ESL Federal Credit Union committed more than $16 million in grants last year, leaping from $4.25 million in 2018. With a goal to further strengthen Rochester, ESL has expanded its Community Impact team, attracting seasoned professionals to execute its framework.
Michelle Shafer most recently was March of Dimes’ maternal and child health director for the Northeast. At ESL, she promotes collaborative efforts by participating in and funding initiatives that expand individual opportunity, specifically for education and employment.
Eric Van Dusen, former senior economic development specialist with the city of Rochester, is responsible for managing ESL’s grant initiatives around building strong neighborhoods in Greater Rochester. Barbara Zappia, former associate principal at the Center for Governmental Research, collaborates with community partners to support nonprofit organizations and initiatives.
These senior relationship managers, along with the rest of the team, will drive ESL toward meaningful impact as it reinvests in the community, says Ajamu Kitwana, vice president/director of community impact at ESL.
The Rochester Beacon posed some questions to Kitwana on ESL’s plans for community impact. His answers are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Why did ESL decide to grow the Community Impact team? How large is the team now?
AJAMU KITWANA: The Community Impact team consists of seven individuals, counting myself and Maureen Wolfe, senior vice president/director, human resources and community impact, and we have plans to grow the team further in 2020. We grew the team in order to execute our framework for reinvesting in the Greater Rochester community. Our reinvestments increased exponentially in 2019 (ESL committed over $16 million in grants last year, compared to $4.25 million in 2018), and we plan to continue reinvesting at this level well into the future.
We needed to expand and grow our team so we could deepen our capacity to be strategic and drive toward meaningful impact as we reinvest in our community. Our team of senior relationship managers enable us to focus on equity, learning, and building partnerships as we do our work. Further, our relationship managers enable us to provide the consistent superior experience that we provide to our members. The addition of our new team members has been instrumental is allowing us to achieve this goal for community impact at ESL.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What does the Community Impact team do? What are some of the goals for the team this year?
The Community Impact team executes ESL’s Community Impact Framework and contributes to helping ESL work towards living its purpose of “helping our community thrive and prosper.” Through our reinvestments in the community, we aim to help build a healthy, resilient and equitable Greater Rochester region where all residents are well-educated, live in affordable, connected neighborhoods, and have access to quality employment opportunities.
To progress toward making this vision a reality, we focus on three main objectives:
■ Expanding individual opportunity: We support programs and efforts to expand professional and educational opportunity for all residents of Greater Rochester.
■ Building strong neighborhoods: We invest in neighborhoods across Greater Rochester to ensure they are prosperous, well-connected and inclusive.
■ Strengthening organizations and systems: Greater Rochester has multiple organizations and initiatives already working together to create a healthy and resilient Rochester—we support these organizations and initiatives by investing in the necessary yet less-visible systems, capacities and policies that ensure they are successful.
As we reinvest, we also seek to share and learn from our activities and the activities of others. Greater Rochester is certainly facing serious issues that are critical to address. But there are successes and positive work being done that is worth celebrating and lifting up in hopes to inspire further action.
To continue on this path we have set for ourselves, we will continue to make significant investments in the community in 2020 and grow our team, as needed, to properly manage these commitments.
ROCHESTER BEACON: ESL has managed to attract individuals known for community development. What do you hope they will bring to the table that the team didn’t have previously?
KITWANA: Relationship building, an understanding of our community and a passion for learning that allows us to evolve, both as a funder in Greater Rochester and a committed contributor to important community conversations.
Relationship building and an understanding of our community is vital if ESL is to reinvest in the programs that can contribute to building a healthy, resilient and equitable Greater Rochester. The two grants we provided in 2019 to United Way of Greater Rochester and the MCC Foundation are excellent examples of this.
With the $5 million United Way grants for Project Uplift and the Housing Stability Programs, our teams worked closely in order to understand the needs in our community. We learned a great deal about the importance of providing immediate, direct, consumer-driven interventions in an effort to assist community members with emergencies that can exacerbate issues tied to poverty. The ability to cover housing costs such as security deposits and utility bills, and quality of life payments such as child care and car repairs, can have lasting positive effects to people’s well-being and economic stability. Our collaboration and learnings with United Way led to this grant’s creation.
With the MCC Foundation, we worked closely with them to uncover barriers that prevented students from graduating. This led to the funding of $4 million in scholarships over five years that have the potential to help more than 1,000 students complete their studies. Through our collaboration with the foundation, three scholarship programs were created that will go toward increasing access to college, ensuring students can continue their education, and filling financial aid gaps for students nearing graduation.
With both of these grants, understanding the results and learnings will be crucial for us to understand their effects, impact and informing strategies around future funding opportunities.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Why do you think it’s important for employers like ESL to have such a focus?
KITWANA: The relationship between ESL and Greater Rochester—and this is true for all employers in our community—is symbiotic. Our success is intrinsically linked to the success of the Greater Rochester community, because what impacts the community affects us all.
All organizations have an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of their stakeholders. The employees who work for them on a daily basis, the customers who purchase their products and/or services, the vendors they utilize—all are linked together. Understanding and recognizing this can have a profound influence on how organizations focus on having a positive impact on the community.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.