Ed. Note: This post is part of the Commerce in the Community series highlighting the work of community leaders and organizations that are strengthening the middle class and providing ladders of opportunity for all Americans.
Below is an interview with Rochester, New York Mayor Lovely Warren. A Rochester native, Mayor Warren served as President of the Rochester City Council prior to the start of her first term as Mayor in 2014. This interview is part of the Commerce Department’s participation in Public Service Recognition Week.
Q1: What inspired you to pursue public service?
When I was in college, I never saw myself pursuing a career in public service. In fact, I had a lifelong desire to become a prosecutor. When I was 7 years old, my grandfather was shot while working security at a local grocery chain. He almost died, but thankfully he pulled through. From that moment on, I pursued a dream of becoming a prosecutor so I could bring people, like the man who shot my grandfather, to justice.
After college I went to law school and was still hoping to become a prosecutor. But fate had other plans for me. I took an internship with New York State Assemblyman David Gantt, and my life was forever changed. Working for Assemblyman Gantt, I got my first introduction to the world of public service. Not only did I see how laws are actually created and executed on the state level, but I also got to see how elected officials help their constituents. People would call Assemblyman Gantt’s office when they were out of options, and we were their last hope. I helped people who were about to lose their homes due to foreclosure, people who needed guidance on how to navigate the legal system, people who wanted to start a business, and people who were being taken advantage of by slumlords. I was amazed at the incredible diversity of issues that are brought to elected officials. But more importantly, I was impressed by the incredible potential elected officials have to positively impact the lives of so many people, particularly the poorest citizens, who often don’t have access to the knowledge and resources that more affluent citizens may enjoy.
That is still what motivates me to get up and go to work every morning; the opportunity to positively impact the lives of city residents.
Q2: As Mayor of Rochester, what are your key priorities for expanding economic opportunity?
In order to expand economic opportunity we have to try to create a stronger link between spending and job creation. We have to make sure that not only are we focusing on economic development, but we have to make sure that economic opportunities are made available to all of our citizens. As I often say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Rochester – like cities everywhere – is facing extremely difficult choices as we balance community needs and aspirations with increasingly limited resources.
The public education system in my city faces many challenges. We have the lowest graduation rate among African-American males in the country, and the second lowest graduation rate among Hispanic males. By any measure—reading and math proficiency, graduation rate, college-readiness—Rochester’s educational outcomes are the worst in the state. Each year, more than a thousand students will drop out, destined to a life of low wages and unemployment, public health care, food stamps and housing assistance. Too many will end up in prison.
We have to fix the educational system in our city in order to provide economic opportunity. Today’s graduates are not only going to have to compete locally for jobs, they’re going to have to compete nationally and internationally. That means the educational system has to prepare them to compete. Without an adequate public education system, there will be no economic opportunity for the vast majority of our citizens.
Secondly, Public Safety is a key component of how I plan to expand economic opportunity. Companies don’t want to open or relocate in a city that has a perception of being unsafe. So we have to lower our crime rate and keep our streets safe.
I believe that one of the surest ways to prevent people from committing crimes is by making sure they have access to employment. Economic factors drive most crimes. If a person has a good job that pays them a living wage, they won’t have to rob people or sell drugs. So once again, public safety and economic development are intertwined.
Q3: How are you aiming to strengthen workforce development?
We are working on several tracks to strengthen workforce development starting with our high schools. Everyone isn’t going to go to a 4-year college, or even a 2-year college. We have to do more to expose students to skilled trade positions that may require certificate programs or apprenticeships rather than a traditional college track. Supporting a P-Tech high school and a new vocational charter school are important. We are also partnering with our local collegiate institutions and trade schools. In particular, I believe that community colleges are going to play a pivotal role in training and retraining the workers of tomorrow. As industries go away, and new industries emerge, workers will need to adapt their skill sets. Some people may work in 4 or 5 different industries during the course of their career, so they have to become lifetime learners. And finally, we are working with local industry to encourage them to develop more apprenticeship programs and to invest more in retraining workers.
In addition, we have initiated a new project called Operation Transformation Rochester (OTR).
Operation Transformation Rochester (OTR) serves city youth and adults by offering five comprehensive programs geared toward education, vocation and employment. These programs work in tandem and are designed to be adaptable to an individual’s skill level, background, and needs.
OTR Fresh Start
Fresh Start helps adult men and women in need of their GED (TASC) prepare for and take the test, thereby helping them achieve a critical requirement for sustainable employment. Mentors and staff are matched with participants to help guide and support them as they prepare to take the TASC.
OTR Employment Readiness
Employment Readiness is an employment assistance program which helps chronically unemployed adults obtain recorded employment history with the City of Rochester and area employers. It connects job seekers to employment and vocational opportunities, as well as specialized training programs geared towards middle-skill jobs.
OTR Youth Employment Training
Youth Employment Training prepares high school students for employment through an intensive 20 hour, job-readiness boot-camp. Participants receive employment training and opportunities for unsubsidized, year round job placement, and graduate with a portfolio, resulting in increased employability. The program also provides support to area businesses who invest in youth participants. Graduates will have access to an exclusive monthly job fair. An employer/youth advisory council will be created to provide program feedback and advice on employment best practices.
OTR Summer of Opportunity (SOOP) Program
SOOP is a summer employment placement and training program designed to connect high school youth with local employment opportunities and expose participants to the basic skills necessary for career success.
DREAM BIG2 (Believe in Guys and Girls) Youth Leadership
DREAM BIG2 is a 15-week program that encompasses a holistic approach to career development through the following enrichments: College Preparedness, Employment Training, Motivation, Rites of Passage, Conflict and Resolution, Youth Leadership, Finance, and Etiquette Training.
Q4: How are you working with businesses to create jobs and strengthen the local economy?
Our Department of Neighborhood and Business Development (NBD) leads our overall efforts aimed at assisting with job creation and strengthening the local economy.
We have programs that center around financial assistance for both new and existing businesses who can demonstrate job creation. This assistance can take the form of low interest loans or grants that support capital expenditures.
We also serve as the primary advocate for our City businesses at the State and Federal level, seeking out programs, designations, and funding which results in growth and expansion.
One initiative that I am particularly optimistic about is a partnership that we have with the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to open the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship (CUE). Rochester is no longer defined by big companies like Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb that once drove our economy. Today, small and mid-sized companies play a much greater role in job creation. To that end, we want to ensure that anyone with the drive to create a business has the opportunity to reach his or her entrepreneurial goals.
New generation workers have to not only think about finding a job, but more and more, they have to start thinking about creating a job. The Center for Urban Entrepreneurship will help reshape the local economy and build wealth within the urban community by being the central resource for urban entrepreneurial programs and research.
Q5: What is your advice to people considering a career in public service?
If you have a passion to serve people and be an agent for change in your community, then I would urge you to consider a career in public service. I would especially encourage women. Women and their interests remain under-represented in the public sector.
Q6: How can people learn more about how to get involved with expanding economic opportunity in the city of Rochester?
For more information about how to get involved with expanding economic opportunity in the City of Rochester please go to the business development section of our website.