Emerging Leaders on Buffalo's West Side

2017 High Road Fellow Nathanael Cheng at Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House
December 20, 2017
Nathanael Cheng

This summer I worked at the Buffalo State Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education.  As an anchor institution, Buffalo State has a commitment to support and empower the surrounding community to make it better.  The Center for Excellence in Urban and Rural Education (CEURE) runs a plethora of projects for the community but the one I spent most of my time on was the West Side Promise Neighborhood. 

Let me preface my work by explaining that the West Side of Buffalo is home to a large new American population.  Over 10,000 immigrants and refugees have settled here hailing from all over the world, from Eritrea to Myanmar to Iraq.  There are over 80 languages spoken here and the West Side is very community focused.

The West Side Promise Neighborhood (WSPN) is a group of organizations and community members from Buffalo's West Side working together to build a grassroots movement focused on helping kids move from cradle to career.  Promise neighborhoods bloomed into existence after the success of the Harlem's Children Zone in New York which created the philosophy of helping the next generation go from "cradle to career".  During my time at CEURE, I helped organize the WSPN Leadership Program which equips local leaders with tools needed to help their community (workshops ranged from dealing with law enforcement to grant writing).  When new Americans arrive for the first time in Buffalo, they often cannot speak the language or know the culture.  If you don't know English, simple things become difficult such as finding a place to live, buying groceries, and getting employed.  Thus many turn for help to individuals who came from their country but have been in Buffalo a little longer and thus can speak English and navigate systems better.  These people are the ones we target for our program, to better equip their arsenal of connections and resources when helping others.

These community leaders do amazing work in their busy schedules yet often no one from outside the community hears of their work, supports their grassroots building, or encourages the good work.  So in addition to assisting with the leadership program, I also told their stories about the community.  I sat down with many community leaders to hear their experiences and to share their stories of hardship, of success, of helping others.  One thing I learned from my research is that the biggest obstacle for new Americans is language access.  I have always taken my English speaking capabilities for granted, but during my summer I saw how daily actions we don't even think about became constant struggles for those who couldn't speak English.  Another thing I asked in these discussions was what people's favorite thing about Buffalo is.  A common theme running through the answers was that people liked Buffalo not for the city, its infrastructure, or even its food; people felt at home here because of the community, the people surrounding them.  One Buffalonian put it this way, "People here have a real authenticity here- real, raw, hardworking.  I came back to Buffalo because of the community and the people in it."  Despite being New York's second largest city, there are certain perceptions of Buffalo as a fading city.  Maybe it's had it's rough periods, but there is a certain uniqueness and brand to Buffalo that teaches you perspective and makes you want to come back.