ROCHESTER — John Edmonds has spent the past 25 years fighting poverty and racial disparity in an effort to help families in Olmsted County.
The Olmsted County Family Support Programs Manager will enter phased retirement at the end of the year, so we asked him to reflect on what brought him to Rochester and the work he has done since his arrival here.
Here is part of what he had to say:
Since you arrived in Rochester in 1997, much of your work with Olmsted County has focused on disparities and disproportions in services for African American families and children. Why was there a need when you arrived?
In Rochester in the late 90s, it was unusual to see a person of color no matter where you went. …
I came from a very diverse environment so far where it was almost totally white, but I also had adaptive skills. …
I could deal with that, but if you come out of poverty and a marginalized environment, and you come here and you’re clearly part of the minority in every sense of the word, it must be very disorienting. No one is like you, and no one wherever you go for help or help is like you, and you distrust the system due to racism and systemic oppression, why would you want people are able to assimilate and have no difficulty adapting.
You noted that the problem is one of generational poverty, rather than situational poverty. What do you mean?
For me, the main difference is that in generational poverty there is a lack of hope and an inability to see the future as something different from the present. To overcome this, you need to work with people around their ability to perceive possibilities. …
You have to make them feel as if they are willing to take the risk of imagining a different reality. … There are things you can do to make change happen, but first you have to take a risk.
You started programs, including Project Hope and PACE, in Olmsted County, and co-founded Project Legacy with your wife, Karen Light Edmonds, to address some of the related issues. What is the force behind such efforts?
The concept of Project Legacy is about recognizing the type of challenges young people of color face, and then creating support around an individual to overcome those challenges…with the idea that it’s about changing a state of mind or change a view of the world. It is not enough to say “I believe that you can do certain things”. It’s important to have real supports in place so people can develop hope and a belief system that things can be different.
This is what we do.
That’s what it was about. It’s about acknowledging the challenges, but it’s also about changing people’s perception of themselves. This desperation becomes a trap. Poverty is a trap.
There are certainly objective, concrete things that keep people locked in a certain place, but the most effective blockage is the belief that nothing can change.
You originally started Olmsted County’s Project HOPE program as a parent education effort for African American families, but it has morphed to include a broader approach. What was that?
When it was resurrected, it was to provide education, advocacy, and support for African American families. The presumption was that they were mostly people new to Rochester…from Chicago, Gary and Milwaukee. It was with this population that we started to work, and it was more relevant to start working with the families in a way that met the needs.
PACE – Parents and Children Excel – had a similar goal, especially for young students and their families. At the time, other counties in the state focused on graduation rates and other numbers, but you saw a different approach. What was that?
What I started talking about is the metaphor of a thermometer. The numbers tell you that you have a fever. There are things you can do to control the fever, but you haven’t addressed the underlying disease process. If you focus only on the numbers, you miss the broader implications of the systemic issues that lead to the numbers. …
If you look at the number of African American students who don’t graduate, rather than just trying to change that, what you need to do is try to work with the whole family and that’s where the advocacy comes into play. Where you need to provide support to families, you also need to understand the impact of poverty and oppression. You need to help people develop tools and skills to overcome these factors, and you need time. Time is critical, so you don’t just put a band-aid on a symptom.
You called black residents who moved to Rochester from other US cities “invisible immigrants.” What does that mean?
It was really an acknowledgment that the issues facing African Americans in this city were very similar to those of any other immigrant group coming here. … These new immigrants were people fleeing somewhere, which is a different mode if you’re traveling to something.
All of these things that have to do with flight – fear and dislocation and disorientation and all that – were the things that these African Americans were dealing with.
Today, there seem to be more voices supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in local government. As someone who has championed this vision for decades, what do you consider essential to make a difference?
To make it real and lasting, you must first have leadership that is committed to it. It is absolutely essential. The top of the food chain must commit to making this happen. If you don’t have it, it’s a crap shoot.
The other thing you need to have in place, and this is why DIG (the Olmsted County Disproportionality Integration Group) has been successful and led the way in this, is to strengthen quality assurance. … If you don’t measure whether you’re making progress, it just becomes a conversation. …
You have to incorporate responsibility.
It’s been 25 years since you arrived in Olmsted County, but you started in New York City, where you grew up, attended college, and spent nearly five decades of your life. What prompted you to leave?
“I was 49 and I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing. There were other things going on in my life.
“I think one thing that changed my life was that the person I was working for was someone I really admired at the state mental health office. She was a woman I really admired and who I was close to, and she developed breast cancer and went through it all and finally made it through.
“It really shook me up, because she was around my age at the time.
“It really made me look at what’s important in life, and what I was doing wasn’t fulfilling on a personal level, so I left and took a job upstate. New York outside of the mental health field and more so in the social services field.. It wasn’t exciting either, but it got me into a perfect environment…. That was where I had to go to feed my soul.
Upstate New York is still a long way from Rochester. What was the next step?
“I stayed there for about four years, then I met my wife. We met online before it was a thing, and she lived here (in Rochester), and my best friend since teenage lived here. … “In the 70s and 80s, I used to come here quite often. I didn’t know Rochester, but I knew the Twin Cities and the environment here, and had always wanted to come here. …
“At first, I didn’t want to take the risk of moving somewhere without a job. It was too much of a jump for me. … But by the time I was 50, I knew what I was capable of, and I was at a place where I wanted to start working directly with people again. …
“It was kind of meant to be, so I packed up and went here. I didn’t have a job, but I thought I’d find something. It would have been nice to work at McDonalds to do everything what it took to survive. That wasn’t the important piece. What was important was how I fed my soul.
So did you end up selling burgers at some point?
“About two weeks later, I was hired by Olmsted County into child protection. …
“It was perfect. It brought together elements of social justice, elements of diversity, while giving me the opportunity to work with people. … It was the right job, at the right time, in the right place.”
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