Is RMAPI misunderstood?

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Photo by Gia Lioi

Much has changed for Leonard Brock as the hype surrounding the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative has morphed into doubt and community derision.

Brock’s cars were vandalized. His home was broken into three or four times and the letters KKK were emblazoned on the fence. Eventually his family moved out of the city of Rochester.

Becoming director of RMAPI changed his life, says Brock, who assumed the role in 2015.

“I was (approached) by so many people calling me with problems they were looking to solve,” he says. “They were under the impression because of the name and the title that I was able to help them.”

His inability to solve those individual problems mirrors a larger misconception about RMAPI, one that Brock believes underlies the criticism directed at the initiative.

RMAPI is not an agency, he says, and it does not have millions of dollars in state funds to hand out. It never was intended to be a conduit for large-scale public spending.

“People don’t fully understand what (RMAPI is) trying to do. So often, I think, they’re being measured against false metrics,” says the Rev. Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and co-chairman of RMAPI. “People think RMAPI is a grant-making organization and that they’re not giving away enough money. … That is not what they do.”

Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Rochester, RMAPI’s fiscal agent, believes RMAPI needs to tell its story.

“RMAPI started only three years ago and is finding its way,” she says. “It’s the largest anti-poverty initiative in the country by geographic scope and scale in terms of what it’s trying to accomplish, and doing it with the community takes time to do it right. That means listening to the community, engaging the community in a thoughtful way.”

High aspirations
RMAPI was established in 2015 in response to the exceptionally high poverty rates in the city of Rochester. It was prompted in part by a sobering report released in December 2013 by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester and updated in January 2015. Researchers found Rochester’s general poverty rate—32.9 percent—ranked No. 2 nationwide among similar-size cities, second only to Hartford, Conn., at 33.5 percent.

McMickle credits Edward Dougherty, an author of the report, for opening the community’s eyes to three key metrics that reveal the severity of the problem: the general poverty rate (the number of people in a family of four living at or below the poverty line), extreme poverty (those living below 50 percent of the poverty line) and concentrated poverty (people in poverty huddled together). The 2015 update found that among comparably sized metros Rochester had the worst rates of extreme poverty, childhood poverty and concentration of people in extreme poverty.

“I don’t think people—even people of the best of goodwill—knew that before Ed’s study,” McMickle says.

Ann Marie Cook, president and CEO of Lifespan and co-chair of RMAPI’s service provision working group, says “it’s an embarrassment that we have one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the country. Rochester can do better.”

Backed by state funding, RMAPI was launched with an ambitious goal: to reduce poverty in Rochester and Monroe County by 50 percent in 15 years. Brock was chosen to lead the effort, and more than 150 community members were named to serve in six working groups.

“The notoriety, the publicity got (RMAPI) off the ground really quickly and I’ll say with a bang,” says Marlene Bassett, CEO of the Catholic Family Center, and co-chair of the service provision working group at RMAPI. “We had the governor come in, we had 20-plus state agencies come in, we discussed the issues, and I think the impact it had on the community left us all wanting to solve the problem tomorrow.”

Brock says the intense media attention created immediate challenges.

“We were still trying to work through the governance structure, we didn’t have a staffing team in place; we didn’t necessarily have a strategic plan,” he recalls.

However, the community was engaged.

“One of the most significant things (for) RMAPI is that we engaged the entire community,” says Brock, adding that it was a boon to have stakeholders and others engaged in strategic conversations.

The first RMAPI report in 2015 presented 33 recommendations from its working groups that addressed eight drivers of poverty: education, health and nutrition, housing, jobs, justice system, safe neighborhoods, child care and transportation.

At its inception, RMAPI was among the United Way’s portfolio of projects, Brock says, creating some confusion and blurred lines of accountability and responsibility. At the time, RMAPI staff participated in United Way leadership meetings, attended staff meetings and acted as an extension of the United Way staff, while United Way’s finance, marketing and communications, and human resources departments provided direct support to RMAPI.

Evolving strategy
Beginning in late 2016, RMAPI took a hard look at its strengths and weaknesses by hiring FSG, a mission-based consulting firm. Together, they focused on RMAPI’s next set of strategies and activities, created measures for progress and success, and evolved its model.

