Back to Buffalo: Inspiring and Being Inspired

July 23, 2018
Melissa Gao

Hello! My name is Melissa Gao, I’m from Syracuse, NY, I’m a rising sophomore in the ILR School, and I’m working at Young Audiences of Western New York this summer.


I never thought that I would develop my own elevator pitch, and get so good at it that I could practically recite mine, as well as every other person in the cohort’s, in my sleep. But that’s just one of the many surprises that I’ve experienced in Buffalo this summer. From learning about the Buffalo public school system to rock climbing up a silo, I have seen, done, and learned so many things that I didn’t expect to in this program.


Though I call Syracuse home, I was actually born in Buffalo. I moved away from Amherst when I was six, so I only have fuzzy memories of going to Darien Lake and roller skating in my backyard. Getting to re-explore and actually understand the city of my birth has been a treat--especially since our dorm at Canisius is only five minutes away from the hospital that I was born in! As a child, I wasn’t able to see and understand the bigger issues in Buffalo, like the division between the East and West Side, zombie homes, lack of job training, and high poverty rates, to name a few. The pre-course really showed me the struggling side of Buffalo that I previously had been unaware of. And actually working in Buffalo then introduced me to all the inspiring work that various non-profits and organizations are doing to build up the city. I have been most inspired by perhaps one of the more low-profile non-profits in the city: my own placement, Young Audiences.


Young Audiences of Western New York is the local branch of the national affiliate. The organization as a whole was founded in 1950, and the Western New York branch only ten years later by a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Their mission is to make the visual, performing, and literary arts a part of young people’s lives in order to enhance their development as creative and productive human beings. The original goal was to bring classical music performances to urban primary and secondary education, but has now expanded to three types of programming, six categories of art, and over 50 teaching artists on their roster. Teaching Artists are professionals who are committed to their craft and incorporate it into general education. From an anti-bullying dance assembly to a cartoon book about a student’s “superpower”, Young Audiences strives to engage young people creatively when they might otherwise not get the chance to, as well as help them develop themselves as people and learn creatively. Their programs provide professional development opportunities and incorporate art into other fields of education, such as science and history. Young Audiences hopes to make WNY a place where arts are seen as life changing, and give children the opportunity to realize their full potential in the arts. Currently, many of Buffalo’s public schools have little to no arts education or programming, as art is typically the first thing to be cut from the budget when money gets tight. The arts should be recognized and promoted as essential and an integral part of people’s lives from childhood to beyond. An introduction to a quality arts program has the potential to shape a person’s life, their perception of themselves, and their talents—that’s exactly what happened to me in sixth grade. I was a musical theater/choir kid from middle school on, and this is why I feel my work at Young Audiences is so meaningful.


My project at Young Audiences is to serve as an assistant to one of their summer programs, ArtWorks: Hired to Create; Inspired to Succeed. ArtWorks is a paid youth apprenticeship program, supported by the Mayor Summer Youth internship program, in the arts for students ages 14-18 who reside in the city of Buffalo. ArtWorks offers a creative job for students at an age where companies generally don’t look to hire for internships. Students get the chance to study a specific discipline of art under a Master Teaching Artist and conclude with a final project, while simultaneously learning essential career skills through professional development. This year, the students are studying photography under Aitina Fareed-Cooke, who is a professional photographer among other talents, and will conclude the eight-week program with a gallery show of their best pictures and student presentations.


As an ArtWorks assistant, my job is to plan, prepare for, and help execute the program. I oversaw program budgeting and calculated expenses with a budget tracking sheet. I made many calls asking for food donations for program lunches, and compiled lists of questions for student entrance and exit interviews that would be referenced in future grant proposals. My favorite part was planning professional development opportunities, mainly in the form of speakers and field trips into the local community. I decided to reach out to fellow High Roaders and their organizations for this task, as I had noticed that Buffalo could use more collaboration between non-profits. I finalized plans with 43North and WEDI for presentations on entrepreneurship and financial literacy, respectively, and with Jericho Road for a portrait photography project similar to Humans of New York.


