ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Simeon Banister’s knowledge of history runs deep and allows him to connect dots, linking past policies steeped in racism to many of the issues we’re trying to tackle today, including disparities in health care.
It’s that expertise that Banister is lending to a Rochester organization called Black Agenda Group, or BAG, which aims to get more people of color involved in decisions about the future of Rochester.
Adam Chodak interviewed Banister at Side Bar, a Black-owned business in Downtown Rochester.
Adam Chodak: What got you involved with Black Agenda Group?
Simeon Banister: I have the great fortune to work at the Rochester Area Community Foundation and we produced a report called the hard facts and we recently updated that report in August of this year. The hard facts demonstrates that when we look at the disparities that exist in this community and that’s across a number of different categories, infant mortality, home ownership, education, that we see racialized outcomes and typically what we think of is that those racialized outcomes as a problem that we need to solve. Instead, they’re an opportunity – an opportunity to create equity and parity and in so doing we create a stronger region and a stronger region is more vibrant and economically viable and so I’m really excited about the prospect of working on these issues because for me that’s the future of this community. It’s getting caught up with the folks who have historically been under-invested, underrepresented and so there’s a clear imperative to be engaged.
AC: Give me an example of how you turn what some people might look at as a problem into an opportunity.
SB: If you take the Monroe County budget. 76% of the Monroe County budget is in social services, it’s in the sheriff’s office, which includes obviously policing and incarceration and in health. 76%. I hear a lot of people say we want lower taxes in Monroe County, I hear people say we have some of the highest taxes in the country well, guess what, if you want lower taxes we might want to try equity because making smarter investments on the front end with populations that have historically been disenfranchised and disadvantaged has the effect of helping the entire region.
AC: It seems to me that one of the potential benefits to BAG isn’t just the ideas, but the people involved.
SB: I’ve been grateful to really serve with some wonderful folks, folks who have invested a lot of energy and time into this community both in their personal and professional pursuits on behalf of the community. What you see are folks are coming from a number of different sectors, from the non-profit world, from the philanthropic world, from the private sector and we’re all casting down our lot to say we want to help this community and we believe the root to a stronger, sustainable community is by correcting some of the past injustice we’ve seen and in so doing setting us up for a more vibrant future.
AC: How do you go about doing that?
SB: It’s so tricky, but the thing that certainly rests with me and I hope to contribute to the Black Agenda Group is a historical perspective. The question we have to ask is how did we get here in the first place and when think about how we got her in the first place, I think there was some key leverage points in history that give us clues as to what we might need to do to reverse some of these challenges. For example, in the 1930s, in a period not too dissimilar from where we are today certainly in terms of the economic catastrophe that we’re staring at right now we saw a massive mobilization of government resources, government dollars that were spent to stimulate the economy through The New Deal. We know that was done in a racially exclusive way. Some people could benefit, Black people couldn’t and because of that we see the echo effect of those decisions that continue to play themselves out all the way to today. So we’re on the precipice of yet another mobilization. As I was coming in I just heard on the news that by the end of the week they’ll likely be an agreement for a $900 billion stimulus. Who’s going to get those dollars? How is it going to flow through the economy? We know that earlier this year the dollars didn’t flow in a way that was beneficial to broad swathes of the public. Some large businesses got lots of money while a lot of other people suffered. We can do something different if we have the political will. We can do something different and part of the Black Agenda Group’s work is to connect with allies and others and wave the flag and say we all have something invested in this game.
AC: How do you make sure you don’t bit off more than you can chew?
SB: Another hat that I have that I have the pleasure to wear I chair the Martin Luther King Commission. One of the places I think about is Montgomery or Selma. Now they stand large because of the history of the freedom movement, what we now know as Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery was just a city in Alabama. There’s no reason that Rochester isn’t the point of departure for larger opportunities that has an echo effect. There’s no reason that we in this community can’t set the precedent and do something different. We’re going to have to borrow here, we know that, the City of Rochester, Monroe County, the State of New York and there’s no reason that if we’re borrowing dollars to stimulate the economy that we can’t do it different, that we can’t be the model, that we can’t be the example, right? And there’s research to suggest that if we do this in a way that’s racially inclusive that that would have wonderful results for economic vibrancy. There’s no reason that Rochester can’t be a model that inspires the rest of the country.
