Community Learning Exchange

Buffalo NY

Citizen Action of New York is a grassroots membership organization that takes on big issues that are at the center of transforming American society – issues like:
• quality education and after-school programs for all our kids
• guaranteed quality, affordable health care • public financing of election campaigns
• dismantling racism and promoting racial justice
• a more progressive tax system
• an end to the War in Iraq Citizen Action of New York has eight chapters and affiliates in major cities across New York State including one in Buffalo.

How did they improve quality education and after-school programs for kids?
At the time that the KLCC fellowship in Buffalo was formed, the school district was in financial crisis and the community had been denied federal funding for after-school programs. Buffalo had a history of being divided by race and ethnicities in various neighborhoods, so the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York/Citizen Action of New York intentionally formed a group of 25 people who represented the diversity of the city. The Buffalo Fellows coordinated a collaboration of after-school program providers, the school district, labor unions, and the mayor’s office to prepare a proposal that increased Buffalo’s allocation of 21st Century Fund grants from $150,000 to $1.5 million.

When the entire school board came up for election, the Fellowship created “Your Voice, Your Choice,” (see article below) a voter participation campaign and community process for identifying and articulating attributes the community desired in its school board members. The resulting checklist provided a reference for voters to use in evaluating school board candidates. The following election had an increased number of voters and resulted in a dramatic change in the School Board, including electing the first Latino board member.

Creating Collective Leadership Capacity: When the fellowship first formed, they quickly moved from a space of enthusiastically coming together into confronting each other over their different ideas. The group used Gracious Space to focus on their shared purpose and how they could work together with a deeper appreciation of each other. They had difficult conversations about race in Gracious Space. Based on this learning that was an integral part of their outcomes, the Buffalo project lead brought Gracious Space to the State organization in order to raise the question of whether agendas were being set with appropriate involvement of those they were intending to serve. As a result of this reflection, the statewide organization adopted a new approach to analyzing and selecting issues based on racial equity. They shared their approach in a Summer 2009 learning exchange on Racial Equity.

KLCC Bridge Article
KLCC Bridge Vol 1 #4 Spring 2004 pg 1-3
Buffalo, NY — The Buffalo school district is in trouble. Massive statewide education cuts have slashed the budget in recent years; the system is among the nation’s most distressed, appearing on the federal government’s roster of under performing schools; more than half of the public schools are under individual review; and the city is on the verge of bankruptcy. It is against this backdrop that an important local school board election will take place this May. But low voter turnout in recent general elections (4.2 percent in 2001, down from just 14.7 percent in 1999) foreshadows the potential for continued voter disengagement and civic decline.

Alarmed by this trend, a core group of KLCC fellows decided last fall to search for a way to get reengage voters in the electoral process. They came together to talk about ways their team might coalesce to address the obvious deficits in the educational system.

“[With] nine seats up for election, many people were starting to form candidacies,” says John Calvin Davis, a KLCC fellow and executive assistant to the chairman of the Erie County legislature. “We didn’t want to get caught up in that process, [so] we decided not to endorse individual candidates.”

Instead, the fellows chose to create an election checklist to provide the electorate with a tool for making informed election decisions. “We want to get people energized around the issue of education,” says Diane Bessel-Matteson, a KLCC fellow and associate director of the Erie County Commission on Homelessness. The fellows are hopeful that a successful election will lead to needed improvement in the community- school board polemic, while also promoting the possibility of social revitalization through community participation in the local and regional political scene. Their long-term goal is to turn around this embattled community by increasing the public will to participate in civic life.

The idea of defining the criteria and creating a checklist for evaluating school board candidates emerged during deliberations by the whole group of fellows. “We think of it as a job description, a community checklist” says Ceylane Meyers, Western New York director of the local KLCC host agency: Public Policy and Education Fund. “The fellows created a process for the community on the front end to identify the skills, qualities, and traits school board members should have.”

