Buffalo's Black Business Boom

Kathryn Leonard, Promise Bruce, Elizabeth Bowen

SSW students organize a community intervention to determine who benefits

Published January 17, 2018

By: Jana Eisenberg

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Make No Little Plans

Last spring, Promise Bruce, MSW ’17, and Kathryn Leonard, MSW ’17, took their social work education to the next level when they expanded upon a coursework-assigned community assessment to organize and present a community intervention.

It was after completing Assistant Professor Betsy Bowen’s Community Social Work course that the two were motivated to pursue this research-driven action. (See sidebar for a profile of Bowen.) And, on April 27, over the course of two hours, they were all gratified to see a diverse group of about 40 people in attendance.

The decision to hold the intervention, which they titled “Black Business Boom: A Community Conversation,” arose from information gathered during interviews conducted with residents in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park neighborhood.

Their conclusion, based on those anecdotes and opinions, was that many who live in the community feel that the current Buffalo “boom” is not benefitting all people and neighborhoods equitably, especially the east side, and that new businesses don’t always reflect the needs, wants, and character of their communities.

Building the event

Their goal for the event was to bring people together to discuss what is needed to create a business and cultural district for Buffalo’s black community, with the hope that after two hours, there would emerge “an action plan to resist gentrification and support black businesses on Jefferson Avenue and throughout our city.”

Bruce and Leonard organized, promoted, hosted and co-facilitated the event: they sourced an appropriate community-welcoming space, on Buffalo’s east side. They invited a few local community organizers to attend, and one to facilitate. They were pleased with the neighborhood and business-owner turnout.

“People were interested – obviously, there is a huge need; we were expecting 15 people and 40 showed up,” said Bruce after the event. Not a Buffalo native, she has purchased a home on the city’s east side, and plans to stay and work here. “The things that I’d like to see, and the things that community members said that they want seem to be similar – like more education on local politics, to know where our taxes go, how to access mental health services and how to begin healing.”

Leonard said that she came to social work through her interest in community organizing. “I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do with my social work degree – I do know that the best community organizers are social workers,” she said. “In social work, we can be more broad in scope as well, and look at society; see how we can fix it.”

Engaging conversation

The event, officially moderated by Alexander Wright, founder of the African Heritage Food Co-op, first had “rules of engagement” set forth; they included, in Wright’s words, “step up and step back; give constructive feedback; focus on what we have in common, and what we can do now; and, let’s have thick skin.”

Then the real conversation began. Wright opened up with a general question: “Do you feel there are obstacles to the creation and promotion of black-owned businesses?”

A list of responses was recorded on a poster-sized sticky note. In true community fashion, Wright surveyed the participants on which of those topics they were interested in exploring further in the next phase of the event, which was smaller group breakouts.

Leonard said her social work and community organizing training were tested. “In a conversation about black business, I need to make sure that I’m not putting my voice above anyone else, or directing the conversation the way I think it should go, if that’s not what the community wants,” she said.

Bowen supports this concept. “Learning what a community needs by hearing a diversity of opinions and voices is a little complicated,” she said. “That’s what I try to teach. And Promise and Katie’s project is a great example of it.”

Encouraging response

At the conclusion, again, all were heartened by the response. “People said that they wished there was more time, and that they’d like to meet again. That’s a good sign,” said Bruce.

“My biggest hope was that people would make connections, find out who’s doing what work,” said Leonard. “In the group I was in, there were some ideas but not a strong action plan. Everyone said they wanted to meet again, and I said that I would find a space for them. I want to make sure I follow through on that.”

Bowen believes the event was a success. “I told them, you’ve brought people together who wouldn’t normally be in a room together,” she said. “Of course you’re not going to solve the issues in two hours. But the seed is planted. You may not know immediately how it grows. Maybe two people connected and converged with ideas, or an aspiring entrepreneur met someone who can help. Social workers believe that change happens through relationships.”

As an example of how her students are demonstrating their commitment to their work, Bowen proudly gave this example: “Promise and Katie received a small amount of funding for the event from the School of Social Work Graduate Student Association,” she said. “With that $100, they purchased refreshments from three local, black- and women-owned businesses. It’s a small thing, but it shows their efforts; that they’re practicing what they preach by supporting and introducing others to local businesses.”

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