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One Step Closer to a More Open Buffalo

An Open Buffalo bus tour stops at the Community Action Organization's community gardens.

After a summer of planning, a social justice collaborative submits a proposal for a grant worth $1 million per year

Last December, an extraordinary opportunity was presented to four Western New York nonprofits engaged in social justice work: The Open Society Foundations, funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, invited them to create a collaborative proposal that could lead to $1 million in funding per year for at least three to five years, maybe as many as nine or 10 years.

The goal: to help make the economy, government, and civic life of Buffalo and Western New York more equal, just, and democratic. The competition: 18 other metropolitan areas across the country, each with its own collaborative of nonprofits.

Initially, the four organizations—Partnership for the Public Good, the Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo, and Voice-Buffalo/Gamaliel WNY—were invited to compete for one of eight planning grants; the eight finalists would spend the summer fleshing out their proposals, due in September, and three to five of those finalists would be awarded grants, with the money beginning to flow in January 2014.

Buffalo’s coalition won a planning grant, and so was born Open Buffalo, an amalgam of nonprofits and academics, artists and activists, business people and government officials, who spent the summer engaged in an intense effort to arrive at a final proposal.

The effort itself was designed to begin the sort of work that Open Buffalo would eventually ask the Open Society Foundations to fund, according to Sam Magavern of the Partnership for the Public Good.

“We wanted to do a few things with the planning process,” says Magavern. “One was to make it a really broad, community-wide effort.”

To that end, Open Buffalo staff and volunteers—sourced primarily from staff and volunteers of the four core organizations and a number of other participating groups—knocked on doors throughout the city, conducted one-on-one interviews, and held focus groups, soliciting as much input as possible in so short a time on the priorities Open Buffalo ought to consider. In addition, three working groups met regularly to discuss economic development, workforce development, government, race, and poverty—a variety of possible focus issues. Steering all this activity was an advisory committee comprising representatives from the four core groups, as well as community representatives and people with expertise in organizing, policy advocacy, and communications.

“We also wanted to make sure that the whole process had a big arts and cultural component,” Magavern says, “both because we think that’s a big part in making Buffalo more equal in the long run and also because we thought it would make the planning more creative and innovative and dynamic.”

Planning meetings began with the presentation of a poem, music, visual art, or performance; public outreach events organized by Open Buffalo also included art and performance.

Finally, they wanted the planning process itself to move the city toward the goals that Open Buffalo’s proposal would espouse, making the process its own reward. “It wasn’t just about getting the grant,” says Magavern. “We did things to try to make it really substantive.”

Over the course of the summer, Open Buffalo brought in national experts on advocacy and movement building to offer advice and training and to galvanize community participation, including Heather McGhee from Demos, Seth Borgos and Tammy Greaton from Center for Community Change, Aaron Smith and Jasmine Hicks from Young Invincibles, and Marshall Ganz from Harvard University. Heather “These are things you might only do after you got the grant to pay for them,” Magavern says. “But we thought the change should start now, not later.”

The Open Society Foundations asked each of the eight finalists for a two-part plan: The first part called for the identification of specific issues or projects in which measurable progress could be made in a three-year time frame. “Part two is what they call civic capacity,” says Magavern, “and that’s really about how you do this work in your city over the long-term.”

Through its planning process, Open Buffalo chose three issues around which it could immediately build campaigns:

• Restorative justice, as defined in Open Buffalo’s proposal, is “a practice in which all stakeholders affected by an injustice discuss its effects and decide what should be done to repair the harm. Restorative justice offers more satisfying resolutions for victims, while it prevents offenders from getting criminal records and keeps low-level offenses from clogging the courts.” Open Buffalo proposes to boost efforts already underway to implement restorative justice program in public schools and the courts.

• Worker equity, with an initial focus on specific populations: youth, minorities, refugees, and ex-offenders, looking especially at conditions for temporary workers.

• High road economic development, which means advocating policies that ensure that investment in economic and community development, especially investment of public dollars, results in good jobs, environmental sustainability, and the promotion of local businesses—in short, that economic development benefits the many instead of just the few. The initial focus will be obtaining a community benefit agreement from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, says Magavern, “to make sure the medical campus is not just an island of economic development unto itself, but that it is really leveraged to benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and the entire community.”

Open Buffalo’s proposal lays out four long-term, capacity-building initiatives:

• A Mobile Democracy Center, which Magavern describes as something of an extension of the public outreach work done during the summer-long planning effort. The Mobile Democracy Center will travel to public events, block clubs, wherever people gather, and provide information on Open Buffalo campaigns, register voters, and generally help people engage in bettering their community. There will also be non-mobile Open Buffalo displays in libraries and community centers.

• An Emerging Leaders program, which will offer leadership training to 100 candidates per year, giving them the tools to make them more powerful change agents in the city and the region.

• An Innovation Lab, which engages in research, produces white papers and briefs, and leverages the region’s academic resources in service of Open Buffalo’s campaigns and the campaigns of like-minded organizations. “Right now there’s no place where you can go online and find all the local faculty who research and write about Buffalo,” Magavern says. “Shouldn’t there be a central clearinghouse for all that work, where you can see it all at once and then follow up with those doing it?”

• An Arts Network that will connect artists and arts organizations to Open Buffalo initiatives. “That’s building on the fact that our arts community is so engaged, is so interested in social justice issues,” Magavern says.

The four core groups originally tapped to form Open Buffalo have in turn reached out to other groups to abet their efforts: 89 groups have committed to helping in implementing the Open Buffalo plan, should it be funded by the Open Society Foundations. “And that’s just scratching the surface because we haven’t had time to reach out to everyone we’d like to be involved,” Magavern says.

“Part of what we’re trying to communicate to [the Open Society Foundations] is that there’s a real window of opportunity in Buffalo right now,” Magavern continues. “We feel like the stars are aligned. There’s a just a lot of positive momentum, a lot of grassroots efforts that have taken fire in recent years, and there’s leadership that is open to those developments and to those dialogues with activists and advocacy groups.

“There’s an old story here that’s getting replaced by an exciting set of new stories. Now is the time. ”

Representatives from the Open Society Foundations come to town this Friday for a site visit. Open Buffalo will learn in early December whether it has won the grant.

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