By month’s end, Leonard Brock will no longer be the area’s “poverty czar.”
After five years as executive director of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, he is joining CFLeads, a Boston-based national network of community foundations.
Brock announced his decision to step down in December, but has not previously disclosed what he would do next. RMAPI is conducting a search for his successor.
Brock will leave RMAPI on May 29 to head CFLeads’ Economic Mobility Action Network, a two-year pilot program of six community foundations focused on improving the circumstances of low-income families and addressing racial and economic inequities.
The network was established to help the philanthropic sector look beyond the immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic toward rebuilding the economy by addressing systemic issues that make it tough for many poor individuals and families to succeed.
As Rochester-based project director of the network, Brock will work with community foundations in Buffalo, Louisiana, Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco and Minnesota. The network is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Charles Stewart Mott foundations.
Community foundations in the program were chosen by CFLeads based on their economic mobility work and demonstrated commitment to racial equity, among other factors. Economic mobility is the ability of individuals to change their position on the income distribution spectrum.
Both these issues are close to Brock’s heart.
“In my RMAPI role I always had to play defense,” Brock says. “I just want to be in a position to play offense. … I really want to be very proactive (and) fight for equity at the other end of the economic spectrum because the way we’ve attacked, and approached, poverty locally is from a crisis-management perspective.”
Not charity work
While Brock understands that crisis management is necessary to help Rochester’s families struggling with poverty, he says it elevates charity as the primary intervention.
“We are too deficit-focused; we don’t think about or believe in the end state we are working to address,” Brock says. “The guiding question should not solely be, ‘What is the problem we are trying to address with poverty?’ It should be, ‘What solutions would lead to more marginalized people acquiring, securing and sustaining wealth?’”
Brock is emphatic: Reducing poverty is not a benevolent exercise.
“Crisis-management work, charity work, is comfortable; it’s familiar,” Brock says. “We place more emphasis on the act versus the outcome. We celebrate all we’ve done in the fight against poverty for the last several decades, but outcomes are worse.
“I always say, ‘There’s a thin line between hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.’ And in my experience, most people don’t know what they don’t know, or they protect what they think they know—as far from the truth as it may be.”
An arduous road
Against this backdrop and under immense public scrutiny, Brock says he began to question his ability to be an effective leader. The pressure to produce results was strong.
Also, Brock worried that every criticism lodged against RMAPI would be tied to him as an individual.
“I had my own pressure to produce and perform because I am extremely passionate about the work and really want to liberate as many people as possible,” Brock says. “I come from the neighborhood and felt this was my opportunity to represent people of poverty to the best of my ability without promoting poverty.”
When Brock assumed leadership of RMAPI in 2015, he was given a mighty task: reduce poverty by 50 percent in 15 years.
“Leonard was given an impossible job from the beginning and I wasn’t the only one who told him that,” former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson says.
The goal, Brock says, was intentionally aspirational—a community rally cry.
“In the absence of national policy (to reduce poverty), it wasn’t realistic, but we needed something to kind of rally the troops, we needed something to motivate and inspire, and it served its purpose in that context,” he says. “But as it relates to managing expectations, as it relates to what progress we’re making toward that goal, we undersold the work that we were doing.”
Five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, spanning RMAPI’s existence, show marginal improvement in the city of Rochester’s poverty rate. But one-third of city residents remain in poverty—and among those under the age of 18, the rate is 51 percent, among the highest nationwide.
Though Brock doesn’t regret pursuing the ambitious poverty-reduction goal, if he had to do it over again, he would take a different approach.
“I would not have that public splash,” Brock says. “I would have gone under the radar for a year or two years so we could figure out what it was we were doing and how we were going to do it.”
RMAPI had to figure it out publicly. In 2016, the initiative retooled and adopted a collective impact model, a cross-sectional approach to reducing poverty. A hard concept to explain, collective impact underscores the need for community organizations to work together in a structured way to solve large-scale social problems.
“It’s almost like some people are looking for some sort of magic answer to come from on high,” says Ajamu Kitwana, vice president/director of community impact at ESL Federal Credit Union and a member of RMAPI’s executive committee. “Frankly, in the case of Leonard, I think a lot of people thought as director of RMAPI means he’s going to come up with the solutions for poverty for us, whereas (with) the model of collective impact, the director and the backbone organization—their role is to keep us coordinated, to keep us as community partners learning together and committed so we can develop the solution ourselves as a unit.”
