With Jennifer Leonard’s retirement from the Rochester Area Community Foundation, Simeon Banister knows he has big shoes to fill. Leonard led the organization for nearly three decades.
Still, Banister is prepared for the experience and the opportunity to maintain his guiding principles of inclusion, innovation, and historical knowledge in the process.
“Simeon’s already off to a fantastic start with us, from his first five years here (as executive vice president and other positions). We hope he’ll stay for another 25,” Leonard says.
Tomorrow, she will step down as president and CEO and Banister will take over the lead role for RACF, which has nearly $600 million in assets that fund charitable projects, ranking as the second-largest grant providing organization in Western New York. The projects it supports contribute to the foundation’s vision of equity and vitality in education, racial equity, arts and culture, historical preservation, and climate justice for eight counties in the Finger Lakes region.
At the same time, Rochester continues to be plagued with crises: increasing amounts of violence, a chaotic and under-resourced city school district, and racial disparity divides, among others. However, Banister believes in the strong foundational building blocks at RACF and how its process and philanthropy can provide a way out of these systemic issues.
“I am excited and optimistic about what we can do together. That is not to say naive,” says Banister. “If we can realize and put in the effort to consider how we show up as a community, particularly on behalf of folks who have traditionally been dispossessed, there is no reason why we can’t grow and experience the kind of renaissance that lifts this community as a great American city.”
Banister joined RACF in 2017. A graduate of North Carolina Central University and the Princeton Theological Seminary, he previously worked in the public and private sectors, including positions with the New York State Senate, state Department of Taxation and Finance, the State University of New York, and several private commercial real estate firms. After serving as RACF’s vice president for community programs, last October he was promoted to executive vice president.
Leonard, who was hired as the foundation’s third executive director in 1993, is a leader who would rather sing the praises of the other people and programs under her stead than list her own accomplishments.
She points to Joe Posner, who “sold community ideas over breakfast” and established what would become the RACF in 1972, and Edward Doherty, who started the foundation’s tradition of creating deep-dive reports on poverty, which prompted the Empire State Poverty Reduction initiative and Rochester-Monroe Poverty Reduction initiative.
Other successes include organizations that were supported by RACF that went on to become templates for the future. The structure of the Early Childhood Development Initiative, for example, was replicated even after that nonprofit became independent.
“Jennifer is a leader who doesn’t feel like she needs to be in the limelight,” says Todd Butler, who says Leonard was a mentor when he started as the CEO and president of Causewave Community Partners, formerly the Ad Council of Rochester, in 2005. “She has this unique approachable ability that, whether you are a volunteer for a small nonprofit, or the governor of the state, she is easy to speak with and willing to engage with you.”
This tendency to highlight others is part of the core principles of RACF as well, which is considered a catalyst for other organizations to grow.
“Frankly, we can’t fix every problem and it would be unhelpful to think any one organization or person could,” says Banister. “We’re a catalyst for those with the expertise on the issues and want to elevate resident voices and bring the parties together.”
Adds Butler: “(RACF) has years of background in these issues, so with them, you don’t have the situation of a well-meaning philanthropist having to feel like they have to study every part of an issue they feel passionately about, but might not know completely. The foundation is there to connect and educate them.”
But even amid the ecosystem of accolades, Leonard herself has plenty of accomplishments as well. In her tenure as executive director at RACF, the foundation’s assets grew from $30 million to over $600 million. Permanently endowed assets, which are instrumental in creating consistent support, have crossed the $400 million mark.
“We’re not quite a perpetual motion machine for philanthropy,” Leonard says with a smile. “But there is a virtuous cycle we believe in, where we can make community impact by convening people, planning with them, evaluating the difference it’s making, circling back and starting again. It creates an interest in the part of the community in being supported, and if people give to support the work, we can do even more.”
Leonard is known for her ability to bring the right people to the table to take action and meet community needs.
“She is really diligent as a leader about bringing smart people who can complement her with their strengths,” observes Butler, who is an RACF board member. “I think the greatest mark is that, when an amazing leader moves on, there isn’t a feeling of loss after they leave because (the organization is) so well equipped to keep going onward and upward. People aren’t mournful (at RACF). There’s a palpable excitement about the immediate future of the foundation. Not 10 years down the road, but immediately.”
There could be reason to be, if not mournful, then pessimistic. In all growth areas RACF focuses on, Rochester faces challenges.
