As a 23-year-old fresh out of graduate school, Leonard Brock had a dream to build communities where people not only lived, worked and played, they had responsibility for the success of their neighborhoods.
“I was on fire,” Brock recalled.
The dream was delayed as Brock took on the fight against poverty, most recently as executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.
But it will not be denied.
Soul-searching conversations over the summer with his mother as she was in her final days brought his vision back into focus.
“When she was transitioning, she said, ‘Leonard, live your life. Don’t live your life trying to fight something that is much bigger than you. God really blessed you with some gifts and some talents.’ ”
Before she died on Aug. 19 at age 65, Betty Brock told her son that he was losing the joy he once had, even though he was doing what he cared deeply about.
“I spent most of my life and career fighting poverty primarily because of what I watched her endure,” he said. “I wanted to make life fuller and better for her. As she was transitioning, she encouraged me to live life. To be happy, Don’t allow the anger of growing up in poverty to be the fuel that drives my livelihood.”
On Dec. 12, Brock announced that would leave RMAPI, effective in June. He said he had no firm job offers but planned to revive Community Empowerment Opportunities, an economic concept that helps residents create businesses to fuel their neighborhoods.
“I want to create holistic communities that involve the residents,” he said. He envisions local people owning or having stakes in grocery stores, cafes, apartments and other staples that would attract people from walking distance.
“As opposed to running from poverty, I’m looking to run to creating community economic development opportunities for everyone to participate,” he said. “I want to go back to that initial vision that led me down this career path in the beginning.”
Brock became the first executive director of RMAPI in June 2015, six months after Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced its launch as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10-point economic opportunity agenda to combat poverty and inequality.
Among cities its size, Rochester continues to rank high in poverty, concentrated poverty and children in poverty.
For its first few years, RMAPI struggled with an identity crisis. People saw it as agency that ran programs rather than coalition of business, government, education and health leaders that used collaboration, cooperation and innovation to address the systems that perpetuate poverty.
“Certainly, the early days were some very uncertain days as he tried to establish the project, build staff and get credibility in the community,” said Jerome Underwood, executive director of Action for a Better Community and co-chairman of the RMAPI steering committee. “All those things have happened. He’s able to leave at what I call a point of strength.”
In the past couple of years, RMAPI has focused on workforce development and access to basic needs. Among its successes:
- Securing state funding to support the Young Adult Manufacturing and Training Employment Program to teach advance manufacturing;
- Overseeing a collaboration on an adult mentoring program;
- Working to connect various social service agencies to streamline efforts at getting people to be self-sufficient.
The early days of RMAPI took a toll as Brock had to convince the broader community of the need to acknowledge structural racism and work for racial equity. RMAPI tried to break down silos and build bridges among organizations doing similar work. Not all of that went well.
“I spent years getting beat up,” he said.
But he wouldn’t trade them. “I’m a much better and empowered leader as a result of RMAPI.”
Brock said some people wondered why he wanted to leave now, seeing that RMAPI was turning a corner. He’s 38, and in his family it is rare for someone to have a long life. Shortly after his mother died, he lost a 60-year-old uncle.
“I would hate to be too old and say I never got a chance to birth that vision I had, never got a chance to nurture it and see it grow.”
He said he was nervous before telling the board in December that was going to leave. But he received teary, heartfelt thanks for his work.
“He’s a smart young man,” Underwood said. “He’s full of passion. He loves this community and he’s a part of it. I personally thankful for his work and his leadership.”
Brock said he is proud of creating opportunities to people who usually don’t get asked to be involved and “not have them be at the table as a token, but have an important role.”
When he talks about expanding those opportunities, he sounds energized and excited.
“I feel good, I feel free,” he said. “I made a decision for me. It’s one of the first times I’ve done that … . I’m happy.”