AC: Where does BAG fit in with the entire spectrum of groups that trying to coordinate with each other address these issues?
SB: My good friend, Jerome Underwood, who’s a member of the BAG is also chairing the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. We’ve got folks serving on the RASE commission. We have folks involved and embedded across the community. It’s one of the beautiful things about BAG that really makes us functional and, to me, secures some opportunities to actually be successful. Folks are reasonably positioned to at least be in some rooms with folks and to bring a different perspective and to attack some of these issues from a different vantage point. And so we’re trying to figure out how to coordinated the various efforts that are underway so that we’re kind of thinking about some of these issues from a different vantage point and sets ourselves up for success.
AC: How does this group move forward with some of the issues that have already arisen through the Daniel Prude case?
SB: The fact of the matter is we have to be in a position where we can tell the truth in this community. That was an abhorrent incident. I went to School #4 just around the corner from there. When I saw that video it occurred to me that my dad was born just a few blocks from there and it impacted the psyche of this community and we’ve got to get some justice before we can have a conversation about equity and in my mind there’s an opportunity for this community so let’s stand up and tell the truth about what happened there, let’s get the opportunity to fully expose the fact that Daniel Prude murdered that night, but that was an example of what we see on a continuous basis, that’s a crystallization that we see every day in Rochester. I mentioned my dad being born near there. My dad was 67 years old when we passed. 67. That’s not old particularly in this day and age. Why did my dad pass? Well, my dad was one of the first African-American managers to work at Xerox and there was lots of stress and I remember as a kid some of the micro-aggressions and some of the not-so-micro-aggressions that he had to deal with. I remember seeing my dad carry the load of having to be the representative of all Black people as he went into his work space and the implications that that had. My dad, when he was a young man, had rheumatic fever and that rheumatic fever impacted his heart because there wasn’t great health care options for the Black community in those days and so the upshot of all of that, the same white supremacist system that impacted Daniel Prude and left him murdered on that street put Thomas Banister in the ground at 67 years old, it’s impacting me, could impact my son, could impact my daughter, could impact my mom and so on and so forth and so, again, there is an opportunity to do something different in this community if we have the will.
AC: The main message that I’m taking away is that in order to move forward, you have to understand the history of this.
SB: There were high leverage points through history and some of us know our kind of American narrative. We know about chattel slavery and the evil of that institution and the damage that it wrought, again the echo effect. We know that in Reconstruction you started to see African-Americans in this country make significant economic gains and political gains and that led a backlash known as the nadir period, all time high for lynchings for example in this country. The Great Migration followed transferring from the agrarian south to the north and being herded into tenements and ghettos and we know that policies were put into place that created geo-spacial organization of poverty so for example, here in Rochester I’m looking just over your shoulder and I’m seeing the Innerloop and we know the Innerloop’s construction displaced the community that we now call Corn Hill, that was the center of the African-American community in Rochester that just again over your shoulder Rochester Institute of Technology was right down here and RIT moving out to Henrietta had an echo effect again in that community. And imagine what it would have looked like in Rochester if George Eastman had not proclaimed earlier – and this is the same guy by the way that made significant investments in historically Black colleges and universities – but also proclaimed that African-Americans were not welcome to work at Eastman Kodak. Imagine what this would have looked like this these newly arriving folks into our community could access RIT, could access the jobs that would come, what Rochester could have looked like, it could have been a completely different place with a lot of economic growth and vibrancy because of a shared engagement, shared population. Instead, that didn’t happen and so some of the homogeneity and the decision-making was impacted by that homogeneity and the echo effect of that is where we are today. So there’s a through-line in history that runs through. If we become aware of that, the question is do we make the same mistakes again. There’s a great book called Jump-Starting America by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, two MIT professors, they say that Rochester, right now, is the number one city in the country that’s ready for a technological and innovation revolution. Number two was Pittsburgh and I’ve been to Pittsburgh, there’s some great stuff happening there, but they say Rochester is number one, but the question is if we take advantage of it are we going to do it in the same way? Or are we going to do something different to create shared prosperity. Black Agenda Group has 3 pillars: Education, health and economic development. And that economic pillar gives us a lens into how we create some of this shared prosperity. I think if we’re able to do that effectively, it doesn’t just benefit the community of color, but again it benefits all of Rochester.
