Ramon Rojano is a professional nudge. Let's say you're a single mother on welfare who goes to him for family therapy because your teenage son is skipping school and on the verge of being expelled. Leaning forward in his chair, the stocky, energetic Rojano will start prodding and poking with his questions in his Spanish accent, zeroing in on your son like he's herding a stray lamb back to the fold. After some minutes of this interrogation, you actually hear your boy admit what's going on with him and promise you, in a small, sincere voice you haven't heard come out of him in a long time, that he will go to school regularly so he can graduate. As your mouth drops open in surprise, Rojano won't even pause. Now, he'll urge the 15-year-old to apply for an after-school job he just heard about from someone who runs a program--Rojano seems to know everyone in Hartford, Connecticut, where he has lived since coming from Colombia 10 years ago. Rojano will write the phone number down and put it directly into the boy's hand, look him in the eye and use his name a few times to make sure he knows Rojano, the Big-Cheese Psychiatrist, as he mockingly calls himself, actually cares whether or not this kid ends up on the streets or in a gang.
Before you know it, Rojano will have you picking up the phone, right there in his office, to set up an appointment for your son with the director of a mentor program, who just so happens to be another pal of his. As you dial the number and he gives you a subtle nod of approval, you think the session's over, right? Not quite. He has plans for you, too. Be prepared--he might ask you something totally outrageous, like whether you've thought about owning your own house. You may be a single mother barely getting by, but as he leans toward you it's like the force of his confidence in you pulls you in, and now he's pressing a piece of paper into your hand with the number of a woman he knows who runs a program that helps people with no money buy a home of their own.
The guy never stops! While the rest of the country is despairing about whether anything can keep families from sliding deeper into the quicksand of the slums, Rojano is the Johnny Appleseed of Hartford, spreading middle-class goals in the minds of the poor and never at a loss for ideas--and lots of people-who-know-people--to help them get there. Spend enough time around Rojano and you start to believe college, owning a home, finding a good job, even running for public office is within your reach, because Rojano believes it is. It's not that he looks deep into the soul and sees something no one else has seen before: it's just that he has a way of peppering you with seemingly absurd questions--"Have you thought about running for the school board?" "You would make a great teacher. Have you thought about college?" "Why don't you start a program for other people in your situation?"--and suddenly these things don't seem so impossibly out of reach.
Modesta is one of those people whose life Rojano helped change. She heard Rojano, who happens to be not only a family therapist, but also director of Hartford's Department of Human Services, on a radio show talking about how welfare reform was going to cut many basic benefits. Right there, on the radio, he promised that if you called his office, he would find you a job. So the 40-something Modesta called--one of three people who checked out this too-good-to-be-true offer in a city where 26 percent (twice the national average) live under the poverty line. She went to his office, and he took time out of his busy, director day to listen to her complaints about the job-training program she wanted to quit. Rojano, of course, coached her to stick with it and helped her figure out how she could make the program work for her. …