Recently, the Open Society Foundations announced that three cities in the United States were chosen to receive an initial $1.9 million grant as part of a civic initiative to bolster justice, equity and democratic practice at the community level – and Buffalo was one of them.
The Partnership for the Public Good, PUSH Buffalo, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and VOICE-Buffalo collaborated on a proposed plan to put these ideas into action here in our city, spending countless hours designing measures that would bring about lasting systemic change, starting at the community level. Buffalo was one of 16 cities invited in December 2012 to compete for a planning grant, and then was one of eight chosen to create a plan of action. The Open Buffalo plan was selected as a winner along with entries from San Diego and Puerto Rico.
“This is a great victory for all of Buffalo and for the hundreds of people who worked to create the Open Buffalo plan,” said Partnership for the Public Good co-director Lou Jean Fleron, who served as the project director for the planning process. “Buffalo is experiencing a resurgence right now. Open Buffalo will help to make sure that we capitalize on that resurgence to make real progress on poverty and inequality.”
The planning process included putting boots on the ground to complete door-knocking campaigns, community events, focus groups, and planning by an overall advisory committee. While these hours of hard work paid off with nearly $2 million to be allocated over the next two years (with the potential for continued funding for up to 10 years), now the real work begins.
Open Buffalo will focus on three key issue areas – restorative justice, high road economic development, and worker equity. Their approach is rooted in civic action, with a mobile democracy center, emerging leaders, innovation lab, and Open Buffalo arts network woven into the process. Leaders from each of the original four non-profits, as well as members of several more local organizations will collaborate on implementing the Open Buffalo plan.
Restorative justice practices will be implemented in several areas, including schools and local courts. The concept of restorative justice is rooted in an alternative approach to justice, where all stakeholders affected by an injustice come together and discuss what can be done to repair the harm. Utilizing this practice has the potential to reduce out-of-school suspensions in the Buffalo Public Schools, help resolve inmate disputes at the Erie County Holding Center, and reduce the number of low-level offenses saturating the courts system.
“The Buffalo Public Schools and several local courts have already agreed to implement restorative justice practices, and the Open Buffalo grant will greatly amplify those efforts, helping us to reduce out-of-school suspensions and improve criminal justice systems,” said Louisa Fletcher-Pacheco, executive director of VOICE-Buffalo.
The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus will be the focus of Open Buffalo’s high road economic development efforts, ensuring that those who live in the surrounding community will also reap the benefits of the campus’ expansion. “We’ll be working on issues like job quality, local and minority employment and business opportunities, green design and operations, and community participation in decision-making,” said Jennifer Diagostino, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice.
Open Buffalo will seek to secure equity for marginalized workers doing temporary and contingent work, especially groups such as refugees, minorities, youth, and ex-offenders, and to expand the scope of the Worker Center at the WNY Council of Occupational Safety and Health.
A critical element of the Open Buffalo plan is involving neighborhood residents in the process, which is where the mobile democracy center and emerging leaders program come into play. The mobile democracy center will travel to block clubs and events in every corner of the city, helping residents to engage in civic life by registering people to vote and welcoming them to become involved in the Open Buffalo campaigns. The emerging leaders program will recruit 100 residents to participate in a year-long program that will train them to mobilize their communities and build their potential to assume leadership roles in the participating organizations. “Open Buffalo’s emerging leaders program will train one hundred grassroots leaders per year and will dramatically change the ability of people from all walks of life to assume important roles in their community,” said Aaron Bartley, executive director of PUSH Buffalo.
The Partnership for the Public Good will house an innovation lab that will provide intensive policy research and analysis to support the work being done on the ground. “Open Buffalo offers us a chance to combine research and action in a coordinated effort, making sure that we benefit from best practices from around the country and that all of our work is supported by objective data,” said PPG co-director Sam Magavern.
Our thriving cultural scene is also a core piece of the Open Buffalo plan, bringing the city’s talented artists and performers into key roles in this civic initiative, too. “A particular strength of our planning process and our plan was our focus on the arts,” said Fleron. “We recognized early on that the arts/culture sector is one of Buffalo’s most diverse, innovative, and dynamic strengths, and that the arts have a key role to play in making Buffalo more equal, just, and democratic.”
Open Buffalo’s advisory board consists of members from the Coalition for Economic Justice, PPG, PUSH, VOICE-Buffalo, Buffalo Urban League, Catholic Charities, 1199 SEIU, Try-It Distributing, Inc. and leaders in the Hispanic community. Other active organizations include Buffalo Peacemakers, Citizen Action, Clean Air Coalition of WNY, Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo, Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, Investigative Post, Prisoners Are People Too, Public Accountability Initiative, and WNY Council on Occupation Health and Safety.
“This grant has the opportunity to truly transform our community,” said County Executive Mark Poloncarz. “There is a human side to every economic development decision in our region and we must grow our economy in a way that works for all our residents. I look forward to the shared work ahead of my Administration and the Open Buffalo organizations to fight poverty, address inequality, increase social mobility and create a more equal, just, and democratic community.”
For more in-depth information on the Open Buffalo plan, visit www.openbuffalo.org.