#18. John Washington
The year is coming to an end. 2015 was a year in which so much good has happened in the City of Buffalo, and we anticipate and hope that this continues strong into 2016. Thanks to interviews like this one, we learn a lot about how these changes to our city our seen and affecting people in different areas. John Washington is a Community Organizer with PUSH Buffalo and has a lot of great insight into how we can make Buffalo more balanced, and better for everyone, along with doing some good for the environment in the process. I hope that you enjoy learning about John as much as we did.
Let’s learn more about John:
“I was born in New York City and moved around a lot as a kid. I also lived in a couple different places in Connecticut. At six years old, I moved to Seattle, Washington and lived there until I was about fourteen, and then moved to Buffalo.”
“My dad was in sales and advertising, and super ambitious, frankly, he didn’t really care about the effect of moving on me or the family, and was just like, “Hey, if I get a better job offer, I’m going to keep moving up the corporate ladder.” Those were huge moves, and in a sense, devastating moves when I was a kid, but also gave me a pretty big view of the world and the country and how weird and different every place that I moved to was, because again, most people assume that most places are pretty similar. But Seattle is like, woah, what is this place. And when I came to Buffalo, I kind of had the same reaction. I’ve lived in Buffalo for the past sixteen, seventeen years now. Went to high school in the suburbs, immediately moved to the city. I’m a college dropout. Up until about a year and a half ago, when I got this job, I was doing collections. Basically because it was pretty much the only job I could find. I was raised with a very heavy social justice mindset. My mother was a child of the fifties and sixties, was a little older than most mothers of people my age (I’m thirty-one). She was one of the first waves of students that went to desegregated schools. She told me about being six years old and having National Guardsmen at the door. That really deeply impressed on me at a very young age, and I grew up in a weird mix of poor black neighborhoods and suburban white neighborhoods. And it gave me a really eclectic mix of what this world is, because I recognize that there’s a lot of similarities, but there’s obviously high levels of racism on both sides and just a total lack of understanding. I think that has really kind of shaped a lot of the way I am now. I was always encouraged to read a lot, to understand the world and power dynamics, and never really found a space where that could be used. I didn’t find a space for that in college.”
“Obviously in the work world, it didn’t really work, although I did a lot of work trying to organize my work places for better pay, better conditions, better compensation. Especially in collections, because it’s just a really cutthroat industry. I went through a lot of collections agencies just because I hated that kind of culture, and was always on the verge of getting promoted and fired. Promoted for being good at what I do, fired for always saying “I deserve to be paid more” or “Everybody deserves to get paid more”. I have always had that spirit. When the bailouts happened in 2008, it was a really big wakeup call for the role I was playing in the financial oppression countrywide. In collections, one of the things that you do is we were basically paying some people’s debts off with subprime mortgages. Anybody that had equity in their home, it was like, hey, man if you take out this subprime mortgage, then you can pay off all your debt. Kind of adjust your mortgage, but it’ll be all good… Basically at the end of the day, I’m going to get paid right now and you’ll have to deal with it later. That was a big wave in collections at the time that I came into it. And again, I started right off like, “This is a job, I just need to make a couple bucks.” Because of my life and family situation, eventually I was like, “Alright, I’ve got to figure out how to make this work and make big money out of it because I’m a drop out. There’s not a whole lot of potential for me to make this kind of money other places. And when the bailouts happened, I was just like wow, I played a big role in doing that. But also knowing what I know about the economy, and always reading about finance and economic structures, I thought, well I’m just a cog in the machine. So, I wrestled with how much is my responsibility. And then when Occupy happened, on September 17th of 2011, it just resonated with my sense that I’ve got to do something about this, but what do you do about an entire financial structure? So I was part of starting Occupy Buffalo. I went down to Occupy DC, and Occupy Wall Street a lot. I traveled the country during that time a lot, visiting a lot of different occupations. At that point I didn’t really know anything about social justice organizations, about nonprofits, about a lot of that stuff. So it just kind of exposed me to organizations like PUSH, and Citizen Action, Buffalo First… all these organizations that were doing the things that I wanted to see. Ever since then, I just have kind of remained involved on a volunteer level. And then a little over a year ago, got a job at PUSH.”
“I was volunteering a lot for Citizen Action on education, as well as the Western New York Peace Center, I was on their board for about four years. I worked with a block called Firedoglake, which was a progressive political blog for which I travelled around the country, reporting what was happening in different Occupy camps, and how it was manifesting and growing from something that was supposed to be a daylong action on Wall Street something more. No one expected that at all. It was like, “Alright, let’s hope the cops don’t try to kill us by the morning”. And they didn’t, and now it’s like, oh shoot, what do we do? So we’ll stay and we’ll build. I played a part in documenting that and that also exposed me to a lot of information and different theories of organizing and change and a lot of the arguments that happened like, how do we change this? Okay, we’re all here because we want to do something about it, but there’s a lot of ways to go about that so it was just a crash course in radical theory, organizing for change, and so I’ve just tried to continue that through local organizations and kind of to this point here at PUSH.”
