One of the many things that I really like about this Yeah! Buffalo project is that we get to meet and learn about people all over our community that we wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to meet. Then we get to share their stories with you, so that you can learn more about the people in our community who are working to make a difference. This brings us to Amber Small, who is the Executive Director of the Parkside Community Association as well as Vice Chair of Women Elect and is running her own campaign for State Senate. So yeah, she has some stuff going on.
A little about Amber
“I’ve worked at the Parkside Community Association for about two and half years. Before that, I worked in City Hall, in the Mayor’s Office and Comptroller’s office doing finance work, and then with Planned Parenthood, doing a lot of community engagement. During that time, I became Vice Chair of a group called Women Elect. We are a local organization that gets women ready to run for office. Nationally and locally, sadly, women are disproportionately left out of the political process. Our program is a nuts and bolts process of how to run a campaign, and how to do it on your own. You aren’t necessarily beholden to anyone else and you can be an independent candidate as a woman. We’ve graduated a lot of women in that program, some of which have become my best friends. The main reason I am involved with these things is because I want my community to be a better place. Whether it’s getting better public servants in office, or working with community groups through the Association to create a safer community, everything that I have done has been focused on making our community better. It’s not something that one person can do alone. It takes a strong collaborative force. I’ve been really blessed to work with our community leaders through things like the Scajaquada downgrade and our efforts to make our local roadways safer.”
So what made you get into community service?
“I grew up in Fredonia. I have a half brother that is quite a bit older than me. For a long time, it was just my mother, my father and myself. We weren’t really involved in the community at all and when I was in high school, my mother passed away suddenly. We really didn’t have a network of support because we were such a small family. We didn’t have a lot of people to turn to, but very unexpectedly, all of our neighbors started coming to our house. People that I had never known before. They would bring us meals, take us to school. My dad had a heart attack a few weeks after my mom died and he had to have a triple bypass surgery and was in the hospital for months. All of these people who I didn’t know before were driving me to the hospital to see my dad, or taking him to his PT appointments. It really stayed with me. That was one reason why I really wanted to give back to my community. When I needed them, they were really there for me.”
“I went to UB and started getting involved with the student government and different clubs. We did food drives, but nothing too political. I got an internship at the Mayor’s office and started to want to get more involved with the government side of things and the nonprofit side of things. I was never particularly interested in politics. Politics to me is the thing that happens before government, which is the important part thing. Government provides the services, and the things that we need, and politics is a way to get there. It’s the messy thing you have to do before you govern.”
How do you separate these two areas of your life?
“I have to be very regimented in how I separate the two. One is a 501c3 nonprofit and one is political. A lot of people do mesh them, that’s a big no-no. It’s something that I definitely don’t do. Sometimes I get calls to the office about political stuff and I can’t take the calls. Everyone understands, but it’s really interesting how I have to remind people. I think that part of it is that locally we’ve gotten to a point where it’s very laissez-faire, people don’t really care. “It’s not really a big rule, who cares if you break it.” Well, I care if you break it. If you start there, where does it end? These are two completely separate areas of my life, but I’ve been able to meet a lot of women who are strong community leaders through my work at Parkside, who I can talk to about the Women Elect program. I ask if they have ever had any interest in getting involved at a higher level, and then bring them into our program.”
Tell us more about Women Elect
“What we see happen really often is that women succeed more when they are in a setting where they are advancing a cause, rather than an individual political agenda. We have so many women who run local nonprofits, businesses or philanthropic organizations that would be perfect as our public servants because they know how to run an organization, to do finances and they know what our community needs. They have their ears to the group constantly and they are consummate advocates. They’re always working to advance a cause that is greater than themselves. We hope to bring bring these women through our program and hopefully elect years worth of wonderful public servants.”
