Storytelling in the City of No Illusions

Ashni Verma stands with a group of High Road Fellows wearing hard hats and listening to a speaker.
July 23, 2018
Ashni Verma

I’ve always loved a good story. From my first days learning the Indian classical dance form whose name literally translates to “story” in Hindi, I developed a passion for stories, the people who tell them, and the people they portray. In many ways, this passion is what has driven me through high school, university, and beyond. I had always been an avid reader, but in high school I specifically tailored my extracurriculars to revolve around storytelling by publishing my school’s literary journal and newspaper each year. Ultimately, I even decided to attend the ILR School because of my hope to find new perspectives on the stories I had already heard in my history classes. I’ve always loved teasing out the tales behind mundane occurrences and finding out what exactly makes the world so interesting.


It is for this reason that my work on the High Road this summer has been so fulfilling. As an intern for the Western New York Environmental Alliance (WNYEA), I’m presiding over their storytelling effort and working to create a field guide on the regenerative economy in Buffalo. Despite my long-standing passion for storytelling, I have never even attempted to tell a story like this. Before coming to Buffalo, I hardly knew what regenerative development even meant, much less its importance in growing healthy communities. It has certainly been a challenge for me to delve into the world of urban planning, design, and engineering without any sort of background to support it. But I’ve also discovered how important my own voice is in shaping these narratives. The issues that the WNYEA is trying to tackle are vast and require many perspectives to solve. And the regenerative practices that the organization advocates for call for holistic views. With each new day I’m learning how my knowledge of labor, history, and social justice fits into the wider narrative of regeneration. Everything that I’ve studied has a place in this work- it’s just a matter of me finding how to use that to understand and contribute to the wider picture. I may not have the full story on my own, but I can contribute a part of it.


As part of my work this summer, I will be conducting in-depth interviews the WNYEA’s key member organizations and compiling their stories of environmental and economic regeneration in a multimedia journalism project. I’m very excited to experiment with the different mediums through which I can tell this city’s story. As I compile my research on regenerative development theory and on the organizations that I profile, I will find the outlet which best showcases the work of the Alliance and its member organizations. It’s rather refreshing to use media in such a way as to enhance the good work that’s being done in local communities. Instead of having to focus on narratives of ‘fake news’ and dishonest media, I get to be a part of a project that uses modern tools to tell these stories in a positive light. As my time on the high road progresses, I look forward to being part of an organization that is working to make information accessible to local communities.


As I immerse myself in stories this summer, I have to wonder, how am I contributing to Buffalo’s narrative? Do the stories that I tell accurately depict the people they’re meant to portray? Will they reach the people they need to and help spread information on the actions being done to improve this community? Buffalo has been shaped immensely by the stories people tell about it. Whether it’s the “city of good neighbors”, the rust belt city on the decline, the “city of lights”, or the home of the chicken wing; Buffalo is home to many people that directly and indirectly deal with the consequences of such monikers. Of course, I don’t believe that the story I tell this summer will ultimately change the public image of Buffalo and its people for better or for worse. However, I do hope that the stories that I showcase spark more initiatives on regenerative development. Stories are important, as they have the power to influence the actions of others who do wish to make a difference. I am very glad to have this opportunity to work on the high road this summer, and I do hope that I can do Buffalo’s story justice.