The eruption of the 1964 race riot in Rochester and others during the early and late 1960s in Harlem, Philadelphia, and Watts, materialized from social policies that created abject poverty conditions in minority communities throughout the country.
The riot in Rochester resulted in the establishment of Action for a Better Community (ABC), one of nearly 1,000 Community Action Agencies established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, to fight America’s War on Poverty.
Since its founding, the mission of the organization has been to promote and provide opportunities for low-income individuals and families to become self-sufficient.
To continue that mission in 2018, the organization appointed Jerome Underwood as its director, a former official at the Rochester City School District (RCSD), succeeding James Norman, after 25 years of service.
Before his appointment, Underwood served on ABC’s Finance Committee, and as the agency’s board chair. He describes, the journey of becoming ABC’s director, as coming home.
After leaving his birthplace of Antigua to study accounting at St. John Fisher College in 1985, Rochester has been his home for more than 30-years. And to now lead an organization geared to foster a road to self-sustainment, Underwood appears to be the right fit.
He got his first job working at city hall in the tax department making $4.00/an hour.
Moving forward, he worked at Midland Bank HSBC (portfolio manager), Datrose Inc. (CFO), and RCSD (Senior Operations Manager and Senior Director of Youth and Family Services).
In the beginning, he accepted to serve on ABC’s Finance Committee, because he believed in its mission that helps lead folks to social and economic self-sufficiency.
“And, according to The Children’s Agenda, ABC has the best result in early childhood education in Rochester,” Underwood points-out. “And our Head Start operation is one of the best in the country, according to the Department of Health and Human Services,” he estimates.
Head Start, the agency’s largest service, serves about 1,200 families, making it the largest provider of Universal Pre-K Education in Rochester--other than--the RCSD. And, have about 70 mothers that receive home visits.
“We’ve a big role to play in the development of the children we serve,” Underwood implies. “So, it’s incumbent on us to ensure a child is academically in-tuned, after leaving Pre-K.”
Underwood’s early experiences teaching youth the game of soccer, and during his tenure at the RCSD, leaves him convinced, [“the road to self-sufficiency---having a solid education is an absolute gate, you have to go through.”]
However, when posed with a question that somehow, the educational outlook as a collective-whole seems as dimmed for today’s youth, as it was for those leading up to the 1964 riot?
Underwood’s response was, the demographic of the RCSD is 90 percent children of color and the teaching staff, 75 percent Caucasian. And those two data points by themselves don’t tell us much. But, when we look at what’s been delivered, there’s no embrace of culture or lived experiences of children in the classroom. What was happening in the classroom wasn’t relatable.
“I spoke to many teachers and gave a similar example such as, if you’re telling your kids about your skiing trip, it’s not relatable or it will be less effective,” he said.
Maybe you want to talk about basketball. And use a more relatable example such as, when you take your basketball shot, use the backboard like Former NBA Basketball Player Tim Duncan did on a 45-degree angle, to increase the chances of it going into the hoop.
“So, in this scenario, you have garnered their attention, and teaching them geometry,” he continues. “And we’re not talking about textbooks and the fact that blatant lies are in them. We’ve revisionist history in textbooks. We’re still telling children; the second Monday in October is a holiday-- Christopher Columbus Day. I haven’t spoken to one teacher that believes that, so why are we still teaching it to the kids. You can’t come over to someone house and ease them to the side and kill them and say this is mine,” he suggests.
When we teach our children about history, we start from 300 years ago, when things weren’t too good for people of African descent.
“But, let’s pull it back 8,000 years and talk about the cultural majesty of Africans in Kemet (Ancient Egypt) and their mastery of the various disciplines covering the fields of S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Humanities of Science, which are responsible for engineering civilizations throughout the globe,” Underwood again suggests. “In other words, teach them from a position of strength.”
“There’s evidence that support that math and science becomes easier once knowledge of ‘self’ (self-actualization) is tantamount. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a very important thing,” he implies. “Regardless of the background of the teacher, we ‘all’ need the levels of culture competence to increase, significantly. What it might take to motivate a child of European descent, you may need something different to motivate a child of African, Latino, or Arab descent. It’s not right or wrong, it’s different.
When it comes to his vision for the agency, Underwood said--if something is not broken, don’t try to fix it.
But, he realizes, ABC can accomplish even more, if he, coalesces the organizations efforts with those of other action organizations like Ibero, St. Joseph Neighborhood Center, the Urban League and Common Ground Health.
“In earlier capacities of employment; especially at the RCSD, I worked closely and extensively with Wade Norwood of Common Ground Health, and Candice Lucas of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center, before they both was recently appointed directors in 2018, of their respective organizations. And I still do. Our collaboration will send a strong message to the community from our newly installed positions of leadership,” Underwood said.
ABC’s 2017 highlights
- 3,318 unduplicated individuals and 1,712 families served benefiting from multiple programs and services.
- 443 individuals received training certificates and obtained skills and competencies required for employment.
- 300 individuals obtained permanent employment.
- ABC (through its Ontario County partner, Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes) helped 17,404 individuals obtain food assistance.
- 102 individuals received income tax preparation assistance, which resulted in tax refunds that generated $143,712 in the community.
- 309 families benefited from weatherization and energy conservation services. All of these households reduced their energy costs.
- Low-income individuals provided 18,365 volunteers hours in their communities for a combined total of 105,421 community volunteers hours.
- 1,947 individuals were empowered to engage in non-governance community activities.
- Over 200 partnerships were established or maintained to mobilize and leverage resources to provide a wide range of much-needed services to low-income people.
- 9,825 hours of staff training and 4 hours devoted to board training to ensure knowledgeable and energized staff and leaders do their best for the individuals they serve.
- 156 families learned and exhibited improved family functioning skills.
- 1,092 children are now up to date on all possible immunizations, medical and dental care.
- 17 inmates in correctional facilities were trained as peer educators about HIV/AIDS.
- 776 children participated in ABC’s and its delegate agencies’ Early Head Start/Head Start preschool activities to develop school readiness skills. Matriculating from ABC’s programs, 460 children became developmentally ready to enter Kindergarten. (VOA or IBERO numbers are not included)
- 44 individuals successfully completed ABC’s alcohol and substance abuse treatment program.
- 57 refurbished computers were sold or donated to low-income families through ABC’s Micrecycle Program.
- 16 families purchased homes using Individual Development Account (IDA) contributions through ABC’s Ontario County partner PathStone.
To learn more about ABC and the services and programs they provide visit: www.abcinfo.org