A little bit about David
David Rust is the Executive Director with Say Yes Buffalo. He was born and raised in the Buffalo area. “I have a wife named Jennifer, we’re having our first child in December, which is exciting. I’m a St. Bonaventure alumn with a couple degrees from there: an undergrad in Communications and an MBA. I absolutely love the Franciscans and the University and the way they teach you to not just do well academically, but certainly socially, and to get a broader sense of the world and trying to help others. I think that’s something that they instill in their students and most graduates take with them out into the world and into their careers.”
“When Say Yes was launched, I was the Deputy Commissioner for Social Services for Erie County. I was asked by the County Executive to sit on the core planning team to plan for the Say Yes entry into this community. So after working with all of our stakeholders for about four or five months, planning for Say Yes to come into the community, the Say Yes team approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking on the Executive Director position, and I said yes.”
Tell us about Say Yes
“I think Say Yes is really critical to the long-term health and vitality of the city right now. There are wonderful things happening in this community right now. You’re highlighting many of them in your blogs, and I’m sure you’ll get to the economic development happening with the Medical Campus and certainly the refurbishing of old buildings and SolarCity coming here, as well as the rebirth of Canalside and the waterfront. These are really extraordinary things for a city that hasn’t seen much progress in a long time. Buffalo is coming back by any measurable account that you look at. I think Say Yes is so important because this revitalization and renaissance needs to be for everyone. You know, if you can’t work on the Medical Campus or SolarCity, if you can’t go eat at 716, if you can’t get on a boat or water bike and explore our grain mills, the renaissance is not for everyone. And we don’t want people left behind in this renaissance. We have a chance to get things right here and to be a model for the rest of the country. Buffalo still matters. We’re still a top metro market. People will pay attention to the progress we’ve made here.”
“Buffalo has chosen to do hard work. And in that hard work, we’ve put a lot of time, political will, financial resources, and work again into the Say Yes Buffalo partnership and the promise that we’ve made to young people in this community – that everybody’s going to have the chance for a college or post-secondary degree, and with that you’re going to have the chance to earn a living wage and be a part of the renaissance in Buffalo, and work. Everyone’s got similar hopes and dreams, and to open that door and remove that huge financial barrier of college which hadn’t been available for, I would argue, most in our city, is an extraordinary statement for Buffalo. And one that people are taking note of nationally.”
“The only sure path to a sustainable wage and being able to raise you and your family, and do the nice things that we all want no matter what neighborhood we’re from is a college or post secondary degree. You know, if you look at the forecast for this region in the next decade, we’re calling for one hundred and sixty-five thousand new jobs. We love Buffalo, but a hundred and sixty five thousand people aren’t going to move here. We’ve got to fill the need internally. It’s the right thing to do. It’s what we owe the kids in our schools. As business leaders, that’s what you want is filling these jobs within your own pipeline. Of those jobs, a little more than two thirds are expected to call for a college or post secondary degree. Our largest concentration of youth is the Buffalo public schools and the charter schools. We have forty thousand kids in this system right now. We want them stay and live here and work here. In a lot of ways, the social impact of Say Yes is obvious. Changing the futures and fortunes of thousand of kids. You don’t need to get into the social impact. The economic impact is just as big. If you look at Bureau of Labor data for example, from what you make as a non-high school graduate to a high school graduate, to completing a two year degree and a four year degree, you’re talking upwards of twenty, twenty-five thousand dollars. That means dollars that our young people can put back into the local economy. We have more contributors on the tax roll, less dependence on things like social service needs. And those are critical programs, they’re here and they serve our community well, but by being smart about looking at education as an economic driver, as opposed to putting it in a silo, is two different things, it’s a smart thing for our community to take on.”
Tell us about the success Say Yes has had so far
“We have success stories across the table. If you look at what’s happened since we’ve launched this, every single macro indicator in this community is on the rise since we’ve launched: the graduation rate in the public community is on the rise, the graduation rate in the public school district is on the rise, matriculation into college and post secondary institutions is at a historic high since we launched this. More than three thousand young people have taken advantage of Say Yes scholarships in the past three years. It’s a phenomenal story. Within that, there are wonderful stories of kids persevering and overcoming challenges to start to reach their hopes and dreams. But those macro level indicators are tremendous. It’s due to the generosity of Buffalonians. Our scholarship fund today is around twenty one million dollars that we’ve fundraised. We have lofty fundraising goals. Every single penny has come from Buffalo businesses, foundations and individuals that are contributing to our young people. We have zero overhead in this. Every penny goes to kids. This community – it’s strangers helping strangers. It’s a really wonderful thing, and it’s a testament to the generosity of those that are “investors” (because they’re investing in our youth).”
