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Good Omens for Rochester in 2013
Good Omens for Rochester in 2013

Constance Mitchell: still sending rays of hope to Rochester

Rochester, NY (February 13, 2013) -- Depending on who you listen to, Rochester seems to be constantly on the verge of falling into the abyss or leading some magazine’s list of best places to live, work or raise a family. Why the contrast? Because some people benefit from fomenting crisis while others just go about the work of building their community, a person, a street, a block at a time.

The crisis-supporters are usually defenders of the status quo. They say things like, “At this critical time for our city, we need steady leadership.” They argue against change and they tend to protect existing elites and the agendas advanced by those elites. While some of them genuinely believe in the crises they describe, most are only protecting their interests or the interests of a group to which they seek membership. When Lt. Governor Robert Duffy claimed a Mayoral run by City Councilmember Lovely Warren would be a “travesty” and that she should wait her turn, he spoke -- somewhat inelegantly -- for this crowd. The real message was this: she’s not part of the “club” to which I belong -- if you are, then you should be with me.

Fortunately, there are signs that Rochesterians -- at both the grassroots and elite levels -- are showing signs of life. These indicators may mean we have some difficult conversations ahead of us and difficult decisions to make, but those could be the difference between stagnation and growth. Here are three reasons to be hopeful:

Is Rochester finally “Facing Race”?

This past January, an initiative called “Facing Race, Embracing Equity” was publicly launched (www.faceraceroc.org). Over 400 people came to two launch events to learn about the effort and to begin conversations about race and how it shapes our lives. Some of the conversations that happened at those events continue -- the randomly assigned participants found each others’ stories so compelling that they agreed to listen and to learn more.

I should disclose that I am one of several people helping to plan this initiative. For that reason, I certainly hope it is successful. But what is truly heartening is that Rochester has a wonderful opportunity to tackle issues of race like not other American city has. Consider the resources at our disposal:

- Rochester is a city with a unique civil rights heritage, being the home of both Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

- The incredible museum exhibition, “RACE: Are We So Different?” is currently at the Rochester Museum & Science Center (www.rmsc.org). It demonstrates the many ways race is socially constructed and not grounded in science.

- Rochester has a major event (the unrest of July 1964) that has been well-documented in film. That film has been shown frequently across the community, providing an opportunity for reflection on the injustice that sowed the anger that exploded in those days. 

- Rochester has a number of leaders and citizen activists that have devoted several years to matters of race. Honoring these contributions and pledging to build on them, this community could inspire the next generation of social justice activists.

So how could Rochester fail? If we decide not to be courageous, if we fight over turn and money or if we listen to those who say “perhaps now is not the best time to take on such divisive issues...” If local leaders, particularly the younger, next generation of community leaders like Nancy Sung Shelton, Lovely Warren and Saul Maneiro can continue demonstrate the strength of a community that embraces its diversity, the future of the Rochester area will certainly be brighter. 

[RELATED ARTICLES: Facing Race in Rochester]

A living legend defends the idea of political competition

Rochester is home to a true living legend, a woman of dignity, courage and integrity. Constance Mitchell was not only the first African American and first woman elected to the Monroe County Legislature (in 1961), she was, at the time, one of the highest ranking African American elected officials in the nation.

Mitchell’s accomplishments are extensive, her commitment to justice unquestioned. Recently, however, she was moved to take up the cause of democracy once again, chiding anyone who would suggest that a candidate should “wait her turn” --particularly when it is an all-white boys club saying that to an African American woman. Mitchell is not someone known to inject herself into political skirmishes; she devotes her efforts to the broader battle for justice. But this was no mere political skirmish: Mitchell recognized that the condescension shown Warren by the Lieutenant Governor is no different than the patronizing attitude that has denied women opportunities for generations, or the empty promises that have been made to African Americans for an equally long time.

This community should be optimistic and should salute Ms. Mitchell for speaking out. No matter who decides to seek the Mayoralty or should be elected, the larger point is that this community should encourage those who seek to lead, not to patronize them. Of course if anyone knows that the only way to change such attitudes is to take them on directly -- and to beat them at the ballot box -- it is Constance Mitchell. This community could benefit from having more people of courage like her and we are certainly blessed to have her model that courage for us.

[POLL QUESTION - Why did  Bob Duffy come out against Lovely Warren for mayor?]

Operation Transformation underway

Few people say it explicitly, but the messages our society sends are unmistakable: Young African American males are considered throwaway citizens in our society. They are involved in violence at higher rates, incarcerated at higher rates and disconnect from school at higher rates than any other group. Is it in their stars, their genes or something else? Perhaps it is a response to a society that has institutionalized assumptions about young black men -- engrained those assumptions so deeply that all of us simply take them for granted.

With that context, change can feel impossible. But here in Rochester, a group called Operation Transformation is working to help young men remain connected to their true nature, tap their innate abilities and perhaps, in doing so, demonstrate to the community that our assumptions are way off the mark. On a frigid snowy Saturday morning, dozens of young African American men gathered to take a GED pre-test, their first step toward obtaining their GED and then moving toward employment, higher education or a future of their choosing. Assisting them are dozens of volunteer mentors. 

This group was not created as the result of some multi-million dollar initiative; it is an old-school, grassroots effort to reach out, one neighbor to another, to give people a fair chance to succeed. Operation Transformation is only just beginning, but its start is enough to give us hope: people care and are willing to give their most valuable resource, their time; it also shows that these young men are not stereotypes, they are men who aspire to be better sons, better brothers, better fathers and better citizens. All it really takes for change to happen is for people to be open to it. Operation Transformation shows that Rochester has plenty of people who are willing to work hard to change the future of the city.

These signs of optimism may be fleeting -- or they could be the harbingers of a much better time for this community. In different ways, they are examples of how a community can begin to change itself by letting a few sparks become a roaring fire. The fire can only come about if the broader community creates the space for it. Now is the time to abandon caution and the belief that “we’ve tried that before, it can’t work.” We should ignore those who say, “At this crucial time, we should instead focus on...” -- those folks are only trying to distract us.

We know what is right, we know that Rochester cannot thrive without a broad-based, inclusive prosperity, one that values justice and equity regardless of race, class, gender or creed. 

Constance Mitchell and many others have worked far too long for us to say, “maybe we can take a small step, but let’s not be rash.”

Let’s be bold. Rochester will never attract residents due to its weather and cannot compete with much of the world in other areas. But if we can create a community with a true sense of equity, where each resident is valued and respected, we could be a guiding light for the world, the North Star that inspired Rochesterians from the past to seek heavenly justice here on earth.

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