Buffalo No small part of the Buffalo comeback has to be because of the work of community organizations in the city, and ACORN Canada’s staff was fortunate to get some time with both Voice Buffalo, a Gamaliel affiliate in Western New York, and the community-based housing organization, PUSH Buffalo.
Michael Okinczyc, the executive director of both Voice Buffalo and NOAH, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, a 25 minutes of drive away, but as he pointed out later their transportation campaign has been trying to improve the fact that it takes more than two hours on public transit for lower income, car-less families to make it from Buffalo to Niagara. Overall their organization involves over 80 different organizations, largely churches in the area. Besides transit they have also been deeply involved in campaigns focused on criminal justice and the lopsided levels of incarceration for minorities. Education has also been a focus in working to block charter schools with the American Federation of Teachers and deal with the diverse needs of Buffalo’s vibrant immigrant community due to what was described as rust belt resettlement programs.
There were interesting exchanges about the differing methodologies between faith-based work and ACORN’s membership-based community organizing model. Michael described the way they organized a church with twenty of more one-on-one’s until, quoting the words of Gamaliel founder, Greg Galluzzo, “they could smell the church,” meaning they could understand the parishoner’s issues and concerns. He was asked how a charitable organization, as a 501c3, was able to effectively pressure and lobby office holders, and Michael told how Voice used its larger accountability meetings and tried to walk a line of bipartisan pressure.
We visited the West Side-based People United for Sustainable Housing, better known as PUSH-Buffalo, which has deeply rooted itself in the area since 2005. PUSH Buffalo defines itself on the axis of community organizing as an affiliate of the newly formed Peoples’ Action and formerly National Peoples’ Action, and co-founder Aaron Bartley, also described the organization to us as ACORN-like in the sense of having a dues-paying membership of several hundred paying about $30 per year, while mentioning that he had organized with ACORN in Brooklyn years ago. The deeper mission of the organization is forging a new rust belt city model combining a community membership base with a development program for sustainable, green homes, rental units, and community-determined utilization of formerly vacant space or deteriorating properties as parks, community centers, and social enterprises. The community base has given them not only legitimacy outside the West Side and accountability inside, but a strike force for the half-dozen direct actions they desire in advocating and winning support, services, and investment in the community.
In the fresh snow, we trudged along with PUSH Buffalo’s Julia White on their Green Zone tour where they had constructed top of the line demonstration projects including green roofs, solar powered heating systems, green houses, and the like. PUSH Buffalo has also rehabbed several building with rental units for lower income families. The organization has acquired some fifty vacant lots on the West Side. We visited a park they had rebuilt with community input and the City of Buffalo Park System that included a huge, state of the art soccer field, pavilion, and play equipment. None of this is gentrification on the West Side, but even in the snow, we could tell the difference their development projects had made.
Community groups have definitely been moving Buffalo forward both with their voice and their push.