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The Anxiety of Influence
by Geoff Kelly
Our readers respond to the Buffalo News survey on influential people and regional priorities
This past week, the Buffalo News published a four-part series based on surveys they sent to 320 people whom the paper identified as “movers and shakers” in our community. Respondents were asked to rank 25 of the region’s leaders, who were all picked by the Buffalo News.
This is where the problem begins. The Buffalo News assumes it knows best who are the region’s leaders, and also assumes it knows the best people to rank these Buffalo News-anointed leader. We immediately recognized several influential people were not on the narrow Buffalo News list and concluded there had to be a more fruitful conversation to be had.
There’s nothing wrong with surveying key people and reporting what they have to say about leadership and about what projects are key to the region’s progress. But the method of the News’s survey feels dubious. The survey that undergirds Sunday’s story comprises a list of 25 people, whom respondents rank in order of perceived influence and ability. Of the 25 people the News offered as choices, 22 are men, and 20 of those men are white. The three women on the list, all African-American, comprise two elected officials (Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, whose name is misrepresented) and Buffalo Schools Superintendent Pamela Brown—no women in business or any other field of endeavor, black, white, or otherwise. Those three women join Brown, Reverend Darius Pridgen, the Ellicott District Common Councilman, and Reverend Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, as the only people of color on the list. One might conclude that minorities have to be elected or run a church and a housing development agency to make an impact.
Only one of the 25, Bob Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, works in the nonprofit world—an important sector in this community and one in which, incidentally, women are particularly influential. I suppose Jim Kaskie, president and CEO of Kaleida Health, technically works for a nonprofit, too, but I think of Kaskie as belonging first and foremost to a club of which Gioia is also a member: rich white business guys, who comprise about one third of the list.
No heads of arts cultural organizations. No academics. No planners. No one guiding the nonprofits that do the hard work on housing, poverty, environmental protection, energy sustainability, governmental reform, strategic planning. True, the survey included a fill-in-the-blank option after the list of the select 25, but when is the last time anyone won a write-in election around here?
A similar restriction of choices mars the list or priority projects the respondents were asked to rank: There are 12 of these to choose from, beginning with the always popular and amorphous “waterfront development.” What does “waterfront development” mean? Parkland? Condominiums? A football stadium? A massive golden arch memorializing the “unborn victims of abortion,” as was proposed a little more than a decade ago? How about a memorial kiosk to the crimes of former NFTA chairman Ray Gallagher, located beside the beach that bears his name, which includes a bronzed copy of the complaint filed against him by the New York State Office of Special Counsel accusing him of coercing authority employees to donate to political campaigns? How can one rank “waterfront development” on a list of priorities without knowing what the person posing the question means by it?
Other characteristics of the survey nag, too: The influential people who finished highest in the rankings, like businessman Howard Zemsky and Congressman Brian Higgins, were lauded for their vision and efficacy; those who finished lowest, like developer Carl Paladino and Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, were chastened for their destructive influence. But Carl and Phil still qualified for the top 25, according to the News. Isn’t that pretty good? Is there shame in being at the bottom of a list of the top 25?
This is not how Artvoice runs our annual Best of Buffalo survey. (This year;s ballot is on page 10 and at Artvoice.com.) For better and for worse, we don’t ask our readers to choose from a pre-selected list of what we’ve decided are the best Italian restaurants in town, or the best and worst politicians, or the most important news stories of the year. Because we trust their intelligence, we let our readers fill in the blanks.
We also think that ideas influence us, and circumstances define us, as much as (perhaps more than) individuals can lead us.
So we decided to do a quick, one-day survey of some of our readers, by email, Facebook, and Twitter. We chose those we emailed not because they are influential (though some of them are, and some of them were probably among the 300 or so the News polled) but because we think they’re smart. We don’t know who the News’s “movers and shakers” are, but our list comprises businesspeople and academics, writers and artists, elected officials and bureaucrats, people who run arts organizations and housing agencies, activists and attorneys.
Here are the three open-ended questions we asked:
1. What people/ideas/circumstances do you consider positive influences in this region?
2. What people/ideas/circumstances do you consider negative influences in this region?
3. What people/ideas/circumstances do you think ought to be more influential in this region?
Like the News, we emailed about 300 people. We offered anonymity to those who wanted it; only a handful took us up on the offer. In 24 hours, we received about 50 responses. Not great, but not bad for one day.
What follows is a distillation of what we heard. There are more excerpts on the inside back page, and we’ll publish the full responses online.
The good: leadership at the lower levels
The fourth part of the News’s series was a profile of Zemsky, who was a clear winner in their survey of most influential people. He fared well among our respondents, too:
“Mr. Zemsky…is a visionary with real ideas and experience in growing neighborhoods and is adept at placemaking,” said Carl Skompinski, a businessman in Williamsville.
