ESL aims to play key role in ARPA process

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Members of ESL’s community impact team have coveted seats at a few high-stakes tables. As county and city officials mull opportunities to invest American Rescue Plan Act funds, ESL is offering its insight and partnership.

For the community impact team at ESL, which has distributed more than $60 million in grants since its inception, it has led to new ideas and possible collaborations not seen before. This process is likely to impact its total grants for 2022 and the years to come. ARPA grants have a four-year term.

In addition to understanding the resources available to the community, says Ajamu Kitwana, vice president/director of community impact, ESL and other funders have been encouraging officials to disburse funds in an open, collaborative manner. Also, the ESL team has been examining ways to pair its funding with city and county programs to fill gaps.

“(We are) taking the opportunity to lean in and partner with our local government partners to say what can we do to help make the most of this opportunity as the nonprofit sector and the communities (are) coming together to say, how can we support an inclusive recovery and (figure) out how to partner with (government).”

Monroe County and its municipalities are slated to receive a more than a $380 million financial injection from the federal government—a boost designed to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and reposition for the future. Government officials are expected to make some decisions in the coming months, Kitwana says.

“Until that’s finalized, we don’t know those final opportunities…there’s still some mechanics to be sorted out,” he says.

Kitwana has been pleased with the openness and flexibility that the ARPA grants offer—government grants typically have stringent requirements. The biggest challenge, he observes, is the rigorous timeline and pressure governments face to allocate these dollars. Governments are expected to assign funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and spend them by Dec. 31, 2026.

Ajamu Kitwana

“In an ideal world, we would have been able to really think and work intentionally around collaborating from the front end and being clear about what the success would look like, what are we going to do to measure success,” Kitwana says. “Now that we’re at) the tail end of their processes, they are really exhibiting a refreshing, a positive level of openness and recognizing the opportunity and sharing with the grantees that opportunity. It presents itself to have government partner with private philanthropy to support these big ideas from our community not only just to get more dollars in and out to the community, but also for the sake of sustainability.”

Opportunities focus on programming and services directed at youth, jobs and workforce development, and re-entry for those impacted by the criminal justice system.

Though ARPA has dominated ESL’s funding talks this year (organizations are also working to apply for such funds), the community impact team has made strides in other realms.

The team launched the second round of its Black and Latino Equity Grant Program, expanding the pool of applicants eligible for funding to maintain and improve programs and services for underserved communities. Eligible organizations now include grassroots and community-led initiatives and faith-based organizations. Examples of past equity grant recipients include Rise Up Rochester (violence prevention/support), Generation Outreach (entrepreneurial program for youth) and Partners in Community Development (mental health).  

“I honestly expected we might do a total of half a million to three-quarter million (dollars), and we ended up in total (with) over $2 million in grants … so it was wildly successful,” Kitwana says. “Successful, certainly, represented by the scale we got to, but also successful in that we reached several organizations that we weren’t aware of, that we hadn’t supported before, that are doing work often at the grassroots level and communities that we hadn’t supported.”

When ESL partnered with the Greater Rochester After School and Summer Alliance and other funders to support summer program funding, first-time grantees through the equity program became eligible to participate.

“So, the intention of creating that opportunity not just to get a one-time grant from ESL, but to participate now in the field of philanthropy,” Kitwana says. “For those organizations that hadn’t been engaged before, it was really valuable. And another just important sign of success.”

ESL also helped with the STEADY Work Program through Wayne County Community Schools, which applied for a $25,000 grant. The program provides youth with coaching and on-the-job training to promote the softer skills necessary for securing and keeping a job.

“We upped the ante for them and gave a $375,000 grant because we were so impressed. … We believe we saw collective impact, whether they were using the name or not in Wayne County,” he says. “The school district and workforce development programs and the local businesses were all really working together to make these opportunities available for young people in ways that they were energized and excited about and we were excited to be able to support.”

ESL hopes to continue its collaboration with the community. Last year, it donated $26 million, and Kitwana this year hopes to grow that number—ARPA will influence the total)—or at least stay at the same level. Efforts including augmenting workforce development, youth programs, violence prevention and affordable housing and home ownership remain targets for the community impact team.

“As much money as the city and the county are) investing in this work,” Kitwana says, “none of these are silver bullets. It’s going to take serious, intentional work to support success and all of those programs. We absolutely expect to and hope to continue to partner with our government, other philanthropy partners and nonprofits to just be a resource to support maybe some capacity building, beyond the grant that they got to do through the program from the county or the city.”

Next year, ESL expects to support the ARPA grants and the opportunities they present for Rochester.

“We want to ensure that it’s not just big dollars come in and then out and then we look back and it was like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing different,’” Kitwana says.

ESL is also playing a role in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Regional Revitalization Partnership, a multi-year collaborative initiative of New York’s Empire State Development, local municipalities and private philanthropic partners. 

“The Rochester community has an opportunity to draw down a total of $80 million to invest in the areas of workforce development, placemaking and/or commercial corridors and small businesses,” Kitwana says. “So, we’re also partnering with New York State, the Ralph Wilson Foundation, who has a commitment to Rochester, and other local philanthropies to try to develop a collaborative plan. The city and the county are partners there as well. (The goal is) to develop a collaborative plan to really make a major investment in place, in commercial corridors and workforce development in Rochester. Supporting that collaboration is another thing that we expect to be focused on in the coming year.”

Collaborating with government partners has emerged as a strong theme for ESL. Kitwana welcomes the opportunity but is also pushing for a shared and agreed-upon community goal and score card.

“We haven’t really, as a community said, ‘We’re going to all agree to move the dial on these things, and let’s kind of rally our resources to do that,’” he says. “We’ve been having several conversations related to that. And an important part of that, I think, is getting an important working partnership with government.”

ARPA and the Regional Revitalization Partnership has created a platform to say “‘Hey, here’s a live example with potential dollars on the table,’” Kitwana adds. “Will we do what we all say we want to do, which is work together and set goals and really move the needle together? I’m excited, frankly, about the opportunity that the county and the city and our government partners are willingly partnering with us so we can do what we can to move, row in the same direction.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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