Rochester’s Roots: Four Black female executives discuss why they fight for change

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Four Rochester organizations secured $1.8 million from the federal government in this year’s spending bill.  With that money, they plan to revitalize neighborhoods, provide youth programs and reduce violence.  And all four of those organizations are led by Black women.  In this edition of Rochester’s roots, I sat down with them to learn what fuels them.       

The four female executives are tackling some of the city’s most profound problems – young people as both victims and perpetrators of crime, a city bruised and bloodied by those robbed of hope.

“I get those late phone calls in the middle of the night. ‘We don’t have any food,’” said Wanda Ridgeway, Executive Director of Rise Up Rochester. It’s an organization that teaches non-violence and provides support to crime victims.

“Do you believe we have a gang problem?” I asked her.

“Oh absolutely, absolutely. We had a gang problem maybe two or three years ago,” she responded.

But Ridgeway believes the city can’t solve the gang problem if it won’t acknowledge it.

“It used to infuriate me that no one wanted to talk about it or mention it, or they would say ‘She’s just exaggerating.’  No! I’m telling you what I see,” said Ridgeway.

And that’s what makes these women change-makers.  They face the formidable head on.   Dr. LaShunda Leslie-Smith leads the organization, Connected Communities, revitalizing the forgotten corners of the Flower City.

“We got into this work because we saw a need and we wanted to be an answer to the need,” said Leslie-Smith.  “We wanted to be a solution to the problems in our community where we live, where we work, where we play.”

And that’s why they’re so invested.  These women just get it.

“We go into the schools and we share our stories. And I tell them I was a teen mom. I’m a survivor of gun violence, so I understand what you go through,” said Ridgeway.

And they believe their race and gender are assets, so says Olivia Kassoum-Amadou. Executive Director of Cameron Community Ministries. The organization provides an array of youth programs.

 “The children look just like me,” said Kassoum-Amadou.  “And so it’s great for them to be able to see that someone in a leadership position who looks just like them, and they can aspire to be a leader in their community and in the space they’re in right now.”

That’s what the Avenue Black Box Theatre has done for a number of young people.  The theatre, in the heart of the historic Joseph Avenue neighborhood, is the brainchild of Reenah Golden, and the place where so many young people are finding their creative voice.

“I want to create space always for them to find that right, and explore that, in a safe and welcoming and loving space,” said Golden.

After all, change happens one child at a time.  So what legacy do these four leaders hope to leave?  Perhaps Leslie-Smith says it best.

“I want to be that kind of vessel that helps to inspire people and really produce more than I could have ever produced,” she said. “I really believe that when we talk about legacy, it really is about us being able to expand our capacity on the earth.”

And that’s exactly what they’re doing, expanding their capacity to inspire the change they want to see.  That’s why they work. And they’re passionate about their work.  It’s a passion that stems from the fact they believe their work can indeed make a difference. 

The grants their organizations were awarded were part of the $250 million in funding that Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand secured for the Finger Lakes Region.