When The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties announced their plans last month for a Racial Equity and Social Justice initiative, one important fact was missing from their press release. While it seems hard to believe, the Community Foundation Board of Directors had already determined before this $10 million fund was even unveiled that Utica’s oldest Black-led Community Based Organization, For The Good would not be eligible for any, any funding from the ten-year program.
What’s that? How does that work? How does the Community Foundation decide such a thing and what does the Community Foundation do for the Black community as it stands? For that matter, what has the local philanthropic industry done in the past 20 years for the most downtrodden of Utica’s residents over those years? How much money have they invested and what services have they provided for the advancement and development of Blacks as they are the local representatives of a more than $400 billion dollar a year industry?
The United Way and the Community Foundation stand as the local representation of this mammoth industry. They collect money annually from people’s paychecks and are the holder of countless multiple millions of dollars from good and generous donors who leave their fortunes, trusting them to be used for the greater good, for the welfare of those in need. How then do they measure up on one hand and how can For The Good, founded by a Black woman, CEO, Cassandra Harris-Lockwood in 2002, be eliminated from consideration?
Under current national mandate of addressing and rooting out institutional racism, the idea of philanthropy itself must be included in this assessment. To finally end the discrimination, limitations and bias Black Uticans have suffered for decades is a good intention — even though they are very late to the party. But these ‘Do Gooders’ must recognize their inability to move the needle, as they say, is entrenched in their policies, procedures and their failure to recognize their own institutional racism.
Simply establishing a fund and continuing to function as they have all along will be throwing good money after bad, and an insufficient amount of bad at that.
Clearly, year after year, the crushing problems Utica’s Blacks have endured were largely ignored and have gone unmet. Countless well-crafted requests for funding from For The Good and others have been rejected by both of these agencies over the years. One such request was for the combination of the mentoring work of the Frontiers International and their Junior Frontiers with For The Good’s Study Buddy Club Hamilton College tutoring program to operate at the then Refugee Center at the DeSales Center to include immigrant children there. It was rejected without comment.
Another application rejected without comment was the Impact Agency proposal which was a major three-year funding proposal intended to develop a Black led Community Based Organization to provide a platform for continued independent growth and development within the Black community. It was rejected without response.
The demise of Utica Community Action, Inc. in 2002 and later the Cosmopolitan Center in 2009, has resulted in the collapse of the Black community’s ability to provide several generations of Black Uticans with programs that their elders benefitted from. Not having those agencies functioning is truly a tragedy, a tragedy that the Community Foundation and the United Way found so unremarkable that they failed to respond in any way to restore, repair, replace, support create or sustain.
Just to be clear, at the end of its run, UCAI brought in $10 million dollars into the City of Utica annually. That in no way diminishes the $10 million the Community Foundation has on the table of course, but the Black community was at one time able to bring that amount of money in annually. If the Community Foundation and the United Way had been on their game they would have made every effort to restore, rebuild, replace, support, create and or sustain another Black lead agency, or reestablish Utica’s own Community Action Agency to retain those programs and annual income for community development.
One can remember that when the YWCA was in trouble, Elizabeth Tantillo was brought in. When the Oneida County Historical Society was in trouble, Elizabeth Tantillo was brought in. When the Stanley Center for the Arts was in trouble, Elizabeth Tantillo was called in for the rescue and did what she has done for other vital nfp’s in trouble, she righted the ship, calmed the waters and steadied the course until the next captain came aboard to turn over the helm.
Tantillo’s MBA in Management and Marketing was not called into play when the Cosmopolitan Center was on the ropes. The County Executive brought in who? David Mathis who had no experience operating let alone rescuing a large organization. It was unfair to put Mathis into such a complex, public and demanding administrative position for which he had no experience and was doomed for failure.
Four years ago, in 2016 the United Way engaged the entire community in an extensive yearlong poverty initiative which resulted in one new development for the community, a Black led childcare center, which once in operation is intended to eventually be 24 hours a day. This is a great development for the community but not the top of the list that was determined by the participants. That was employment. People want jobs.
