Like a living room.
Small and connected.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of facilitating a roundtable with a group of about 15 residents and community leaders from Buffalo, New York as part of a series of community visioning talks hosted by a national transit organization that I’m part of. Having never been to Buffalo, I started the session by asking them to tell me about their city. I invited them to give one word or short phrase to describe Buffalo to me, and these are some of the ways that they described their city. Community. Resilient. Bills. Pride. Good bones. Beautiful. Tough. Like a living room. Classic. Neighborly. Small and connected.
It was a beautiful time of expression. But one word struck me as odd. Pride. How could anyone have pride in a city that had just been through one of the most tragic mass shootings in recent history? How could anyone have pride in a city that has such deep poverty and inequity? I know we aren’t defined by a singular event, but I was still surprised by word pride. No one said hurting or embarrassed or angry. Those were all the things I imagine I would have felt. But pride? I didn’t get it, and it wasn’t for me to get.
This was their city. This was their story.
In the room were environmentalists, policy analysts, transit agency leaders, public education leaders, city planners, a college provost, and community organizers. Individually, they all had a sense of what Buffalo meant to them. But collectively, they also have a sense of what Buffalo meant to them. And it was strikingly similar. More importantly, they all had a sense of what Buffalo could become – not just for some of Buffalo, but for all of Buffalo. I would characterize this entire part of the conversation in one word: hope.
This group of folks gathered on this particular day to talk about equity in transit. The challenge was for them, from each of their respective contexts and roles, to envision what an equitable Buffalo could look like. What it even meant. Who would be impacted? How they could get there. And what role public transportation could play in achieving this vision. While the conversation centered around transit planning, development, and operations, the discussion was lively, passionate, and incredibly robust with all manner of things surfacing. They talked about things like food insecurity, child care, going to Bill's games, housing infrastructure, and enjoying the beauty that is Buffalo. They even talked about the vast opportunities for young children and students. And they talked about humanity and dignity, or the lack thereof, and what it would mean for every person in Buffalo to have equal access, equal opportunity, and to be afforded the possibility of an equally dignified lived experience.
As I listened to this diverse group of folks - who were not just racially diverse by the way, but diverse in age, occupation, gender, and a whole host of other unseen and unspoken personal identities - I heard hope in all of their stories and dreams for Buffalo. I heard a group of people who had a wide range of lived experiences and backgrounds, all expressing what Buffalo could be, should be, and will be for all Buffaloans with a resounding sense of hope. Under hope, I also heard commitment, humanity, and community.
They were imagining a city that is different from the present, and that’s not easy. When we dream and imagine, we often are only able to do so through the lens of what we have seen or experienced first hand. And those perspectives varied widely based on the wide range of lived experiences represented. But here was the magic in that room: what one didn't understand or had never experienced, another had and was able to bridge that experience and perspective gap. They listened to each other. They challenged each other. They commiserated with each other. Together, they envisioned what was possible for the city that they all love learning that they had all experienced the city very differently.
It was truly a beautiful and humbling moment. These were people who had been through something tragic and unthinkable. But as they spoke about their city, as they spoke about their collective hope and possibility, not their collective tragedy. They sufficiently acknowledged systemic racism, power dynamics, and white supremacy as real and as the root of the inequity experienced by various demographic groups across Buffalo. They acknowledged the collective pain their community experienced with the 2020 mass shooting. But these things didn’t define their city or even shape how they saw the future of their city. Sure, it came up, but it was a thing in Buffalo, not the thing in Buffalo.
On a personal note, I found this perspective of hope and resilience inspiring. It challenged me to reflect and to think deeply about things that I had recently experienced and to put them all in appropriate context. It was a thing in my life; it was not the thing in my life. I was there to lead them through some reflection, introspection, and to imagination, but without knowing or trying, they led me through these just as well.
I mentioned that there were two words that resonated with me. The first was pride. The second was snow storms. When someone said snow storms, I had a vision in my mind of lots of beautiful, white, fluffy snow. Kids out playing. People out shoveling. The phrase “snow storms” elicited a lot of collective “ahhs” and “oh yeahhhs” and even light chuckles as they briefly reminisced on the snow storms they had experienced through the years. One person said something to the effect of, “I’m not a native Buffaloan, so I haven’t had experienced a real snow storm yet, and I’m not looking forward to it!” Then someone else said, “Well, get ready! It’s coming.”
Get ready. It’s coming.
What was coming? Death? Again? Tragedy? Again? Devastation? Again?
Surely that’s not what he meant. He couldn't have known. No one could have known. No one could have expected that a city that was steel reeling from a racially-motivated mass shooting just seven months earlier would once again find themselves on their knees.
He only meant a snowstorm was coming, but unfortunately, it was so much more than that.
I have watched hours of news reporting on this historic snowstorm. I have read the articles. I have heard the commentary. I have seen their faces. And my heart breaks for the people of Buffalo. Again. But this time it breaks differently.
I heard their hope. I sensed their pride. I felt their community.
Today, I send back to the people of Buffalo the sentiments that they shared with me that day. Community. Resilience. Pride. Good bones. Beauty. Toughness. The comfort of a living room. Classic. Neighborly. Connected.
Once again, you are in our thoughts and prayers. You are on our minds and hearts. And we stand with you through this.