A casual observer of Kendra Evans might be tempted to paint an archetypal portrait of suburban privilege: The small-business owner and educator lives on a picturesque street in a well-appointed Pittsford home, and raises three children with her husband, Andrew, a physician at the University of Rochester.
In fact, Evans stands up to stereotypes like that.
She was an influential force behind the Unity Walk that took place on a rainy day in 2016 when hundreds took to the streets of Pittsford decrying hate, carrying signs made at her business in the village. It was a peaceful response to flyers, flung onto driveways in the dead of night, that read “Make Pittsford White Again.”
“I was raised to love your neighbor, I was raised to see a need fill a need, I was raised that if you come after one of us, you come after all of us and this is not going to stand,” Evans says.
That march, which easily could have been a one-off, did much more: It spawned PittsForward, a nonpartisan, grassroots initiative co-founded by Evans, and prompted two Democrats to run—successfully—for Pittsford Town Board seats in 2017.
Says Kevin Beckford, one of the two Democrats elected to the board that year: “She’s a person of privilege that understands that privilege and she wants to use that privilege for good.”
For Evans, it now means taking another step: She is challenging Republican incumbent Bill Smith in the town supervisor’s race this year, on the Democratic and Working Families lines. Two other Democrats, John Walsh and Cathleen Koshykar, have thrown their hats in the ring for town board positions.
“It is time for us to come together to achieve the promise of Pittsford. There is work to be done,” says Evans, who both runs her business and is employed as an adjunct professor and program manager at Rochester Institute of Technology. “I’ve worked at it from behind the scenes now for three years and good intentions aside, we need action, meaningful movement forward, and I think I’m the person to do that.”
Her supporters agree, citing Evans’ commitment and leadership skills. Others believe, however, that movements like PittsForward are dividing the community.
The 2016 march serves as one lens to view Evans’ community organization skills and passion for equality. When the “Make Pittsford White Again” flyers were distributed, some 40 people showed up at her business to learn how they could help. The flyers disturbed many.
“It really shook me to my core,” says Jon Sussman, who is active in PittsForward.
A parent of three black children, he admits that until then he had been naïve about the gathering forces of hate nationwide.
“A lot of us live in a place like Pittsford because we think it’s somehow immune to these dark forces,” Sussman says. “We choose a community like Pittsford because it is insulated to some extent from some of these issues, but I also think there’s an element of naivete to that attitude and so that’s what got me kind of fired up and angry. I also felt strongly that we (needed to) take a moment as a community and actually really be explicit about what unifies us and what are our community values.”
Through that episode Sussman witnessed Evans’ work ethic, leadership and tirelessness.
“Challenging times have a way of sorting out the capable and the motivated from the indifferent,” he says.
Beckford was motivated as well. A black man who is married to a white woman, Beckford says he found out about the meeting online as he and his wife looked for ways to help the community come together. He says talk about the flyers prompted Beckford’s daughter to ask: “Daddy, does that mean you have to leave and can Mommy and I come with you? Or if we can’t, can we visit you? Because they’re saying you have to leave and you can’t come back to Pittsford.’”
Beckford praises the leadership role Evans took on, saying it helped spur him to action.
“The shove (was) the white supremacist flyers because it basically put me in a position where I didn’t know what to do, but I need to be able to make sure that my daughter knows that it doesn’t stop here,” Beckford recalls. “(Kendra) was able to get people … to find a way to work together in such a way that out of that just came some beautiful stuff. I’m grateful for her leadership and what she did because if it wasn’t for PittsForward, none of this would have happened.”
A grassroots effort
After the unity walk, which received widespread support and even saw elected officials like Bill Moehle, Brighton’s town supervisor, take part, PittsForward was formed. Six hundred people ordered signs that read “Differences Make Us Strong” and “We Stand Together.”
“When Kendra Evans came to me about a march to demonstrate community solidarity against this, we did not skip a beat here in getting the permit from the state to be able to do that march,” he says, adding that he has a photo of himself with Evans at the march.
Smith says PittsForward started out on a promising note, in response to an incident. He stresses that the town responded with a strong denunciation of the racist flyers before “anybody had heard of PittsForward.”
PittsForward—named by one of the people in the group “because we want to move Pittsford forward,” Evans says—has a steering committee of eight and, at the start of this week, had 1,267 followers on its Facebook page. The group says it aims to promote “sustained community conversations about race and diversity through resource assessment and outreach, a monthly meeting, and ongoing programming.”
By design, PittsForward does not operate as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
“Whether we make an official nonprofit or whether we keep it as an unofficial movement is something that continues to be revisited,” Evans says.
She adds: “(PittsForward) is meant to be (a) kind of aspirational undercurrent of our town.”