“I also want to mention that my partner, Mindy Jo Rosso and my son, Justice are a constant inspiration and make everything that I do possible”.
Tell me more about PUSH and your specific role
“I think PUSH is an organization that’s really about looking at neighborhood problems from a high level lens. Obviously there’s a huge housing problem in Buffalo. We have some of the oldest housing stock. Academically, a lot of people know that there’s high levels of poverty, but how does that look when you get to a person and their home? We see a lot slum landlords. We see a lot of people who are good people but are just unable to afford the high cost of maintaining some of these older homes. So you may say, “Oh, that’s a beautiful house, I’m going to buy that house” but ten years into it, now you have to rebuild the roof, rebuild the foundation, and so you may be able to afford the mortgage, so is it sustainable housing? I think the mission really is to look at the house in relation to a person’s life. One of the big things that PUSH identified early on is that, because of the old housing stock and because a lot of these slum lords, heating bills and energy bills were insanely high. And there were lots of people paying double their rent for heat because of how these homes needed to be weatherized. They need all kinds of help. There were some landlords that didn’t care, some that couldn’t afford it. But there was a huge problem, also from an environmental standpoint of using all this energy to heat homes that just were not efficient. So we’re using all these fuels, we’re polluting the earth, we’re changing the planet, and the net value that we’re getting really isn’t what’s worth it. So we started working on accumulating property, basically to prevent private developers from pushing people out of the neighborhood. And then taking the next step of making the construction of affordable housing centered around energy efficiency, around using solar and geothermal energy to make housing more affordable for people and more sustainable for the planet, sustainable for the individual. So it’s not just that you pay less for rent, but if you pay less for rent, heat and electric, then that’s part of wealth building; how do we solve these problems on a deeper level? When you weatherize a home, it saves money in lots of different ways over the course of time. When you put a solar panel up, it saves money for the infrastructure, the wires, all kinds of costs come from the way that we generate energy. So how do we help the neighborhood, help the earth, help everything at the same time? And I think my specific role as a community organizer is really leadership development: developing community leaders. When someone has a problem in the community, how do we guide them on a path? Because right now, frankly, we live in a city that has a lot of power players, that has a lot of corruption, and has a lot of people that have a lot to say about the growth of Buffalo. But when it comes to an individual person, that has a problem, they really could care less. So how do you build power within communities to get access to the kind of money that we can get to build affordable housing? We’re sitting in a library that was closed under Collins. The community came together and said, this space needs to be open so that kids have a place to go to after school, so that MAP can have office space to run their program. And so that we have a place where you can just use a computer to do your homework. But just that this space needs to stay open. So I think my job really is to find out the issues in the community, in a certain respect to treat the individuals but also relate them to the larger picture and the larger goals of the organization, which is to create affordable housing, to keep rents in a space where the average working person can afford to not struggle but live a decent life off whatever wage they’re making. We have a community development committee that looks at the physical spaces and identifying abandoned properties, identifying things at auction that we can purchase and rehab. We identified School 77 for a big project right now where we’re developing an abandoned school to become senior housing and community space. So we’re the kind of people who do that. We’re working on energy democracy, which is statewide campaign to change the way energy regulations work. All of those crazy little surcharges you get on your energy bill – that accumulates a lot of money. Right now, most of that money is being used in a way that benefits people who already have money.”
“We spend a lot of money paying people’s energy bills, when that money could be invested in making sure that they didn’t have to pay high bills in the first place. So yeah, it’s great that there’s tax credits for solar panels, but for the person who has to go to HEAP to pay their $2,000 electric bill because they run their electric heater, they can’t afford to, so how do we restructure this whole system so that that person has access? Because that’s going to have more impact than the person in the suburbs who can afford to pay the upfront cost and wait for next April to get the tax rebate back. Their house probably is decently efficient. So the overall impact on the environment and on the human being – how do we maximize that? Not to take away from what’s going on out there, but also make a structure for what’s going on here. Really we’re what we’re about is just community control of resources, community control of these processes so that we’re making sure that all of this money that always gets argued about that’s out there to help people, is actually structured in a way that actually helps them. Sometimes the money is just thrown onto a program but the people who wrote the program never actually had to use that program. So it’s like, a lot of people talk about there’s all this money out there, but a lot of times it doesn’t make it to right people because it’s not structured in a way where they can really benefit from it. We’re just about saying: “alright, you know what, you’ve got a problem getting access to that money, and that money didn’t really ultimately help you as much as it could have”. That’s why we work with the individuals on how we can make that better, work with the politicians, the regulatory agencies, on reforming the system so that they serve people better. It’s a lot, and not easy, but luckily once you get somebody really bought into it, then we have a lot of people in the community that help out with that.”
