poverty, Underwood says; a few miles in the other direction is Brighton. And the two communities are worlds apart.

To reduce poverty, Underwood says, the community needs to come up with new strategies. Poor people should have more voice in determining what would help them become self-sufficient rather than being told sign up for specific programs. And there, too, he says, racism is an issue.

Rochester is a very generous town when it comes to philanthropy, he says. But too often, those providing the money have a "missionary mentality," insisting they know what's best for poor people.

"Those days are over," he says.

Underwood loves reggae music, and he refers to the lyrics to a Burning Spear song to make his point.

"The lyrics go, 'Share your riches with the poor before they share their poverty with you,'" says Underwood.