“…a man who himself has made his mark in this community as a visionary and an actual ‘doer of good deeds,” writes Tom Gleed, a veteran bureaucrat in local government.
“Howard Zemsky for sure, puts his time, money and influence to work for this community,” writes a businessman who asked to remain anonymous.
(The only respondent who had anything bad to say about Zemsky was Paladino, who was identified by about half of our respondents as a negative influence in the region. Carl said we could use his response only if we published it completely unedited. So there it is, in a sidebar to the right, unedited.)
However, an overwhelming majority of our respondents steered away from naming powerful names as positive influences, choosing instead to name groups of people doing work closer to the neighborhood level: PUSH Buffalo, the Clean Air Coalition of Erie County, Buffalo First!, Net Positive and the Foundry, Buffalo Blue Bike, Heart of the City, and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, among others. Many singled out the Partnership for the Public Good, which works with all these groups, for its academic and activist work in support of their missions.
They also identified smaller arts organizations—CEPA Gallery, Hallwalls, the Western New York Book Arts Center, Squeaky Wheel, etc.—as well as the Arts Services Initiative and the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, which provide material and organizational support to the region’s artists and cultural institutions. ““There are those who I think of as doing secular work that is smaller of scope or resources who are of nearly-angelic character: Buffalo First (Sarah Bishop), MAP, Tod Kniazuk at ASI,” write artist Nancy J. Parisi. “And then those who provide ultra-important cultural whiffs of inspiration to Buffalo’s youth: Squeaky Wheel Media Resources, CEPA Gallery, WNYBAC. All the aforementioned touch on the soul of our region: the cultural, creative, people helping people facets of our community.”
Further, they credited the foundations—the Oishei Foundation, the Community Foundation, the Wendt Foundation, the Baird Foundation, the Western New York Women’s Fund—that support all these groups and individuals working in small ways, concurrently, to improve the regional quality of life. (Individually, Clotilde Perez-Bode Dedecker was often singled out for her guidance of the Community Foundation, but she was hardly the only one.)
Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute, says the most positive influence in the region is “The heart and creativity of the ‘on the ground’ work that is happening around food, energy, preservation, environment; this is happening in general and also in certain once forgotten neighborhoods. Community is being built, albeit almost from the ground up, and slowly, but the principles of the work are inclusiveness and enthusiasm. Many faith-based organizations are doing good work, on a small scale. While there have always been strong people in all neighborhoods, there is a new energy that is bright and strong and more recent.”
Some including Hassett, chose to identify types of people rather than individuals for their positive influence. “Refugees and immigrants are the only major exception to Buffalo’s particular demographic problem: a lack of in-migration,” Hassett writes. “It is estimated we have almost 10,000 residents from Burma now. Almost 2,000 refugees came to Buffalo last year…They are starting businesses, getting jobs, going to school, learning English, raising their families, celebrating their cultures. As they do they are reviving neighborhoods all over Buffalo.”
Frits Abell, a founder of the Buffalo ExPat Network and echo Art Fair—and himself identified by several respondents as a positive influence—credits “Buffalo Blow-Ins & Boomerangs—people who have moved to Buffalo, and have no specific connection to the city, and/or people who are returning to live in Buffalo. These are people who have lived, and have seen how it is done, elsewhere; from that perspective, they can be instrumental in expanding the possibilities in Western New York. These folks tend to be of the creative class, are eager to roll-up-their-sleeves to make Buffalo a better place, are urban-centric and progressive, and are moving to Buffalo, in part, because of the historic built environment, walkability of the city, diversity, etc. I also meet a lot of eager, driven young adults (20-30 years old), who are not only very eager to stay in Buffalo, but they also want to be part of the solution; they are an encouraging bunch because they have less baggage and hang-ups over what Buffalo used to be twenty years ago.”
In summary, our respondents said that the most positive influences on our region are individuals and organizations working in the service of many small efforts to improve quality of life in this region.
Another popular response: Our geographic locale offers us tremendous advantages. “We have all the tangibles: big ass lake, Toronto, being located in New York State (instead of, lets say, Mississippi), universities, culture’” writes former Erie County Legislator Greg Olma. “The problem is that the ‘deciders’ are too few and too avaricious. The traditional tension between the political machine and the chamber of commerce has vanished into narrow hegemony of real estate developers and their financiers. It’s hard not to see why most folks see nearly all of our elected officials as paid-for meat puppets.”
Which brings us to…
The bad: attitudes, agendas, legacies
“Double-speaking, split-tongued, and viperous community leaders, officials, legislators, and regulators,” writes Lou Ricciuti, executive director of the Niagara Preservation Coalition. “It’s become Orwellian in scope, variety, and frequency and it’s hard to listen to any more. I hope the public becomes more savvy and resistant to it and not more numb. That’s the dysfunctional cycle and recurring problem. We believe them. When we’re let down, that’s a big negative influence.”
