Open Letter to the Community: the "P" Word

Dear Syracuse,

We wanted to talk to you about a rampant word in our community: poverty. If you look at Google’s NGram plotter (here), poverty is written about at twice the rate now than it was after the Great Depression. To many of us, coordinating our bus routes with a job that’s miles away or with our child care provider’s schedule, poverty isn’t real. Our challenges to overcome barriers to healthy homes, stable jobs that pay a living wage, or healthy lives is an everyday normality. It isn’t poverty, it’s real life.

We, Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E, told you we’d work with you to address the issues. As statistics are rattled off, it often feels like the work isn’t moving fast enough, but this is life or death for many people. We are moving and we want to tell you that you deserve more than our reactions. This is your life and we thank you for sharing the story of your lives with us with the H.O.P.E that we can help improve it.

What Poverty Is and Is Not

Poverty is not an issue of morality nor is it a particular demographic or ethnicity. Poverty is a set of conditions that an individual faces and can overcome. Poverty does represent a multitude of issues that converge to create conditions, an experience, that creates barriers to opportunity and stifles growth in various areas of our lives. Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E.’s vision is to bring diverse residents and stakeholders together to impact systems to create effective pathways of opportunity, resulting in a community with an inclusive future. Our focus areas of education, economic stability, housing, and health are areas of everyone’s life from which we’ve been deeply researching and engaging with people like you to create strategies to improve. Your success and growth in these areas benefits an entire community experiencing lack. The counter to this experience is a foundation for community wealth.

The latest U.S. Census report released a sobering set of statistics about our community wealth. The report shows that as a community, we still have work to do to evolve into a city where there are numerous pathways of opportunity. While the report is true, it is not a complete picture of what is happening in Syracuse. At H.O.P.E, we’ve experienced a super-partnership of agencies, community members, volunteers and government that has led us from formation to Phase II E.S.P.R.I funding for strategies (that you and our teams developed) in 24 months. That is neck-breaking speed for coalitions of our size. We’ve identified four areas of indicators that define poverty for our city: education, economic stability, housing, and health and have worked with nearly a dozen partners to carve out ways to attack the barriers to people’s ability to live and thrive. Poverty is an experience and that experience will not reduce the people who are working to make their lives (and this city) better each day.

The H.O.P.E

The numbers, whether from the U.S. Census, or a housing report, or an education report, don’t reflect the whole picture. The number’s don’t capture the spirit of our community or reflect the voices of our neighbors. During the course of H.O.P.E’s listening sessions and interactions with the community, the common narrative that emerged was that we have a powerful tool that will help us on our path to prosperity. That asset: our community.

We see that the agents working to revitalize our community corridors are spearheaded by businesses, neighbors and stakeholders brought on by our community. We saw this in the development of a healthy grocery store that has hired community members at all levels of employment (not just entry level positions) in Price Rite, and we see it in community based agencies that move people from traumatic experiences to expert service providers helping others. Agencies such as Syracuse Northeast Community Center, La Liga, and Southwest Community Center work with people and build extraordinary and strong programs and communities from that place of strength.

What We Need from Our Communities

What do we need from you, Syracuse: active resilience.

Keep talking to us. We are working with people most impacted by poverty to amplify their voices and empower them to lead from where they are. We are doing this work by standing alongside community members and putting the data in your hand. We are taking your experiences to Albany and beyond to ensure that you never have to say ‘No one is listening to you’ again. You’ll see this as members of our Community Advisory Panel begin to walk through their neighborhoods sharing information, resources, and doing the work of keeping everyday people engaged. There are many who want to engage to help and others who are looking for ways to volunteer. We should do this together.

Keep serving others in the best ways possible. We made a request for community partners last year and have been working with the agencies and businesses that applied to develop a plan. That plan will strengthen our community assets, reduce barriers to achieving sustainability and put in place solid strategies that go beyond what we have traditionally done with grants. To those potential partners, a deep and overwhelming thank you. It is hard work customizing a program or designing a strategy with new partners but we are committed to going through this process to see this work actualized in our city.

Keep seeing people as people, and not a number. Poverty is an experience. Some of us experience it our entire lives, while others experience it on a situational basis. Some of us are pushed into poverty because we are discriminated against —policy will need to change to dismantle that occurrence. Others have seen poverty for generations and that requires respectfully working with the individual who has endured a lifetime of poverty and may not be a good fit for larger systems (as opposed to smaller charities and opportunities they can navigate). We are working toward opportunities to reduce barriers to employment, education, and increase financial literacy through guidance from content experts (those impacted by poverty) and through our super-partnerships that include the agencies part of this coalition—of which this city should be proud.

It is not going to be easy. There is no magic bullet. It is hard but our resilience is needed now more than ever. Our sleeves are up and we believe in this city and this greater community. We believe that we can change the experiences people are having to endure because quite frankly, most of us have endured them ourselves. We get it. Prosperity won’t happen overnight so we have to be committed to the long haul while we work, rest, learn, strategize and continue working. People, policy, and systems have to work in collaboration with one another in a communal effort to address poverty with the understanding that poverty is in fact a community experience, not just that of one person.

We need you, the Syracuse community, to move forward not from a place of fear, anxiety, or knee-jerk reactions to numbers but from a place of H.O.P.E. (healing, opportunity, prosperity, and empowerment). We are not done by any means.

All the Best,

Ocesa B. Keaton, M.S.W.

Director of Greater Syracuse H.O.P.E.