Published March 30, 2021
By Jana Eisenberg
As the second person to hold the relatively new role as the City of Buffalo’s chief diversity officer, Shatorah Donovan, JD ’12, MSW ’11, BA ’07, discovered a good foundation as she approached the job a little over two years ago. Her varied background—including academic and non-profit fundraising, and immigration and business law—enabled her to both shape the job to her interests and base her early actions on both the mayor’s agenda and the work of her predecessor.
“Racial equity is one of the mayor’s main themes for the job,” said Donovan. “The approach was up to me. The topic felt scary at first—I did a lot of professional development to better understand it in the context of government and in the city’s economic development.”
The job entails responsibility for the oversight and implementation of the City of Buffalo Opportunity Agenda through strategies and tactics including economic inclusion, City contract compliance and monitoring, M/WBE certification, and contractual community benefit. Over time, she got involved in various city departments, and learned more about how the idea of “diversity” can be perceived. “I worked with the fire and police departments to come up with a new method of education on bias and perspective. It is fun to see all people in the trainings realize that they have choices in balancing their own behavior,” she said. “It’s my role to dignify people—and to help those who might think that ‘diversity’ might mean ‘exclusion.’”
“Genuine connection” is key to being effective in her role, and Donovan aims to be perceived as credible, authentic, and trustworthy. To do this, she relies at least in part on her social work background and education.
She originally intended to be a lawyer, and went as far as studying for the LSATs during undergraduate work at UB. The test prep gave her pause: “I thought [being a lawyer] sounded boring, so I decided to get some work experience before continuing my education,” she reflected. “So, as an unqualified and sheltered 21-year-old, I got a job as a social work educational advocate for youth with substance misuse issues.” After two years, she concluded that, to better serve her clients, she need more education. She applied for the MSW and was admitted in 2008.
Her goals for the degree were met, and more. “The MSW program helped put my finger on what my frustrations had been while working: it had been difficult for me to see big issues as individual problems,” said Donovan, now 35. “Through the program, specifically via one of my favorite professors, Laina Bay-Cheng, I realized that systems and systemic issues were what I wanted to impact and change. I also realized that a law degree could be leveraged in that broader application. During my first MSW year, I went to Prof. Bay-Cheng about applying for the JD program, and she said, ‘Do it!’ With huge thanks to her, I applied and got in.”
Donovan takes pride in her work and has had some notable successes, of which others have taken note—for one thing, she was named a 2021 honoree by Buffalo Business First for its annual Inclusion Diversity Equity Awareness (IDEA) Awards. She is pleased with the acknowledgment but notes that real-life results mean a lot to her too.
“The greatest recognition I can get is when someone says, ‘What you did made a difference in my life,’” she said. “Some of the projects I get to work on blow my mind—scary but in a good way! They are so important.” She always keeps at least part of her focus on her passion: economic inclusion and wealth-building in disinvested communities.
To support this passion, she established a community-based committee—with no agenda other than to hear what people wanted to see and be a part of. The committee, unnamed and, she says, made up of “entrepreneurs, activists, artists,” etc., came up with the idea for “Buy Black Buffalo Week,” a campaign and event to encourage supporting local Black-owned businesses. Despite her initial nervousness, the response has been uniformly positive, from corporate sponsorship (AT&T) to major organizational participation (Albright-Knox Art Gallery) to overwhelming public approval.
“I am from Buffalo; there haven’t been a lot of efforts or attention paid to race and race-forward issues here, and when it is, the reaction can be very negative; we didn’t know how Buy Black Buffalo would be received by media or community,” she noted of her skepticism. “But we wanted to make a difference, and what made it wonderful was that everyone—from every level—gave their support and buy-in.”
“Dignity is a huge part of my motivation,” she iterated. “To have had this campaign be so well-received changed how I approach my work; I’ve become more willing to take risks—though as an attorney, I always calculate any potential damages.”
She now sees her daily job—and her mission to elevate individuals and community with intention—as ideal, “If what we do gives them the confidence to be bolder, to have more faith in their abilities…that is a dream job.”
This summer she will work with an interdisciplinary team of Social Impact Fellows students as they fulfill their short-term mission to come up with innovative solutions to existing problems.
“I am excited to be a part of this brilliant program,” she said. “The diverse perspectives that the group will bring, in combination with their creativity, technical and educational skills will open my mind. I want to focus on bias—dive deep into how we can bring awareness. How are we going to open minds, create future-forward environments? I learn so much about what’s out there when I have interns.”
When anyone asks her for advice on whether they should go back to school for more education or another degree, Donovan gives an answer that sums up her life’s philosophy: “I support going back to school, of course,” she said. “But going to school is not a means to an end. I encourage people to ask themselves what their purpose is; everything you do is in line with your purpose. Instead of letting your life happen, you can make it happen.”
As an addendum to that, she says, her advice is to both enjoy where you are and what you have, and make the best of every situation. And it won’t always be easy. “Do you know that saying, ‘If you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’? That’s not true! You will feel it,” she said. “If it gets so hard that sometimes you don’t want to do it, you know you’ve chosen the right thing. When you do it anyway…that’s when the magic happens.”