ESL’s community impact grants in 2020 topped $20 million

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For ESL Federal Credit Union’s community impact team, the coronavirus pandemic brought a new dimension to its purpose. The team handed out grants that topped $20 million last year and is on track to do the same in 2021.

“(It was) the opportunity to really step up and do what we can to help our community thrive and prosper,” says Ajamu Kitwana, vice president/director of community impact at ESL, of needs brought on by COVID-19. “In the community impact framework we use, we talk about our work to drive toward a healthy, resilient and equitable Greater Rochester. And so last year, the resilient side of that really came out. For us to be resilient, we had to really figure out how to endure this challenge.”

The team had to take a step back to reassess community needs and examine the rapidly changing conditions.

“We were fortunate to be in a place where we (could) be thoughtful about how we can allocate those resources in ways that really met the community needs as we saw them today,” Kitwana says.

Last year, ESL’s community impact team donated $4 million to 20 nonprofits through the United Way of Greater Rochester and $2.5 million to the Community Crisis Fund. It also gave smaller grants to the United Way in Livingston, Ontario, Wayne and Genesee counties to support housing agencies for rent relief, among others. The Rochester City School District got funds to address the digital divide while the Urban League of Rochester received dollars for small businesses and COVID-19 relief. Since ESL’s community impact team was formed, it has invested more than $40 million in the Rochester community.

This year, the team—which totals seven people—plans to continue to make progress on its framework. The group’s objectives include expanding opportunities for individuals, which encompasses education, opening up possibilities for employment and boosting financial wellness. The other parts of the framework are building strong neighborhoods that are engaged and connected with affordable and accessible housing, and supporting organizations and initiatives by investing in systems and policies.

Ajamu Kitwana

“We certainly have not shut off the reality that the impact of COVID-19, of this pandemic, has not ended,” Kitwana says. “In addition to doing what we can to refocus on our framework, we are looking for opportunities to support efforts toward an inclusive recovery for our community out of the pandemic.”

ESL is doubling down on its commitment to quality, affordable housing—a top priority for the community impact team this year. Many U.S. cities like Rochester are struggling with an affordable housing challenge. The pandemic has led to a temporary reprieve on evictions at least until May, but a crisis could be around the corner.

In its most recent “Out of Reach” report, the National Low Income Housing Coalition notes that before the pandemic, more than 7.7 million extremely low-income renters were spending more than 50 percent of limited incomes on housing costs. Millions of them were one step away from housing inability and for many the pandemic and economic fallout is that shock, the report states. According to the NLIHC study, the median-wage, full-time white worker earns a wage adequate to afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, but the median-wage, full-time Black or Latino worker does not. These disparities are evident in homeownership as well.

“Generally, in Rochester, we think, ‘Hey we’re a great community for homeownership,’ but the data tells us that that’s not true for a lot of Black and Brown members of our community,” Kitwana says.

The team plans to coordinate within ESL, with its mortgage and business banking units, to partner and support affordable housing opportunities. Several thousand Rochesterians, Kitwana says, spend more than a third of their income on housing, making it a heavy burden.

While he admits the issue is a daunting one to address, Kitwana is encouraged by the experience of team members like Eric Van Dusen, senior community impact relationship manager. Previously, Van Dusen worked with NeighborWorks Rochester, Grace Urban Ministries, the Housing Council, and, in his most recent role, as senior economic development specialist at the city of Rochester. 

“We know because of the expertise of the likes of Eric that we can’t just build our way to solving that problem,” Kitwana says. 

Strategies like transitioning existing housing stock at affordable prices, increasing housing opportunities and choices for residents, look to the market dynamics that created these conditions and disparities. ESL has set some measures, which Kitwana declines to disclose, on the number of affordable housing units it can support in 2021. To that end, the team has contributed to the Urban League, Habitat for Humanity and the Greater Rochester Housing Partnership—organizations that are acquiring homes in need of renovation to make them viable abodes.

“We’re actually partnering with private developers who are committed to quality, affordable housing, to do some renovation of lower-quality housing so as to provide high-quality opportunities still at a low price point for renters in particular,” says Kitwana, adding that homeownership opportunity programs through ESL are in the offing.

Prioritizing community needs is often an arduous task. The community impact team keeps its ear to the ground and stays connected with the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

“If everyone who has a partner in RMAPI has a clear sense of maybe it’s three to four things that they might do in a given year as an institution, as an organization, to contribute to that goal, then then that’s one way we can help,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of major institutions, smart people, a lot of resources around that table. So, if we all kind of take a chunk of the problem that we can move forward, we can really make progress.”

Kitwana points to the University of Rochester and Rochester Regional Health increasing their minimum wage to $15 an hour an example of change. UR has committed to a $15 minimum wage by next year as part of RMAPI efforts. RRH hopes to hit that mark in July.

Three years ago, ESL went through the exercise of articulating its sense of purpose, resources and strengths. Aligning with that purpose enabled the organization to make significant commitments to Greater Rochester. If organizations big and small are able to identify their core values, resources and commitment to the community, it could open up possibilities to make a difference, Kitwana suggests.

“What we’re doing as an organization, and it’s very exciting, it’s different than what we were doing 10 years ago, other times when we were successful,” he says. “There’s an opportunity, whomever you are, to make a choice and make a commitment to do what you can to help our community. 

“Frankly, it’ll take a commitment from many organizations, not just larger organizations in a community like Rochester, if we really want to move the needle and create the prosperous community that we hope to achieve.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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