While Kitwana and others understood the complexities of the challenge they faced, not everyone in the community did, making it difficult for RMAPI’s leader.
Last year, Brock felt fatigue setting in. His mother’s death in August 2019 prompted him to dig deep and re-examine his life; his decision to resign followed.
“I hope that him leaving will really force us, those of us around the table as community leaders, to take ownership of this challenge and realize that we can’t wait for Leonard to solve the problem for us…,” says Kitwana, a former consultant with FSG, an agency that has helped RMAPI and many others adopt a collective impact framework. “By removing himself, it will force us to see that we have to be the change that we seek in this scenario.”
Over the last five years, RMAPI’s staff has grown from one person to seven people. It has an operating budget of roughly $750,000—a combination of state and private funds—with state support for the next three to five years, Brock says.
Working with coalition members, Brock guided RMAPI toward two initial priorities: workforce development, and access to and affordability of basic needs.
RMAPI’s achievements so far include adult mentoring and young adult manufacturing and training employment programs. In addition, the Monroe County Systems Integration Project connects health, education and human services resources to those in poverty.
While he admires Brock and RMAPI, Ravi Mangla, ROCitizen co-director, isn’t sure if individual interventions like adult mentorship programs can make a sizable impact given the scope of Rochester’s poverty problem.
“I really would like to see RMAPI and other local anti-poverty initiatives working toward big structural reforms that affect the largest number of people possible,” he says.
Mangla believes this will require multiple organizations working in partnership, as well as local, federal and state government interventions.
To that end, RMAPI lists policies to assist people in poverty—for instance, a ban on landlord discrimination based on source of income—as an achievement. Funders now integrate RMAPI’s guiding principles in funding applications to ensure dollars invested in poverty alleviation are in line with the community’s strategy.
The focus on the root causes of poverty has been important for Rochester, Kitwana observes.
“The fact that we as a community explicitly talk about structural racism as a root cause, that wasn’t something that we were ready to or were doing five years ago,” he says.
A new chapter
Though she is sorry to see Brock leave RMAPI, Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester, says she understands his decision. United Way is RMAPI’s fiscal agent.
“He was the first director of this new idea of collective impact of a poverty initiative that was a startup under a spotlight and grew it over five years…,” Saunders says. “There’s a lot of wins, but getting from there to here was definitely a very difficult journey. I think it was very fortunate that we had Leonard as that leader.”
Brock has built a foundation that will set the course for RMAPI’s next chapter, she says. His supporters say Brock’s ability to listen, partner and collaborate has established a pathway for progress.
“Finally, Leonard came to understand that even though they call him the czar, he didn’t have czar powers, he did not have one czar power to really make something happen,” Johnson says. “He could talk, he could opine, but he really could not effectuate, and that’s really what is the glaring deficiency of this model.
“So, what did he do? He extracted something from this process. He learned how to negotiate, he learned how to collaborate.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Brock to pick up the phone and call several community leaders, those who agreed and others who did not, to get their feedback. He made friends along the way. Authentic relationships kept him going, Brock says; without them, he would have buckled.
A solid foundation and steps toward collective impact is where Brock leaves RMAPI. Its new leader will need to build on that.
“We’re not looking for the next Leonard Brock; we are looking for the next leader for the next chapter of RMAPI,” Saunders says.
Brock’s successor not only needs to be competent and capable, he or she must persevere and be patient.
Vincent Esposito, regional director of Empire State Development’s Finger Lakes region, is bullish about RMAPI’s future.
“This has to be a communitywide effort, there has to be a cultural shift in the way government and private-sector partners come together to break down systemic barriers to really give people succeed and climb the ladder to self-sustainability and success,” Esposito says.
With the coronavirus pandemic, that job has become much more challenging—and the goal of a 50 percent reduction in the region’s poverty rate in 15 years seems even more unlikely.
Brock says RMAPI helped him become a stronger and competent leader. And the initiative is in a position of strength, he says, making his departure well-timed.
At CFLeads, Brock’s work will align well with his efforts at Rochester’s NeighborHOOD Scholar, where he is an owner. A merchandising business with a social purpose, NeighborHOOD Scholar aims to redefine and make scholarship popular, equating education with liberation and self-sufficiency.
Brock’s ability to navigate various worlds, from Albany to the community, has been a boon for Rochester, Saunders says.
“I think that helped inform RMAPI to ensure it didn’t lose its grounding and purpose…,” she says. “That is a unique gift of Leonard and something that we have to be ever mindful that we don’t lose.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.