The UWay paid for staff, facilitators, hundreds of attendees, bought them lunches, rented space for the meetings and paid for transportation. One wonders how much that cost? Probably enough to run the Community Gardens for a few years. Funded by 1.5million from the state, $100.00from NYSED grants $55,000 came through Utica’s federal Community Development Block Grant, and $575,000 came through added state funds. There is no mention of United Way monies being involved in the final product.
The region’s two largest philanthropic organizations, The Community Foundation and the United Way of the Mohawk Valley. Philanthropy had been growing by leaps and bounds before the economy was hit by COVID-19. While Utica’s major philanthropic organizations prospered, the Black community continued foundering. There’s no question the policies and procedures and disinterest in developing an agency that could meet the social needs of the Black population were not in their game plan.
Rather than recognize or fund the basic developmental programs which Black agencies over these past 20 years have struggled and sacrificed to develop, maintain and preserve for the Black community, the United Way will spend thousands on luring people into all day sessions on what it like to be poor.
Exclusion of Blacks Nothing New for Community Foundation
In August of 2013 The Community Foundation was in the midst of planning a not-for-profit expo for its speakers’ series at the newly reopened Stanley Center for the Arts. This series had to have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in multiple honorariums, travel and housing expenses for speakers, speakers’ fees, promotion, consecutive rentals of the Stanley and other costs known only to them. This particular event was for Richard Florida who came to town to lecture on the Creative Class.
I happened to have a conversation with Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio, E.D. of the MWPAI. She asked what I would be doing for the expo and suggested I hang the Paul Parker Utica Trust paintings. I told her I was not aware and had not been asked. She suggested I reach out to the Community Foundation.
I called Peggy O’Shea, then E.D. of the CF. When she began speaking of the ‘creative class’ I let her know that I considered myself among them. Her response was as if it was ludicrous that I or FTG should be included.
I let her know that I have a B.A. in Fine Arts and Dance from Kirkland College. I then began to list the many and varied programs and productions I had brought to town since A Raisin in the Sun in 1984; the Teen Center for The Arts, Juneteenth, the original musical I wrote and produced, the Wonderful Wizard of Was at the Stanley through a $50,000 gift from Academy Award winning actor Adrien Brody, the Community Gardens and the Paul Parker Utica Trust paintings which had supported so many projects over the years.
When O’Shea relented and decided to include Utica’s one Black NGO with a roof over its head, she asked if I needed any tickets. I told her I’d like to include Study Buddy students
but had no organizer and that we were relying upon funding from the Community Foundation for the school year. She told me that they had “a lot of other important things” going on rather than approving grant proposals.
I let her know how disappointed I was at not being able to begin the year with a paid staff person and that this proposal, especially given their chronic complaint that Black folks can’t work together, had “served it up on a silver platter.”
This particular, ultimately rejected Study Buddy Club proposal, was in conjunction with Junior Frontiers and the Refugee Center and that it laid to rest their criticism that Black people in Utica could not agree on anything or collaborate. I told O’Shea that in the past the State and Walmart had funded the Community gardens when the CF had rejected the proposals and how displeased I was that we would begin the year without tutoring.
O’Shea said she would set aside 2 tickets. I told her I wanted 20 to assure the SBC and Jr. Frontier children would be able to attend. She ended by saying she couldn’t guarantee that FTG would be included. I ultimately did hang the Trust paintings in the Romano Room.
If I hadn’t forced the issue the Black community would have had neither presence or organizational representation nor group of Black children at this robust commnity affair.
Abandoning Downtown Utica
Not too long ago The Community Foundation fancied itself into elegant new Uptown surroundings while hosting numerous meetings with invite only Black activists to again assail them with, “What is wrong with you people? You don’t seem to be able to get along or collaborate.” This is all the while dangling bits of money before them like meat in front of hungry wolves, but never deciding on an agency ‘good enough’ to fully fund.