Despite my work, since the program didn’t start until July 9 - like many other summer programs for high school students - I found myself with quite a bit of free time in the office. Because the majority of the planning was up to Aitina, who was doing the actual teaching, and my supervisor had already set up the rest, I focused more of my efforts instead on learning about Young Audiences as an organization and how arts non-profits operate in Buffalo as a whole. It was very interesting to be able to understand exactly how non-profits work, which is something that had previously mystified the me that was completely set on working in the corporate business world. I learned all about the various different grants the organization was funded by, and sat in on some grant writing sessions with coworkers. I assisted with research on Title IV funding and schools with School Improvement Grants so that we could better focus our outreach. I also sat in on some Salesforce entries in order to understand Young Audiences’ pricing and revenue. This new understanding of the financial side of my organization led me to realize a constant struggle that non-profits face: staying funded. It’s very difficult for non-profits because they inherently don’t generate much revenue, so they mostly have to rely on grants. However, I’ve learned that grants can be fickle, and it’s not guaranteed that when one re-applies for a grant they will receive it. This, in addition to the great amount of turnover in non-profit staff, makes it difficult to create quality data collection systems that non-profits—especially arts non-profits like Young Audiences—need in order to have better reporting for grant applications. I joined my office right at the end of their grant writing “season”, so I witnessed the high levels of stress among the staff as they prepared the proposals and presentations for the organization’s biggest funding sources. The non-profit world is not an easy one to work in, and I deeply admire the Young Audiences staff for their continued perseverance, enthusiasm and passion.


Outside of the internal workings of the organization, I was able to sit in on evaluator meetings with the county at various schools and learn about the Buffalo public school system. Being from a suburban area, it was an eye-opener for me. I became exposed to the various problems the teachers there face, such as lack of classrooms and insufficient technology. I realized how different of a school experience the students in the city of Buffalo were experiencing in comparison to my own, and it made me realize my privilege to have been born in an area and school with comparatively more resources and funding. I also left the office a few times a week to experience Young Audiences’ programming firsthand. Seeing the joy on students’ faces reminded me that my work is directly impacting large numbers of children, and potentially inspiring them to be better people, analyze themselves, or look into a certain form of art. It was incredibly rewarding and heartwarming to see children fully enjoying themselves. Whether it be at an outdoor carnival or an interpretive dance assembly, the creativity and happiness present never ceased to amaze me.


In the time preceding ArtWorks, I was also able to gain some valuable human resources (HR) experience, which was very helpful considering I plan to pursue a career in HR management after my time at ILR. I assisted with multiple onboarding sessions of new Teaching Artists, and learned the basics of Salesforce--a CRM (customer relationship management) software used commonly among non-profits. I was grateful that I was able to grow not only my personal interest in art and creativity - my main hobbies - but also my professional interests in HR.


Taking this time before my actual project and program allowed me to really get to know my fellow coworkers and full-time staff at Young Audiences, as well as their work in the organization. Each and every one of them, including my supervisor, genuinely love children and believe in advocating for arts in education. Though working in the non-profit sector has its difficulties, the office is always full of laughs and collaboration. My coworkers easily and readily took on each other’s projects and covered for each other when others took their vacations. From my ILR class in organizational behavior, I was able to conclude that there was a strong organizational culture in Young Audiences. The office layout is conducive to this strong culture. Though we each have our own cubicle, they are spacious and are not soundproof whatsoever so it’s very easy to talk to whoever one needs to from one’s own seat. The intimacy of the office invites transparency, which I believe inspired the easy collaboration and great relationships I see between my coworkers. Additionally, the walls are painted a cheerful orange and the furniture is full of color. Student artwork hangs on the walls, and the large supply of art materials is right next to the fridge -  a constant reminder that though the office handles the more tedious administrative duties, we work to provide creative, hands-on programming.


My two weeks in the ArtWorks program have been incredibly busy but exhilarating. The program runs Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 3 pm, and I act as an authority figure to the seven apprentices, as well as an assistant to Aitina. So far, we’ve worked on various professional skills such as personal introductions, researching, public speaking, and networking. Additionally, we have explored the theme of photography in business in depth - going to various local businesses and interviewing owners while also practicing DSLR camera controls and portrait photography. I have been documenting every day meticulously on Instagram and Facebook, and utilizing my own photography skills to not only improve the Young Audiences social media pages but also to assist the students. I’ve had the opportunity to present a lecture on the basics of digital photography and DSLR camera controls, as well as lead professional development opportunities and plan a future lecture on public speaking.


