Roughly 400 representatives from a wide cross-section of the community came together Wednesday to explore partnerships and strategies that could lead to sustainable change for Schenectady’s struggling families.
The Community Partnership Conference: Bridges to Success drew educators, business people and community members, along with representatives and clients from health and human services agencies. They gathered at Proctors for a day of brainstorming and networking that organizers hope will eventually result in new ways to address the needs of Schenectady’s large underserved population.
Roughly 80 percent of children in the Schenectady City School District qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 23.4 percent of city residents live below the poverty level.
Organizations of all kinds need to join forces to change those statistics, said Robert Carreau, executive director of The Schenectady Foundation, the organization that sponsored the conference.
The foundation dedicates its assets exclusively to the well-being of Schenectady County residents.
“Everyone’s got their own things to do, but what do we share? What’s the common agenda and how can we continue to push that forward?” he asked.
The conference included a multi-sector panel discussion featuring James Connolly, CEO of Ellis Medicine; Wes Holloway, vice president of diversity/inclusion for Price Chopper; Christine Parsons, program trainer for City Mission of Schenectady; Ray Schimmer, CEO of Northern Rivers Family Services; and Laurence Spring, superintendent for the Schenectady City School District. Each panelist shared a story about a time his or her organization worked effectively to strengthen the community and then outlined the lessons learned from the endeavor.
Holloway told the group about a time he spoke to city teenagers about preparing themselves for employment. One boy was not impressed with the idea of trying for a minimum-wage job in retail, saying he preferred a much-better-paying endeavor that likely wasn’t legal.
But Holloway’s advice to join the mainstream workforce wasn’t lost on the teen. Two years later, he called to say he wanted to apply for a job after all.
Patience often pays off, Holloway told the crowd.
“Sometimes when clouds are at their darkest and you think you’re not getting through to young people, sometimes you are, and you can’t expect anything in return because the return may be a long time coming, but it comes,” he said.
Schimmer’s success story was about uniting the Northeast Parent and Child Society and Parsons Child and Family Center. More community organizations need to create similar unions, he said.
“There are a lot of unhealthy separations here, a lot of bridges that we need to build,” he said.
Schimmer suggested that Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties need to find more ways to work together to serve the poor — an idea that drew applause from the crowd.
Connolly spoke of Ellis Medicine’s quest to provide better care for the indigent, which eventually led to the formation of The Schenectady Coalition for a Healthy Community. The group includes close to 60 organizations that work together to address the needs of the underserved population.
“By partnering, you actually increase your resources; you don’t waste them,” he said.
Spring used a similar concept to create an Equity and Excellence committee for the Schenectady City School District.
Including people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives has heightened the understanding of the issues students face, he said.
When it comes to alleviating poverty in the community, agencies need to think outside of the box, said Parsons, who shared the story of how the City Mission became involved with the Bridges Out of Poverty program. The program provides methods to address and reduce poverty.
“Our community is not buildings, it’s people, and that means that we have to be able to challenge ourselves. We have to be able to start breaking down our silos and come together. We are better together,” Parsons said.
Ruby Payne, educator and author of the “Bridges Out of Poverty” book and program, was the keynote speaker for the conference and also participated in the panel discussion.
During the discussion, she said agencies need to empower the people they serve.
“You give resources to people at the same time you teach them how to develop their own resources,” she said, suggesting, as an example, that food pantries give out recipes along with food.
The ideas generated at Wednesday’s conference will be used to determine how the organizations and individuals represented at it will work together to address poverty in the community, Carreau said.
“We hope to come out of this with a direction. I wouldn’t call it a plan but definitely kind of a shared direction and a strategy,” he said.