“They looked at what was going on and they said if you’re really trying to achieve collective impact, you need to bring some other people to the table as well,” says James Norman, former president and CEO of Action for a Better Community, and a member of the steering committee and co-chair of the employment working group. “The idea of what needs to be done and how it should be done and what is the root of our inability to make more progress, I think there are different perspectives about that.”

FSG’s report identified as strengths RMAPI’s ability to elevate the dialogue about a collaborative approach to address poverty and unprecedented cooperation among city, county and state leaders. It also said Brock was as “credible and authentic.”

To establish leadership, FSG said in its report, RMAPI could align with the various anti-poverty initiatives in the region, to serve as the “voice of the community” among anti-poverty efforts, and to implement the guiding principles in tangible ways.

Among RMAPI weaknesses FSG identified was the perception among steering committee members and other stakeholders that leaders with limited understanding of people in poverty—or experience serving them—disproportionately influenced decision making. Also on the list were misperceptions about governance structure and funding sources, inconsistent and unclear communication, and a lack of understanding of progress and future plans.

As a result of its work with FSG, RMAPI addressed a key point of public confusion: it’s relationship to the United Way. Rather than operate as a traditional program within an organization, in June 2017 it adopted a collective impact framework.

The new approach, Brock says, means “United Way can still be a fiscal agent, but the ownership is given to the broader community.” RMAPI is autonomous with the exception of one contract that the United Way manages, since it established that on RMAPI’s behalf.

In adopting this framework, Rochester followed in the footsteps of other communities around the country. Many have worked with FSG, which describes collective impact as a new approach to cross-sector collaboration that recognizes “no single organization has the ability to solve any major social problem at scale by itself.” Successful collective impact initiatives typically require a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.

“The complex nature of most social problems belies the idea that any single program or organization, however well managed and funded, can singlehandedly create lasting large-scale change,” FSG consultants noted in an update to the 2011 Stanford Innovation Review article, often cited as seminal research in the field.

Other organizations implementing this framework include Opportunity Chicago, which placed 6,000 public housing residents in new jobs, surpassing its goal by 20 percent. Memphis Fast Forward reduced violent crime and created more than 14,000 new jobs in Memphis, Tenn.

In its work for RMAPI, FSG benchmarked other communities using a multi-sector, collaborative approach to address poverty. The report cites the Vibrant Communities Canada initiative as an evidence-based example with the greatest similarity to RMAPI.

Launched in 2002, Vibrant Communities is a network of urban collaboratives committed to substantially reducing poverty through multi-sectoral and comprehensive local action. In addition to programs that help individuals build assets, the model also has focused on systemic initiatives designed to alter policies and systems that shape individuals’ life prospects, the FSG report for RMAPI states.

So far, the work of the original 13 communities in Vibrant Communities has affected 170,000 households with outcomes across various areas, according to the report. The model has documented 30,000 households that have substantive life improvements through a specific Vibrant Communities intervention. A more conservative estimate is that 15,000 to 25,000 households have made a major transition to greater emotional, relational, and financial wellbeing as a result of the model.

“In collective impact, we know it’s not doing more of the same,” Brock says. “We know we have some good programs, but for all the great programs we in Rochester, poverty was still increasing.”

He says that was the impetus to launch RMAPI, prompting a way to think outside the box. It is not easy to explain systems change, Brock admits, but it is essential to drive home the fact that RMAPI is not a programmatic effort.

“It’s going to take some time for the community to wrestle with that concept,” he says. “The good thing is that the leadership team and the stakeholders, the steering committee members—they do have an appreciation and are starting to have a real understanding for it. (But) there’s still an education that the general public (needs).”

Says McMickle: “Nothing is going to change that narrative unless RMAPI tells its own story and produces its own fact sheet.”

Where the money goes
McMickle believes the perception that RMAPI has not done enough is driven in large part by the publicity around state funds designated to reduce poverty.

“There’s a lot of money that’s come for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative—$500 million. We got only $2.75 million of that to run our whole program,” McMickle says. “So, I do want to dispel the notion that we’re sitting on millions and millions of dollars and that we’re slow to hand it out. That’s not who we are, never were meant to be.”

The $2.75 million in state funding covers a three-year period ending in 2019, with a recent no-cost extension to 2020 to support funded projects. Documents shared by Brock show RMAPI has two expenditures: funds directly applied to anti-poverty activities and those that fund RMAPI’s infrastructure. Some 83 percent focused on activities while 17 percent was used to coordinate the work.

