Saying Yes to Buffalo

Three women smile into the camera with farm fields and a lake in the background
July 12, 2018
Genavieve Koyn

I am thrilled to be a part of the High Road Fellowship this summer. Cornell’s work in Buffalo was actually a large reason I chose to apply to Cornell nearly two years ago. Although I live in a suburb outside of the city, I am deeply invested in Buffalo’s growth and future. The summer before my senior year of high school I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Mayor Byron Brown’s Urban Fellow Internship Program. I was introduced not only to the inner workings of the city’s government, but also to the whole Buffalo community, which I believe to be like no other. The passion that activists in Buffalo have for their community is unparalleled and the energy and passion that they carry is contagious. Before I discovered the ILR school of Cornell and all of their work in Buffalo, my plan for college was to go to a local school while working in the city. I am immensely grateful for my chance to attend Cornell and deeply enjoyed what was an enlightening first year at the university, but am just as grateful to return to Western New York. Part of my summer, such as seeing old colleagues and taking outdoor yoga classes, has felt like returning home, while the other part has new discovery across the city and watching my classmates see Buffalo through new eyes. While this summer has kept me busier than ever, I cannot wait to see where I will be after the four weeks left in our program.

One of the most exciting parts of my summer so far has been the working with my placement, Say Yes to Education Buffalo. As an education minor, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about problems (issues) American students face and potential solutions to these problems. Say Yes, a national organization, is at the forefront of these issues and is tackling them with a relentless commitment to equity. Our team in Buffalo offers a FULL college scholarship to every student who graduates from Buffalo Public Schools to attend the college of their choice, but also understands how many factors other than the financials, affect a student’s ability to succeed in higher education. Therefore, Say Yes uses the community schools model to support students from their Pre-K years through college graduation.  A combination and coordination of care including medical screenings and treatments, enrichment activities, and mentor relationships aim to meet the needs of students while building on their own skill sets. Prior to coming to Say Yes, I had never heard the term “community school,” but after completing extensive research and seeing community schools in action, I feel very strongly that the community school model is what will begin to repair underserved schools across the United States and the communities that surround them. I am grateful that my supervisors at Say Yes have given me the opportunity to both engage with students and see the administrative work that is required for such a large project. Both of these experiences have been challenging in different ways, but by engaging in both I have been able to understand firsthand how both of these aspects of work are crucial to one another and one side is truly no more important than the other.

My project at Say Yes is writing a Best Practices Manual that will serve as a tool to cement the good work that has been done so far while being a building a block for expanding this work. This project has required me to, more than anything else, understand how Say Yes works. This includes understanding not only the structure of the organization, but the relationships within the organization. This is clearly something that is very complicated. Say Yes, as I am sure are other social justice minded organization, is populated by very passionate people. The passion that these people bring to the table is what empowers our staff to be advocates for Buffalo students, allowing Say Yes to be successful, but also can cause a certain degree of friction between some individuals. This friction is mitigated by the strong leadership that exists within the Say Yes – leaders who direct rather than instructing and who empower their staff to be leaders is their one regard. As someone with an outside perspective, I have been able to learn so much from watching the leadership team within Say Yes and I would predict that this will be one of my largest takeaways at the completion of this program – how to best lead others when doing this type of community work.

Working with Say Yes has not been my only opportunity to witness strong leadership this summer. A former colleague of mine from City Hall reached out to me and involved me in the organization of a rally to oppose the federal government’s family separation policies at the border. Not only am I grateful to be involved in this project because of its mission, but I am once again able to see how community leaders step up to work together in times of urgent need. I will have this chance once again next month, when I participate in the West Side Promise Neighborhoods Emerging Leaders Program alongside two other High Roaders (collaboration between High Roaders, has been one of my favorite elements of this program so far) in which we will expand our leadership ability alongside some of Buffalo’s brightest and best community leaders. As I discovered through my work with the city two years ago, Buffalo is home to some of the most passionate and dedicated community members, leaders, and activists, and I am so grateful to be back in the city working alongside these individuals once again.