It has been a joy getting to know the students, and they are taking to photography like fish to water. Though my role is to inspire them to pursue their interests in art and assist them with photography, I’ve found that they are actually constantly inspiring me. Each student has a different strength, whether it be control over depth of field, a good eye for composition, or use of interesting angles. Though most of them didn’t come into the program already passionate about photography, it’s clear that it’s growing on them and their artistic talents are shining through. I am continually impressed by their quick improvement after each week, and am inspired by their career goals and love of art. One wants to be a social justice photojournalist, another wants to be a National Geographic photographer. Their energy and passion constantly inspires me to continue growing in photography, despite it only being my hobby, and to not be afraid to jump into new fields and learn from one’s own mistakes.


Another figure who has been continually inspiring me is Aitina, ArtWorks’ Master Teaching Artist. Aitina is simply an incredible person. Despite coming from a very rough background, she has founded her own successful media company and continues to grow it every day. She is so ambitious and has ideas upon ideas for how to engage youth in arts through Young Audiences and other means. Recently, she won the Ignite Buffalo pitch competition and earned $100,000 for her company. Outside of work, she has two wonderful children and is incredibly caring as a teacher and mentor. Discussions with her have inspired me to consider how I can continue to engage my musical and photographic talents with my passion for social justice in the future, even as I continue to pursue HR. Working with Aitina has been an amazing experience, and I truly appreciate everything she does - not just for ArtWorks, but also for local, artistic youth.


Outside of Young Audiences, I have also been inspired by the people of the High Road program. The weekly Friday programming has introduced me to inspiring local community leaders, like Pat Whalen and India Walton. Hearing their stories and their thoughts on the current state of Buffalo have really inspired me to take action in my own local community and to be aware of local issues - something I previously paid little attention to. Most importantly, I have been inspired by my fellow High Roaders and the work they do at their organizations. Though everyone is making different impacts in different areas of inequality, we are all working toward a better, more sustainable and more just Buffalo. Learning about their supervisors and organizations, as well as the inspiring work they do in the community, has inspired me to think more about taking the high road in my future communities. It has also been my immense pleasure to get to know my cohort as people. Though most of us hail from ILR, everyone is involved in a plethora of activities on campus. From minority organizations to the ultimate frisbee team, it’s inspiring to see the intellectual, athletic, and personal interests that my fellow High Roaders have immersed themselves into.


Outside of the non-profit area and my cohort, I’ve been inspired by the city itself—namely, the rich culture here in Buffalo. There’s some kind of festival or other every weekend, and plenty of restaurants, parks and shopping areas to check out. I thought that Buffalo would be very similar to Syracuse, but I see now that Buffalo has more fun and life than I expected. I’ve found that I’ve not had enough time on the weekends to eat at all the amazing restaurants I’ve heard about, or visit every park, or finish exploring Canalside, or go to all the local ice cream parlors. In my last week, I hope to try to check off some more of the places on my go-to lists before I have to bid Buffalo a sad farewell. I’m going to miss my kids, the ArtWorks apprentices, and reading in the library during lunch breaks. I’m going to miss laughing at all of my supervisor’s crazy jokes and experiencing all the artistic talent through Young Audiences’ varied programming. I’m going to miss making an impact on a city that was once very familiar and yet not-so-familiar in a non-profit that supports arts education, which shaped me as a person. Last but certainly not least, I’m going to miss the High Road cohort, as I’ve made so many wonderful friends through late nights in the lounge and long chats during Friday programming. This summer has most importantly been a chance to use my ILR education to analyze organizational culture and student management, reconnect with and remind myself of my creative side, and constantly be inspired by the artistic talents of others - and how you can use art for citywide good. Buffalo and its people have inspired me since day one, and I will forever hold onto the inspiring experiences and memories I’ve created this summer.