Backbone and operational funding for 2016-2019 total $1.1 million. Initial infrastructure set-up costs (2015-16) required $400,000 while administrative expenses (2016-19) total $245,001. Together, those state-funded expenses come to $1.8 million.

In addition, directly applied funding from the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council for anti-poverty activities, including RMAPI’s adult-mentoring and child care pilot programs, total $8.85 million. And RMAPI received $25,000 from the Farash Foundation.

RMAPI will continue to monitor and support ongoing pilot programs, but the organization has shifted its primary focus from piloting and funding programs to influencing larger-scale systems and policy change, with plans to address root causes and structural barriers perpetuating poverty to create a sustainable impact on a larger scale.

To achieve its goal reducing poverty in Rochester and Monroe County by 50 percent in 15 years, RMAPI has zeroed in on increasing household income and improving the affordability of basic needs while also reducing the concentration of poverty.

The five strategies adopted in 2017 are:

■ Connecting and coordinating poverty-related services;
■ Enabling sustainable employment;
■ Designing and advocating for effective benefits and policies;
■ Ensuring learning and data-driven action; and
■ Equipping individuals and organization with tools to address RMAPI’s guiding principles: combating structural racism, building community assets and addressing trauma.

RMAPI’s operating structure has evolved to include executive and steering committees led by McMickle and Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College. Four working groups focused on service provision, employment, policy, and evaluation and data support this structure.

RMAPI is following FSG’s recommendations, which include holding town hall meetings. At a recent one in Brighton, officials explained collective impact and outlined efforts including the participatory budgeting program, in which community members were invited to submit ideas for projects that help neighborhoods and address poverty. It is one way for area communities to chip in, which RMAPI leaders believe is essential to success.

Big problem to solve
Fighting poverty is not a task for the faint of heart, especially in the city of Rochester. The 2017 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 64,320 people, or 32.3 percent, of city residents were living below the poverty level; among children under age 5, the rate was 54.1 percent. In Monroe County, 106,677 individuals were below poverty, or 14.8 percent; 22 percent of children below age 5 were living in poverty.

Norman points to yet another fact: Annual median family income for a family of four in the city is roughly $24,800; that’s less than the official 2018 poverty level for a family of four, which is $25,100.

Perceptions of poverty, a deeply divisive issue, make the task even more complex to solve. Americans historically have been divided on government assistance and other incentives for the poor. Some believe these programs don’t do enough while others believe the poor have become reliant on public-sector help.

Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab, in a report on public opinion on poverty found that individual perceptions of poverty are nuanced and deeply personal. The difference between formal definitions and lived experiences is crucial to understand and may present an opportunity for developing more effective anti-poverty strategies.

RMAPI leaders say these national findings are reflected at the local level.

Grading the work done
The misconceptions about RMAPI’s objectives, coupled with its own lofty goal of reducing poverty in Monroe County by half in 15 years, complicate any effort to grade the initiative’s progress so far.

“For RMAPI, people need to understand poverty didn’t just happen,” McMickle says. “There are (many) factors that keep people in poverty—structural racism, experiences of trauma, post-traumatic stress syndrome for the poor and a lack of investment in community-based resources that make for a stable environment.”

He adds: “I think one of the biggest obstacles we have in getting people to listen to us is that they are confusing poverty with race relations. Their assumption is that only black people are poor.”

Brock has shouldered most of the criticism directed at RMAPI’s challenges. McMickle supports Brock’s leadership, and warns of failure if expectations for the initiative fall solely on its director.

“He’s doing a wonderful job with a nearly impossible public level of scrutiny because everybody… is trying to measure his job performance against a set of expectations that are not his,” McMickle says. “Leonard is still being confronted with (questions about) how he is spending $500 million and where has he spent the money, and people don’t believe that he doesn’t have it. They think he’s either keeping it for favored organizations or has not yet expended it.

“If your job in your mind is one thing and the public expectation of you is something else and you haven’t gone crazy yet? He’s doing a fine job.”

Others caution RMAPI should not be judged too soon.

“It’s certainly early to judge the impact it’s going to have on the full outcome because that is a 10-, 15-, 20-year project,” Bassett says. “I think anybody who would make a ‘this has worked or hasn’t worked’ (assessment) right now doesn’t have anywhere near enough (data) to be able to do that.”

