Meet our new team members! The Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Office of Community Wealth Building are hosting four AmeriCorps VISTA members from the Rochester Youth Year Fellowship and New York State Empire Corps programs.
Rochester Youth Year (RYY) is a local AmeriCorps VISTA program administered by the Rochester Regional Network, a consortium of eight higher education institutions in the Rochester area. The program started in 2008 and has supported 93 VISTAs since, including fellow team members Brad Willows and Amy Ventura. RYY VISTAs serve at organizations that focus on education, economic opportunity, or healthy futures. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the expansion of the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) in 2016 to fund the Empire Corps program. ESPRI “supports community-driven, poverty reduction strategies that increase economic opportunity for all New Yorkers,” according to the Governor’s office. Empire Corps VISTAs serve in 16 communities across the state, including Rochester. VISTAs in these communities support local Poverty Reduction Task Forces, modeled after Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI).
AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) provide indirect service to their host sites
during their one-year term, focusing on capacity building at non-profit organizations and public agencies devoted to alleviating poverty. Indirect service is behind the scenes work. It could include recruiting and managing volunteers, writing grants, building community partnerships, and creating effective and sustainable systems for your host site beyond your year of service. Think about a high school tutoring program: a VISTA might develop the curriculum, recruit local college students, and train the volunteers. The program is sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS).
Considering half of our team members are current VISTAs or alumnus, it’s no surprise CNCS ranked Rochester the No. 2 city in volunteering nationwide with 45.6 percent of residents volunteering last year. This equates to 22.9 million hours of service, worth $553.9 million! The report titled Volunteering in America surveyed 51 metropolitan areas using US Census Bureau data from about 60,000 households, defining volunteers as “individuals who performed unpaid volunteer activities through or for an organization from September 1 of the prior year through the survey week in September.”
Learn about our new members:
I’m serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA at the Office of Community Wealth Building through Rochester Youth Year. I was born in Rochester but moved away as a toddler and returned here as an undergraduate to study Economics and Spanish at the University of Rochester. I fell in love with Rochester through my volunteer experiences as a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity. My internship with Senator Gillibrand’s Rochester office demonstrated the importance of our government’s policies and the impact is has on the lives of City residents. I also realized the complexity of running a small business through my work with a local marketing start-up company. As a VISTA, I’m primarily working on our City Accelerator project. I’m very excited to apply my past experiences to my work at the OCWB and hope to improve the lives of all Rochesterians!
I am serving with the Rochester Youth Year Fellowship and am thrilled to be assisting with the Kiva Rochester program here in the Office of Innovation. Watching my mother start her business over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the challenges facing Rochester entrepreneurs firsthand. She’s wonderful at what she does, but the learning curve on the skills necessary to running a business can be punishing and finding time to learn about and access resources can feel impossible. It is an honor to be working with a project that focuses on building up people who would typically be denied financing opportunities. I am a recent graduate of Amherst College where I studied Sociology and developed a love for qualitative research. I worked as a contributor to Professor Vanessa Fong’s Dalian project and developed and executed evaluations for Girls Rock Rochester’s 2017 fiscal year. I’m very happy to be back at home and putting that knowledge to good use as an AmeriCorps VISTA.
At Office of Innovation, I will serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA through Empire Corps with a focus in analytics to drive neighborhood revitalization and community/economic development through New York’s Empire Corps program. I’m a Rochester native and a graduate from Gallaudet University with Bachelor’s in Sociology and a minor in business administration. After graduation, I worked as a Press intern at U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City for few months before coming back to Rochester to work with CGI Communications as a sales researcher. I’m passionate about giving back to the community, and helping it prosper.
I’m serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA through New York’s Empire Corps program. I grew up in the Rochester area and I graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Human Development and minors in Policy Analysis & Management and Inequality Studies. My interest is the intersection of sciences and human services, specifically how society can impact a young person’s development. Throughout college, I worked at a law-firm representing children in New York City’s family court, coordinated an educational urban outreach summer program in Ithaca, and created a sexual health curriculum for families in public housing units in the Bronx. I taught Biology in the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America, then returned to Rochester and served as a Youth Advocate at Wilson High School. At the OCWB, I am focusing on the development of the Financial Empowerment Center initiative and youth financial empowerment opportunities within Rochester.
