Adrian Hale relishes tackling problems.
“There’s a challenge, and everybody’s sitting down,” he says. “I’m the guy who stands up.”
That drive has taken Hale from a poverty-stricken Rochester neighborhood to the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, where he’s senior manager of talent strategy, workforce/economic development and education initiatives. Just 27 years old when hired, he was the youngest executive at the Chamber, and the only one who was black and openly gay.
“My biological identity has shaped my world view as a black gay man,” Hale says. “This is the identity in which I operate and move through the world.”
Hale has moved at breakneck speed since he came to the Chamber a few years ago. He’s helped create job-training programs for marginalized youths and adults, and brought business and community leaders with disparate interests together to work on local problems. He speaks knowledgably of a host of issues that affect the Rochester area. Through Hale’s efforts, some Rochester school children have headed to class with the school supplies and winter clothing that they’ve needed. Perhaps most telling of all, Hale turned down high-paying corporate jobs to devote himself to the community’s betterment.
The youngest of three children born to a single mother, Hale was raised on Conkey Avenue, Avenue D and 1st Street. Draw a north-south line through the middle of Rochester’s downtown, and the streets sit north and slightly east of the city’s center. Poverty and crime have long afflicted that part of the city.
“The black working class and middle class predominantly lives in the 19th Ward area, Gates—it’s just more economically stable,” Hale says. “I come from the east side of the city, where the economic conditions are more harsh.”
Dinners in the Hale household sometimes consisted of breakfast foods—that’s all the family had. The family’s inability to pay its utility bills sometimes led to service cut-offs.
Hale’s parents also had to deal with personal issues. Both struggled with alcohol, and Kenneth Poole, his father, was incarcerated for four years because of DWIs. He didn’t spend that much time with Hale’s family when free—Poole didn’t live with them—but he remembers what his son was like as a child.
“Adrian growing up (was) always curious, smart, and I knew he’d be something special when he grew up,” Poole says.
Sharon Hale says her youngest child had a strong desire to learn.
“Anything he was interested in, he would do so much research, and he would just learn everything there was to know about it,” Sharon Hale says.
Staying off the streets
As a two-year-old, Hale developed an interest in becoming a meteorologist, and spent hours learning all he could from the Weather Channel.
“He just knew all the clouds; he just knew about weather patterns,” Sharon Hale says.
Watching the 2002 Winter Olympics on television took Hale in a new direction.
“He was about 12 years old or so, and saw speed skating,” Sharon Hale recalls. “That was his life for a very long time.”
A poor kid from Rochester could easily slip off the path to the ice rink. Hale was able to join the Rochester Speed Skating Team, but his mother’s work schedule prevented her from driving him to practices. To train with his team, he had to take a long bus ride to the ESL Sports Centre (now Bill Gray’s Regional Iceplex) on Monroe Community College’s Brighton campus. After waiting as much as two hours for the rest of the team to arrive, Hale would train. After practice ended, one of his coaches or the parent of a team member often gave him a ride home.
Sharon Hale also couldn’t help her son with the cost of his training. With the help of a friend on the skating team, Adrian Hale found a part-time job that covered some of his expenses. A local firm agreed to sponsor him, and paid much of the rest.
All that hard work paid off. Hale and his team competed in Canada, Ohio, and all over the Northeast. After his second year on skates, he was recruited to take the advanced training that could have prepared him to qualify for the trials for the 2006 Olympic speed skating team.
While undergoing that training in Milwaukee, Wis., Hale learned that the company that was sponsoring him had been sold to another firm. That firm did not continue supporting his efforts.
“When I lost that sponsorship, I could no longer continue skating,” Hale says.
Though denied a possible shot at the Olympics, he still views the experience positively.
“It kept me off the streets, and it started to show me that I could do literally what I put my mind to,” Hale explains.
Hale originally planned to attend college after graduating from John Marshall High School, but a movie about the Iraq War changed his mind.
“I was so affected by the cost of war on the young Marines, their families, and the country, and when I came of age, I decided I wanted to join,” he says.
Part of a mission
Enlisting in the Marine Corps, Hale spent two tours with a helicopter-borne combat support unit in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Part of his unit’s mission was to supply material aid to the Afghan people.
“We did a lot of nation building; carrying ballots for the first Afghan election. Carried food and supplies to build bridges for Afghans,” Hale says.
The experience taught him about himself, and about life.
“I was on the other side of the world supporting democracy. At home, I’m hearing stories from my family and my friends, and I know they’re not being heard,” Hale says. “That dichotomy really forced me to question things and form my own view.”
Leaving the Marines in 2012, Hale returned home. Leaving the service, and all it represented to him, affected Hale in many ways.
“That core support of my brothers—I was separated from them,” he says. “Another part was feeling like I’m not part of a great mission, a great work—the nation building.”
The resulting identity crisis left him deeply depressed. For a time, he turned to alcohol to deal with his feelings.
“I was riddled with alcohol use,” Hale says. “I briefly considered suicide.”
His strong Christian faith helped him get through those days.
“I always grew up with a strong faith,” Hale explains. “I derive purpose from my faith.”
Still, he missed the camaraderie of military life, and the structure it gave him. In order to regain that sense of brotherhood and structure, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve for a three-year hitch.
