Rochesterians doing great things behind the scenes 


There are many talented people in Greater Rochester working to make the region a better place to work, live, and play. But it often seems like the same names dominate headlines, while other no less deserving people go unnoticed. The Rochester 10 — an annual project by City Newspaper — is designed to bring some of our community's hard-working background players to the forefront.

We are in no way saying that these are the 10 (or 11 in this case, since we feature a pair of education workers) most important people in Rochester. But every person on the list stands out as someone who has contributed to the area in interesting, varied ways over the last year, and we believe that you should know about them.

One splits time between the courtroom and the stage, while another fights for fair wages. And one leads a critical new initiative to reduce poverty.

Below you can learn more about these interesting Rochester residents who are making moves in their community. Is there someone you think deserves to be profiled? Leave a comment on this article at for future consideration.

click to enlarge Shawn Dunwoody - PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON
  • Photo by Mike Hanlon
  • Shawn Dunwoody

ART: Shawn Dunwoody

It wasn't the work of Picasso or Van Gogh that inspired Rochester native Shawn Dunwoody to become an artist. It was the world of comic books and TV, of Superman and Batman and G.I. Joe. For Dunwoody, the best way to become his heroes was to draw them. Spider-Man especially resonated with the young artist-to-be, in part because Peter Parker dealt with everyday dilemmas in addition to saving the world.

As an adult, art is still Dunwoody's connection to the life of a superhero. If anything, it's his willingness to use art as a means to solve problems and affect positive change that makes him larger-than-life.

"When I wake up, it's like, 'OK, am I gonna paint something now, or am I gonna try and tackle world hunger?'" Dunwoody says with a chuckle. "'What am I gonna do?' I'm always evolving, I'm always evolving. I always wanna learn; I always wanna connect."

This desire for connection has meant pursuing different artistic mediums at various points in Dunwoody's career, from realism to mixed media to the use of found objects. He is no stranger to art museum culture, having directed the Four Walls Art Gallery. But he grew disappointed with what he perceived to be the stagnation of the gallery environment and the lack of variety of people. He began to ask questions: "Can we celebrate the time we have together around the art, and appreciate it? It's our interactions that make the art interesting, and it's our personal connection with the piece that grows us," he says.

Dunwoody's vision of art goes beyond just paint and canvas. His most recent works include an entirely different set of materials: the Rochester community itself and the people within it. In this way, Dunwoody sees himself not merely as an artist, but an artist-as-"social designer."

"If I could shift the lead in my pencil, can we shift people's perception?" he says. "Can we shift a community?"

As Public Arts Coordinator for the City of Rochester, Dunwoody spearheaded the Mural Arts Crew of Rochester (MARC). In the last few years, the initiative has employed community members in the creation of murals featuring "words to live by" and encouraging slogans designed to inspire. One of the most prominent of these — on East Main Street near the Public Market — asks "What is your purpose[?]" Another mural on the front of Passaro's Deli on Clifford Avenue simply states, "YOU CAN." These messages stand in stark contrast to those advertising fast food and lottery tickets on corner stores and other city buildings.

In the fall of 2015, the artist's own DUNWOODE Consulting teamed up with Greentopia to create the Fruit Belt Project, which takes the community empowerment of the MARC initiative even further. The project goes beyond simply employing local workers to produce murals on businesses located on Jay and Grape Streets with sayings that reflect the spirit of the neighborhood. The Fruit Belt Project ( also initiates a self-sustaining project that utilizes community resources to benefit those in the JOSANA neighborhood and revitalize the public perception of the community itself.

Members of the community wanted a garden, so Dunwoody and his team built one for the purpose of growing fruit. The yield from the Fruit Belt Garden was then used as natural flavoring in the production of Fruit Belt Seltzer, in collaboration with the local business College Club Beverage. The seltzer also serves as an excellent no-sugar, no-preservative alternative to the unhealthy, sugary beverages that are all too readily available.

"I'm all about exposure," Dunwoody says. "Whatever side of the track it is, whether it's black, white, rich, poor — let's expose different things to different people and see what the hell happens ... You can't discount them just because someone may be under the poverty line or whatever. They have just as great of an idea and concepts, but may not necessarily understand their resources to get there."

With local projects like these, Dunwoody is living up to the superhero standards inspired by the role models of his youth. "If I could call myself something: Yes, I'm a web-slinging social designer who wants to web the world together into something different."

