North Star Coalition gains momentum

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More than 200 organizations have joined the call to ensure the Rochester region makes an inclusive recovery, joining the North Star Coalition. The effort, which was launched roughly a month ago and spans nine counties, pledges to put dollars in the hands of people who have historically been on the economic margins.

“If you look at communities around the country that are experiencing growth, it’s the communities that are saying, let’s get money for folks that have been on the margins. Let’s really center equity. Those are the communities that are growing,” says Simeon Banister, executive vice president of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, which is leading the effort.

The journey toward this plan has its roots in the Community Crisis Fund that RACF established with United Way of Greater Rochester during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Simeon Banister

“What was clear there is that certainly we were going to need to respond in crisis, and the fund was set up to do that … but that we also needed to be thoughtful about recovery,” Banister says. “And the reason why is that a lot of times implicit decisions get made during crisis that become policy or become normative coming out of the crisis. So, we really kind of started there. We knew that recovery was going to need to be really thoughtful and intentional and not just left up to chance.”

An Urban Institute report found that Rochester ranked 241st out of 274 cities on overall inclusion, 236th on economic inclusion, and 223rd on racial inclusion. The nonprofit research organization defines overall inclusion as the ability of historically excluded populations (lower-income residents and people of color) to contribute to and benefit from economic prosperity. It combines economic and racial inclusion.

Economic inclusion is measured by income segregation, housing affordability and other factors, while racial inclusion examines racial segregation, gaps in homeownership, poverty, and people of color as a percentage of a city’s population. Both types of inclusion examine the ability of specific populations to contribute to and benefit from economic prosperity.

From 2013 to 2016, Rochester’s economic health rank decreased slightly, from 258th to 259th. Over the same time period, the city became slightly more inclusive, rising from 244th to 241st in the overall inclusion rankings, according to the Urban Institute.

The researchers looked at communities across the country to identify which ones had the most robust recoveries from the Great Recession. “And it turns out,” Banister says, “that there was a strong correlation with communities that embraced policies around inclusion, both economic inclusion and racial inclusion.”

The Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution quickly became resources for RACF, offering insights on future actions, as the organization dove deeper into understanding Rochester’s position when it came to an equity and inclusion. RACF shared the information with community leaders and members to get ideas on how to implement an equitable and inclusive recovery. They did not want a new nonprofit to work on it, but they did feel strongly that Rochester needed to embrace the concept of such a recovery, Banister says.

“So, then the question was, how do we ensure that people know what that is?” he adds. “How can we fully leverage this moment with all the resources that are coming into the community?”

More than $800 million is headed to the city of Rochester, Monroe County, the Rochester City School District and Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority through various federal relief efforts including the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, the Urban Institute estimates. The city of Rochester is expected to receive $234 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan. Monroe County will get $312 million, and the Rochester City School District is to receive $296 million from education relief funds. Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority has been allocated $109 million.

The North Star Coalition plans to use data from think tanks like the Urban Institute to guide funds toward equitable purposes. Through its analysis via the Shared Prosperity Partnership, the Urban Institute showed how much larger these funds are than one-off competitive grants, and thus, helped shift the coalition’s focus and strategy toward larger pots of flexible funding going straight to their local governments rather than to smaller competitive grants, write Christina Plerhoples Stacy and others in a blog post.

“We have two goals. One is (to) get our fair share for Rochester. And No. 2, get those dollars into the hands of people that have historically been on the economic margins,” Banister says. “Economic disparity has tended to be a prerequisite for economic decline. So, we believe very strongly that economic parity or economic equity is the foundation for economic growth, and there’s a lot of research that supports that claim.”

He points to the New Deal of the 1930s that helped spur economic growth but was not racially inclusive, creating pockets of opportunity. Other policies such as redlining and the exclusion of Black and indigenous people of color from the GI Bill and Social Security protections influenced disparities in Rochester.

“This is a high-leverage moment,” Banister observes. “Major, major things changed in this country, after the after the New Deal. … And guess what? The economy’s changed again, from an industrialized economy to an ideation and a knowledge economy, and our systems are outmoded, … and this is an opportunity for us to get our systems right.”

He was among other leaders last month who announced the coalition in a public event that included players from various sectors including philanthropy, government, and labor. Banister hopes that the region will lean in and take advantage of the unprecedented infusion of funds to create positive outcomes. The Urban Institute, Brookings, ACT Rochester, RACF and others expect to assist with spending decisions. The Urban Institute will continue to offer evidence and analyses to help the coalition.

“Let’s be clear that we may not see something like this again for another 100 years,” Banister says. “And so, we really need to be smart with these dollars. That’s really the point here. It’s not to tell people what to do, but to make sure that as we’re making decisions as a community that they are informed decisions, and it’s not just kind of the last-minute, default-mode thing that we kind of do sometimes.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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