The group’s work involves an ongoing assessment of Pittsford and Rochester at large to identify organizations and programs connected to issues of race and diversity. After the walk, engaged residents decided to get more involved with schools, including attending school board meetings and volunteering with the Parent Teacher Student Association.
Evans serves as vice president of the Education Council for the PTSA and is on the School District Planning Team, an advisory board to PCSD superintendent Michael Pero.
“My perception as an outsider is that (PittsForward is) very much about promoting dialogue and making a space and getting more aware of the things we want to put under the rug, trying to help us get rid of our fragility and talk about our privilege and be allies and advocates,” says Jill Swiencicki, a Pittsford resident.
Swiencicki, who relocated to the area from California, remembers feeling regret immediately upon moving to Pittsford. She encountered some parents who implied Pittsford was safer than some other Rochester-area communities, because bus lines didn’t go that far.
“That’s the perception,” she says. “(So), I want to see more and more organizations that challenge the presumption of whiteness as good, no crime, not dirty, safe.”
PittsForward continues to play an active role in matters of race. It has supported events that discuss race and diversity, asked for unity in the wake of incidents of racism, and kept a close watch for discrimination.
“I think (PittsForward has) stuck because there’s still work to do,” Evans says. “We live in a town of achievement, it’s a place of continuous improvement. And to suggest that you can have a unity walk and suddenly there’s not going to be racism or discrimination in our community anymore would be shortsighted.”
Smith voices concern, however, that PittsForward’s efforts are divisive.
“What concerns me is that the people behind this, there are many of them, co-opted this idea and turned it into something that’s very unfair to our residents and try to portray Pittsford as some kind of terrible hotbed of racism,” he says. “Look, there’s no thinking person that will deny the fact that racism exists in our society; it is a problem and it needs to be fought.” But, he adds, there’s no merit to “the idea that it is particularly bad in a place like Pittsford,” where residents’ levels of education and sophistication are high.
“So, I’m concerned about that,” says Smith, “that it started with something good and morphed into something that is very divisive.”
Bernadette Tracy, a longtime black resident of Pittsford, says PittsForward is viewed as a Democratic Party platform. She is worried that if PittsForward truly is partisan, it will increase polarization, especially on serious matters like race. (Though many involved in PittsForward are Democrats, it identifies itself as a nonpartisan community group.)
“(With) an issue that polarizes, people get defensive,” Tracy says.
Work to be done
While attitudes about race in Pittsford may be changing, the town’s demographic profile has barely shifted, American Community Survey five-year estimates show. In 2010, whites accounted for 88 percent of the roughly 29,000 town residents. Blacks made up 3 percent, Asians totaled 7 percent and 1 percent identified as two or more races. Seven years later, the estimates again tallied whites at 88 percent. Blacks had fallen by more than half to 1 percent, while Asians and multiracial residents accounted for 9 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
Racial tension surfaced again this year. The Pittsford Central School District was roiled by racist incidents, from the use of the n-word by a student to the district’s handling of a Black History Month project. PittsForward has maintained its role, promoting dialogue. The signs from 2016 have been popping up on lawns.
“This is not zero sum and we are in this together,” Evans says. “You never move forward with division, you move forward with unity. That’s not to say people shouldn’t be accountable.
“The learning curve is steep for some people,” she adds. “The great thing about PittsForward is that we have people who are across the spectrum in terms of their awareness, in terms of their engagement, and everybody was always welcome and still is welcome. So, whether you’re just coming to the realization that racism never went away or whether you’ve been fighting this battle since 1969, there’s a place for everybody in our community.”
Evans believes parents and teachers are on the same team and “no one is trying to raise the next generation of racists.” Nonetheless, she says, “I’m ready for people to stop being defensive. A strong community isn’t a perfect community. A strong community is one who acknowledges a weak spot and continues to improve. That’s where I’m hoping this conversation is continuing to evolve to. It’s not about blaming, it’s not about shaming, it’s about taking sustained action.”
Communities are complex, Pittsford resident David Martins observes.
“People are not all going to always agree,” he says. “People might agree on one issue and the very next issue that matters they might have a very different idea and so they wouldn’t necessarily be holding the same sign or having the same passion.”
The school district’s issues and Pero’s response to them, however, have upset many residents. Though Beckford says a lack of diversity was brought to light a few years ago when a report found the PCSD employed only one black and two Asians among nearly 500 teachers, the recent incidents have awoken the community. He and others want PCSD children to be able to see people of color in various roles and responsibilities.
“So, when they go out into the world, they don’t think we’re like mythical, magical creatures,” Beckford says. “Either you’re a mythical, magical creature or you’re a token. Sadly, a lot of the time they think we’re tokens.”
