College Community Aims to Address Local Poverty
Faculty, staff, alumni, and students are working to understand and take action against poverty affecting local communities.
While driving through downtown Rochester on her way to work at SUNY Brockport’s MetroCenter, Celia Watt wondered how much the College is involved in community initiatives regarding poverty.
“I started to explore anti-poverty initiatives on campus, and there were a lot of them,” said Watt, a professor and chair of the Department of Public Administration. “But we weren’t a unified voice, and sometimes a collaborative presence is much stronger than a single individual doing the work.”
Inspired to forge that collaborative presence on campus, Watt submitted a proposal to implement what would become the College’s Institute for Poverty Studies and Economic Development (IPSED) in an effort to provide faculty, staff, administration, and students an avenue to engage with community partners in activities relating to poverty elimination and economic development.
With Watt as director, a seven-person executive committee was formed after the institute was approved in 2016, made up of representatives from the Departments of Sociology, Educational Administration, Public Administration, and Social Work; interim dean of the School of Education, Health, & Human Services Thomas Hernandez; and Brockport Central School District superintendent Lesli Myers.
In the past 16 months, IPSED committee members have sought to offer educational and experiential opportunities to the College community to raise awareness of issues related to poverty. The institute’s initiatives this academic year included supporting the Rochester Integrated SUNY Excels Network; launching the Poverty Matters speaker series; participating in a Hunger Banquet co-hosted by the Offices of Community Development and Residential Life, designed to raise awareness of hunger in the community and initiate discussions about how to meaningfully impact communities facing it; co-creating a Neighborhood Leadership Development Academy in conjunction with the City of Rochester; and proposing the introduction of an interdisciplinary minor in poverty studies for undergraduate students and a poverty studies track for graduate students pursuing master’s degrees in public administration.
The institute’s efforts culminated in the community-wide Many Faces of Poverty conference on April 28. More than 150 attendees from around Rochester were welcomed with a keynote speech by Executive Director of Connected Communities LaShunda Leslie-Smith, then participated in breakout sessions and a panel discussion.
The conference lunch offered a glimpse into what it is like to live in poverty. Depending on the color of the lunch ticket attendees selected, they were provided either a small cup of macaroni and cheese; rice, beans, and a seat; or chicken French at a table alongside others enjoying the same gourmet meal.
The conference ended with attendees recording one step they could take to help address poverty.
“Understanding poverty is a cognitive process, but we also have to be provided with experiences that allow us to have attitudinal shifts and acknowledge our internal biases,” said Watt.
In the future, the institute hopes to offer poverty simulations that allow participants to role-play a month in poverty. The Department of Nursing has conducted these simulations the past two years, with more than 80 student participants each time.
"The simulations help people gain a new perspective on what it's like to live without certain amenities that we often take for granted," said senior Samantha Fritts, a nursing student who participated in a simulation in the fall. "[We] will remember the experience and be able to empathize when dealing with the impoverished population in our careers."
Watt said a number of students are already showing interest in pursuing the College’s proposed academic programs in poverty studies.
“Our students need to be able to be advocates for people living in poverty, whether it’s through their jobs or through their individual actions,” she said.
This is important, she believes, because a high percentage of Brockport graduates are likely to remain living and working in areas affected by poverty in Rochester, which has the highest childhood poverty rate in the nation for a metropolitan city of its size.
“The institute has allowed us to have a presence at community initiatives and raise our profile as a college that is committed to addressing issues of rural and urban poverty,” said Watt.
Outside of the institute, a number of alumni, faculty, and staff of the College are doing the same.
Department of Public Health and Health Education Bus Tour
While teaching public health courses, Assistant Professor Joshua Fegley ’04 saw students’ eyes widen when he talked to them about issues of health, safety, health disparities, oppression, and social justice in the City of Rochester.
“[Sociology] professor Melody Boyd and I decided that one of the best things we could do to connect our students to what was happening in the classroom was to take them out of the classroom,” said Fegley.
In the fall, Fegley and Boyd took a group of students on a tour of Rochester neighborhoods with distinct health needs, visiting several organizations that provide health, safety, educational, and social justice services and resources for those neighborhoods.
Fegley intended for the trip to inspire students to identify ways they can support Rochester community initiatives. After the group visited the University Preparatory Charter School For Young Men, two students approached Fegley asking how they could help serve the school, inspired by its high graduation rate for the district. Later in the academic year, the bus trip crew organized a tie drive for UPrep students.
“When I sit down with students to talk about careers and job searches, they are reflecting on the types of experiences they had on that bus trip. They’ve done internships and drives for the organizations we visited, and they’ve stayed in contact with the folks they met and often interview them for course projects,” said Fegley. “It’s hopefully a way to develop some future leaders who leave a lasting impact and continue a relationship between Brockport and those organizations.”
The department will offer two bus tours this fall.
Great Schools For All
Former Democrat and Chronicle columnist Mark Hare ’76 and Chair of the Department of Educational Administration Jeffrey Linn are part of a 13-person leadership team of local city and suburban residents committed to guaranteeing access to quality public education for every student in Monroe County.
The Great Schools For All team includes educators, human service providers, journalists, lawyers, community activists, and members of the faith community with a common mission to advocate for a network of “socioeconomically diverse magnet schools” in greater Rochester.
“We’re currently trying to work collectively with school districts’ superintendents, particularly in the city, to see if we can get someone to take that first step and commit to partnering with another district, or two, or three other districts, on a school that could be a draw to kids all over the county,” said Hare. “I cannot see how neighborhoods can be rebuilt and how the city can survive as a place where people can live and raise their families if we don’t do this. I think we might get a breakthrough in the next couple of months, and if we don’t, we’ll stay at it. We have no reason not to.”
Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative
Executive Director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) Leonard Brock ’03/’05 is committed to reducing poverty in the Rochester and Monroe County regions by 50 percent over the next 15 years.
Brock has led this unprecedented, community-wide effort through the United Way of Greater Rochester for the past two years, rallying hundreds of volunteers from across the region who are dedicated to enabling community-rebuilding through the provision of quality support services, ending the activities that fuel structural racism, and helping to heal those in struggling neighborhoods affected by trauma.
“[RMAPI is] the connecting tissue among all the varying communities and constituencies that are required to advance this work,” said Brock. “We work directly with the people who are impacted by poverty, and we’re a part of the change effort to help solve issues of poverty that haven’t been confronted in the past.”
Brock and his counterparts are continuing to supplement a system of community-based solutions that are efficient, effective, and person-centered.
Roosevelt Mareus, executive director and dean of the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, serves on the initiative’s steering committee.
“It’s very important that we all have the same mission. A lot of key people in the community are starting to recognize the importance of the work of the REOC and the College in addressing poverty every day,” said Mareus. “We’re transforming lives.”