“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” The words of Hélder Câmara nagged me as I sat in on the Buffalo Transit Riders United Allies Meeting. Câmara was addressing the same issue I’ve pondered over for some time: what is so wrong with asking why?
I joined the High Road Program for many of the same professional reasons as anyone else here: to gain job experience, to explore the NGO sector of the workforce, to further discover my career interests, etc. But I also came to Buffalo looking for answers, to explore a side to society that I had never been previously exposed to for my own personal development. I wanted to be positively uncomfortable and to reflect on why I was uncomfortable in the first place.
High Road has exposed me to a lot of necessary social firsts. For the first time I saw a memorial for a street shooting, I attended a union meeting, and I witnessed the concentration of African American culture. At the Juneteenth festival, I walked through the crowds, the only white person in sight. At the table I sat at, I was able to observe the people, the music, the outfits. I noticed how there were cultures within culture: traditional garb and street clothes, jazz music and African drumming, braids and headpieces. I felt foolish for being so new to this, but at the same time, I was grateful because I was learning.
Interning at the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Healthy has exposed to me to a new side of politics and society. One of my first activities as an intern was putting together a Family Resource Guide for families who recently lost a loved one to a work related accident. The guide outlines New York State compensation death benefits, a sample FOIA, and introduces readers to the support WNYCOSH can provide. I rifled through old photos of the WNYCOSH staff looking for pictures to possible include in the guide. Within the photos were references to the Coalition for Economic Justice, Jobs with Justice, the AFL-CIO, Justice for Janitors, and other events and movements I had only learned about in my labor history class. Here I was working with people who were actually at those protests, rallying and getting arrested. They were the ones asking why, refusing to accept that things had to be the way they currently were and searching for better solutions.
The culture of NGOs is one of flexibility, passion, tolerance, openness, and even radicalism. They are very hands on organizations shaped to address specific issues. They learn as they go allowing for less structure but a greater responsiveness. Maybe that’s why Buffalo is such a hotspot for grassroot organizations. The city is a very versatile, creative area with no clearly defined image but a lot of support, perfect for people like Câmara who feel the need to ask why and have the passion to find the answer.