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Rust Belt Revolution: Collaboration in Buffalo

A coalition of locally-owned businesses, citizens, and community organizations have collaborated to strengthen Buffalo’s local economy.

Themes: Accelerate Collaboration

By BALLE Fellow Harper SE Bishop

“While we can create alternative economies, the reality is we really have to struggle for a larger social change, a more radical social change if we’re really going to solve the problems. I don’t think that creating small alternatives inside of a system, which is overwhelmingly corrupt and oppressive, will be sufficient. They’re important because they give people something to aspire to, but we should never mistake that creating these small alternative economies is going to substitute for a massive shift in power and redistribution of resources, which is necessary if we’re going to have freedom, justice, and equality.” –Malik Yakini, 2013 BALLE Local Economy Fellow

When I left Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2009 during the Great Recession, it was with the overwhelming sense that there was a real disconnect between those in power and the people. Main Streets across the country had been decimated and yet the political elite that had caused the crisis remained invincible; unaccountable to anyone but multinational corporations.

Harper Bishop mobilizes workers to achieve economic security through cooperative business ownership.

Harper Bishop mobilizes workers to achieve economic security through cooperative business ownership.

When I arrived back in my hometown of Buffalo, New York, it was clear that this humble Rust Belt city was representative of the working class and its aspirations. Not waiting, nor complaining, Buffalonians intentionally committed to preserving their storied pasts while forging ahead. Declarative statements like “This Place Matters” became the battle cry of a city hell-bent on revitalization by any means necessary.

A significant portion of that means has been locally owned and independent businesses. Overlooked by big corporations, whose practices focused primarily on wealth extraction instead of wealth creation, Buffalo built business districts that served the diverse and distinct needs of the neighborhood from which the owner had come. Rest assured, this is the city that the community built.

Unsurprisingly, Buffalo First!’s mission to foster a healthy and sustainable local living economy that serves the needs of all people and the planet resonated quite naturally. Through consumer education, advocacy and programs that further the impact of local and sustainable business in the region, we have equipped the community with the tools necessary to think and act with a holistic development strategy that benefits the common good.

Our coalition, comprised of like-minded locally owned businesses, citizens, and community-led organizations, has been at the epicenter of providing critical analysis, alternative methodologies, and policy recommendations for undoing economic and social injustices and racial inequality that have and continue to plague one of the poorest and most segregated cities in the country.

To successfully accomplish this, we partner with and employ practices that are as varied as the community, economy, and change that we seek. Here are a few examples:

  • Since the foundational principles of the New Economy rest on social responsibility and environmentally sound practices, we collaborate extensively with the Clean Air Coalition of WNY to educate business owners in our collective sphere of influence on Triple Bottom Line businesses and participate in direct action that holds big polluters accountable.
  • Similarly, we have allied with those across New York to create an alliance of business organizations and businesses committed to advancing a vibrant, just, and sustainable economy in the state. The New York State Sustainable Business Council (NYSSBC) promotes strategies and policies designed to build strong local economies, prioritize investment and innovation in clean technologies from green chemistry to renewable energy sources, and advance the development of sustainable communities throughout
    the New York state.
  • Buffalo First! also works with local credit unions and experts in the financial sector in order to effectively create a comprehensive plan that best addresses innovative opportunities and solutions with regard to community capital. To date, Buffalo First! has hosted a number of workshops and lectures dedicated to cooperatives, crowdfunding, and credit unions. We also organized Buffalo Bank Transfer Day that facilitated the transfer of over $100,000 in community assets into local credit unions and banks in a single day.
  • And lastly, through the Canal Side Community Alliance (CSCA), we will ensure that the proposed development of Buffalo’s waterfront would result in broadly shared community benefits. A signed Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) would guarantee support for local quality jobs, independent businesses, affordable housing, environmentally friendly building design and operations, local and minority hiring standards, and authentic community input.

We are changing minds and our economic system into a model of inclusion and self-determination by insisting that community-led development makes sense. It is the constant that weathered us through hardships and has been the tether for renewed energy and innovation. It has sparked grassroots participation from every corner of the city. And, it is what makes a more just, sustainable, and local living economy not just a plausible, but prosperous idea.