#22. Franchelle Hart
Franchelle Hart is the Executive Director of Open Buffalo. To be honest, I didn't know that organizations like this existed. That's one of the big reasons why we are doing this whole project. We love to learn about the people in our community who are behind the scenes, making a difference and trying to make Buffalo better for the rest of us. I really admire people like Franchelle. She's a good person, who genuinely cares about her community, and after I interviewed her, I felt like she cared about all of us as individuals as well. I can tell that she's the kind of person that you would just love to be around, and whose enthusiasm and passion for what she does is contagious. I hope that you enjoy learning about her, and maybe even take the next step to contact her and Open Buffalo and get involved with making Buffalo a better place for all of us.
Now, let's hear about Franchelle:
Tell us about Franchelle
"I grew up in Niagara Falls, and come from a really big family. I have seven sisters and two brothers. I think when people ask why I got into this work, it's because I think it was bred into me when I was young. You have younger siblings that you need to watch after. I was just raised that way, that it wasn't an individual mentality. It was a group mentality. If you got something and the rest of your siblings didn't get something, that's a problem. Not a problem for them, it's a problem for you. That was just really instilled in me. My great-grandparents really had a big role in raising me and a lot of people haven't been fortunate enough to have a long relationship with their great grandparents, and I have. They came from Crenshaw, Alabama and faced a lot of opposition. Both in Alabama, then also as newly arrived African Americans that were trying to find their way into industry. They were able to build a strong foundation and were able to not just take care of their kids, but also their grandkids and great-grandkids. It was amazing. It really instilled in me the importance of God as I remember them coming to pick me up every week for Sunday school, and things like that. I didn't know any other way than to take care of the greater good."
"For undergrad, I went to Buffalo State for Political Science and African Studies. And that was really cool, to say the least. For the first time, I was amongst academics and students that all wanted to do something for the community. There was this new concept of community organizing, even though I had been doing it for years, to hear that term, and to be around like-minded individuals, I think it was at that moment that I said, "I want to do this for the rest of my life". At first, I thought I wanted to go to law school. Then I realized I didn't really like what lawyers have to do every day, like being locked in a library for days reviewing a case. That seemed boring to me. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just kind of fell into this through some extra-curricular activities. I got involved with repealing the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and organizing campuses around that, taking busses to Albany, things like that. I got a rush out of it, and was fortunate to see a victory. I think that was my early days of trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went to grad school at the University of Albany for Public Policy. I somehow found my way out of being a practitioner and into the organizer field."
Tell us about Open Buffalo
"Open Buffalo a backbone organization providing technical support to existing nonprofits. We also work to fill the gaps within our community. For instance, we don't have enough young, trained, forward thinking leaders to take on a lot of these positions and issues, who also have the good of entire community as their #1 agenda. Some organizations are doing really good work, but they can't train the necessary leaders to fill the holes in their organization. We developed a Leadership Development program to do just that. It works to strengthen partner organizations and train new activists to take on and lead these campaigns. Typically, backbone organizations just provide support to member organizations. But when there's a missing or lacking capacity in the community, we work to fill that gap."
"We also have a special focus on the East Side as well as the immigrant and refugee populations. We work to make sure that they have a voice. I think that we are right on the cusp, that if we don't make the key decisions now, we're going to look back 10 years from now and say we really blew it. For example, there isn't a Burmese 911 dispatcher. Someone from the Burmese community would have to walk blocks in order to find someone that could call the police for them. Everyone should feel welcomed and safe. If we have a huge section of our population that doesn't feel welcomed, or safe, or economically secure, we are all less secure. Not having access to use 911 is a serious issue. That is just one example of something that I never would have thought that would be an issue."
How did you find yourself at Open Buffalo?
"Before I came here, I worked for 1199SEIU, a healthcare workers union. I did communications, politics and community outreach for the union. It was amazing. I loved it. I worked on political campaigns, helping workers organize, and working for healthcare reform initiatives. I wouldn't trade my time there for anything. My VP asked me to cover a meeting for him one day. He said it had something to do with this open society thing, and he couldn't make it. He said to just go for him and let him know what they were doing. I went to the meeting, and it was Push Buffalo, Partnership for the Public Good and a few other community organizations sitting around one table, saying the same things that I have been saying about Buffalo for years. That we work in silos and we could be so much more successful if we learned how to work together. If we take the "I" out of it and put a little sacrifice on the table. This is exactly what I had been saying! I went back to my VP and told him that these people have a vision for how we can fix Buffalo. It's very early stages, but I think that we can do some serious work with them. I asked if he minded if I covered those meetings for him, and he said to do it."
"From there, we had a 6 month planning process, focus groups, and attended lots of events around the city. We were asking key questions around the community. We had cards that said, "Buffalo will be more open when ________". The folks just got to write down what they think it would take to open Buffalo up. From that process, certain themes emerged. We knew that we had some serious issues with the criminal justice system in this area. We now have a High Road Economic Development campaign, which focuses on this renaissance in Buffalo, and who is benefiting from it. Who has access to the jobs? Who can actually open a business in this community? Do everyday working people have an opportunity to really prosper? We put together a proposal to the Open Society Foundation based on developing a blueprint on how to change Buffalo for the better, and how to give everyone a shot at life, really. We were one of three cities that were chosen for a long-term investment in order to work on long-term solutions to work on the issues in our community."
What are you excited about?
"What excites me right now is the Emerging Leaders program. Once you get to a place where you work closely with 20 or so organizations, you think you've seen all of the volunteers, the members, all of the organizers, all of the executive directors. You think you know all of the personalities. But when you start something brand new and see the fresh energy, I think the Emerging Leaders is one of the most diverse spaces that I have seen in this city in a very long time. We have fast food workers and lawyers learning the exact same thing at the exact same time. They are also learning off of each other's life experiences. You have Muslim individuals next to someone from the East Side, learning from each other. We don't talk to each other in Buffalo. This makes me the most hopeful. If we can keep the momentum going, this is what change will look like. To have such a diverse population of people looking to make Buffalo better, with a passion to improve the city, that really excites me."
What specific needs does Open Buffalo have right now?
"We're always looking to expand our scope of work. Right now, we have 13 organizations that we fund, and dozens of organizations that we offer training and other opportunities to. But, we'd like to be able to expand our resources to help other organizations in Buffalo. There are a lot of organizations in this city doing really good work, with one or two staffers. A pet-pieve of mine is: folks who are fighting the good fight have a tendency to run themselves into the ground, working 80 hours a week. How can we help to support and strengthen those organizations? We are launching a series of community talks, where people open up their living rooms, invite their friends and families in and talk about the state of Buffalo. There are tons of issues that haven't bubbled up to the surface yet for us to work on. We want to have these community talks all around the city, so we're looking for individuals to open up their homes and have these dialogues with folks. We're also launching a community survey on relations with law enforcement in the city. We're partnering with Buffalo PD to work on ways to build trust and solidarity between law enforcement and the community. We're looking for people to help out with that survey."
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
"Dream big. Your current situation does not dictate your entire life. There are opportunities, people and institutions that will believe in you and support you, maybe even more than you believe in yourself."
"It took me a long time to figure that out."