It’s All About the Experience

2017 High Road Fellow Margaret Lee and Bryana DiFonzo, Community Development Director for the Westminster Economic Development Initiative
October 16, 2017
Margaret Lee

Having taken the pre-course to learn about the resurgence of Buffalo and having done research about the goals and challenges of WEDI, I thought I was already quite exposed to the area and organization prior to my arrival. However, when I actually began work, I realized the true importance of field experience. No matter how much you study about or conduct research for something, on-site action takes learning onto another level. It’s also not just about what happens in the workplace - the people I’ve met and everything else in between have impacted my short but meaningful experience both as a High Road Fellow and as an intern at WEDI so far.

WEDI is a non-profit organization that helps economically disadvantaged people in the West Side of Buffalo through providing business training and microloans, conducting after-school educational programs, hosting community-building activities and informational workshops for people of all backgrounds. The West Side Bazaar, WEDI’s very own business incubator that hosts clothing and food from more than a dozen countries, is a prime example of its success. These were the facts and descriptions I had in mind. My first day exploring WEDI and the West Side Bazaar was more than just these pieces of information. The organization is an embodiment of well-meaning individuals seeking to help improve circumstances and individuals that achieve success through such assistance.

My first impression of Grant Street, where WEDI is located, was that it was fairly desolate on a 9am morning. This was completely contradicted by the blossoming number of people in and around the West Side Bazaar at noon. I was also shocked by the degree of diversity along this single street - people of all races and ethnicities walking past each other. This was not some famous street in New York City, Paris, or Dubai. People from all walks of life gathered here at Grant Street, Buffalo.

However, Grant Street also appeared to give off an eerie aura at times. There are definitely people that have greeted me with a smile, but not everyone has been as welcoming. Perhaps this simply arises from the fear that many immigrants and refugees around the area have from adjusting to a new environment. I also wish that the city would implement stoplights for people to legitimately cross the road. While many of the cars do yield to passersby, it would be much safer to have stoplights or repainted crosswalks.

Over the summer, I have several projects that I will be working on, which include outreach to develop a brand image to small businesses that may not be aware of the services WEDI offers, as well as incubation to help loan-receiving clients expand their business through business strategy and financial projections. Despite having been here for only about a week, I have implemented my outreach strategy right away by consulting potential clients door to door. The amount of autonomy and leverage that WEDI gives, even to an intern, demonstrates the startup-like culture that the organization maintains to keep its drive and workflow even after more than a decade. I also love the mix of public and private work that WEDI does. Its mission to empower the disadvantaged is grounded in the public sphere, but its counseling and coaching for small businesses is privately based. This really fits in with my desire to work in the private sector early on in my career, but further work for the public later on in life.

These past few days of outreach work has been quite demanding. I have been visiting various restaurant or corner store owners to market the types of technical assistance and microloans that we provide to help them improve their business. My main selling point was that our organization is here to suit their needs, which appealed to some of the owners who had little time available. Most of my visits didn’t exactly bring about positive outcomes - sometimes the owner simply wasn’t there, or others had no intention of improving their business.

Yet there have also been highly rewarding moments. One of the most memorable encounters I had was with a Congolese woman who owned a small store selling African clothing and food supplies. Her store hadn’t even originally been on my list of pre-researched target stores. She told me about how she came to this point. She came from Congo to New York City with practically nothing. She worked day and night - working in hotels, factories and at her own shop with barely any time for sleep or family. She worked gradually but steadily to gather enough money to expand her store. Now, she has been able to send her children off to university, owns a big store in New York City (which she described as “big business”), owns a food container label under her own name in New Jersey, and has come to Buffalo after hearing about its immigrant and refugee communities. Her past couple of months in Buffalo hasn’t exactly been pleasing - she’s faced several burglaries and her business hasn’t exactly been flourishing. Yet, she knows that if she perseveres and works hard like she always had, she will succeed in the end. Hearing this phenomenal life story in person was definitely a tremendous experience I could not have received by merely sitting in the office.

Overall, this fellowship has enabled me to reflect upon the immense privilege I have as a Cornell ILR student who seeks to improve the lives of the disadvantaged here at Buffalo. I’m particularly thankful for the education that I’ve been provided with through Cornell and ILR. Once again, no matter how many times other people have told me about my privilege to attend this university and learn from professors and peers, it wasn’t until I came to Buffalo to comprehend my position and ability to affect change that I truly appreciated all of this.