By Daniel J. Kushner

click to enlarge Amy Bach - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Photo by John Schlia
  • Amy Bach

Amy Bach: Criminal justice reform

Data is becoming an increasingly powerful tool. It's used by companies to compare their performance with their competitors, for example, and by health care providers to determine which treatments are most effective.

Measures for Justice ( sees another use for data: gauging the performance of justice systems in counties across the United States. The nonprofit, which is based out of a converted house in the Park Avenue neighborhood, was founded in 2011 by "Ordinary Injustice" author Amy Bach, who lives in Rochester.

Bach spent eight years writing the book, which examines ways that the justice system fails defendants and victims. It draws attention to public defenders whose heavy caseloads cause them to rely too heavily on plea deals, and to prosecutors, who fail to investigate or pursue certain cases due to a lack of resources. The problems persist, Bach concludes, because nobody's able to identify them or root them out. That's where performance data comes into play.

"If I asked you, in Rochester, where the good schools are, you could tell me because of teacher-student ratios, college admissions rates, all sorts of tests, right?" Bach says. "And if I said to you, 'Where's the good hospital?' you could tell me by specialty — if you're having a baby or if you're sick or you have cancer — which hospitals to go to, because there are all sorts of measures. But if I asked you, 'How does your local criminal justice system work?' you would have no idea, and that's because the measures don't exist."

In other words, Bach says, you can't change what you can't see or measure.

Bach's group and its advisors have identified about six dozen county-level "performance measures" intended to help different groups — officials, prosecutors, public defenders, advocates, activists, and the public — evaluate their justice systems and to identify areas for improvement.

Bach and her team have collected county-by-county data on justice systems in six states, which she's not yet permitted to identify. New York is not one of them, but Bach says that Measures for Justice is working to get the state's data.

The organization has developed a searchable system for the data, which allows users to compare data from one county with other counties in and outside of the same state. The data is also sortable by race and ethnicity, sex, indigent status, or offense type. It will roll out publicly in 2016, Bach says.

The comparisons will be crucial, Bach says, to identify specific inequities in justice systems.

"What causes explosions in places like Ferguson is that people know they're being treated unfairly but they can't see it and they can't show it," Bach says. "What Measures for Justice allows you to do is to see the problem."

By Jeremy Moule

click to enlarge Adrian Elim - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • Photo by John Schlia
  • Adrian Elim

ACTIVISM: Adrian Elim

Ferguson, Missouri, was a flashpoint; it brought to the surface issues of inequality and oppression that churn in every American city.

And it was a catalyst for Adrian Elim and some of his friends to form the Building Leadership and Community Knowledge activist group, better known as B.L.A.C.K.

Elim says that he and the group's other founders were still outraged by the Trayvon Martin fatal shooting in Florida, when an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. They felt the need to do something meaningful, Elim says, but they weren't sure what.

Their discussions eventually turned to the need for a black leadership and activist group in Rochester, Elim says. Initially, B.L.A.C.K. focused largely on protests, but has since developed into a multifaceted group devoted to empowering Rochester's black community. Elim is one of the group's head organizers.

"Essentially, our goal is black liberation from all the various oppressive systems that seek to keep us in bondage, keep us immobile as far as economic mobility, as far as prosperity," he says.

Education is a major focus for the group; it advocates for more black teachers and administrators in city schools and more community control over curriculum. The group also runs a tutoring program at the Arnett Library. And on the first Wednesday of every month, members greet arriving students at Wilson Foundation Academy with words of encouragement, and walk with School 19 students, singing with them and doing chants.

Too often, Elim says, students hear from adults that they are worthless, or won't amount to anything, especially if they act out.

"We need to be encouraging them and we need to be telling them they could be anything," Elim says. "And we need to be educating them. We need to be taking the time to go that extra mile for them and treat them like they're one of our own kids."

The group also works to identify black-owned businesses, to encourage the black community to support those enterprises, and to show people that starting their own business is a way to become self-sufficient. The group organized a Black Business Marketplace event, which drew 47 vendors and approximately 1,000 people to the Sibley Building on a Saturday in late November.

Elim co-owns Brothahood Productions, which does video and music production, web design, graphic design, social media management, and brand management. Much of the company's work is focused on changing the ways that black people are perceived and received by the media, he says.

The company's work dovetails with a key B.L.A.C.K. goal, which is to educate people on the black experience, which is not a singular thing. Someone with Caribbean roots likely has a different culture from a person with European roots.