Throughout the history of our city, Rochester’s entrepreneurs and small business owners have brought a constant stream of new ideas and innovative services to our neighborhoods. However, structural and overt racism in our economy has historically denied large parts of our community – women and people of color in particular - the same opportunities to prosper as others. Today, the lasting effects of discrimination, lack of service coordination, and complicated processes inhibit many promising entrepreneurs from making their vision of business ownership a reality. Rochester is at a turning point in its history – our economy is shifting and once again growing, and it is essential that we seize the opportunity to break down historical barriers and create an equitable and inclusive economy.
As part of this effort, the City of Rochester is participating in the Living Cities and Citi Foundation’s City Accelerator for Local Job Creation and Business Growth. This project was described in greater detail here, in a previous blog post. The Rochester City Accelerator has several distinct goals, but focuses primarily on supporting small business owners and entrepreneurs as they seek to create and grow businesses, with special emphasis on businesses owned by people of color. Some specific examples of project strategies include creating a Business and Community Services Center that will host workshops and counseling sessions for businesses and entrepreneurs, hosted by area non-profit organizations; building a robust network of entrepreneurship and business service providers connected by state-of-the-art software; creation of a digital portal for individual business owners and entrepreneurs to access information about services, regulatory requirements of starting a business, and more; and an examination of City policies and procedures to determine how we can better serve our business community.
To ensure to that the City Accelerator project is successful, inclusive and equitable, we have developed a Small Business Support Survey that will gather information from the business community. From now until December 14th, Rochester small business owners and entrepreneurs are invited to share their experiences, information about their business, and how they perceive our local business support system. The results of this study will serve as the backbone of the entire project, guiding decision-making throughout our year of engagement with the City Accelerator and into the future. It is essential that the voice of the customer be represented as we work to create a more just economy – if you, or someone you know, is a business owner or entrepreneur, we encourage you to take the survey online at bit.ly/RocSmallBiz.
We believe that there is no more important aspect to program development than community engagement. Without taking into account the authentic voice, needs, and opinions of those whom we intend to serve, we will always fail to bring about organic and sustainable change.
To take the survey, visit: http://bit.ly/RocSmallBiz
Para hacerlo en español, visita: Encuesta de Apoyo
How do you feel about residing in Rochester? How would you rate the overall quality of life in the City? Do you feel safe in your community? Are you satisfied with the transportation of the City and available services?
It’s likely that your household has some opinions on life here in Rochester, NY, and with the upcoming National Citizen Survey you will be given the opportunity to share these opinions. More importantly, your opinions, in the form of survey responses, will ultimately influence the future delivery of services in your community.
For the first time ever, the City of Rochester is conducting a statistically valid citizen survey through the National Citizen Survey (NCS). The NCS is conducted by the National Research Center (NRC), of Boulder, CO, which conducts the survey for more than 350 jurisdictions annually. It is the most widely used and trusted survey tool of its type. The survey will be sent to 2,000 randomly, yet specifically, selected households throughout all of Rochester’s various neighborhoods. Although the selected survey recipients are random and anonymous, they have been chosen through a system that ensures the diverse needs of Rochesterians are represented throughout the collected results. The selected households and their responses are completely unknown by the City and remain anonymous in the data reports.
The purpose of the NCS varies per city, however, in Rochester the intention is that the collected data and citizen responses will allow the City to assess needs of citizens, measure service performance, and evaluate potential policies and initiatives intended to serve the community. The survey has already been mailed, and results will be collected throughout November. By the end of the year, the City will analyze the data and it will be used to support planning, budgeting, departmental operations and public engagement. In addition to the selected households that will receive a physical survey for the study, all other Rochester residents will have the opportunity to share their opinions through a public, online survey.
As we know, the residents and neighborhoods of Rochester are diverse across all demographics. Completed surveys will provide data that represents the different experiences and customer satisfaction that someone may have while living in Rochester. The results will be broken down by City quadrant to best understand the different experiences by geographic area as well as, demographic characteristics such as age, race, income, employment, household size, etc. This is invaluable information which the City can use to better understand the perception of services in areas such as mobility, safety, economic development, quality of natural environments, recreation, education and enrichment, and general government. Results will also allow for comparisons to other cities across the United States. Ultimately, the anticipated success of Rochester’s first National Citizen Survey in 2018 will ensure that this type of data collection continues in following years, so that the City can better track changes over time, and more effectively improve the quality of life for its resident.
In late September, members of the Innovation Team and the Office of Community Wealth Building traveled to Detroit to participate in the first convening of the City Accelerator program’s cohort on equitable local business and job growth. Each of the cities in the cohort was awarded a $100,000 grant and technical support from the collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation, and Living Cities. The two-day event provided an opportunity for our project team to get to know and learn from the participants from Atlanta, El Paso, Long Beach, and Newark.