RMAPI has hit a reset button, Norman observes. More time is needed to assess its new strategy.

“I believe that in many quarters it’s been determined to be a failure. I don’t think we can conclude that yet,” he says. “Give it another couple of years and then I think we’ll be in a better position to know. Fundamentally the initiative has to show that there is in fact a new approach, not just rhetoric about a new approach. We’re deep in the rhetoric at this point and we’re short on implementation.”

Kit Miller, director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, whose agency works to educate youth on nonviolence, would like to see RMAPI more clearly share information on outcomes.

“How are the ends and means coming together? How are they going about what they’re doing?” she says. “That would give me a sense of trust. (I say this) as a very interested citizen and someone who would love to see them succeed.”

In its 2017 annual review, RMAPI points to progress in some areas: 300 additional children attended summer learning programs through state funding, and 239 people were enrolled in the Bridges to Success and Family Independence Initiative programs by the end of the year. These programs represent the first implementation strategy from RMAPI and address the need for mentoring services for individuals and families seeking to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

RMAPI is working with other agencies that align with its principles. For example, $200,000 in loans were made through the Kiva Rochester program. In line with RMAPI’s entrepreneurship recommendations, the city of Rochester launched a chapter of the microfinance program connecting underserved entrepreneurs with interest-free crowdfunded loans.

In June 2017, the Rochester City Council passed an ordinance banning landlord discrimination based on source of income. Previously, many landlords outside low-income neighborhoods had not accepted Section 8 public housing vouchers. RMAPI is now advocating for this to be codified into state law and apply to landlords outside the Rochester city limits.

Looking ahead
Still, this progress appears painfully slow to some, given RMAPI’s high profile.

“The sense of wanting to make a change fast is understandable, but we know that (for) social change and community change to be effective takes time, takes process, takes buy-ins and communication, communication,” Saunders says.

The collective impact framework estimates seven to eight years are needed to reach functioning at a peak level of performance. RMAPI has much work to do, to help participating organizations shift from acting alone to acting as one. For instance, service providers have varying eligibility standards for participation in their programs, and they are often challenged to meet guidelines from grantmakers. Implementing a common set of standards could be a daunting proposition.

“If there’s no policy change, you’re just sort of moving the chairs around the deck, and so I do think there can be some benefit to the way the current (collective impact) system is focused,” Norman says.

McMickle, who also serves on the Community Foundation board, says he worked to get that agency to adopt RMAPI’s rules. Now, grant recipients need to demonstrate their intention to address structural racism, trauma and the use of community funds.

“Let’s get all the funders, all of whom have membership on the RMAPI steering committee, to say the same thing, so that nobody gets a grant to address quality-of-life issues in Rochester that has not voted to embrace RMAPI principles and goals,” he says.

Only time will tell if RMAPI’s collective impact approach will be successful. Meanwhile, it has to sustain itself to achieve its objectives.

Brock is confident the state will continue to support RMAPI, but he says it isn’t wise for Rochester to rely on Albany. He is preparing to raise money from private donors such as foundations, including local ones, to diversify funding sources.

“We have to show local skin in the game, especially when we’re going to draw on national support,” Brock says, adding that there has been interest from national foundations.

He also is determined to close the information gap between the community and RMAPI. Personally, Brock and his family are looking to move back to the city again.

Rochester and Monroe County will need to exercise more patience as the initiative equips and challenges other agencies to work collaboratively and implement policy change.

“Collective impact is a new muscle for this community and it’s taking many of us to learn about it, to challenge ourselves when we fall into older behaviors,” Saunders says. “We fall back to the older muscle memory of what we’re used to and it takes some time and that’s completely worth it.”

Saunders says she understands that the need for patience conflicts with the sense of urgency.

“When you think about an issue as big as poverty and as deeply rooted as poverty, the scale is so significant and we also have the urgency to do something quick and immediate,” she says. “When we are on so many of the measures doing so poorly in our community, there is this rallying cry to do something quickly; these are families, these are children, these are generations.”

Yet, Saunders stresses, it will take a step-by-step, community effort to reduce poverty.

“There is a role for every person in this effort,” she says. “Formally or informally, we all have a stake in the game.”

2 thoughts on “Is RMAPI misunderstood?

  1. I don’t think people misunderstand this. I think people think this simply isn’t what’s needed. People want to see and experience change for the better.

  2. Pingback: A new way forward - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

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