And as a black, queer man, Elim says that he often doesn't feel represented in LGBT community imagery. He and a couple of other black, queer friends recently published a zine, Flux, meant to get out some of the stories and perspectives of that community.

"The media and various entities try to say that blackness is only this or that, one thing or another," Elim says. "But it's so varied in degrees and all of those experiences are valid, all of those perspectives are valuable."

By Jeremy Moule

click to enlarge Tony Colon - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Photo by Mark Chamberlin
  • Tony Colon

BUSINESS: Tony Colon

Fuego Coffee Roasters owner Tony Colon is more than an entrepreneur. He and his wife, Renee, are part of a small collection of people who are changing coffee culture in Rochester. And they are using their passion to ignite the potential they find in others. Having moved from small town, humble beginnings to hard-won success as small business owners, the Colons are now making moves to help urban kids and foreign orphans by setting up beneficial business opportunities. For the Colons, the service field has a double meaning.

Fuego opened its flagship espresso bar and tasting room at 167 Liberty Pole Way in the summer of 2013, and is in the process of expanding to an annexed space next door for additional seating. In September 2015, Fuego opened a second location at Monroe Community College. And in addition to operating a roastery on St. Paul Street, Fuego provides wholesale beans to restaurants and grocery stores.

But the Colons' success came out of a difficult span of time, which is part of the reason they are so empathetic to others who have a rough path to tread.

When Renee, Tony's high school sweetheart, moved to Rochester to attend Roberts Wesleyan College, Tony stayed in their hometown, Malone, New York, to study psychology and sociology. But Tony flunked out of school, and worked his way up to management at Pizza Hut.

"I'm not a person who really learns in a class environment," he says. "I have to do something that's really hands on, and learn on my own."

Still, he craved something with more meaning. "I knew that I loved coffee," he says. But Malone didn't really have coffee shops, "it was all gas stations with pump pots."

Colon joined Renee in Rochester to work at Java's café while taking business courses at MCC.

Then Renee got in a terrible car accident. Tony dropped out of school to stay with her in the Syracuse hospital where she recovered for two months, and worked at Java's on the weekends. As time progressed, Colon managed Java's four cafés, and helped develop its coffee truck.

Colon dreamed of opening his own café, with a specific interest in profile roasting. "It's knowing everything about the coffee that you're serving," Colon says, "and being able to treat it like you would wine. Good coffee has a lot of depth, a lot of flavors that you can taste within the roast profile and process."

The couple bought a roaster, and initially went into business wholesaling their product to restaurants and grocery stores. Fuego opened to the public as a tasting room that has transitioned into a café.

Tony is now one of 100 baristas accepted from a national pool to compete in the US Coffee Championship's upcoming qualifying event, which takes place February 2 through 5 in Kansas City.

Most of Fuego's coffee is purchased farm-direct, with fewer middlemen, so that farmers see a higher percentage of the money their product earns. Fuego also sources some coffee through direct trade, which entails travelling to the coffee's origin, and exchanging money directly into the farmers' hands, small business to small business.

Thus far, Fuego has struck direct trade relationships in Orocovis, Puerto Rico, where Colon's father's family lives, and from Guatemala, after Renee began working with orphans in Huehuetenango.

The Colons say they will either buy the orphanage a roaster, so they can distribute coffee throughout Guatemala, or build a processing plant, so the orphanage can buy coffee cherries from a farmer, process them, and then the Colons would sell the coffee in Rochester to help support the orphanage.

Tony and Renee also plan to make an impact on a local scale. They will be working with a group to set up a café in the Parsells area, and employ at-risk inner city school kids.

"I was never really good at school; I didn't really care about it," Tony says. "But if you share your passion, it's contagious. No, they might not want to work in coffee, but they see your passion, and they're learning a skill set, and they're getting excited about going out and finding that thing that they want to do."

By Rebecca Rafferty

click to enlarge Danielle Raymo - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Photo by Mark Chamberlin
  • Danielle Raymo

COMMUNITY: Danielle Raymo

During the two years Danielle Raymo lived in Brooklyn, she found herself driving back to Rochester almost every weekend. She was still job-hunting while she volunteered at radio stations around the city, and the lack of coworkers and nearby friends left her missing home.

"People down there just don't hang out as much," says Raymo, a Greece native. "You see people once a month if you're lucky. Coming back here, I realized how much more relaxed everything was. In a weekend, I could see more friends than I saw in a month in New York."