“I knew under the chain of command, it would just cause me to make more disciplined decisions,” he explains.
Life after the Marines
He also resolved to make an impact in the United States. To that end, he enrolled at MCC.
“It was a good step—putting me in an environment where I could be stimulated,” Hale says. “More importantly, it reminded me that I could have a life after the Marine Corps.”
Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Chamber, met Hale at an event that was held by the MCC Foundation.
“I was very impressed with him at that time, which started our relationship,” Duffy says.
Duffy subsequently hired Hale to be a summer associate—a kind of intern—for the Chamber. The position, which Hale held for three summers running, gave the him the chance to observe Rochester-area nonprofits, businesses and civic institutions make decisions about local issues.
“I was in these rooms, seeing how the sausage is made,” Hale says. “That’s when I realized that all issues are local.”
Coming back to Rochester
After two years at MCC, Hale transferred to Yale University, where he was a Director’s Fellow with the university’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and earned a B.A. in political science. As he approached graduation, corporate headhunters came proffering high-paying jobs.
“I was being pushed to make money first,” Hale says.
Instead, he returned to Rochester. In 2017, Hale signed up with the Chamber, intent on using his position to make his community a better place.
“Leveraging my own identity and experience, I execute my duties in how we can build or establish a more equitable world of work,” he says.
In that world, Hale says, people face fewer barriers to employment and upward mobility regardless of their social or personal circumstances. Better educational opportunities, job-search training and job-readiness skills can help those in the community overcome barriers.
“The way opportunity presents itself in our society is through work,” he asserts.
Since coming on board at the Chamber, Hale has led or participated in a number of efforts to raise educational outcomes among Rochester-area youth and improve their employability. Mentor to Employment, a program that Hale was involved in creating, helps East High School students prepare to enter the workforce, and retain their jobs.
“This provides gainful service to those who have been underserved,” Hale says.
The program is a partnership of the Chamber, East High and a private individual who contributed the funding, whom Hale did not name. Based at the high school, the program provides about three weeks of instruction in the kinds of skills students need to find work and function on the job.
“The employability training is pretty much helping kids identify and develop a professional self to take into the workplace,” Hale explains.
The training also helps students develop the interpersonal and communications skills they need to be successful on the job. They also can acquire other competencies, such as how to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
Upon completing that training, the students enter summer-long internships at local businesses. There, mentors employed by those firms stand ready to guide them through their early time in the workforce—and their lives as new workers.
“You have a mentor who is there to help you navigate the workplace, and life,” Hale explains.
If all goes well, a student who completes the program, and graduates from high school, should have a chance to work full time at the internship location. Since Mentor to Employment kicked off last year, about 20 students have completed employability training. As many as six local firms have agreed to provide internships for that group in 2020.
Until funds ran out last July, adults could turn to another training program that Hale co-founded for the skills needed to operate a forklift. Simply called a “forklift training program,” the effort was the result of a partnership of the Chamber, MCC and the food bank Foodlink, which serves Monroe and nine other upstate counties.
“It was created because there was a deficit of forklift operators for a number of food manufacturers in the area,” Hale explains.
Funding for the program, which kicked off in September 2017, was in the form of a federal grant that was given to MCC. Those who met the necessary income and residency requirements could take an eight-hour training session that included classroom and hands-on instruction.
“We pretty much taught you the essentials of forklift operation,” Hale says.
Those enrolled in the program also received instruction in resume writing. About 100 people graduated from the program before its funding ran out. Five of the 10 people who completed the first training class received job offers.
Serving the youth
In addition to leading such efforts, Hale also helped start, and led, a school supply drive that placed school supplies in the hands of 20,000 local students in need. He also brought his leadership and organizing skills to a clothing drive that provided three shipments of winter apparel for students at Rochester City School District School 57.
For Hale’s service to Rochester’s young people, the Center for Teen Empowerment, which provides assistance to low-income urban youth, presented him with its Champion for Youth Leadership Award in 2019. He was the youngest person to ever receive the award.
Hale is involved in a number of projects these days. As the Chamber’s representative on the Creating Opportunities in Rochester for Equity in Employment initiative, he seeks to remove the barriers to advancement that marginalized groups have encountered in the labor market.
“It’s a multifaceted effort targeted at removing every obstruction that keeps people from a path toward success,” Hale says.
He also interacts with a number of organizations, including the Volunteer Legal Services Project. Rashid Muhammad, director of operations for the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, has worked closely with Hale on the issues of concern to his nonprofit, which provides free legal help to Monroe County residents in non-criminal proceedings.
“He’s extremely personable,” Muhammad says of Hale. “He’s extremely intelligent, and he’s a very insightful person.”
Muhammad has been particularly impressed with Hale’s ability to bring together groups that have disparate goals and views.
“He’s very insightful and understanding what those different positions will be, and how to build coalitions to bring people together,” Muhammad explains. “Adrian is the type of young leader that I believe our community needs.”
Duffy has nothing but praise for Hale.
“He is clearly one of Rochester’s top future leaders, and we’re very proud to have him,” Duffy says.
Hale’s parents put it more simply.
“For his age, he has accomplished so much,” Sharon Hale says. “His dad and I are extremely proud of him.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.