Tracy says it’s important that schools understand diversity is needed in order for students to prepare for the world they’re about to enter, in addition to participating in initiatives like the Urban-Suburban Program that helps give city school students access to suburban school district education.
“That is where our focus needs to be, that is where we need to be working together, not as (political party members) but as citizens of our Pittsford community,” she says.
The school district issues prompted the formation of another organization: PittsfordSoars (Speaking Out Against Racism). Its goal is to hold community leaders accountable on progress to mitigate personal, structural and institutional racism in Pittsford.
Sussman views another voice against racism as a positive.
“What’s neat about it is that these are civic-minded people trying to get things done and my sense is that PittsfordSoars is specifically focused on the educational system,” he says. “I am just so encouraged to see people engaged and involved in trying to make the community a better place.”
Sussman believes there will always be a place for PittsForward.
Says Beckford: “Groups like PittsForward and this new group PittsfordSoars (are) really a check and balance on a system that isn’t working well.”
Evans, who is upset by the divisiveness that has resulted from the PSCD incidents, wants to ensure that the community’s response actionable and sustained.
“It’s not unique that we’re dealing with racism, it’s not unique that our systems have racism built and baked into them. That’s not unique,” she says. “How we respond can be and that’s the only way we prevent this from continuing for the next generation and the next generation and not just (for) children of color. … White children (need) to see leaders come in all shapes and sizes, colors, ability levels. These are things that benefit every person. It’s not a victim-based model, it’s progress for us as humankind.”
A lived experience
Evans and her husband Andrew have three children—of Guatemalan, Haitian and Filipino descent—whom they adopted before moving to the Rochester area. Their family stands out, she says. Her children are close in age at 11, 12 and 13, and don’t look like her, and she has fielded her share of curious questions.
“I have to teach them what boundaries are,” she says. “Just as you don’t ask a birth mother about (her) baby or when it was conceived or different things like that. These are not questions that are up for public discussion.”
Repeatedly, Evans has needed to advocate for her family, going into classrooms and working with teachers to educate them about diversity and different kinds of family structures.
“I found (the) teachers were very receptive and definitely needed the support because we are an anomaly in the world and also in Pittsford,” she says.
The Evans family settled on Pittsford and the Rochester area because it was a “beautiful halfway point from my husband’s family and mine,” Evans says. They also thought it seemed like a nice place to raise a family.
Born in a small township in western Pennsylvania, Evans grew up on a street with relatives close by. She was the first in her family to get a college degree; she studied political science and public policy at the University of Chicago and interned for then rookie Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who now is the senior U.S. senator from Illinois. Evans did not pursue a political career; instead, she became an elementary school teacher, eventually transitioning to being a learning specialist.
“I decided this system-based stuff is not for me as a 21-year old. I want to be a teacher and I want to effect change at a personal level,” she says.
The Evans family moved up and down the East Coast, living in cities like Boston and Atlanta, before arriving here six years ago. Evans launched the Village Learning Studio, which focuses on students who don’t necessarily fit into standardized school and after-school environments. Her students are often diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, with anxiety or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
In 2018, she was appointed program manager of RIT’s Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative, a partnership of RIT career services and cooperative education and the Spectrum Support Program, an RIT division that aims to connect job seekers on the autism spectrum with employers seeking neurodiverse talent. (Broadly, neurodiversity refers to the differences in learning and thought, which can include those attributed to the autism spectrum.)
“I teach a lot of social skills and a lot of cooperative collaboration … and it’s we sink or swim together and that’s really what’s been the guiding principle of my life,” Evans says. “So, if I see a need and don’t fill it, I’m not doing what I was put on the planet to do.”
That belief spurred her decision to challenge Smith in the Pittsford town supervisor’s race.
Running for office
Evans believes Pittsford is ready to have more voices at the table.
“I don’t think this is a personality contest, I think this is about vision for our town,” she says of the election. “The one-party-rule concept had been here forever, for 80 years since the institution began, and only in 2017 did we elect two representatives that were not majority party in our town.
“Are we going to embrace moving forward as a community … or are we going to white knuckle it to the past?”
She has pledged to foster a participatory approach to decision making, invest in infrastructure, keep green space and help older residents to remain in the community, among other things.
“Kendra thinks local and she understands how town government works and how it can be proactive and protecting what’s great about Pittsford and I think that really resonates with people in Pittsford,” says Ann Binstock, Evans’ friend and supporter. “It doesn’t matter what your political or party affiliation is, you want town leadership that is representing your values and your priorities and someone who really listens because that’s what’s going to make a big difference in your everyday life.”