Each city faces their own distinct challenges and is using different tactics to tackle the issues of equitable business development and job growth:
Our teams will come back together in several months to provide updates on each initiative’s progress and further learn from others’ experiences.
My name is Elizabeth Ingham, Kiva Rochester Assistant Program Coordinator, and after graduating Wells College in 2017 I joined the Kiva Rochester team. While in college, I took a semester to work with Kiva down in NYC, so I was excited to support a Kiva program in my hometown. As a Flower City AmeriCorps member, I have had the privilege of working with the Innovation Team for just over a year. Angela Rollins gives a great run down of Kiva Rochester, so if you haven’t yet, check it out here. AmeriCorps VISTAs focus on building sustainability, while Flower City AmeriCorps focus on day-to-day operations.
Over lunch one day, Angela and I were discussing how to make our communication more effective when Kate May recommended that we read the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Rochester’s own Richard Thaler. The book offered insights that were used to improve our messaging to Kiva applicants, resulting in more and higher quality applications.
Since then, we have made consistent revisions to our email messaging, and reworked our handouts and informational materials. Still, our Kiva borrowers kept coming back with the same questions and hitting similar roadblocks. I had been using one-on-one meetings to help guide the customer through the Kiva process and doling out worksheets as the customer needed them, but I needed a better way to get the information out. My solution was the creation of a new handout, A Guide to Kiva Rochester Small Business Loans, with a conscious balance of design and function. The idea of this book is that any business owner or aspiring business owner can pick it up and be as successful as possible when applying, fundraising, and repaying through Kiva.
A few Kiva applicants have used drafts of the book to help them, and so far the response has been positive. We are making physical copies available in all of the local libraries, a digital PDF available online for free, and distributing copies to many of our Rochester area partners. Hopefully, with its official release more of Rochester's entrepreneurs will be able to use Kiva Rochester to grow their businesses, and the Rochester community.
This week, the City of Rochester took two important steps to address housing affordability. First, City Council passed legislation amending the Charter of the City of Rochester to redefine affordability. Second, the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development (NBD) released its Request for Proposals (RFP) for affordable housing developments with new efforts taken to target low income and special needs populations. While these steps are only the beginning of the actions the City is taking, they represent an important commitment to focusing our community’s efforts on those who are most in need.
Prior to Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the Charter defined affordable housing as housing affordable to anyone earning up to 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI). AMI is calculated based on the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes all of Monroe, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Wayne, and Yates counties. The inclusion of non-city residents skews the median income upwards; in the MSA, the median income for a family of four is $74,000, while in the city alone median income is less than half of that. Mayor Lovely Warren directed City staff from the Office of Innovation and the NBD’s Planning and Housing teams to look into why the Charter’s definition was not adequately reflecting the reality faced by Rochester residents.
After thoughtful deliberation amongst the interdepartmental team, it was determined that the use of the MSA and not the city median income could not be changed due to the ways in which it would interfere with HUD funding streams and other programming. However, the team decided that the City could adopt more specific HUD terminology that would provide for a more nuanced understanding of who the target populations of the City’s affordable housing efforts should be. Eventually, it was recommended to the Mayor that the Charter be amended to define low and moderate income as follows:
With these definitions in place, the City has the language to say that affordable housing efforts ought to target those who are Extremely Low Income or Very Low Income because those are the financial circumstances actually faced by residents with the greatest housing affordability challenges.
The real impact of the Charter amendment is how it informs other policies and work undertaken by the City. The first tangible result of the Charter amendment is how it informed the RFP for affordable housing developments that also was released this week. Successful proposals receive City support either in the form of funding or letters of support written to New York State. The NBD Housing team took the new affordability definition into account and changed the way proposals will now be scored. The new RFP awards additional points to proposals that have plans to address Extremely Low Income and Very Low Income residents, as well as special needs populations such as domestic abuse victims or those suffering from drug addiction.
Housing affordability is a challenge that the City is constantly working to address. Thanks to the direction of Mayor Warren and the efforts of the Housing team, Planning team, and countless internal and external partners who were consulted, Rochester has taken important, innovative steps to support those in need. As the Office of Innovation continues to work on the housing affordability issue, we will keep the blog updated with our latest efforts.
