Changing Perspectives on Buffalo and Western New York

Elizabeth Kane
July 12, 2018
Elizabeth Kane


I am a rising junior Global and Public Health Science major in the College of Human Ecology. For the eight-week summer High Road Fellowship through Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) in Buffalo, New York I am working at the Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York (LDA of WNY) on the LEAD716 project.

While LDA of WNY primarily provides support services to children and adults diagnosed with learning disabilities, a grant funded project called LEAD716 was started with LDA of WNY’s support in October of 2017. Although the LDA of WNY is only one of a network of LDA’s, it has undertaken a somewhat unique project through LEAD716 to assist lead exposed children who are at increased risk for developing learning disabilities because lead exposure disrupts brain development. Specifically, LEAD716 is a type of early intervention tutoring service for lead exposed preschool aged children to help them prepare for kindergarten and beyond.

So far this summer I have been working to understand the goals of LDA and LEAD716, identify some opportunities for promoting LEAD716 and increasing community awareness of lead exposure as a problem relevant to Buffalo and Western New York.

ILR has provided informative literature from Buffalo Commons on Buffalo’s assets and challenges to help prepare the other fellows and me for working in Buffalo’s social sector this summer. As someone who has grown up in Buffalo, this opportunity to work in a local nonprofit and explore Buffalo has still offered robust opportunities to learn more about some of the structural challenges that my community faces as a whole-- socio-economic inequalities, old housing stock, gaps in education systems. In fact, I think that my familiarity with this area has provided a solid foundation for further exploring such local issues more critically and academically that the High Roads Fellowship is effectively building upon.

I am also thinking about my High Roads experience as an opportunity for professional development. One of my goals for the summer is to reflect on what type of work environment I could envision for myself as a future professional. From the first day in the LDA offices, I heard employee statements that emphasized a dedication to assisting and empowering clients. Thus, although I have volunteered at nonprofits before, this has been my first experience working as an intern full time at a relatively small nonprofit organization. I appreciate the passion that those around me have for making a positive, direct impact on the WNY community. This reinforces my desire to pursue a career in an organization that emphasizes serving people more than advancing a company’s profit.

On a related note, I have also been testing my desire to combine a profession in medicine and public health. Through my fellowship placement, I have been researching lead poisoning and specifically the services available to children who have already been exposed to lead. Such services necessarily require many different but related stakeholders to collaborate and communicate. To assist lead exposed children, for instance, interventions should aim to include pediatricians and other healthcare workers, public health professionals, educators, parents and other community members.

For example, an interesting and well-known case of a recent public health lead crisis occurred in Flint, Michigan. A pediatrician “whistleblower” was heavily responsible for first noticing the rise in cases of lead exposed children. She used her position to advocate for further investigation into what eventually sparked national outrage over the Flint Water Crisis. This is one example of an inspiring medical professional who used her position to advocate and progress public health changes by collaborating with other stakeholders. She recognized that her medical efforts just in the clinic setting would not be enough to effect the changes needed to address the lead hazard.

My work in LEAD716 so far has provided unexpected opportunities to investigate this and similar cases of advocacy complementing public health and medicine. And as someone who hopes to become a medical doctor and work in some capacity towards advancing public health, this has provided valuable food for thought for how, in the long term, I might be able to take my medical expertise and interactions with community members to the table to advance positive community changes.

Thus, although my summer work product is still developing, I have become immersed in understanding lead poisoning as a major but under-recognized public health issue in Buffalo that carries complex social justice, environmental justice and education rights implications. As a result, my brief experience this summer has spurred me to become more knowledgeable about such social determinants of health in the Buffalo context. Because I am interested in health and hope to enter the workforce of both the medical and public health fields as a professional after medical and graduate school, this opportunity to analyze relevant, current topics in Buffalo--the city I have grown up in--has provided a unique and fascinating case study.

Recently, the other High Road Fellows and I listened to a Cornell graduate and Western New York native speak about his professional and personal journey that unexpectedly lead him back to Buffalo. Besides emphasizing that Buffalo has evolved since his childhood to offer many career opportunities that he would not have forecasted when he was growing up, the speaker suggested that we should cultivate the resources and opportunities that are around us rather than try to build opportunities from nothing. I have realized that growing up in Buffalo, studying in Ithaca, growing a network in this area, and gaining experiences as a Cornell undergraduate including the High Roads Fellowship offer a head start for understanding the context of Upstate and Western New York which could prove useful for facilitating any impact that I could have as a professional in this or a nearby community rather than if I were to build a career in an entirely foreign community—not to say that I would exclude that possibility.