Things changed when Raymo's longtime friend, Stephanie Rankin, and her husband Travis visited Raymo and her boyfriend, David Timmons, in Brooklyn in spring 2012. Rankin's husband is somewhat of a beer aficionado, so the couples opened a bunch of bottles, tasting-style, at the apartment.

"I told them about this place across the street, Brooklyn Brainery, and how our 'tasting' would be a good class there," Raymo says. "And then Stephanie said, 'I've always wanted to own my own business." I said, 'Me too! We should just open it in Rochester.'"

A month later, the women had a DBA and the wheels were in motion. Raymo and Timmons left the bustle of Brooklyn for Jersey City a few months later, but by February 2013, Raymo was moving back to the Flower City alone to operate Rochester Brainery with Rankin.

"It happened really fast," Raymo reflects. "At first, Travis and David were like, 'Hahaha, we'll totally support you,' but had no idea that within a year we'd do this."

Rochester Brainery ( officially opened in March 2013, and now, two-and-a-half years later, it's thriving. The Brainery has become a hub where the community can teach and take classes on everything from watercolor painting to pierogi making (two of the most popular classes offered).

"It's become more than I thought it would be," Raymo says, adding that they now hold a monthly Brainery Bazaar (a fair for handmade and local goods), along with renting the space out for events and meetings.

Since the Brainery opened, Raymo has noticed an increase in classes around the city in general — a trend she attributes to the Millennial Generation's penchant for experience over material goods. Rochester Brainery, which is located in Village Gate on North Goodman, draws a large audience in its 20's, but also sees quite a few upper-middle aged attendees who are retired or empty nesters.

At the end of the day, it's all about supporting and growing community in downtown Rochester, Raymo says. In addition to the Rochester Brainery — which Raymo now runs solo, since the departure of Rankin, her co-founder, in November — Raymo was the driving force behind the first social media conference held downtown this year: Upstate Social Sessions, which drew nearly 300 attendees at School of the Arts on Halloween. Raymo also volunteers with Rochester City Living, and sits on the board of Reconnect Rochester because she believes strongly in public transportation.

"It's a huge draw for a city, for people visiting and living or working downtown," she says. "I think it's vital to growth — less cars, more room for people."

It's probably worth mentioning Raymo does all of this while holding down a full-time job as an office manager in East Rochester and freelancing for social media clients. And she got married (to longtime boyfriend Timmons, who works as a tour manager for bands like Metric) in November. When Raymo lists off what she's doing, she still doesn't think it's that much.

"My five year plan is to continue to foster the Brainery into something that is a resource seven days a week — day and evening — that is available to use as a community space," she says. "I want to grow with what people want to learn about, so a big part of that is community outreach."

She hesitates for a minute, and then laughs.

"I want to do more. There are so many things I love. Maybe that's the 15-year plan."

By Leah Stacy

click to enlarge Danielle Ponder - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Photo by Mark Chamberlin
  • Danielle Ponder

LAW/MUSIC: Danielle Ponder

Danielle Ponder is equally passionate about her two seemingly disparate careers as a public defender and as the frontwoman of funk and soul group Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People.

"I don't think they're as different as people think they are, honestly," Ponder says. "When you're a criminal defense attorney, litigating in the courtroom is being on a stage, and essentially, telling someone's story is pretty much what you do when you're a musician. The biggest thing is that what you want in both cases is for the audience to feel what you're saying. When I'm speaking in court, I'm asking them to feel what I'm saying about what my client's going through. To me, it's the art of storytelling in both fields."

Ponder is also involved with the Rochester community through the Anti-Poverty Initiative, and she serves on the board for Teen Empowerment.

She says cases where she defends teenagers always impact her the most, "because, first of all, they shouldn't be in the criminal justice system. Many of them don't have a mom, don't have a dad ... the fact that they're alive, they should get an award for that, because their lives are so screwed up. And the system treats them like an adult, and doesn't really have the mechanisms to provide services to them."

Ponder works to point out shades of gray in a system that sees matters as black and white, and explores how the courts can be used to get help for young people.

"Situations where I can keep people out of jail make me the happiest — but keeping them out of jail by saying, 'Let's look at this and figure out what they need.'"

Ponder says the moments she feels the best are when she has connected her client with resources to help them in the future. "I think our criminal justice system should go in the direction of looking at this more holistically," she says.

