On September 16, 2014, the Chair of Leadership Rockland welcomed the Class of 2015 at the Orientation Dinner in Nyack. The text of the address is reprinted below.
Welcome to the Class of 2015, and its theme: “The Changing Face of Rockland.” Yours marks the twenty-fifth class of Leadership Rockland, so we are celebrating a milestone of sorts.
In 1989, an educational experiment called Leadership Rockland was conceived by a handful of community leaders and educators, including among other: Paul Janesch, editor and publisher of the Journal News; a young attorney named Scott Vanderhoef; Mark Rothenberg of United Water; Dr. John Durney of St. Thomas Aquinas College; Holly Freedman, of the Arts Council of Rockland. Their ambition was to equip the next generation of leaders in business and community with a better understanding of Rockland’s diverse composition. The first Class graduated in 1991. On a statewide level, that class witnessed the announcement by Governor Mario Cuomo that the Tappan Zee Bridge required replacement. On a county-wide level, a study was conducted to determine the efficacy of retaining the County nursing home; and the expert advice expounded was to sell it as soon as possible. On a federal level, that class witnessed the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which extended the same Civil Rights to the physically disabled that had been granted in 1964 to other groups who suffered from discrimination.
Twenty-five years hence, how has the face of Rockland changed? Today, Rockland County is haven to the most ethnically and religiously diverse population of any community in the United States – with the exception of Queens County, NY. We are a virtual “melting pot”. Little Rockland County: the geographically smallest New York State county outside the five boroughs of New York City. We have opened our doors (albeit sometimes reluctantly) to the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” Keep in mind that diversity has the potential to be a community asset. Yet acts of discrimination incessantly appear in the headlines.
Why? We have only to look at the facts underlying the headlines: The three fastest growing Rockland population cohorts are: the Hassidic/Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community; undocumented Latinos; and senior citizens. All are in one way or another alienated from the larger population physically, socially and economically. All are dependent, to some degree, on services supported by the taxes we pay. Anti-Semitism and disparagement of the undocumented poor are evidenced every day – roiling over the sides of this melting pot.
Statistically, Rockland parallels national trends: Fifteen percent of our Nation’s population – 46 million people – live below the poverty line. But the balance of poverty has changed geographically since 1990. Today, this country consists of more racially and culturally diverse minorities than ever, and they (read that “we”) are more likely to live in suburbs than in cities. More than 51% of African Americans now live in the suburbs than in urban and rural areas combined. Poverty? The suburban poor surpassed the urban poor in numbers by 2012. And the suburban poor continue to grow at a faster rate than the impoverished in urban centers. One emanation of this since the Great Recession is that suburban schools have seen the number of students eligible for full – and reduced cost – lunches grow by 22% in the suburbs, and only 8% in the cities.
And the third group: Senior Citizens. They remain in the community they have grown to know. Or they return from the unfulfilled promise of the Sun Belt to be closer to family and friends. The last of the Baby Boomers turns 60 this December. New York has the second fastest growth rate of seniors in the country. And Rockland has the fastest growth rate of seniors in the state. The only seniors leaving New York are those wealthy enough to wish to protect their estates from burdensome estate taxes. The very people we most wish to retain! Those who contribute more to the economy than they draw from it. Locally, the economic, social and physical structures of the community have not fully addressed the needs of the elderly.
The one fastest declining element of our population is our work-force population, the group whose discretionary income fuels our local economy; the one upon whose labor our collective business enterprise is dependent; the one population cohort which produces a new generation to supplant itself, and infuse new life – literally – in our community.
Of this cohort, the young adult workforce is departing to seek a very different lifestyle, one more urban in character than that which had been desired by its parents and grandparents. The Millennium Generation eschews the two-car garage, once a status symbol, and the automobiles housed therein. Simultaneously, Gen X and Gen Y adults are leaving to follow employment opportunities that are becoming non-existent locally. The workforce wishes to reduce its cost of living without impacting its quality of life; and the employers, faced with a diminishing workforce and a higher cost of conducting business, seek more welcoming environments elsewhere.
Industries found their way to the suburbs in a mass exodus from the cities during the last half of the twentieth century. Cheaper land, lower taxes and utilities, and proximity to the new suburban homestead were among the determining factors. Yet the suburbs, more so than the cities, were hardest hit by the Great Recession. Manufacturing, construction and retail sectors, in particular, have had difficulty recovering. Commerce in Rockland County, which spiked within the last fifty years, has been on the decline. Lost jobs have not been replenished because suburban support systems as diverse as mass transit and child care are lacking.
So . . . twenty-five years later, we are just beginning to build a bridge that was identified as obsolete when Leadership Rockland incubated. To the extent that we couldn’t afford to construct mass transit due to lack of funding sources, the new bridge will remain obsolete.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is unenforced, as illustrated by the fact that the second floor of this very venue is inaccessible to the disabled. And the ADA’s progenitor, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, struggles – as exemplified by our East Ramapo School District – where the oppressed defend acts of oppression against others who are oppressed. There’s the apocryphal story of Rabbi Hillel who – upon being accosted by Prussian soldiers – was directed to explain the Torah while standing on one leg. His simple reply, “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you,” seems to have been lost on the East Ramapo School Board.
And our county nursing home was finally sold – amidst lawsuits and the threat of state takeover of County finances. Rockland County government is still reeling from its fiduciary mismanagement.
In retrospect, I suggest that the suburban movement is on the decline. In this new day, we must create a different social, economic and physical model to save our communities. One that will at once better support housing, education, mass transit, jobs and the environment. But we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking employed when we created them. I believe we require a complete make-over. It is the intention of Leadership Rockland to identify issues, inform you of their complex interconnections, and inspire you to derive new, workable solutions.
As John Kennedy observed: “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Fear of change is often a stumbling block to progress. Fear is genetically encoded in each of us. We must overcome this primal impediment, for if we do not actively create our own destiny, it will be done for us. And probably not to our liking.
You – as the twenty-fifth class of Leadership Rockland – are being asked on the most personal and primal levels to consider your resistance to change, and to move beyond it. Then you are being tasked with engagement in creative thinking: reverse a growing trend where – at all levels – expense exceeds income; where apathy overshadows participation; where despair increasingly smothers hope. Recruit the wisdom and experience of the entire community. Find ways to engage the energy of the new American adult, as well as the wisdom of the elderly. Develop a formula which can attract those with the potential to contribute positively; and then offer an environment that will elicit the very best they have to offer. Turn what is fast becoming a social crucible of distrust and discontent back into a melting pot blending our unique contributions into a community greater than the sum of its rich and diverse parts.