Aqua Porter figures things out.
As a Black woman engineering student in the early 1980s who ran an assembly line in a General Motors plant, she figured out how to build working relationships with white men many years her senior.
As a vice president at Xerox Corporation, she came up with ways to improve manufacturing, expand distribution and contain costs.
As the new executive director of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty initiative, Porter leads a collaborative of Rochester institutions as they participate in changing policies and practices that have helped perpetuate poverty.
“I have the opportunity to look at what we can do to take RMAPI’s work to the next level,” said Porter, who had served as interim executive director since May 2020. She succeeds Leonard Brock, who had been named executive director in June 2015, six months after the initiative began.
Porter was with Xerox from 2001 to 2018. She holds a masters degree in business administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineer from Kettering University, formerly the General Motors Institute.
She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and The Links.
A seven-member search committee, made up of the RMAPI co-chairs, members of the steering committee and people with experience living in poverty, selected Porter from among more than 150 candidates.
In an exclusive conversation with Minority Reporter, Porter talked about her vision for RMAPI and the experiences that brought her to her current role.
What did you learn as interim executive director?
I learned that people who are poor are not poor because they want to be and that we should be careful about labeling and victimizing people who are poor. … I think it’s very difficult for people to not believe there is some problem that they can identify that separates them from someone who is poor. I think it’s hard for people to have the conversation where they’re saying it’s not about something that a person did or didn’t do or that I am in this position because I somehow am more capable or less flawed than someone else. … We have done a really good job in this city about keeping poverty, those communities, very segregated. … You can live your entire life in the city of Rochester and never see it.
As executive director of RMAPI, are you going to try to change that?
One thing that RMAPI has staked its claim on and is trying to double down on is making sure that people with lived experience are part of the solution. In these conversations that we’re having, people that are living that experience every day are part of that discussion…. Then you start to relate to someone who is different from you and maybe you have little bit more empathy for that person, their condition or plight or challenge.
After six months as interim executive director, what compelled you to seek the permanent post?
Even as a citizen of Rochester for so long, the depth and breadth of poverty was unknown to me. When I began to do that work, I saw the impact that poverty has on so many other parts of the quality of life that a lot of our neighbors are living. It affects their health, it affects their housing, it affects their education, it affects transportation, child care. It is life-altering. … Poverty is manmade. We made it happen so we can unmake it. That’s why I put my hat in the ring because I wanted to be part of that unmaking.
RMAPI was formed five years ago as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s economic plan to address poverty and inequality. What is the role of RMAPI now in light of calls for racial and social justice we’ve seen over the past few months?
This is truly a place where the community comes together to decide if it wants to be a better place for everybody to live and do we have that value in our community that we think all the residents of Rochester and Monroe County have the right to have a decent quality of life. If we believe that collectively, what are we going to do to make sure we progress that way? I don’t think this is about adding more programs. … It’s trying to get people to understand that fundamentally, this is about injustice, systems that have to be righted, systems that have to be reimagined and people’s hearts and minds that have to be changed. … One of my favorite quotes is that change is hard at the beginning, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end. … Having the tenacity, the courage and the fortitude to be bold in what we’re trying to do is the first step. …
You mentioned the lived experience of people who RMAPI wants to include. What was it like for you growing up?
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio. My mom was a teacher and my dad was an engineer. I had a sister. We lived in a beautiful little starter home. We went to great schools. We did vacations. We were told we could do whatever we wanted to do. It wasn’t lost on me that I was African American and that brought its own set of challenges. That wasn’t all that defined who we were. So I had always felt privileged and incredibly grateful that I had a wonderful childhood, wonderfully supportive parents who were able to give me pretty much everything I wanted and needed. I was able to grow from that, but with the recognition that everybody didn’t have those same kinds of beginnings and I was fortunate to be able to have some of those things as a part of my life.
Were there many women, or many Black women or men, when you earned your mechanical engineering degree in 1984, and how did that experience shape you?
I think I was the only Black woman mechanical engineering student that graduated in my class. … But there were other Black students at General Motors Institute who were engineers. … When you’re in a group of people who look like you, you know there’s not a lot of you, but you know you have this group of people that have your back.
How did you see yourself? As a trailblazer? Or just someone who wanted to be an engineer?
In retrospect, it was what do I need to do to graduate. What do I need and, oh by the way, how do I make sure I’m successful because half our educatio was working in a GM plant. You can imagine how big GM was. How do I navigate the professional world as an 18-, or 19- or 20-year-old. I managed a manufacturing line when I was 20 years old on third shift. … As a 20-year-old black woman, it was character building and challenging and I had to figure out how to build relationships. … Those are some things that have shaped me today. Being able to create relationships wherever I am and with whoever I need to. I think we are more alike than we are different. Being able to find commonalities and see where we need to go – it’s based on how you build relationships with people.