On Jan. 5, several of the fellows held a full-scale press conference announcing the purpose and goals of the initiative they named “Your Voice, Your Choice.” They shared with the public the impetus behind the movement—reversing low voter turnout—and issued an invitation for people to bring together their energy and expertise to hammer out a strategy to achieve this end. In concert with several other community groups, the fellows later sponsored a public forum on Jan. 24, to deliberate on candidate selection criteria for the upcoming school board election. Beyond helping the community think about what should appear on the checklist, the fellows hoped to assist residents in developing a more empowered perspective on their relationship to elected officials.

Bessel-Matteson has a longstanding commitment to remedying low voter turnout in the city of Buffalo. The Erie County Commission on Homelessness, where she works, looks for opportunities to have an impact on the homeless population and community at large. “The adult homeless population is disinvested from the election process,” she says. “We do advocacy and legislative training, larger community outreach, and [we] connect to get [people] involved in the elective process,” she says. Bessel-Matteson’s work keeps her in touch with young people and adults, allowing her to see many of the community’s problems up close. She views social problems as the number one concern in education. Her KLCC involvement on the school board initiative is a natural segue from what she does at work.

Fellows with insights like those of Bessel-Matteson have been key to the success of the KLCC team here because they enable the group to identify major voids in the workings of the community. The considerable disconnect between education officials and the community at large is an example.

Prior to the Your Voice, Your Choice campaign, Meyers says, voters did not have a good sense of the board’s activities. Some school board members conduct themselves with impunity, but voters have largely behaved as if they were powerless to do any thing about it. Since many of the fellows work with marginalized populations, it was clear to them that this was a problem. “Significant numbers of parents are being missed … there is no large collaborative climate,” Meyers says. Further exacerbating the detachment between voters and the school board officials is the election schedule. Were it scheduled in the autumn instead of the spring, the community might be able to take advantage of potential turnout synergies that accompany fall elections, especially since this year is a presidential election.

Rather than be discouraged by this factor, the fellows are viewing the spring election as an opportunity. If voter participation is greater than it has been in recent elections, it will be a clear indication, in the fellows’ view, that the Your Voice, Your Choice campaign made a difference. Meyers and the Buffalo fellows anticipate that as the checklist enables residents to express and concretize the school board member criteria, the process will also energize more voters to participate. In addition, they hope it will transform the relationship between voters and elected officials as well as voters’ attitudes about the overall electoral process.

PRESSING AHEAD Following the January public forum, the race was on to refine the list of 179 points that came out of that event and publicize the final checklist by Feb. 24, the date candidates officially announced their intentions to run for the school board. A follow-up meeting to the January forum was held on Feb. 10, where a quorum of representatives from the first meeting distilled the most salient items down to 14 key points for the checklist.

In the past, candidates have won seats with fewer than 1,000 votes, but this time it is expected that candidates will have to work hard for their share of what is anticipated to be a higher than normal turnout. “[There is a] recycling of politicians in Buffalo,” Meyers says. “…The community has a knee-jerk reaction to divisive issues with each constituency fielding candidates.” In light of this dynamic, she says the process might have been undermined by anything other than utter impartiality on the part of the fellows. They shied away from anything that could bring into question their integrity or independence and sought to resist being coopted by any interest group. “The fellows are aware of the scrutiny they are under,” Meyers says.

The Buffalo KLCC experience offers an example of how communities might overcome the obstacles presented by racial/ethnic polarization and parochial loyalties that serve to inhibit civic engagement. “KLCC is a role model of how to create synergies across boundaries,” Meyers says. “Buffalo is the fourth most segregated city in the country. It is common for council members to act as mayors of their own geographic area that they serve; people operate within the confines of their own group.”

The Buffalo group of fellows draws from every community— Irish, Polish, Italian, Latino, and African- American. “Diversity has made the fellows stand out,” Meyers says. Beyond their diversity, The Your Voice, Your Choice campaign has given the fellows a great deal of exposure and has demonstrated the potential for citizen empowerment. The community’s involvement in the creation and execution of the checklist has energized everyday citizens around issues of civic participation.

“[The] fellows wanted to be change agents and create public will for the community to come together and own the process,” Meyers says. All indications are that they are succeeding.

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