Visiting Activist Scholars

Public interest lawyer Sam Magavern stepping into Buffalo Co-Lab role.
Sam Magavern
Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Sam Magavern, a public interest lawyer and community leader, is the Cornell Buffalo Co-Lab Visiting Activist Scholar for the 2019-20 academic year. 

“The purpose of this program is to bridge academic knowledge with experiential expertise in many facets of progressive community change,” said Lou Jean Fleron, co-lab director. “Grounded in Buffalo’s struggles and regeneration as a post-industrial city, these visiting scholars engage with students and faculty, research and write, and teach courses that draw on their own unique experiences as community innovators and public intellectuals. For ILR students, they illuminate potential career pathways that improve communities and make a better world,”

Aaron Bartley was named the inaugural visiting scholar in 2018, when he transitioned to ILR after 13 years with People United for Sustainable Housing in Buffalo.
Bartley co-founded PUSH Buffalo in an effort to create strong neighborhoods with quality affordable housing; decrease the rate of housing abandonment by reclaiming empty houses from neglectful owners; and develop neighborhood leaders capable of gaining community control over the development process and planning for the future of the neighborhood.

During his time with PUSH, Bartley generated more the $45 million in sustainable housing and commercial development for Buffalo’s West Side, and it was that experience that he drew on for his position at Cornell. 

In addition to teaching the ILR course, “Organizing and the Next City: Land, Labor, Capital and Community in Post-Industrial Urban America,” Bartley also gave two lectures to students in Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, as well as holding a four-part workshop series on land, gentrification and community-controlled development. 

“I had taught at SUNY Buffalo nearly 14 years ago, but this felt like a more substantive challenge to really come up with entirely new class syllabus and material that hadn't been taught before either by me or anyone at the school,” Bartley said. “There was a theoretical side to it, like a traditional class, but I also drew directly on the real-world challenges I have faced, and my experiences with community organizing, and I think that was something the students appreciated. I think the class had a pretty good impact on the students.” 

Magavern has a long history with the Buffalo Co-Lab, serving as a pro bono adjunct faculty member since 2009, when he began teaching in courses related to the High Road Fellowships.  

“The focus of Sam’s appointment will be on the role of public interest lawyers in community change,” Fleron said. “In these challenging times for American democracy, interest in law and policy is heightened among ILR students. This opportunity will be valuable academically, exploring many facets of policy change and application, as well as for their understanding how careers in the legal profession can make progress on tough social, political and economic problems.”

Magavern will teach a class on the Ithaca campus, “Lawyers as Change Agents: Pathways to the Public Good,” as well as conduct workshops in Ithaca and Buffalo.

Raised in Buffalo, Magavern earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from UCLA Law, where he graduated first in his class. After 12 years as an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, he returned to Buffalo. 

In 2007, Magavern joined Fleron and others to co-found the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank where he held a leadership position through 2018. During that time, the organization grew to over 290 partner organizations, produced hundreds of fact sheets, policy briefs and reports, and helped its partners shape policy at the local, regional, and state levels. PPG works closely with Cornell on many projects, including the High Road Fellowships and the Buffalo Commons. 
“Having worked with the Cornell High Road Fellows over the last 10 years, I’ve come to appreciate the diversity, intelligence and commitment to the public good of the ILR students, faculty and staff,” Magavern said. “I’ve been a public interest lawyer for 30 years now, and it seems like a good time to reflect and engage with students on the question of the lawyer as change agent. Buffalo and Ithaca will furnish us with fascinating case studies of lawyers working in widely varying ways to make systemic change in their communities.”

To learn more about the Buffalo Co-Lab, click here