The Local Political Climate
“It’s been difficult for sure. It hasn’t been easy. Often, with the work that I do, I am the only woman in the room and I have to fight for the right to be there. And everyone wonders why I think that we need to have a gender balance, when I am arguing to be the one woman in the room, and when I’m there, I’m asked to take notes. It’s really hard to believe that this is still happening. Part of it is because I’m a woman, but part of it is because of how young I am. I’ll be 30 this June. A lot of people aren’t used to someone who is as driven or serious at my age. We’re seeing so many people who are successful at a young age. Bernice Radle is a month younger than me and look at all that she has accomplished. She has her own business, she is a successful community leader. A lot of people don’t take her seriously because she’s young and because she has a quirky personality, that a lot of people find really endearing, but some people don’t take seriously. A lot of people take themselves too seriously, and I’d like to see less of that.”
Tell us more about your involvement in Parkside
“I get to advocate for about 2500 people in our neighborhood every day. No matter what it is, I’m helping our neighbors. Whether it’s trying to rearrange our bulk trash pickup or lobbying the department of transportation to make our roads safer, every day I get to help my neighbors. It’s the best job ever. A lot of what we do is heavily influenced by state politics. For instance, with traffic safety we have to go through a lot of levels of state government to make changes to our roadways. We don’t have a lot of blighted homes, but the ones we do have are awful. They’re in this foreclosure vacuum where there’s nothing that can be done because the state and local laws are not strong enough to make banks and property owners accountable. These homes are literally falling apart and there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s not a lot that can be done until these laws are changed. Running into all of these walls, I started to look into ways we could do more. One of those ways was to get a better representative in Senate. We have two really strong Assembly members who are constantly advocating for us, but we didn’t have someone on the Senate side. That’s when I decided to launch my own campaign for Senate. Partially, I see this as a continuation of the work that I have been doing. I can be a better community advocate in this position. I can help a larger base of people.”
“I’m not really shy, but I don’t like to talk about myself. Your work and what you do should speak for you. That should be enough. You open the paper any day, and you see some scandal. Whether is national or local. These people do not treat themselves as public servants. They treat themselves as politicians. When you have someone who shouldn’t have that power because they got it for the wrong reasons, it all comes down. If we are truly sending people to fight for our communities, we aren’t going to open the paper and be embarrassed by them every day. It’s not that hard to not break the law. You have to hold yourself up to the same standards that you would hold other people up to. That’s all you have to do. But people just can’t do it. But then we have people like Brian Higgins, who sleeps in his office in Washington because he doesn’t want to spend taxpayer money on housing there. He is a constant advocate for our community. He’s doing good things for Western New York.”
Where do you see yourself heading with all of this?
“Hopefully to Albany after November! Other than that, I’ve never really had a 5 year plan because the work that I do is so deeply rooted in serving our community. Those needs and those goals change. My biggest goal in life is to serve my community. To make my neighbors proud to know me. I’ve been blessed that I have been able to get paid for doing that. That’s what I want to keep doing.”
What do you see as your greatest areas of need?
“We always need help in the community. We need help advocating for traffic and safety. Crime prevention is huge. We see that our police departments only have a certain amount of resources. A lot of crimes are crimes of opportunity. We’d like to get our neighborhood watch programs back up and running and hold a seminar twice a year to remind people to not leave items in your car. Things you wouldn’t think of, like leaving your trash totes by your windows – a burglar can use those to get into a higher-up first story window. We also have an aging population of people who don’t want to leave their homes because they can’t afford to fix their roofs. We aren’t going to take those people to court. What we want to do if find them a grant or assistance or someone to help them fix that roof so they can stay in their house. This is happening across the city. Our old homes need really expensive repairs and this pushes people out of their homes.”
What would you tell a younger of yourself?
“I get easily discouraged. I don’t get dissuaded. I get really disappointed when I look around and see the state of disrepair that our communities are in. So many of our neighbors are dealing with really tough times, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution for helping them. It’s something that I take really personally. I care too much sometimes. I think I’d tell myself to “lock it up”.”
- Bernice Radle
- Melanie McMahon
- Hadar Borden
- Diana Cihak
- Carly Battin