Some more details about Say Yes
“We opened up talking about the Medical Campus and Canalside and those things, and it’s great to see the physical structure in our community being invested in right now. Whether it’s refurbing the old buildings or creating new buildings and places of employment, that’s good. I think we’re investing in the intellectual infrastructure of Buffalo, which is equally as important. And I’d like to comment on the “we” for a moment. There are really two differentiators for Say Yes that I’ll point to. The scholarship fund is tremendous. There are two things that make that happen, and one is we have a collaborative governance model that brings everybody together behind some really important purposes and that’s increasing the number of high school graduates and college or post secondary graduates. Nobody can do it alone. Literally, nobody can do it alone. Private sector, public sector, philanthropy, it takes real commitment to make this work. What I am most proud about my community is the way that adults have come together and held hands on behalf of kids. We are not reliant on one person or organization or entity in the middle to drive this.”
“We have three levels. We have a scholarship board of significant private sector leaders that are fundraising for our young people. We have a leadership counsel that meets six times a year (three times publicly, three times privately). It’s chaired by our Mayor, our County Executive, our school board president, our regent, and the chair of our scholarship board. So presently, that’s Mayor Brown, Maria White, Jim Sanderson, Alfonso O’Neil White, and Dr. Katherine Collins.”
Everybody working together
“This is the private sector, city, school district, county, and state working together for our young people. That does not happen anywhere else in the country. At these meetings, we get hundreds of people. We also have an operating committee that meets every three weeks and at the table there is the superintendent, Dr. Cash, two college presidents, Dr. Ken Macur from Medailles and Jack Quinn from Erie Community College, and the president from the district parent coordinating council, Sam Radford. Two foundations leaders: Clotidle Perez-Dedecker from Community Foundation and Blythe Merrill from the Oishei Foundation. The Commissioner of Social Services, Al Dirschberger, one of the deputy mayors, that seat is open right now. Also, Chief Brinkworth from the police, two board members: Jim Sampson and Barbara Seals Nevergold. Union leaders: Phil Rumore and Crystal Boling-Barton. Every three weeks, these partners meet to ensure that the programmatic operations are moving forward. So again, a meeting that doesn’t take place anywhere else in this country. It’s really an amazing model.”
“Buffalo was so fortunate to have Say Yes come here and to have the organization believe in us and show a pathway for what real collaboration looks like. And it’s busy folks, you know, these are people that have big, significant jobs, that are working fifty, sixty hours a week, that find this so important that they’re choosing to add it to their schedules and work together. It’s really remarkable.”
Why is this so unique to Buffalo?
“It doesn’t surprise me about Buffalonians. We’re big enough to matter, big enough to have the challenges that every urban market has, but we’re also small enough that we can get in the room, and we like each other, and we can work together on problems, which matters. And those challenges that our young people have on a day-to-day basis, it’s not easy being a young person growing up in the city of Buffalo every day. There are a lot of challenges there that our kids have to navigate to get through to make it on to college or post secondary. To the extent that if we don’t work together, and help them find their promise, we’re letting our kids down. That’s on the adults. That’s why I find this model of collaboration so extraordinary.”
“And again, so important. For the last few years, we’ve gone about our work pretty quietly, and that was intentional. We made big, bold promises, and we’ve met those promises. We’ve made those promises to our young people, and we’re at the point where we want more people to hear about Say Yes, and that it is mentioned along with all the big projects that you can see visibly. You know, this is just as important.”
How do you approach the process of someone who wants to apply?
“It’s more coordination with adults. The guidance counselors and the school district have just been amazing. The scholarship promise is for everyone, it’s not need based and it’s not merit based. It’s literally for everyone. So every year in January when we release our scholarships form, we send it out to the counselors and the public and charter schools. This is your list of eligible students and those that have applied or have not applied. And we track that on a weekly basis with the counselors. I get this is more work for them, and they’ve more than lived up to spreading the news to their young people and making them aware of this extraordinary opportunity.”
