Jerome Underwood’s phone rang. County Executive-elect Adam Bello was on the other end.
Underwood, who said he didn’t really know Bello, was surprised to hear from him.
Bello was calling to ask Underwood, chief executive officer of Action for a Better Community, to be part of his transition team.
“It’s an honor to be asked,” Underwood said. “I think it’s a really important assignment.”
Underwood said ABC’s charter as a federally approved action agency serving Monroe and Ontario counties prevents the nonprofit from getting involved in politics. After looking into whether he could accept the invitation, Underwood determined he should.
“When we think of why ABC even came into being, it was to give that voice to the voiceless,” Underwood said. “That’s part of our DNA. As it relates to this, it’s an opportunity for us to be at the table to be the voice that reflects equity.”
A little less than two weeks after the election, Bello named Underwood, Robert Duffy and Fran Weisberg to chair his transition committee.
Duffy is the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. He was chief of the Rochester Police Department, Rochester mayor and lieutenant governor of New York. Weisberg was president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Greater Rochester, which housed the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.
Underwood, Duffy and Weisberg will oversee five subcommittees – economic and community development; human services; public safety; infrastructure; and administration. The committees will identify strategies to address critical issues and will be guided by the principles of inclusion, economic opportunity, collaboration, innovation and sustainability.
Alex Castro, CEO of PathStone Corp., is on the economic and community development subcommittee. Other community leaders on subcommittees include Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health, on the human services subcommittee; City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, on public safety; Norm Jones, commissioner of environmental services for the city,on infrastructure.
Bello wrote in an email that Underwood has devoted his career to eradicating poverty. “He works daily to provide opportunities that change people’s lives and help them build a better future, and brings an important voice and perspective to the transition team. I am honored that Jerome is willing to dedicate his time to ensuring this transition process prepares my administration to address the critical issues we face from day one and to deliver a government as inclusive, diverse, and responsive as our community deserves.”
Underwood said that his appointment could not be window dressing. “In my conversation with him, we talked about that. It really looks good for Adam to have somebody like a Jerome Underwood as one of three co-chairs. As I mentioned to him, this can’t be a check the box. We just won’t stand for that.”
Underwood said that most people would agree that county staff “from top to bottom is not as reflective of the entire community as it could be.” He said that’s not just in race and ethnicity but also in ideology that can transform thinking and bring long-term changes in policies and practices.
“In everything we do, we should be as diverse as possible, we should be as representative of the community that we serve,” he said.
Underwood, a member of the steering committee for the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, brought the conversation back to equity. He used a sports analogy, saying how the weakest team in the league gets the No. 1 draft pick.
“Why do we do that in professional sports?” he asked. “The answer is to create parity in the league. It makes the entire league better.”
He said creating and instilling equitable practices would be like giving poorer communities a high draft pick.
“Some people think that poverty is something that we should tolerate – there’s always going to be poor people,” he said. “But we reject that. What we’re working toward is not having any poor people. We think policy can be enacted to attack that.”
Underwood said there’s a belief that reallocating resources is taking from one to give to another. “We don’t think we have to hurt people by paying attention to people who are economically marginalized.”
Underwood said that data on health care, education, employment and criminal justice show disparities slanted toward poor people and people of color.
“That’s what I call the weakest team in the league. “(Therefore) they require, in my opinion, the number one draft pick so you can make the product stronger, which makes the entire league – the entire county – stronger. That’s the equity thing I’m talking about.”