SCHENECTADY — Two main questions repeatedly surfaced during a recent roundtable talk designed to spark community involvement and empower mentors:
How do we translate civic ambition into direct action? And how can we break through the bubble of institutional roadblocks and affect change ourselves?
The answers? Don’t ask permission. And authorize yourself.
Those were the takeaways shared by community leaders Damonni Farley and William Rivas, who offered a pep talk to roughly two dozen attendees at SUNY Schenectady on Wednesday as part of the college’s Student Mentoring Program.
Attendees cited an emerging food desert in the city's Hamilton Hill neighborhood — inflamed by the tentative opening of a new liquor store — as a key issue.
“Clearly the people making decisions don’t have the best interests of the population in the community,” said Kareem Ture of Schenectady. “Clearly, decisions are being done for the destruction of the people in the community.”
The room murmured in agreement.
Others cited fostering productive dialogue between disparate communities as another high priority. And high taxes paired with poverty remains a perennial concern.
Identifying needs is one thing, Farley said.
“The question is what are you willing to do about it?”
HOW TO GET ENGAGED
Farley, president of Common Thread Consulting and a former Schenectady City Council candidate, encouraged attendees to push outside of their comfort zones to invest time and offer opportunity in the community, and not leave vulnerable people in the rearview mirror after clearing their own life hurdles.
One component of translating idealism into action is volunteering at local organizations and nonprofits, said Rivas, founder of Save Our Streets and executive director of COCOA House.
But people don’t need to connect with a specific program to authorize themselves to take action, he said.
One way is to enlist the help of “credible messengers” in communities.
“We need to stop calling the usual suspects to the table,” Farley said.
In marginalized neighborhoods, that often takes the form of non-traditional parties.
Farley pointed at Nipsey Hussle, the former gang member slain last month in Los Angeles who was engaged in numerous revitalization efforts in his neighborhood.
“He was instrumental in reaching out to non-traditional stakeholders in the community,” he said.
Rivas works with a handful of community efforts, including after-school programs and homeless shelters.
He also suggested finding collaborative ways to work with people already aligned with some of those goals.
Others said change can be affected by committing to helping just one person.
The City of Schenectady as a whole doesn’t need to be rescued, said Grantley McLeod of Harmony Fellowship.
Oftentimes, people focus on poverty, but fail to see diamonds in the rough, he said.
“Investing in one person changes their situation,” McLeod said. “And that changes another situation. That’s when the buy-in starts and the changes begin.”
Christina Farinacci-Roberts echoed the importance of forging one-on-one connections.
Farinacci-Roberts, a consultant with Head Heart Hand Consulting, was hired by Niskayuna Central School District to support their “Equity and Excellence for All” initiative in the aftermath of a racially-charged incident at soccer game last fall.
Following the incident, it just took one session of a shadow program for students from each district to dispel myths about each other, she said.
“These kids connected within hours,” Farinacci-Roberts said. “Tensions dissolve when people just come together and know each other.”
Students are propelling the effort forward on their own accord, she said, noting an upcoming meeting that students organized during the upcoming spring break.
Oftentimes suburban school districts have just as much to learn from their urban counterparts, she said, and the neighboring districts should work together to leverage each others’ strengths.
Rivas said kids are malleable.
“The issue with kids isn’t kids — it’s adults,” he said. “Youth are the most pure form of change we have access to.”
The speakers cautioned that mentors are prone to celebrating wins. But part of mentoring is also discussing and analyzing losses.
“I think that comes from the lack of shared accountability,” Farley said.
And when it comes to combating controversial projects like the proposed liquor store on Hamilton Hill, lobbying public officials and executive boards of private companies is one component of taking action.
But mentors and activists may want to think of purchasing property to prevent future events, as well as a way to combat the spread of urban blight.
Rivas urged attendees to take ownership of community space.
“If we purchase properties in our areas, they can’t put liquor stores in our area,” he said.
The speakers sent the crowd packing with a homework assignment:
Farley asked people to take an inventory of what they have to offer, how much and what their volunteerism may look like.
“Authorize yourself,” he said
And he asked them to reach out to him to be connected to ongoing community efforts.
He warned against inactivity.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a roomful of good ideas,” he said.