Envisioning the Future Day 2018

By Jessica Willey, Business Consultant, Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Envisioning the Future Day has finally arrived!  After months of preparation, the design team welcomed the LGS Class of 2018 to the Syracuse University Warehouse, which houses Syracuse University School of Design.  Director James Fathers explained that the building also contains community spaces and hosts pop up and project events, helping connect the community to the University.  This was a perfect introduction, because we had a full agenda for the day, and it all would revolve around the concept of connecting the different communities of Syracuse together to create a brighter future for the city as a whole.

Class day was sponsored by The Central New York Regional Planning & Development Board, and David Bottar filled us in on all the great things the organization is involved with including working with citizens to gather ideas and implement them in the community.

The day kicked off with speaker Bob Doucette.  Bob has an impressive resume, and began his portion of the morning discussing an inspiring video called Syracuse Rising (https://vimeo.com/237831877).  He encouraged us, as a city, to ask a seemingly simple question:  “Who are we, and who do we hope to be?”  He reassured us that we are not unique in our condition.  Cities have been rising and falling and evolving for tens of thousands of years.  When you’re in the middle of change, he explained, it is harder to see it.  He showed us photos of the city over time, and what he has done to help revitalize Armory square to be the mixed use retail, residential, and office space that it is today.   Bob was passionate about the removal of Interstate 81 and the addition of a grid.  He believes that it is imperative all communities have access to the city by foot, by bike, and by car.  Interstate 81 divides us, he explained, which disconnects communities across the city.  Those connections allow better opportunity for citizens of Syracuse.  Bob ended his talk be encouraging us to know in our mind where we would like to be as a city, and create a road map to get there.

The group asked Bob some passionate and tough questions during Q&A, where we discussed the impact of community leadership, the consolidation of government and schools, the 15th ward, and Interstate 81.

The majority of the class wrote Ben Walsh as a leader in the community they would love to meet, so everyone was thrilled to see him on the agenda.  He put together a slide show that highlighted topics his administration is going to be working on in the coming term.  Who better to envision the future of Syracuse than the newly elected Mayor?  He shared his ideas and visions for the city and highlights how he plans to use collaboration, cooperation, innovation, and compassion to help Syracuse rise to its fullest potential.  He, like Bob, thought a city without Interstate 81 was more inclusive and connected.   You could feel then energy, excitement, and optimism of class members with Ben in the room and they were all quite vocal about their hope and trust in his leadership.  He was passionate about connecting the town and county with the city, and saw the value in bringing those sectors together, and spoke of the value of being an informed citizen.

Up next was Larry Williams, CEO of Syracuse Community Connections.  Larry’s passion for the community he serves was palpable, and he choked up a few times while talking to us Syracuse’s gang violence and the young lives lost to urban violence.  Larry shared some staggering statistics about illegal gun use, and the class was visibly shocked to hear them.   He’s a powerful example of how a person can have a great impact when they choose to contribute to the community in which they come from.  Larry believes that the police, hospitals, and those tied up in urban violence need to come together to help address the issues at hand.  He spoke of the challenges that the city faces that may be different than the challenges of the suburbs.  Something Larry spoke of that the class seemed to really agree with was that most of these young people that get involved with gangs are innocent products of their environment, and people like Larry are instrumental in helping these kids break free.   His presentation was followed by a great and lengthy discussion about the advantages of engaging and mentoring community youth.

Hasan Stephens was next, and wears quite a few hats in the community!  His largest responsibility is to A Good Life Foundation, of which he is the Founder/Executive Director.  He took us through an activity called Virus.  It was easy for the class to see just how quickly this “virus” spread through the population.  When we were able to offer people protection, the virus spread much slower. The activity had underlying themes of isolation that could be applied to different marginalized populations.  We talked about the game and how it could be interpreted on individual, organizational, and societal levels.  Hasan lead the class in discussion stressing the importance of reaching out to those in the community that are suffering and offering a helping hand, no matter how small the gesture.  If you are not actively practicing love, you are practicing hate, he told the class.  Many disenfranchised groups feel unworthy and helpless.  They need tools, resources, education, and assistance, and if we are able to, we should help.  His activity demonstrated that if one person goes down, we are a community go down, and everyone has a part to play in the breakdown of oppressive systems.  We exclaimed that we are a city of underdogs, and there is always something to be done.

Hasan encouraged us to find someone in the community we wouldn’t normally interact with and form a connection by asking them questions about their background, network, and self-interest.   As we were learning throughout the day, everyone benefits by connecting with others.

Last but not least, we were joined by Dominic Robinson, Vice President of Economic Inclusion at CenterState CEP and Olive Sephuma, Director of Center for new Americans at Interfaith Works to speak about Syracuse’s immigrant and refugee population.  Olive started with some facts and statistics about the refugee population.  Did you know that Syracuse has welcomed over 9,500 since 2007?  Neither did I!  Interfaith Works helps prepare these people for complete and successful integration into our community which, in turn, as Dominic shared, is great for the local economy.   Olive showed moving video titled We Are One that moved some to tears.

Olive also brought along Harith Alnoamy, a refugee from Iraq.  He shared his story with us told us about how coming to Syracuse was a safe haven for him and his family.  He spoke of the challenges refugees face.  Obvious ones came to mind, like language barriers, but there are so many other disadvantages and road blocks refugees face when trying to assimilate in their new cities.  His story was inspiring, and he is now a current employer of Interfaith Works.

Overall, Envisioning the Future Day was thought provoking, emotional, informative, and fun.   Special thanks to all of our presenters, classmates, hosts, and sponsors.  Can’t wait to see what the next class day has in store!