She also witnesses the effects that indoctrination to see people of color as inherently criminal have on our community. "Getting white people to see our humanity is our biggest struggle," Ponder says.

Take a kid who's arrested for something that's not a crime, "which happens all the time in Rochester," Ponder says, "but people in the courtroom are almost like, 'Well, I'm sure he did something else.'" She cites examples of black teens arrested for refusing to make eye contact with an officer who deemed that suspicious, or for the conveniently nebulous offense of "disorderly conduct."

"The only way I can think of getting people to care what is happening in our justice system is to talk to them about their tax dollars," she says, "and the financial burden that arresting and jailing people puts on our city and county."

Once or twice a week, Ponder will practice with her band after she leaves court for the day. The business of managing the band, negotiating deals, and planning events is time consuming, too. The band recently returned from a fall European tour. "They really have a love for black American soul music," she says. "Here, we can hear soul music at any church on Sunday, but it's more of a novelty there."

Ponder and her band are so beloved that Rochester rallied to raise funds through Go Fund Me to send them to Europe. They released a new empowerment-themed album, "Blow Out the Sun," in November, and plan to tour Europe again in April.

At each venue, the band played their song "Criminalize" and spoke about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot and killed by police in 2014. "It was so amazing to do it there, because here we're all a little more desensitized, but in Europe, people were shocked," Ponder says. "You could see the emotion on people's faces, and feel the pause ... a pause we don't give anymore."

"People came up to me afterwards to express sympathy, and to tell me, 'We have racist cops here, lots of racist cops, but they don't kill people,'" she says. "It affirmed for me, that my purpose in life, on stage and in the courtroom, is to tell these stories that people are not listening to."

By Rebecca Rafferty

click to enlarge Leonard Brock - PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON
  • Photo by Mike Hanlon
  • Leonard Brock

POVERTY: Leonard Brock

Leonard Brock, director of the Rochester-Monroe County Anti-Poverty Initiative at United Way, is the region's man of the hour.

Along with improving Rochester's schools and rejuvenating downtown, reducing poverty is one of the area's most pressing issues. Decades beyond its white-collar glory days, Rochester is one of the poorest cities in the country.

Leading the city out of the chasm could practically immortalize Brock and put his career on a launching pad. If the effort flounders, though, Brock will be the guy who oversaw yet another failed initiative.

Now roughly six months into the job, Brock says that he knew for the most part what he was getting into.

"I knew that it was going to be a lot of work," he says. "I didn't know the level of politics, big P and small P, I would have to navigate."

The initiative has ambitious goals: to cut poverty in the Rochester-Monroe County region by 15 percent in five years and by 50 percent in 15 years. The effort involves hundreds of volunteers who focus their attention on the issues that factor into poverty, such as education, housing, employment, and the criminal justice system.

They're paying particular attention to trauma and racism and the roles they play in the lives of many people in the area.

Much of the strategy to reduce poverty is based on the initiative's ability to encourage collaboration between the region's many social service agencies, as well as the direct participation of individuals coping with poverty. Coordinating resources, reducing duplicate efforts, and using data to show what's working and what isn't are all part of the grand plan.

Funds from the Upstate Revitalization Initiative — the region has won a $500-million award from the state — will also help.

The hitch, and Brock will be the first to say that it's a big one, is keeping the community engaged, moving forward, and not wallowing in the past.

"We're traumatized by the amount of failures we've had in the past," he says. "But it's not fair to use that as an assessment."

Brock knows that the way forward won't be easy, especially in an endeavor that is long term and process heavy.

"We are in a crisis," he says. "In order for things to change, we have to be clear about what we want."

Brock says that he understands that the immediate concern for many people is getting a job instead of getting involved in an extended process with the initiative, but that the work is necessary.

"There are barriers to going out and getting a job for a lot of folks," he says, "such as transportation and child care."

If anyone understands those barriers, it's Brock. Raised by a single mother who struggled with health issues in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, Brock says that his success is a result of sheer determination.

"Every day was a hustle," he says. Behind the Dale Carnegie-like optimism, Brock is an iron rail of resilience.

"My first job with a master's degree was working at the Community Place for $10 an hour," he says. The opportunities presented to him, he says, were not the same as those for his white peers.

The initiative's biggest barrier may be that it does not have direct control over the agencies it's working with or over their funding streams. Bridging that gap isn't going to be easy, Brock says, but it can be done.