Throughout Rochester’s history, entrepreneurship and business growth have been a cornerstone of our city’s identity. Companies like Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and Xerox were born in Rochester and helped drive innovation across the globe. However, the prosperity and wealth created by these businesses was not equally distributed. People of color were denied the opportunity to build wealth through business ownership due to a web of discriminatory policies and practices. As Rochester works to reinvent itself and become a town of companies rather than a company town, it is imperative that everyone is given the chance to take part in our economic renaissance.
Last week, Mayor Lovely Warren announced that the City of Rochester was chosen as a member of the Living Cities and Citi Foundation City Accelerator for Local Job Growth. The initiative, set to kick off in early September in Detroit, is a joint effort between the Offices of Community Wealth Building, Innovation, and the Business Development team here at the City. We will be working in partnership with Living Cities, Governing Magazine, and the Citi Foundation to research, develop, and implement strategies to support the growth of local business in Rochester, particularly among women and people of color. The grant provides $100,000 and one year of consulting services from Ascendant Global, an international economic development firm, to support several different initiatives.
Through the City Accelerator project, the City will work to build a stronger and more coordinated network of services available to entrepreneurs and existing small business owners. As anyone who has ever started a business will tell you, the process is extremely complicated – there are dozens of steps that need to be taken, and not everyone has the training needed to do so. There are many organizations in Rochester that offer assistance to entrepreneurs and small business owners. However, there is not yet a defined network of organizations that works collaboratively, makes referrals, and helps entrepreneurs navigate the process of starting their business.
In addition to building a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem, the City will also take a hard look at how our internal practices and policies can be adjusted to better support local businesses. In recent months we have taken significant steps to strengthen our goals related to Minority and Women Owned Business procurement, enacting the highest standards of any municipality in New York. As part of the City Accelerator process, we will explore how we can further leverage our purchasing power and regulatory authority to ensure that local businesses owned by people of color and women are supported and able to thrive.
We are very excited to work alongside the other cohort members to build a more inclusive local economy here in Rochester. The time has come for us to make sure that Rochester is a safe, vibrant, and prosperous city that works for all, and not just some.
Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Ms. Wheelchair America 2019 pageant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ms. Wheelchair America is an advocacy and leadership pageant that strives to build leaders within the disability community. The national Titleholder uses her reign to speak on a variety of topics that impact this community and is positioned to be a role model for young women with disabilities.
I’m sure you’re thinking, what does a pageant have to do with innovation?
First, Grand Rapids is a city similar to Rochester. The city is split by the Grand River and boasts a fully accessible riverway with access bridges that are easy to navigate and create connectivity in their downtown. One pedestrian bridge opens up to a small park that then leads to museums, restaurants, and more. Upon my return to Rochester, I excitedly shared photos and video to our planning director to give ideas and inspiration as we break ground on the Roc the Riverway Project. Currently, as a disabled person, our riverway does not connect me to downtown except at certain areas. I look forward to seeing how this project will not only be a benefit to the beautification of our city, but also to wheelchair users who require equitable access.
Secondly, many of the women who participated spoke of common themes: increasing wages and supports for caregivers like home health aides, improving employment opportunities for disabled, and making society inclusive for all. This dovetailed with our wage disparities report where we identified that 44% of home health aides are not self-sufficient. Furthermore, home health aides and their families make up 5% of those who are not self-sufficient, which translates to around 10,000 people. Currently, I am working on strategies that would help this portion of our population. Furthermore, by impacting the caregivers, we impact those for whom they care. As one woman so poignantly stated on being told to get a divorce in order to have her husband be her caregiver “this disease has taken so much for me, it will not take my husband, too”
As for employment opportunities for the disabled, I am writing a white paper in conjunction with the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative as well as the Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). This paper explores the barriers to employment and how poverty is still disproportionately high for this population in Rochester. Median earnings for disabled individuals are $14,450 whereas median earnings are $25,116 for nondisabled persons in Rochester. With these low earnings, one would accurately expect the poverty rate to also be disproportionately high: 42% for the disabled, comprising 22% of those in poverty. These facts, and more, will be the focus of a summit with former Senator Tom Harkin on October 4th, 2018. It will culminate in an action plan for Rochester moving forward.
Rochester is leading the charge for inclusion for disabled individuals. Mayor Warren’s Administration has focused on championing the disability community and the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative has been committed to supporting the City’s efforts to move the needle on poverty in the disabled community. Rochester has a ways to go, but grand ideas are in play and a vision of the future is becoming our present.
