People Want Change
When I spoke to my supervisor at Open Buffalo for the first time, I asked: “How do you persuade people to care about your initiatives?" All the stories I saw on the news and my interactions with local government at home, told me that we are in a period of record levels of governmental stagnation. I expected more of the same in Buffalo.
My supervisor, on the other hand, seemed confused by the question. “People want change. Policymakers want to know that there are ways to solve our problems,” she answered.
When I arrived in Buffalo, I expected to see the remains of the city we’ve all heard about in history books, a manufacturing city that was left behind by new industry. We had talked about the revitalization of Buffalo in class before arriving, but I assumed most of that rhetoric was, well, rhetoric. A city clearly benefits from positive propaganda, and I didn’t have much hope that the growth they were describing was anything worth writing home about. I’m happy to say that Buffalo has proved me wrong.
It is this attitude that has made my time in Buffalo so motivating. Unlike any of the larger cities I have visited, there is a feeling in Buffalo that change is not only possible, but imminent. Over the past few years, people in Buffalo have seen billions of dollars in outside investment flooding in. Housing prices are rising for the first time in decades. Young people are choosing to move back here, rather than continuing the migration downstate. Buffalo has become a cultural center for Western New York. How could Buffalo not be optimistic, after this much expansion?
The hope people feel in Buffalo makes their nonprofit sector uniquely effective, and perfect for me to learn about organizing for change. The nonprofit sector here is small for a city of Buffalo’s size, which means that each nonprofit has a direct connection to the policymakers they work with to create change. Even while working at a small organization like Open Buffalo, I had the opportunity to engage with people across the nonprofit sector. This was an amazing opportunity to learn about the work different organizations are doing, and to help me understand my own interests. I know that I want to spend my life working to directly benefit my community, but I didn’t quite know how. This summer has helped me narrow down my list of interests to find the issues that I am truly passionate about.
Open Buffalo was the perfect organization to help me explore my various interests. Over the course of the summer I got to work on multiple initiatives across many different policy areas I learned about everything from housing equity, to youth empowerment, to civic engagement in criminal justice reform. My main responsibility on these initiatives was to create outreach materials for many different audiences. This gave me the opportunity to learn about the issues that matter most to different communities, and to learn from those communities about how the issues developed and how they can be solved.
Among the communities I worked with, I was particularly excited to create educational materials about the criminal justice system. These materials were designed for communities directly impacted by the inequalities in the criminal justice system, or communities that are impacted by concentrated disadvantage. I designed a brochure for our flagship advocacy educational program, designed specifically to address the barriers disadvantaged communities face with most educational programs. I created a “know your rights” workshop to teach individuals about their rights when dealing with police officers. I worked with experts on police interactions with other organizations to learn about the dangers individuals face interacting with the police, and how I could help prepare them to exercise their rights effectively. Every project I worked on required me to learn about the community that is impacted by today’s inequalities, and I tried to address the problems that matter most to that community, not those that matter most to an academic outsider. I hope to take this new knowledge with me to create community controlled change in the future.
As I prepare to leave Buffalo, I will take the hope I feel here and use it to galvanize change. People in Buffalo know that they can create meaningful change as individuals. At a time when political drama and conflict are making it hard to focus on meaningful change, activists in Buffalo are working hard to create change for their own communities. I will do that as well, for every community I am a part of.