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Michael Gainer: Fired from Buffalo ReUse

Early this week, Michael Gainer of Buffalo ReUse was fired by interim Executive Director Harvey Garrett.  Garrett was brought on board to replace Gainer in that position some months ago, and Gainer was consequently made COO.

The firing has sent a shockwave through the community–those who recognize Gainer as a hero on an ailing East Side and its residents, as well as those who’ve been fans of the turn-around Garrett has made in West Side communities and beyond. 

Paul Hogan of the Oshei Foundation, one of the benefactors for Buffalo ReUse who helped to put Garrett in place, hasn’t returned our call concerning the firing, and Garrett’s phone call to us was filled with off-the-record statements.  While the exact reason for the firing goes largely unanswered, Gainer is left to indict himself, as he struggles to understand exactly what went wrong.  He’s made mistakes he says, but he also says that most of what he’s done is right.

Monday night, the house came down on Gainer, and the ill winds that blew it there have far more to do with a board that doesn’t fully buy into Gainer’s methods than the “Clash of the Rock Star Community Activists” many think this is. Some point to a clash of egos.  But while Gainer recognizes himself as not being above reproach, a person who’s worked with Garrett outside of Buffalo ReUse describes him as “a one man band, and a pretty loud one.”

Add to that a membership that is devoted to Gainer and his unconventional ways, while understanding that a deeper set of checks and balances is needed, and it’s obvious that a change is coming.  It seems unlikely that when the dust settles all of the main characters will still be in place, but more importantly, there is a question of whether Gainer, a nationally recognized innovator, will be able to carry out the mission of Buffalo ReUse.

The official board release is as follows: 

As no doubt
you already know, Michael Gainer, one of our founding members, is no longer
employed by Buffalo ReUse.  Buffalo ReUse will forever be indebted to
Michael for his vision, passion and drive, without which Buffalo ReUse would
not exist today.  The decision to part ways with Michael was the most
difficult our young organization has faced, and we assure you it was absolutely
our last resort.  As the statement released by Michael indicates “lots”
of “mistakes” were made, protocols were not followed and the chain of command
was not respected.  These infractions have created significant
barriers to the organization, its sustainability and its future growth.  Like
all not for profit entities, Buffalo ReUse–and everyone associated with
it–must, above all else, follow clearly defined regulations and protocol for
its business matters. Unfortunately, a cross-roads has been reach with Michael
regarding these matters and accordingly a change had to be made.

We wish
Michael the best in his future professional endeavors.

Some background: ReUse Buffalo is known to everyone as an entity that does the gritty, green work of reusing building materials acquired in their demolition of abandoned housing around the city, something we have an ample supply of, hence the name ReUse.

Thought of another way, the way that was intended by Founder Michael Gainer when he segued off of his prior endeavor, Youth Corps, ReUse doesn’t refer to inanimate objects at all.  Sure, the $6-$8,000 that ReUse nets per week during the busy season “in our little ghetto store on the East Side,” as Gainer says drolly, is something to show for the tangible harvested and sold goods that are then reused. 

ReUse is defined in the youth and under skilled unemployed Gainer works with and trains with a purpose, out of school kids and repentant adults who need the second chance and the tools that will put them in a position of job readiness.  The housing materials are simply a byproduct of this mission of recycling lives to be self-sustaining that Gainer has embarked on. 

“[ReUse] isn’t an accident,” Gainer says. “We’re on the East Side because that’s where the out of school people are that need employment. But our philosophies, our beliefs, and our methods are all thought of as risky.”  According to Gainer, the answer to risk is coming up with alternate, innovative and sometimes risky solutions.  “We don’t fire people, we work with them and help them.  We don’t drug-test.  If we’re true to our mission, we qualify a “risk” by saying, ‘Do you want to learn?  Do you want to improve your life?’  If the answer is yes, you’re hired.”  Gainer is still working at ReUse on a volunteer basis.

Membership spokesman, Chris Smith of Western New York Media says, “If we have a mother of five who’s a crack smoker and we don’t give her a chance, those five kids lose too.”

Meanwhile, there’s a strong membership behind Gainer–and they’re doing their best to grapple with what’s right on paper and what’s right for the cause. Emails have been circulated and meetings have been called.  According to Smith, last night’s membership meeting looked at ways to keep Gainer and open communications.

Gainer has a dedicated following who believes in what he’s doing, conventionally or not, but what concerns him right now is how he’s going to keep fulfilling the same mission he’s had since day one at ReUse.

“I made mistakes,” Gainer says. “I took loans without board approval to meet salaries and vendor costs, but I always knew when I had more coming in to replace it.”  When money was late coming from the state, Gainer says he was told to let people go.  The thought was repugnant to him and counterintuitive in this endeavor that was built to employ, so everyone took pay cuts, and Gainer borrowed.

There was no model for what Gainer has implemented with ReUse, or the best way to run it.  The New York Times didn’t cover him and ReUse because this was a project like so many others.  No one has really done what Gainer has, and his wish was to do it with no grants, no loans–he saw a self-sustaining organization.  If it had stayed that way, there wouldn’t be an issue with bookkeeping, but it might not have gotten so far, so fast.

“With foundation money comes accountability down to the penny,” Smith says.  “The membership’s primary focus
is to understand what’s happening and find organizational direction while still representing the original founding vision.”

Though he says the membership may not have a full picture yet of who Garrett is and where he wants the organization to go, he says that the significant issue at play is that there may be two directions here, Gainer’s and Garrett’s.  “They may both be trying to do the same thing,” Smith notes,” “but they might differ in vision and core values.”

Smith says the membership has the ability to ask for the resignation of the board, a board that picks a slate of candidates for the members to vote on, but he’s not sure that will happen.

“Buffalo ReUse is bigger than Michael–it can’t reside in the fate of one guy,” Smith says, “but his thrust needs to stay intact.  The board wants him to stay in some capacity.  He needs to be involved.”

For his part, Garrett’s on-the-record statement included saying that he’s not sure he could have done what Gainer has. He seems to respect the unconventional and inspired ways Gainer has fulfilled his mission, in what Smith refers to as “a strangled and forgotten community.” 

Gainer, for his part, feels he could have gotten better backup in the fiduciary aspect of running ReUse.  Clearly, his hands are not made to shuffle papers, but the help that came, just recently, was late enough for Gainer to have had to find alternatives to what he says was foot dragging on the part of the board.  “I did what I needed to get by,” Gainer says. “No one came to me and asked me what I needed.”

Of his ouster, Gainer says, “If it goes down this road, I’ll start a rehab company. I’ve got 500 ideas in my back pocket, and this was just one of them that came out of Youth Corps.  We’ll emerge again and stick to the higher priority of job readiness.  It’s a much better possibility when you have the tools to do good in the world.”

And Gainer says it all fits together, but not always at once.  The only sign of bitterness Gainer shows involves the last thing Garrett said to him when he was fired, one hour before Gainer and his business partner Kevin Hayes were going to file a grievance against Garrett.  According to Gainer, Garrett said, “It’s obvious you can’t work here anymore.  You just don’t care.”

Smith says the annual meeting is coming up on September 22nd, but that 10 percent of the membership can ask for a special meeting prior to that with 10 days notice.  He imagines that it will happen soon, but stresses this isn’t about infighting, but rather a strategic strength of the parties involved.  “We’re hoping to establish better communication,” Smith says.  Let’s hope they get some clear answers for themselves, Gainer and all of the people on the East Side who depend on him.

See Western New York Media for more on Gainer and a video in which he talks about the firing.


Image: New York Times


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