“Kids can go to any SUNY or CUNY school and one hundred private institutions throughout the country. So it’s a pretty robust offering, and the counselors really deliver. We have a great scholarship team here, too. We have two members of that team that are the city of Buffalo’s guidance counselors. And I think another great part of Say Yes is that we have this underbelly of services available for kids and families. We have a team member in every public school building. They’re called Family Support Specialists. They are the best team in Buffalo, there’s no doubt about it. Focused on the right things, committed to kids and families, they do really hard work. We have as diverse a workforce as you’ll find in Buffalo, which we’re really intentional about, it’s very important. You need a diverse workforce that models the families that we’re working with. It’s something that I’ve noticed a few other places have done well. I think PUSH Buffalo hires very intentionally. It’s definitely something I think other nonprofits and businesses can look to model. But they’re an amazing team. They’re delivering social service support in schools. Intensive casework for families with attendance challenges, or food and clothing if that’s the barrier. We also have available mental health clinics in forty of the fifty-five buildings, all run by community-based organizations.”
“We have legal clinics available at six sites run by the Volunteer Lawyers Project. We have mentoring for kids as they transition from high school to college. There’s free summer camps for kids in pre-k through sixth grade run by community organizations and religious organizations. This upcoming summer, we’re launching paid internships for our juniors and seniors in college so that they can have access to the workforce. And there’s more. The umbrella and the “we” is so big, it’s all done in partnership.”
What are Say Yes’ specific challenges or areas of need?
“The two things we’re always on the lookout for are our mentors and intern opportunities. I just think there’s something special about a professional that has been through the process of college and post secondary really helping somebody who hasn’t gone through it before. And especially if they’re first in their family, which a large number of our students are. There’s that human connection and nothing replaces that. So we’re always looking for mentors and internship opportunities, too. You hear all the time about the needs of the workforce. We want to get out in front of that and help our scholars have paid internship opportunities that could lead to jobs for them. Conversely, for our business to be exposed to a large pool of talented students that could be their potential workforce.”
What do you see as the next step for Say Yes?
“I’m really interested in seeing those macro indicators continuing to rise. I think the graduation rate is up about 8 percentage points since we launched. We expect it to rise again this year. To me, that’s a key indicator. When we launched, it was forty-eight percent, it was in the low twenties for young men of color. We’ve been losing generations of kids in this community. So to see that rise is encouraging and it should give people confidence that the investment is working. Conversely, to continue to see the kids matriculate into college or post secondary, and ultimately, completing. So we’re going to keep a close eye on these macro level indicators, and certainly adjust as those numbers move.
You already touched on it, but what makes Buffalo special?
“The real desire of Buffalonians to help each other drives this. We’ve been able to pull a lot of partners together behind these common causes. And it’s not a testament to us; it’s a testament to them. That adults can work together and we choose to work together on behalf of really critical things for our community. I don’t think that happens everywhere. And we’re not the only example of that, I mean, the work you’re highlighting is collaborative across the board. There are people who are choosing to take on neat projects and rehab homes on the West Side and start bakeries. All of that’s really neat and important. It’s a great time to be in Buffalo.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“I don’t know if I would change anything, looking back. The one thing I would say along the way is if you need advice, ask for it. The world is so big and so accessible in so many different ways right now. So as you’re trying to choose your path, it’s not always easy for young people. These are no longer the days of living in the small town that you were raised in forever. But that said, I think there’s a lot of beauty in deciding your own path. And perhaps, we’re kind of going back to those days, where people move back to their hometown and believe in that village mentally and want to be around people that care about them in a community that looks to help others. And those places exist. They do. And you can have a wonderful life in those places. So as you’re trying to figure out your path, I just think asking for advice from those that you encounter along the way helps you form your own path and your decisions and there are a lot of people out there willing to give their two cents.”
- Franchelle Hart (Open Buffalo)
- LaMont Williams (Hillside)
- Scott Behrend (Road Less Traveled Productions)
- Nick Sinatra (Sinatra Realty)
David was nominated by Matt Davison.