Reports from ACT Rochester, an RACF initiative, acknowledged the issues in its latest community report card, released earlier this year. The trends studied in the report card indicated that, from 2016 to 2020, the region was doing as well or better than New York as a whole in only one of the eight key indicator areas: housing. That picture could change when adjusted for how the COVID-19 pandemic affected both home and rental markets, however.
Among the remaining seven community indicators, the region performed slightly worse than the statewide benchmark in community vitality, economic security, economy, education and public safety, and much worse in the indicators of children and youth as well as health.
The number of children living in poverty, for example, has stayed above the average for the U.S. (17 percent) in both Monroe County (21 percent) and in Rochester (48 percent) and especially among African American (46 percent) and Hispanic (36 percent) children. Children raised in impoverished environments are at higher risk for a wide variety of health and social problems, including poor performance in school. The challenges they face in childhood can diminish their chances for successful adult lives.
Similarly, rates of violent crime have risen in Rochester. As of August, there have been 44 victims of gun-related homicides, an increase of 26 percent from 2021, an already record-setting year. Facing numbers like those, Banister says that, while he is sobered by that reality, he is not shaken from his optimism because of RACF’s unique advantages.
“I also know we were on the back end of a 30-year downward trend in violence before the pandemic and this other trend started,” Banister says. “(RACF) is a niche organization because we have the ability, due to the investment our community has made in our endowment, to look down the tunnel of time and bring some context.
“When you consider these issues that we focus on–education, public safety, the economy–they’re problems (reflecting) systemic inadequacies,” he continues, adding that having that knowledge is itself a valuable tool.
Banister points to the hiring of new ACT Rochester director Megan Norris, who brings a sociological background to the foundation, as one of the steps toward how he wants to expand RACF’s information-sharing capabilities.
“We’re inviting others to join us in adding to the community’s knowledge apparatus. We think that in so doing, we can help to provide something that our community needs, which is to make informed decisions that really are community driven,” Banister says.
The concept of narrative arcs and mental models, concepts that Banister often mentions, will be invaluable in RACF’s approach in the future.
“The narrative arc for Rochester is often that things are getting progressively worse, right? But what we see is we have strategies that have worked in the past and what is exciting is how we collect those strategies and those approaches and continue to innovate,” says Banister, who notes that narratives are powerful tools for either limiting or imagining solutions.
Butler sees Banister as part of a new set of leaders in the philanthropic world, one which includes Jennie Schaff as the new CEO at the Farash Foundation, and Matthew Kuhlenbeck as CEO of the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.
“It takes no time at all after speaking with Simeon to realize what a smart person he is,” Butler says. “He’s also a big believer in knowing your history because if we forget our history, we are doomed to repeat it. He helped me, someone who lived in Rochester many, many years of my life, broaden my knowledge.”
In particular, this growing knowledge applies to racial equity, a core tenet for RACF and something it has been working toward since the Ford Foundation’s support in the 1980s.
“Of course, certain people lived that truth for years, but the mere fact you can say that people are speaking about racial equity is itself a win,” says Banister, who is the first Black person to serve as CEO of the foundation. “There was a time where racial equity was not on everyone’s lips, you had to be delicate about raising these issues that we could all see. There is a cynicism about progress on that front; some folks would deny that progress. So, we know we have to actually follow through, especially for those on the margins.”
Banister says the ability to try new approaches is one of the strengths of philanthropy, in particular at RACF. The North Star Coalition, which intends to be economically and racially inclusive, is one such novel effort.
“If you have that many people on the economic sidelines, how can you expect to have economic growth?” Banister says. “There’s a moral argument to be had, but at the end of the day, it’s also about making the numbers work.”
Of North Star, Banister says, “it was really a testament to the willingness for innovation,” adding in kudos for the support from Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester Mayor Malik Evans. “That counts for a lot.”
In addition to North Star and ACT Rochester, both Leonard and Banister point to other cornerstone organizations including Roc the Future with education, the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative with poverty, and Genesee Finger Lakes Climate Collective with climate justice. Beyond that, both leaders agree the possibilities and opportunities are wide open for the region.
“To be inattentive to those opportunities would consign us to a long-term future of malaise,” Banister concludes.
“Our intent is to create a very powerful and prosperous future for Rochester,” Leonard says. “We believe in order to do that we have to address these deep-seated issues of disparities and biases, both conscious and unconscious, in the way we run our businesses. Otherwise, we’ll remain one of the most segregated cities, racially, economically, in America, and that’s not the future of the country.”