"The goal is not to control," he says. "It's to influence."

By Tim Louis Macaluso

click to enlarge Kim Ramos - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Kim Ramos


Kim Ramos was 15 when she landed her first fast-food job, a gig at a McDonald's. She spent the next six years working in chain restaurants, including Taco Bell and Wendy's.

Ramos was working full-time by then, but still making minimum wage and not earning nearly enough to make ends meet. Nationwide, the Fight for $15 movement was gaining momentum and Ramos found the group's message, that fast-food workers deserve a $15 minimum wage and the ability to unionize, attractive.

Ramos convinced some of her coworkers to join her in the campaign's first Rochester-area strike, which took place in front of the Irondequoit Wendy's where Ramos worked. Then seven months ago, Ramos began working as an organizer for Metro Justice on the Rochester Fight for $15 campaign.

"They deserve to have a living wage to support their families, to be able to go to work and be respected," Ramos says of fast-food workers. "This is their fight; I'm just there for when they need some help."

The campaign is about fairness, and squaring public perception with reality. Many people think of fast-food employees as high school students working part-time to earn a little cash. But the workers are often adults, and include parents trying to support their families, college students trying to support themselves, or a combination.

With the decline in manufacturing, service-sector businesses such as retail and fast food are among the few job providers for unskilled workers. The supporters of a $15 minimum wage say that fast-food restaurants, in particular, are profitable and can afford to pay their employees better.

The Fight for $15 campaign, with is both national and local, quickly gained support in New York, which translated to a quick win. Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a wage board earlier this year to examine whether the state ought to require a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers. The board said it should, and recommended a phased-in approach that was eventually put in place by the Cuomo administration.

That was an important victory, Ramos says. But it hasn't been met with universal support. Many New Yorkers think that fast-food workers shouldn't make that much money, she says, since the wage exceeds the typical pay of some nurses, ambulance workers, construction workers, and other laborers.

But Ramos says that higher wages for one set of low-income workers should encourage workers in other areas to push for better pay. And what some critics don't understand is that they need to fight for higher wages for those workers, Ramos says, and not begrudge the boost for fast-food workers.

"Fast-food workers chose to take a stand and to fight for what they believe they deserve," she says.

With a victory on wages, the local Fight for $15 campaign is now working to advance unions for the restaurant workers. Ramos is identifying and providing support for workplace leaders who, in turn, will try to build support among their co-workers.

"This is their campaign," Ramos says. "They do all the work."

By Jeremy Moule

  • Photo by Mark Chamberlin
  • Missy Pfohl Smith

DANCE: Missy Pfohl Smith

Missy Pfohl Smith, the artistic director of the local modern dance company BIODANCE, has a unique talent for creating socially-conscious works — works that reflect on our interactions (or lack of) with others. Her dance pieces are challenging and thought-provoking, nudging audiences toward self-reflection.

Over the last year, she and her company have presented Pfohl Smith's "Social Justice Series," a body of work that addresses injustices in today's society and comments on inequalities. The 10-member dance company has performed in libraries, senior centers, and other community venues, particularly reaching out to seniors to help them tell their stories.

A good example of what she is accomplishing with this series was "Compartmented," a site-specific, multimedia, pop-up event co-curated by Pfohl Smith and Evelyne Leblanc-Roberge, assistant professor of art and lens-based media at the University of Rochester. The event took place in early December in the former Sunday school space located in the back of what is now the Lyric Theatre on East Avenue. The pop-up was created specifically to be performed in this unique space (the former home of First Church of Christ, Scientist) which has rounded walls separated into 20 tiny reading rooms on two levels.

This installation piece featured the work of 17 artists and included video sculpture, performance art and storytelling along with dance. Artists were isolated in the reading rooms; their performances reflecting their inner musings. Senior citizens from Community Place — the downtown Rochester center where Pfohl Smith offers movement classes and leads discussion circles for the occupants — appeared in the show, literally telling their own stories while BIODANCE interpreted the tales through movement.

"Our elders truly have so much wisdom to share," Pfohl Smith says, "but we rarely pay attention to them in our culture. I wanted to give them an opportunity to be seen and listened to."

Part of the work Pfohl Smith is doing with BIODANCE has to do with intimacy, she says. "I think we're losing understanding of human to human intimacy. We're exploring that."

