People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), first founded in 2005, is a membership-based community organization dedicated to affordable housing, equitable jobs and ecological sustainability for the West Side of Buffalo.
PUSH has four main arms:
- Organizing: Direct-action and legislative campaigns targeting large corporations, banks, utility companies, and city, state and federal governments.
- Green job creation: PUSH Green, a non-profit weatherization and energy efficiency program, aggregates customers and serves as an intermediary for firms that provide good-quality jobs and benefits to its workers.
- Affordable green housing: In 2007, PUSH established its first rental property; now with 92 parcels, PUSH holds them in the nonprofit Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company.
- Community services: Grant Street Neighborhood Center, managed by PUSH, offers a space for youth to do homework, use computers, play board games, read books, etc. In-house programs include youth and teen clubs (Guy Talk and Girl Talk), and workshops on building bicycles.
Origin and Mission
Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker, two organizers with labor-based experience, founded PUSH Buffalo in 2005. Executive director Bartley says, "We saw ourselves as a CDC from the 1960s … we wanted to create a culture of dissent and organizing that has class and race consciousness while also controlling capital. This was an aspiration we had from early on." Models that informed their work included the broad Boston CDC community which had retained its organizing arms, and examples such as ADP, Dudley Street and Lawrence Community Works.
Housing development was an obvious first strategy, as the classic CDC space wasn't being filled in the area. "We have these abandoned houses here, and our organizing turf has chronic problems of all poor neighborhoods but a lot of attributes that were attractive and people wanted to live here. There was a clear nexus of development and organizing," says Bartley. "If you could control abandoned houses and renovate them, you could start there." Four years were spent on three different campaigns around abandoned houses.
Three commitments within PUSH's mission statement in particular stand out in guiding its priorities and culture:
- Low-income leadership: "Develop neighborhood leaders capable of gaining community control over the development process and planning for the future of the neighborhood."
- Wealth building: "Ownership – We take advantage of opportunities to create and control community resources."
- Adaptability: "Create a replicable model of grassroots neighborhood organizing and redevelopment that can be deployed in other low-income communities throughout the Rust Belt."
Lessons for Community Wealth Building:
Tackle Problems that Connect to Stakeholders: Families, PUSH members and even PUSH staff have experienced unaffordable gas bills, and have sometimes gone months without gas, cooking fuel and hot water. PUSH's weatherization focus originates from that. The past three years have been spent building experience, first as an expert convener between weatherization firms and aggregated consumers in the neighborhood. PUSH leverages its accumulated sectoral knowledge to incubate a worker cooperative serving a low-income market with growth potential.
Choose a Manageable, Visible First Effort that Inspires: PUSH began by doing something that people could see and experience as change when it took its first vacant house and began to renovate it. "There was progress every day," says Bartley, "and you need to show achievable victories." Furthermore, all of PUSH's rental properties have energy-efficient features like dense-pack cellulose insulation, on-demand hot water heaters, radiant floor heating, and solar panels. State-of-the-art, green, affordable demonstration homes for worker trainings, accessible to any resident, also challenged a community accustomed to seeing disinvested, boarded-up houses to think beyond what was considered "realistic."
Work in Coalitions: PUSH collaborated on the political front with the Working Families Party of New York and the New York State Energy Research Development Authority to build up state support for weatherization services, community-based green infrastructure and stormwater industries. It also remains active in sector-specific national convener organizations like the National Community Reinvestment Coalition and National People's Action, where it documents best practices and stays in communication with other participating community groups for greater knowledge and experience.
Lessons for Capacity Building:
Combine participation and education: "We can't legitimately ask our members for their vision for their neighborhood unless we do education and training around what their visions could include," says Jenifer Kaminsky, PUSH's housing director. PUSH created a community congress of members with planning professors from local schools to ask the right questions for a 25-block "green development zone." The congress takes inspiration from One Region Forward (part of a HUD planning grant and run by the UB regional institute) and offers participatory hands-on mapping activities. The Congress looked at maps and created games around planning, with break-out sessions to design vision (e.g., the park should go there).
Sensitivity to class dynamics: PUSH began on the one hand with highly trained middle-class staff with “great politics” but without lived experience and credibility, recalls Bartley, and on the other, low-income advocates with local knowledge and relationships but without certain skills or ideological frameworks. "Training someone who hasn't been involved in reading left political analysis is a years-long challenge," says Bartley. She or he may have experienced the "ills of system, but may have never had chance to have outlet for reflecting on those experiences." The solution is a commitment to "investing years into members to see how far they get as organizers," he says.
Build Up Economic Self-Reliance: Bartley believes that with social enterprises emerging through years of experience in the field of weatherization and construction, those firms will provide a financial backbone for organizing as well as opportunities for real-life skills-building and wealth-building among PUSH's low-income member base. PUSH continues to partner with foundations that care about long-term community development but also wants to retain the means to stay independent and unabashedly engaged in political advocacy that is connected to a national, transformative vision.
Incorporate Culture-Building: PUSH dedicates a lot of resources to its more informal gatherings like its summer luau and winter holiday party, which each attract hundreds of PUSH's dues-paying members (there are seven major events a year). Further, no matter what the meeting is—public, private, large or small—the beginning and end are bookended with a cultural component, like poetry. "It gives our interactions a different character," says Bartley. "We studied a poem by Ishmael Reed, a Buffalo-born poet, in our last meeting."