SCHENECTADY — Income inequality, anemic civic participation, food insecurity, financial illiteracy and a lack of preparation when entering college.
Those are some of the disparities flagged as the most pressing for minority communities in the city and county, according to a panel of non-profit, labor and academic leaders in the Capital Region.
And while they're also among society’s most vexing, panelists at a forum at SUNY Schenectady on Tuesday believe increased dialogue with the community can serve as a critical first step.
“This is not a call to action, but a call to take action,” said Angelicia Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, whose MLK, Jr. Coalition co-sponsored the event.
SUNY Schenectady College President Dr. Steady Moono spoke repeatedly about the preparedness gap and institutional roadblocks that can make college seem insurmountable for students of little means who must balance multiple jobs with family commitments and their education.
“What contributes to our students being unprepared?” he said. “It’s the pressures of life.”
Ron Gardner, the city’s director of diversity and affirmative action, said it’s a challenge to ensure minority and women-owned businesses benefit from development projects pouring into downtown and in the city’s neighborhoods.
Inequities in the criminal justice system also can bar full participation, said Gardner, citing the example of a young woman who repeatedly attempted to get a contract with the city only to be denied because of a criminal record.
“Those are real life issues I see every single week that contribute to this thing,” he said.
Shana Davis, president of the Capital District Coalition Black Trade Unionist and treasurer for CSEA Capital Region IV, said these issues transcend race and ethnicity and are class-based.
“People who are poor are literally in a systemic inequality state, and it’s something that continues over and over again,” she said.
She said that’s why it’s critically important to ensure full participation in the 2020 U.S. Census, which will determine federal funding for dozens of grant programs, including housing, education, transportation, employment training, health care and social service programs.
A depressed turnout in traditionally hard-to-count urban populations in poor neighborhoods will inevitably lead to reduced resources, Davis said.
“It’s to help us,” she said, “not to hurt us.”
State Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, attended the session and said he expected ongoing progressive momentum with the full Democratic control of the state Legislature.
Jamaica Miles, an activist with Citizen Action of New York, noted some of the laws passed during last year’s legislative session, including bail reform and a series of rent reform laws that strengthened the rights of tenants, are under heavy attack — including from local organizations.
She also expressed concern that progressive grassroots candidates face opposition from Democratic Party leaders who are slow-walking attempts to diversify their ranks.
“In this county, we have a Democratic Party machine that has been intentionally exclusionary,” Miles said.
Those issues flared at Monday night's City Council meeting when Schenectady NAACP members said that Councilwoman Marion Porterfield was not supported for City Council president because she backed insurgent candidates, a claim her colleagues haven't disputed.
Schenectady NAACP President Odo Butler said the newly reactivated branch will chisel away at some of these issues as part of their “game-changers” initiative.
Panelists convened as part of “The State of Affairs of Economic Justice In the Black Community in Schenectady County in 2020” also included Tony Gaddy, co-founder and president/CEO of Upstate Black Chamber of Commerce, and Mark Emanatian, director for the Capital District Area Labor Federation.
The discussion comes as the county Human Rights Commission gears up for its 34th anniversary MLK Celebration service.
That event is scheduled for Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at SUNY Schenectady Carl B. Taylor Auditorium. U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, will serve as keynote speaker.
Morris said she was pleased with the turnout from elected officials and community groups who she hoped would ultimately further drive that message into policy-making and local organizing.
“It’s up the community what they want to see done,” Morris said.