At 45, Pfohl Smith has had her own company for nearly 10 years. She originally formed BIODANCE in 2002 in New York City where she spent more than a decade dancing and traveling with Randy James Dance Works, a company whose work incorporates elements of both modern dance and ballet. After relocating to Rochester, Pfohl Smith re-established BIODANCE by 2006.

"I'm interested in contact improvisation," she says. "Improv is big in my creative process. I'm working not just with myself but with eight other artists. What is created comes not just from my body but from their bodies, too. People I work with have been with me from the beginning. You really understand each other's language."

Last fall, BIODANCE appeared at the Rochester Fringe Festival's Friday on the Fringe event with Grounded Aerial in front of 13,000 audience members. While the modern dance and aerial arts company scaled the side of the One HSBC Plaza building downtown, BIODANCE performed atop the "Tribute to Man" sculpture in Manhattan Square.

That wasn't the first major project for BIODANCE at the Fringe. In 2013, the company presented "Anomaly," a site-specific work performed in the four-story dome of the Strasenburgh Planetarium in collaboration with Sound ExChange and W. Michelle Harris, a media artist and associate professor of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

BIODANCE has also appeared in many festivals and locales outside of Rochester: The Yard in Martha's Vineyard; The Heidelberg New Music and Dance Festival in Tiffin, Ohio; University Settlement in New York City; and Danspace at St. Mark's Church in New York as part of the Remember Project. They have also performed at many colleges and universities.

Pfohl Smith started dancing as a 3-year-old in Buffalo, where she grew up, but entered her freshman year at SUNY Geneseo on a pre-med tract. Once she switched to Brockport the following year she changed course.

"I realized that dance was such a way bigger field than I had thought, and I decided to major in it. At first I thought maybe dance therapy, but I was performing and doing well so I decided that dance was my path."

When she moved back to Rochester, Pfohl Smith started teaching at the college level, and has held classes at Brockport, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and The University of Rochester — where she is now the director of the Program of Dance and Movement.

By Casey Carlsen

click to enlarge John Boutet (left) and John Laing. - PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON
  • Photo by Mike Hanlon
  • John Boutet (left) and John Laing.

EDUCATION: John Boutet and John Laing

If you've ever attended one of Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's coffee and conversation events — essentially a public meet-and-greet with the superintendent — then you know John Boutet and John Laing. The men retired from their jobs several years ago, but not from civic duty.

The men volunteered in city schools for several years, but then made the leap from volunteers to education activists in 2012 when they learned that School 16 in the southwest section of the city was going to be closed.

Vargas's decision to close the school was based on multiple concerns, chiefly what he saw as the deteriorated state of the building. He wasn't sure that investing millions to fix the school was sensible.

Boutet and Laing jumped into action, lobbying Vargas day and night for months to change his mind.

"Yes, it was an old school, but it had been serving a purpose," Boutet says.

Boutet and Laing say that closing the school would jeopardize the stability and vibrancy of the southwest, and make it more difficult to attract families to the area. They and other southwest residents deeply concerned about School 16's future recognized the need to build a community-wide effort to save the school.

Boutet spread the word on the social networking site, which continues to be used as a neighborhood communication tool about city schools. Boutet also pursued the support of the 19th Ward Community Association and the Southwest Common Council, an organization that represents many southwest communities.

What Boutet and Laing understood from the beginning is that School 16 is symbolic of a much bigger problem: the loss of connectedness between schools and neighborhoods.

And the fight to save School 16 reignited a sometimes heated public debate about the role and value of neighborhood schools and their direct influence on a neighborhood's stability.

Efforts to keep School 16 open succeeded. Vargas agreed to make the school part of the second phase of the schools modernization program to ensure it got the repairs it needed.

"I think he listened to us because we developed a relationship with him," Laing says. "There's a value to persistence."

But the southwest then faced the prospect of more closings with Schools 10 and 44.

Boutet, Laing, and many other southwest residents organized and went back to work. They were able to convince Vargas and the school board to keep School 10 open, but the board voted to close School 44.

The men are still involved in city schools. Laing, for instance, works with fourth graders interested in science, and he promotes the popular 19th Ward Spelling Bee. And both men still advocate for neighborhood schools.

"Busing has been the poison for neighborhood schools," Boutet says. Parents are less interested in volunteering in a school that isn't near their home and their children don't attend the school.

"There's all sorts of ways people can get involved," he says. "But they want to do it in their own neighborhood."

By Tim Louis Macaluso

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