AC: When BAG says racism is a public health crisis what do do they mean by that?
SB: When we look at a number of these disparate outcomes that we see and COVID-19 has revealed it again that racism plays itself out in these social determinants of health. There’s nothing biologically different that made them more susceptible to COVID-19 than anybody else but there were socioeconomic conditions that are a function of race that played themselves out, who lives where, who has access to personal protective equipment, who has access to good healthcare, the determinants are largely distributed by race, that’s what the hard facts report was all about. So we’re making that connection for folks saying you’re putting all of us at risk because, guess what, if we want to eradicate COVID-19 and the pandemic, if we have a subset of people who don’t get access to the vaccine or are nervous about taking it because of the history of racism in this country, we know of course of the Tuskegee experiment has been on the tip of many people’s tongue right now because that was an instance where many Black men were given Syphilis, told they were being treated and instead were not so the disease could be studied, a lot Black people say, wait a second, if they could do that then, what’s so different about today and so those social determinants continue to show up and we see the same pattern of disparities, in this case of health disparities, that’s what racism as a public health crisis really means for us and we have to name that and call it out and declare that we are going to do something different in this community if we want different outcomes.
AC: What inspires you to do this?
SB: At the end of the day I find myself centered on the suffering of people in Rochester. Not just concerned about people of color, but it certainly is the case that when you want to find out who’s suffering it’s often the communities with the most people of color. I know that the solutions for this community reside there. I was talking with some young people the other day about one of our high-falootin programs we’ve got going in Rochester and these young people instinctively picked up on some of the program deficiencies and offered some solutions about how what they heard and how it would operate and I was like, wow, we have to go back to the drawing board and retool. The solutions, those ideas are embedded in our community and we will be start to go to instead of the usual suspects get outside the walls we usually find ourselves in and get out there. Every Tuesday night we do a BAG live and we go out on Facebook and say, let’s have a discussion, let’s have a community discussion about what’s going on and what’s happening this world and what’s happening this community and let’s see if we can do something about it. Doing that dividends as far as our learning and it’s motivated a lot of the ideas and work that’s come together. One last thing I’ll tell you because it’s so pressing with the pandemic raging around us, we did a BAG live the other night and we were joined by Angela Branch who is an infectious disease physician and researcher in this community as well as Dr. Nana Duffy. They certainly opened my eyes. I walked into that conversation like I’m sure a lot of people that are viewing might be who said we’ll let some other people get it and see what happens, but they started to talk about how it worked, about mRNA, the technology and as they started to unpack it and as they started to help me to see that hey this wasn’t me taking a little bit of the virus, this was a completely different technology, that they’ve been working on this for over a decade and so even this iteration of the vaccine is being tested now, the technology itself has been developed for a while now, all of that, by the end of the conversation, from trusted voices helped me to say, hmm, maybe I will jump in that line and maybe my family will jump in that line because we want to get back to work, we want to get our kids back to school and so on and so forth, that is the kind of work that BAG is doing and doing that in conversation with the community is a critical dimension.
AC: There’s a motto that goes along with BAG, I don’t know how to pronounce it so I’ll let you do the honors.
SB: We’ve got a couple of different mottos, racism is a public health crisis. One of the principles that we live by is the Nguzo Saba. The Nguzo Saba really offers us some key insight about approaches that we need to take. We need to be unified. We need to self-determined, that we need to name ourselves, create for ourselves. We need collective work and a cooperative economic approach. We have to have a sense of purpose and creativity and faith – believing in one another, believing in our leadership so we can ultimately see results, the principles are universally applied but certainly potent for communities of color and the African-American community which is what Kwanzaa is all about which we’ll celebrate soon and I think our focus there beyond just the holiday helps to animate a lot of our work.