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Feature: Doctor, First Do No Harm

By Cassandra Harris-Lockwood

It has been said that when America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia. 

This certainly has been the case in Utica since the Great Recession where there has been an almost total collapse of the not-for-profit infrastructure of the inner city. In particular, those agencies that traditionally provided services to shore up the state of Utica’s Black population are now gone.

All of this loss of support for those Black youths struggling to break free from generations of poverty has gone on under the watchful eye of Dr. Peggy O’Shea of the Community Foundation.

O’Shea has been the “doctor” withholding vital medicines to the gasping patient. No matter how many times and how many ways the “patient” has approached the doctor, a cure has been denied.

The doctor, as chief medical officer of the Foundation, relies heavily upon the advice and counsel of the Chairman of the Board, Keith Fenstemacher. He too chose not to treat the ailing patient. Fenstemacher’s decision to maintain O’Shea’s culture of abandonment of the Black community has been consistent and undeniable.

For instance, Utica Community Action, originally a Black-led agency that provided numerous programs for the inner-city’s underserved and that hired scores of inner-city employees, imploded in disgrace in the early 2000s. The multiple millions of dollars of developmental programs and grant monies lost when UCAI collapsed could be likened to that of loss of the oxygen mask and vital fluids to the pneumonia patient.

During Dr. O’Shea’s tenure, a treatment plan was submitted for the Community Foundation to identify and fund an “impact agency” for a period of three years to step into the void left by the loss of UCAI. The resuscitative benefits of ‘the plan’ were explained early on to Chairman Fenstemacher and detailed in the proposal. No response was ever given and the now critically ill patient was left to languish and continued to fail.

Another example: The YWCA, which for generations provided after-school cultural, physical and academic activities for inner-city girls, is now committed solely to services for rape victims and battered women and their families. Girls, Inc. was the last named victim there to succumb.

The YMCA no longer offers programs for inner-city youths. Nor do the Knights of Columbus or Corn Hill People United, which disappeared years ago. 

Then there was the unattended death of the Cosmopolitan Center in early 2008 as the patient slipped further into decline. No longer is there a senior nutrition program, or centralized after-school program for kids or developmental programs for 16- to-24-year-old dropouts, females or males, no case management, and no gymnasium or multi-use space available for programs right in the neighborhood where they are needed most. No community center, no cool place in the summer or warm place in the winter for kids to gather.

Under Dr. O’Shea’s term at the Foundation there has not been one substantial gift to any Black-led or Black-focused agency, nor has she managed to prevent any further decline of the not-for-profit infrastructure.  Most notably, the Foundation’s repeated refusal to fund the collaborative efforts of Frontiers International and For The Good, Inc. resulted in a major setback for the patient. (See “Failure of Mission”

Everyone knows that education is the key to overcoming poverty. The benefits of a tutoring, mentoring and cultural enrichment program for struggling inner-city students who have the desire to succeed scholastically are a no brainer. Overcoming generations of poverty to embrace productive mainstream lives on a large scale requires targeted support.

At no time has the shoring up of Black (Utica) America been a part of O’Shea’s practice or one in which she has participated. This is while all the while the good doctor represents the generosity and charity of the local 1%. Sadly, Dr. O’Shea has maintained the disgraceful national record of the rich giving less to the growing body of the poor. 

However, Dr. O’Shea and her nurse attendants, Jan Squadrito and Barbara Henderson are seen to sit applauding primly at the awards of distinction for Black scholars at the Rev. Martin Luther King annual luncheon and NAACP awards dinners. These are young Black scholars that the doctor and her foundation have not even offered a Band-Aid  in support of their completion of high school when what was and is really needed was a major transfusion.

Recently, the good doctor, about to end her career, hand-selected a group to consult with her to mull the question of “the next generation of Black leaders” and “What is wrong with you people? Everyone else seems to have progressed but you.”

Now, isn’t that interesting. The Community Foundation promotes its work as “strengthening communities.” The question is, whose community?

One wonders how much money the Foundation spent on bringing Corey Booker, Jeffery Canada, Richard Florida and Dan Heath to town? Buying out the Stanley multiple times can’t come cheap. And most of the references and advice given by these “experts” from out of town are not directed for grasp by the underserved. 

When Florida came to town the Community Foundation created an expo for the “creative class” to which no Black people were included. 

Incidentally, this writer asked specifically to be included with reference to launching the organic raised-bed gardening movement in the city, the Paul Parker Utica Trust and the Study Buddy Club, as examples of innovative use of materials and space. The request was more ignored than denied.

It seems that creative Black people from out of town are more worthy of attention and acknowledgment from the Foundation than those locally grown or engaged.  

Somehow, Dr. O’Shea and her staff couldn’t figure out how to actually live up to their words to “help you make your proposal work.” On the contrary, For The Good was told to go raise the money and when that was in hand, then the Community Foundation would kick in.

At some point during Dr. O’Shea’s time as “chief medical officer” she managed to have an earmark removed from at least one family fund at the Foundation that was intended for use “for the Black causes.” This writer suggested to the family member that perhaps they should reinstate the earmark because the Foundation is not funding those projects or requests from the Black community.

Dr. O’Shea’s last operation was to move the Foundation offices out of downtown, further distancing herself from the sick poor. The purchase and renovations of the former Visiting Nurses Association building will be completed soon. To what dollar amount is a good question. It seems the Foundation doesn’t have a problem spending money on itself or on programs it dreams up.

Perhaps as an act of mercy at the end of Dr. O’Shea’s career, unable as she was to support the programs of the Black community, she might want to shore up the physical properties of the last two remaining independent community development agencies. In that way, even though she refused to administer the medicine, at least the Blacks will have “hospitals” in which the balms, salves and remedies necessary for full health and success will be applied.

The wooden structures of For The Good, Inc. and The Leisure Time Center house the last vestiges of black owned not-for-profit space complete with telephones, computers lights and heat. “C’mon, Doc. Administer the medicine we need to do it on our own if you can’t help with the cure.” 

And to your successor, Alicia Dicks, please take the pledge: First do no harm, and mean it. 

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobro
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.

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