Gleed offers this variation on the “three men in a room” diagnosis usually leveled at state government: “Andrew Rudnick, CEO and president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership; Robert Wilmers, chairman and chief executive officer of M&T Bank Corporation; Stanford Lipsey, publisher of the Buffalo News. Under their extraordinary leadership, access to the world’s greatest mind trusts, and long-established bully pulpits, these three men have done little more than oversee the decline of this region, all the while mopping up the spoils for themselves and their investors.”
Gleed was hardly the only one to name names. On this question, our respondents made free to personalize the region’s shortcomings. Says one local leader of Byron Brown, “The mayor lacks creativity and courage. His only claim of accomplishment is that he has lowered taxes. Meantime, we continue to be the second most impoverished city in the nation, have terrible schools, and crime continues to soar. He is a low-hanging-fruit leader and we need somebody who is willing to address the tough problems.”
Others describe instead a set of circumstances and attitudes.
“In my opinion, the negative influences are similar to the list from the Vietnam-era—lack of transparency, accountability, silos of information, follow-the-money, who-you-know, internalize-profit-externalize-costs, etc.,” writes Catherine Schweitzer, executive director of the Baird Foundation. “The threat of public education not educating and preparing young people for a world when everyone will essentially be self-employed is a crisis. Environmental issues are a long-standing, multi-generational problem due to the important industrial legacy in our economy (good and bad). With the recognition of global warming and the impact of rising water on the East Coast, the severity of storms and draught, and many other aspects of the changing environment, Buffalo may benefit by location/geography, becoming recognized as a safe and sustainable place to live. The first half of this paragraph may be universal truths in all communities, and probably date back to ancient times, so perhaps a healthier view would be to frame community expectations for continuous improvement toward what is possible given available resources and deliberate recognition of the tradeoffs required due to those limitations.”
“Often times, many people stand in the way of bright, young talented people who bring new ideas, new energy, and new outlook to our region,” writes Bernice Radle of Buffalo Young Preservationists. “If we want to keep people here and attract others, we need to give them what they need to encourage them to grow, excel and succeed…Cities like Columbus, Baltimore and Milwaukee get it. They implement higher design standards, add bike lanes, support food trucks and start-up businesses, and encourage development of unique spaces and historic buildings. Implementing policies and procedures will attract the young, college educated people who are drivers and leaders in a 21st Century economy. If Buffalo can attract and retain this group of people, we will thrive as this wave of millennials start to become the power players and decision-makers.”
Abell, of the Buffalo ExPat Network, describes a condition and an attitude that he believes is holding back the region’s economic revitalization: “The other movement in Buffalo that needs serious, smart support is the start-up ecosystem,” he writes. “I just spent four years in Boston, which is chock full of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, MBA students, etc. We need to recapture a true sense of entrepreneurship in Western New York—not economic development which is top-down, state/institution-led. We need to see a grassroots movement, similar to that which has happened in the arts and nonprofit sectors, in the startup community in Western New York. Some seeds have certainly been planted, but there needs to be a true shift in perception.”
The hopeful: who and what ought to be more influential
“We are a small pond where trying new things is easy,” writes Hassett. “Leadership and innovation around complex problems should be easier here too.”
Among the encouraging ideas offered by our respondents: regional government, including consolidation of school and taxing districts; nonpartisan elections; professional managers running local governments instead of elected officials; a more positive engagement between the community and its colleges and universities; land-banking
Among the regional assets they describe: strong grassroots movements; Governor Andrew Cuomo’s apparent interest in changing the way the state encourages investment and job creation here; our abundant natural resources, especially water; our resilience of character.
None of these assets and ideas will mean much, however, if the community doesn’t shows its leaders where it wants to go, according to our respondents. And we—leaders and followers alike—need to have a much broader idea of who constitutes our community. “People of color, and hard-working neighborhood residents who are too busy living paycheck-to-paycheck to pay attention to the complexities of economic development projects, waterfront initiatives, preservation issues, etc.,” writes Dana Saylor, an artist, researcher, and preservationist. “They should be the people whose opinions the boards, councils, and authorities listen to. Because they’re the backbone of this city and always have been.”
“The rank and file need to get off their duffs and take back this place,” writes Olma. “Voting turnout is ridiculously low and falling. It’s pretty obvious how this general withdrawal from public life by most of our local brethren has contributed to our plight. You can’t blame the average guy or gal for wanting to sit this one out. Too bad the costs are so high. As they say: People get the government they deserve.”
We'll publish the full text of each respondent's comments on over the next several days on AV Daily. Click here to go directly to them.
Editor's note: In the print and a previous online version of this article, we incorrectly attributed Tom Gleed's quote to William Altreuter. Corrections have been made above.blog comments powered by Disqus
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