The Office of Innovation is creating a series of interactive web-based reports analyzing the city's financially distressed populations in order to assist the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI) in targeting its strategies. These reports use Microsoft Power BI software and leverage Census American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) files. PUMS offers unique capabilities that typical census estimates cannot. Typical census estimates are presented for a limited number of variables, in limited combinations, and are pre-aggregated for geographies. Instead, PUMS provides a full 5% population sample of anonymized responses with over 100 variables. The PUMS data contains responses from approximately 10,500 individual Rochesterians, with variables including earnings from employment, race, public benefits status, disability status, employment status, and lots more. Using proper weighting fields, researchers can compute custom estimates as is done by Census staff for the official published estimates. Power Bi is a powerful software that streamlines basic processing and visualization of data. Feeding PUMS data into PowerBi allows the Office of Innovation to create powerful, interactive data features such as the below report, and users can explore on their own and slice and dice according to their needs.
I just returned from a two week long backpacking trip through Colombia. I love to travel to get fresh perspectives and meet people different from me. As Colombia is a developing country, I had many assumptions about what I would encounter while there. Some of what I discovered there was not too surprising: incredibly kind and hospitable people, great food, and beautiful mountainous and Caribbean cities. However, I was also impressed by the many advancements this rapidly evolving country is making, especially in the realm of transportation and accessibility.
Most striking to me was the expansive multimodal and innovative web of transportation throughout Medellin, Colombia's second largest city. With a metro population of 4 million people, Medellin is situated in a valley of verdant mountains rendering many of its 271 neighborhoods pitched on steep and difficult to access hillsides. In 2012, the city was recognized as one of the most innovative cities in the world by the Urban Land Institute. Over the past fifteen years, Medellin’s proactive stance on increasing accessibility through strategic transportation and community initiatives has made it more interconnected and safe. The public transit system today includes a network of low-cost metro lines, buses, and cable cars connecting the mountains to the valleys and a series of free outdoor escalators on the mountainside of one of the city’s most isolated and impoverished neighborhoods.
Infamous in the early 1990s as the most dangerous city in the world (in 1991, there were 6,500 murders at a rate of 381 per 100,000 people), Medellin was the backdrop to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel and the country's drug wars. I was fortunate to tour Comuna 13, the former home of Pablo Escobar and the epicenter of his cartel’s operations. This neighborhood is situated high on a hillside with significant barriers to access for its 12,000 residents: there is more than a 1,200 foot vertical ascent to reach it from its next closest neighborhood and metro station. For generations, the only way to access Comuna 13 was through a system of 350 steep stairs etched into the mountainside. Its isolation made it a perfect setting for Escobar to operate the cartel free from meaningful government intervention.
In 1998, Colombia approved a constitutional law that all municipalities must develop and implement master plans created with input from the community. This spurred organized action around inclusion, innovation, and community growth throughout the country. The Comuna 13 neighborhood embraced this directive and is now widely recognized as a model for reinvention, thanks to this focus on resident inclusion and access. Besides the colorful street art curated by neighborhood residents, the most significant catalyst for change was the intensive focus on improving residents’ mobility, both economic and physical, through public transportation.
In 2011, Medellin launched the Comuna 13 neighborhood’s $7 million public Urban Escalator Project, shortening its residents’ 30 minute, 30 story climb to their neighborhood to a 5 minute ride on the series of 6 escalators. As lively music plays, paid attendees and vibrant art welcomes residents, and now, visitors, alike to the neighborhood. The hillside, once defined by stairs, is transformed, much like the neighborhood, by escalators.
While riding the escalators and then taking in the view of the city from the a high vantage point, I was reminded that there is always room to think bigger, reimagine what is possible, and push boundaries. The combination of public engagement, policy shifts, and focus on social urbanism provided the framework for residents in Comuna 13 to reclaim their neighborhood.
Here in Rochester, it is exciting to see stakeholders, residents, and the government alike engaging in parallel actions: people are coming together to discuss big ideas and make plans for a more dynamic and connected city. There are so many initiatives in Rochester that are changing the way in which residents are connected to and engaged with the city. In just the past year, Rochester has experienced a surge in bike ridership, with the launch of the Pace bike share program. The Rochester Transit Service is in the process of redesigning the bus system to better connect residents and to reflect the changing needs of our residents through the Reimagine RTS project. ROC the Riverway is leveraging investment to transform our city’s use of and access to the Genesee River. The City of Rochester is writing the city’s new comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, to develop a vision and strategy for its future economic, social, and physical development. The inner loop project is transforming neighborhoods defined by the highway into prime retail, residential, and recreation corridors. These collective actions are shaping the future of our city, today.
For new perspectives and ideas, I highly recommend a visit to Colombia to get inspired and see change in motion.