In addition, their policies frown upon using grant monies for paying staff. How is it they expect tiny fledgling organizations to carry on without operating capital and paying staff? And how many Blacks, or other people of color, work for or have ever worked for the Community Foundation?
In fact, their CEO, presented initially with her Latina roots as she is native Puerto Rican, but she is actually an agent of the White Patriarchal Hegemony which rules money, banking, philanthropy, industry, power and wealth in this country. Her background is corporate, not not-for-profit. Her job is to maintain the status quo while projecting beauty and diversity.
Consider that the MVLA, Utica’s only Latina led CBO goes without sustaining funding year after year, struggling for survival despite the unquestioningly unique and vital services it provides to the Spanish community. Imagine how much more Sonia Martinez could do with a regular paycheck, a staff person and her rent paid.
You see, this status quo that Alicia Dicks and Peggy O’Shea so ardently protect is actually a caste system where Black women are at the bottom. It does not include people who look like me in decision making positions, especially when it comes to controlling money.
In their decision to remove FTG from consideration, it is convenient for the Community Foundation to paint a scenario which pits one woman of color against another but, there is nothing personal about this conflict. That would be a convenient distraction from the reality that this conflict is the fight for racial justice and equity, the very thing their new fund is intended to accomplish.
At the core, I am a scientist, an observer and analyst of information, systems and how things function. I am a social scientist and it occurred to me to look dispassionately at the last 20 years of philanthropic decision making and how it functions here in Utica as I have consistently been denied. It became clear that it wasn’t about me. It has been about what it has always been about, White supremacy.
What About the Future?
For The Good has long been poised to continue to develop the 21st century versions of programs that the Cosmo Center and UCAI provided along with establishing a free standing, self-sustaining community center at the former UFA building. A comprehensive business plan including geothermal HVAC and solar facilities and a major tenant has been prepared but, the Community Foundation has already determined that it will not be considered.
For The Good’s two Community Gardens have provided hundreds of families with literally tons fresh produce over the past 12 years, and The Study Buddy Club has provided tutoring and mentoring for the at-risk students who need academic support and guidance the most. This year not only Hamilton College but Colgate University will tutor our at-risk dtudents virtually. The Fatherhood Initiative awaits to stabilize Utica families as do other yet to be determined and badly needed programs for children, senior citizens and teens.
One of those programs to build upon is YouthBuild for a new generation of young tradesmen and women. The UFA building would become their introduction to establishing Geothermal heating and cooling systems, maintenance and repair. The rooftop solar system would provide them with hands on training with systems for the future of our region. The UFAC building will become a workshop in addition to a community center.
A restoration of a Fatherhood Initiative is envisioned as well as a Therapeutic Riding Program and Nutrition and Cooking programs.
The vision of at least one Black organization once again in Utica capable of providing unique services and programs for the particular problems of Blacks and served up by people who look like them is supported by a host of community members—but if the Community Foundation has its way, For The Good will not be part of this new reality.
For the greater part of the 20th century, The Cosmopolitan Center was that entity. The Black community, in fact Utica, deserves a proud and effective Black organization it can depend on to deliver needed services. Restoration of Utica’s own CSBG designated CBO is something that the Community Foundation’s Dicks promised then ignored and reneged upon. Recently Congressman Brindisi agreed to support this effort.
The philanthropic community, in particular, the Community Foundation and the United Way have an obligation to address their long standing failure to deal effectively and generously with the Black community. They can begin by immediately funding the programs Black agencies currently have underway with the monies already on the table.
The restoration of a Black-led United Way agency and reestablishment of Utica’s own Community Action Agency are paramount.
Today both entities have the opportunity to jump into the deep end of the pool of righteousness, wash themselves clean of the taint of a sullied history to bathe in the waters of racial justice and freedom for all.