Ravi Mangla, co-director of grassroots organization ROCitizen, which has endorsed Evans, says she is the strongest candidate the group interviewed.
“She’s passionate about her community and wants families in Pittsford to have a greater voice in their town government,” Mangla says. “As a founding member of PittsForward, she’s shown a deep commitment to equity and inclusion, and we expect her to bring those same values to local government.”
Evans likely faces a tough race. Smith, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale University and a law degree at the University of Virginia Law School, was elected to the Town Board in 1995. He later was elected to the county Legislature, serving as majority leader from 2001 to 2007. He became Pittsford town justice in 2011 and was elected supervisor in 2013.
In the 2013 election, Smith—who ran on the Republican, Conservative and Independence lines—won with 60 percent of the vote; Democrat Craig Raisner received 40 percent. Two years later, Smith ran unopposed for a second term. He also was unopposed in the 2017 election.
Pittsford is one of the first towns in the state to win Clean Community Energy status, by undertaking initiatives New York views as high impact on reducing energy use and carbon emissions, lowering costs and driving use of clean energy.
“The town government’s job is to provide municipal services and amenities to support the quality of life of all of our residents and to be stewards of the physical integrity of the place and that includes both the infrastructure and our environment and that’s why we have been so proactive on environmental matters during the time that I’ve been town supervisor,” Smith says.
The town received a favorable triple A rating from Moody’s in 2017 (the latest information publicly available) with a stable outlook and a healthy financial condition. Pittsford is the only New York town north of Westchester or Putnam counties to have that rating.
“That does not happen by accident, that happens by sound fiscal management and that’s what we intend to carry on,” Smith says.
Smith and his team have rejected racism locally and nationally. He condemned the incident in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. In a Facebook post he called white supremacist and racial superiority theories “evil.”
The town has been active with PCSD and the community to have conversations on racism in the Pittsford schools. Smith says he personally benefitted from the discussions. He was seated with students from the Urban-Suburban Program.
“Talking with these kids … they opened my eyes to different aspects of this that I’m not sure I would have figured out on my own,” Smith says. “But the other thing that absolutely jumped out, or at least it did at me, was when you hear from the people who are actually there and actually affected by these things (you see) how sensible they are, how practical they are, how reasonable they are and how they’re zeroing in on something that is a legitimate problem.
“I find those conversations to be much more productive, much more helpful than people who consider themselves social justice warriors who have not experienced these things themselves or (who) speak on the behalf of people who are victims of some of this stuff.”
This year, the town for the first time held a week of celebration around Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Efforts by Smith and others on the Town Board to stay connected with the community include social media and meetings that invite discussion.
Evans and others contend that having Democrats on the Town Board has brought about these changes. Beckford, for example, played a key role in the MLK celebrations. Evans credits him and Stephanie Townsend, the other Democrat on the board, for bringing forward issues such as clean energy.
Pittsford resident David Ferris rates the performance of both the Town Board and the supervisor as outstanding.
“The last two years have been with two Democrats and Republicans on the board. I really am curious to see what Kendra will raise as substantive issues,” Ferris says, adding that he thinks it will be hard for her to identify any shortcomings.
“It’s not an accident that Pittsford is a place that people aspire to live in and it’s that way for a lot of different reasons,” Smith says. “It has to do with the quality of life, the physical beauty of the town, the care of our environment over time. The Greenprint plan, which preserves so much of our open countryside—these are things that add up to quality of life.”
Still, Evans’ supporters believe her leadership capabilities and strengths in marshaling a united front work in her favor.
“Kendra is the kind of person who connects with people, but then also connects people with each other,” Binstock says. “I think in this day and age that is a special and rare talent, knowing how to bring people together and how to get things done based on those strong relationships.”
Beckford says he has a good working relationship with Smith but believes Evans offers something new.
“She has a fresh perspective, she has a lens of diversity that comes from a lived experience,” Beckford says.
When he ran, Beckford recalls, some people said, “‘Good luck to you, but I’m the only Democrat on my street.’” He believes now more people in Pittsford are progressive-minded and “there’s a shrinking group of folks that are not.”
Party enrollment data show that the Democrats have been gaining ground in suburban Monroe County. In Pittsford, from 2000 to 2018, the number of enrolled Democrats jumped nearly 60 percent, while Republican enrollment declined roughly 18 percent. As of June, there were 7,395 Democrats and 6,652 Republicans. Independents numbered 5,165, and their votes could be the deciding factor.
If Evans wins, it could signal a big shift for Pittsford.
“I think that we’re a good-hearted people,” she says. “It is helping to move that charity instinct to a justice instinct and that’s the real work that needs to be done. That’s the been the evolution of me, that concept of moving beyond individual to systems.”