Q&A with Rahwa Ghirmatzion
PUSH moves forward with a new office and a new leader
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Can an optimist and a realist coexist within the same human? Ask Rahwa Ghirmatzion, the new executive director of PUSH Buffalo, who succeeded Aaron Bartley in the post in May following a national search. Ghirmatzion is a daring dreamer, but also a doer. It is her job to direct a dedicated team of urban activists, expanding on the success of this grassroots community group organized around the issue of sustainable housing.
This summer, PUSH moved its offices into the redeveloped School 77 on Plymouth Street, an 80,000-square-foot-plus space, vacant for a decade before it was reclaimed in 2014 by neighbors who did not want to lose another anchor building to circling developers. PUSH, with its focus on critical urban issues of water quality, workforce development, energy, and affordable housing, was the prime mover on a project that delivered on community need for senior housing and youth programming. The facility also houses Peace of the City, which serves at-risk youth, and the Ujima Theater Company—both chosen over several other applying agencies on the basis of their missions and outreach. The School 77 project is a huge notch in the belt of PUSH, which has long supported redevelopment of the city’s West Side, from rehabbing and weatherizing old homes (employing neighbors and teaching job skills along the way) to investing in sustainability, like community gardens. Ghirmatzion, a childhood refugee from East Africa, is the perfect choice to lead the reclamation of her adopted city. In her world view, things can always be better, and she is a fearless believer in fixing what’s broken.
Rahwa Ghirmatzion (right) with Zaw Win, of the WASH project
Your story is remarkable, yet not unfamiliar in Buffalo these days.
Yes, we have a vibrant refugee community, which is a source of great talent. I came here with my family when I was eight, escaping civil war. I went to Hutch Tech, and then studied English lit at UB. I have an associate’s degree in economics. My philosophy of life is to feel my way. When I was in my early twenties, I waited tables in some high-end places and learned to network well. I did a lot of traveling, and, at some point, started volunteering at Ujima Theater, which turned into a job. I really like the collective model, the family feeling—that loving community. I didn’t ever imagine I’d become executive director of the company, but I did, in 2007. Much of what I’ve done is self-taught; I’ll go online to read about an issue or problem and figure out how to get through it. I’m always thinking about what the future looks like, and what does sustainability look like. I moved from the arts to arts integration, and then to the social justice world and how to build partnerships. What uniquely positions me to have a broader perspective is that a lot of arts work is about self-determination and how to inspire a community.
Sounds good, but there are issues. Let’s talk about gentrification.
We have an affordability crisis. Everyone needs to be part of this conversation! I have traveled around this country a lot, and I have seen entire neighborhoods displaced. Gentrification has a tipping point. To avoid reaching that, PUSH has many tools in its toolbox. Inclusionary zoning [requiring that a given share of new construction be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes] is one of them. So are community benefits agreements [which require developers to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to local communities]. If a project involves public dollars—and most of them here do—the public should have a say in what’s done with that money. We are advocating for smart policy.
What are your priorities and pet peeves—what’s best and worst about Buffalo?
Ours is a very holistic model, centering on people and planet. The work we do is intersectional—around race, the environment, and economic justice. I consider myself an optimist and a realist; I have a lot of pet peeves. One I can share is the way we are labeled a “poor community.” The fact is, our economic system is designed to keep some folks poor and a very, very small number of people wealthy. This system is not sustainable. And, though we may be poor, we also have a lot of local knowledge and expertise. We can make big things happen! The people closest to the problems often have the best solutions. Buffalo has a lot of beauty and arts and twenty percent of the world’s fresh water, more than enough! It’s really tragic that we are the third poorest city in the country. We’ve seen a fifty-year decline, a generational decline. Our public school system is not what it was. I say we have a huge opportunity here to be one of the most amazing cities in the world if we address our equity issues. We need bold leadership!
We deserve to ensure that this current revitalization and success is spread all around so we can own our homes, stay in our homes, and thrive for many more generations.
Do we hear a stump speech?
This work is incredibly hard; you burn out. But in the last few years we’ve created a dynamic senior management team at PUSH. We encourage health and wellness initiatives, and sabbaticals for our employees. I figure I have about five years in this job. What I really love is working with my hands, working in nature, growing food and medicine in urban landscapes. Maybe I will do some national consulting. We need more folks of color in leadership roles, and more women. They say if you’re a good organizer, you organize yourself out of a job—that’s what I want to do, and make room for the next generation. I see so much potential, innovation, and more dynamic ways of leading in young people here. I want to support them. I also have some fancy, fancy ideas, like starting a social justice free-school here. We’re exploring that with D’Youville College. Start somewhere, I like to say, and follow it everywhere. Challenge yourself. Ask deeper questions. And bring others in.