Business Diversity Leadership

2012 / 22 October

Op Ed: The Silent Death of the 91% Percent. Does Anyone Care About Upstate New York?


', monospace;”>Natalie Madeira Cofield is a native Rochesterian and a ’98 graduate of Penfield Senior High School. A former management consultant, economic fellow, and economic development director she has since lived and worked in DC, NYC, LA and currently serves as the President & CEO of the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce in Austin, TX.

While attending the Susan B. Anthony Legacy Women’s Conference in Rochester this weekend I heard the most shocking news of my adult life.

Only 9-percent of African American males enrolled in the Rochester Public School District actually go on to graduate from high school in four years, according to a recent Schott Foundation report.

For Hispanic males that figure is only 1-percent higher.

Collectively these statistic represent the two lowest graduation rates in the country.

Of additional alarm, and undoubtable connection, was the city’s current rank as 7th in the nation for the number of children living in poverty.

While school district administrators, parents and teachers are liable parties, and beneath its liberal exterior hides racial tension, the root cause also runs parallel to the slow unraveling of Rochester’s economy. Similar to the demise of its largest corporate staple Kodak, this has been a gradual devolution that continues to cripple the region despite recent positive job gains.

Once considered a ‘city on the rise’, Rochester was a sophisticated manufacturing, optical and technology economy defined by two companies whose innovations have altered the way we connect and communicate. Today, its economic conditions are more akin to distressed markets such as Flint, MI, and Camden, NJ, than college centric economically vibrant hubs like Austin, Texas.

With African Americans and Hispanics combined accounting for more than 50-percent of its population, Rochester simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the racial and socio-economic disparities that plague its past and future. Neither can the State of New York. For we all know that the undereducated become the underemployed and often succumb to violence and poverty, pushing away investment and corporate relocation, further depressing the region.

Addressing this issue requires more than increased parental engagement, more than improved school districts and teachers, and more than inspired students. If Rochester truly wants to address this epidemic it will require returning to its roots of innovation and involvement, and doing so comprehensively.

To start, Rochester must define its identified new high-growth industry of focus and actively promote this agenda nationally and internationally to attract the best and brightest companies. Focus should be given to industries that provide a spectrum of employment opportunities to capture those with and without post high-school education. Innovation built this town, myopic focus killed it, and ingenuity must bring it back.

Next, Rochester must establish a brand: what should people connect to this market that is consistent with its future and not its past? While Kodak and Xerox were staples, to evolve, Rochester must move beyond the shadowing legacy of these two companies and create a new era.

Investing in the arts and culture can assist with this while simultaneously helping to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. With two world-class research universities and tens of thousands of students, Rochester is bleeding talent. Consistent with Richard Florida’s research on the creative class, young professionals and college graduates want a city that has vibrancy and character. If Pittsburgh, a former steel mill town, can achieve rank among the most creative cities, surely Rochester can too.

Lastly, our city, home to the women’s suffragist and abolitionist movement was founded on principles of activism and involvement. To thrive, Rochester must return to this legacy of advocacy and inclusion. Allowing these statistics not to paint the pages of national media outlets, not to catch the attention of federal policy makers and the President of the United States, not to result in a city-wide call to action is just as shaming as the figures themselves. We must all be willing to have the candid conversations about and work collectively to eradicate racial inequality and the massive gap between the haves and have-nots in this city. In 1964, Blacks rioted the streets of Rochester as a cry for housing, education and economic opportunity. Almost 50 years later, those same communities are worse off in every indicator: health, employment, and educational attainment.

I left Rochester in 1998 to head to college at the age of sixteen because I did not see the future of a thriving career for myself happening in the city, and aside from family visits have never returned.

In order for Rochester's hope to be restored, we need industry, jobs and talent – that has escaped the region – to come home and for graduation rates among minority men to increase.

The future of Upstate New York, the 91-percent and this city depends on it.

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