Q&A with neighborhood activist Veronica Hemphill-Nichols
Carrying the torch for the East Side
Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, Neighborhood activist Fruit Belt, 54
Photo by Stephen Gabris
She says she was born with “a petition in my mouth and a gun on my hip.” Veronica Hemphill-Nichols conveys an image of toughness, a way of being in the world that she learned growing up in the Fruit Belt area of Buffalo. She uses that passion now as a community activist, trying to bring back her beloved East Side, from saving what’s preservable to helping curtail gang activity. Her plainspokenness has earned her some enemies. “I had to do something about issues like gang violence,” she says. “I wanted my sons to walk out of the house and come home again later.”
Hemphill is one of six children born to a mother employed as a certified nursing assistant and a father who worked at Bethlehem Steel and went on to become a union president. “My father, John E. Hemphill, was always running for political office, though he did not succeed in that realm,” Hemphill-Nichols recalls. “He just saw the East Side community deteriorating, and he always sought to raise awareness. I think I carry his torch.”
A Bennett High graduate, Hemphill-Nichols is the mother of four sons and grandmother of two boys. When she lived for a time on Buffalo’s West Side, she organized the Grant Street Unified Block Club. In 2001, she returned to her roots in the Fruit Belt, where she’s been ever since. She worked for the United Way in its United Neighborhood program, and as a mediator for the Better Business Bureau in a collaboration with Child and Family Services, strengthening and healing crime-scarred communities through conflict resolution based on restorative justice principles. Hemphill-Nichols admits that her forthright attitude burned bridges there; she now works in customer service for a collection agency: “It pays the bills.”
Hemphill-Nichols stands outside one of the Fruit Belt’s threatened historic properties, at 204 High Street.
Tell us what else besides community work might you be doing?
Community advocacy and restorative justice isn’t what I do, it’s who I am—a voice for those who have none.
How about the future of the East Side? Renaissance?
If residents choose to remain ignorant, they’re going to bulldoze us. Developers buy leaders off. We have heard the same promises for so long: affordable housing, new jobs. My father’s whole mission was to create awareness, to be wary of what is not being said. I will tell you, Mayor Brown hates to see me coming! But truth is what gets the job done.
What has made you most proud?
My sons—one is a computer engineer, two are in computer studies, and one is a pharmacy tech. They studied hard, work hard, and make me proud. As for myself, I am just proud I could turn fear to anger, the starting point for my community advocacy. When I first moved back, I was afraid of the Fruit Belt. But I had to do something to make it better, to develop ideas to solve problems, even at the risk of failure.
Your best mentor?
Jesus—he was a woman’s liberator, an agitator. But in the human realm? My dad. “Right is right,” he’d say, “and wrong is wrong.” And I will not yield.
When afraid, do it afraid. Don’t back down.
Tell us a little-known fact about you.
I’m not as strong as people think I am. I do cry. I get hurt. I am bruised.
What’s downtime for you—your best escape?
I drink a Heineken and watch reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. Humor is a stress release!