Is there anything in particular about your role or the organization that stands out to you that you’re excited about?
“I’m excited about the potential of sustainability, of green energy, to change the way our economy works. Right now our economy is dominated by people and business sectors that have run things for a long time, and we’re always told that the market’s going to work things out. Reality is, once people get money and power they want to keep it. So often better ideas don’t get to progress. And I think we’re at a point now where there’s so much new technology, there are so many better ways to do things, that we’ve figured out the way to change those things is through community organizing. Through getting people in communities to see how this can change their lives. Through getting the government to see that they’re wasting a lot of money that could be used so much more efficiently. I’m just really excited about the future that we can create and I’m exciting about seeing regular people being part of decision making processes that traditionally they’ve been kept out of.”
What would you say is the biggest need of area for PUSH?
“There are so many areas of need. Obviously, we always need money and we always need people. But I think just getting people engaged in the work that we do. It’s more important than the money. Grants and funding are things we can work to get, but most of them come out of the fact that we engage people, and we have people who are dedicated to fight with us. So I think the biggest need is just we can never have enough community support. We can never have enough people engaged and really starting to get the whole city engaged in some of what we’ve been able to do on the West Side. And trying to get that in other areas of the city. The biggest need is always community engagement. Not just to know about it, but to be engaged by it, to see the value in it, and also there’s always quid pro quo. We will help someone if they have an issue, an in turn they’re going to help someone and we ask that they pay it forward. And when other people in their areas have issues, we can really collectivize that because we have a construction boom going on in Buffalo, we have Buffalo Billion. We have all this money being invested in Buffalo, but it’s not a whole city model, so it’s up to us to spread that wealth, to make sure that people who are making decisions about what’s happening in Buffalo know that building a bunch of stuff downtown doesn’t help everybody. And we have a great model of how you can create jobs, build wealth, and as a city and a state, save money from being more efficient and more intelligent about how you think about how you manage your energy systems, and how you construct housing.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“I would tell that younger person to be more confident, and I would basically tell them what you’re looking for is out there. It might take you some time to find it. The younger version of me was just pure frustration because I didn’t know there were organizations like that. So I would have told the younger version of myself that in 2005 that PUSH is starting up and you should go join them. Just stay with it, be a little more confident, and there are other people like you who want to do what you want to do. Because my younger version felt very isolated.”
Is there anything else you want people to know about you or about PUSH?
“One thing I want people to be really careful of is that there’s a real stigmatization of the word “gentrification”. I think Buffalo is in a really unique position right now. In reading some of the other people who have been on your site, we really need to have a conversation about what place people who have been in the city for a long time have in Buffalo’s development. And really, how did Buffalo get to this point? It’s no accident that Buffalo is the third poorest and fourth most segregated city in the country. So I see a lot of people very excited about what’s going on in Buffalo, but not really taking a look at the overall effect of Buffalo and how the entire city looks. I would really like to engage all the people who are excited about the changes in Buffalo to talk about how we’re going to look at this moment ten years from now. And to look at Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oakland. Look at how development, historically has said we’re going to highly concentrate poverty and crime in certain areas and we’re going to highly concentrate wealth in one area. And how we have an opportunity to do that differently because we have a city that has more homes than people, that is looking to fill in. It’s not like there’s an overcrowding here like there was in the past. We have a great opportunity here to do this the right way, to do this in a way that is just to the people that have lived here for a long time, that is just to the environment, and still lets business boom, and lets new people come in and infuse new ideas, and this return to city. And I think Buffalo’s one of the few areas in the country that actually has room for everybody. But I see when I look at the narratives and stories that are being told, just this look at downtown, this “everything is wonderful” attitude. I don’t want to say it’s not wonderful. But if twenty billion dollars between state and private capital have been invested in Buffalo, and it all ends up in five square miles, how are we going to make sure that other people benefit and have access to that benefit? So I know that that’s a conversation a lot of people want to avoid because they feel like it’s adversarial. And I don’t think it is. I don’t think anybody thinks that what we’ve done is adversarial. But it’s really, how do you develop without displacing? I think we have models and ways to do it so I think to your question too about the biggest help is for people to be less threatened by having honest conversations about where our city is going, what’s happening in our city, and just to kind of be a little vulnerable, get out the thoughts that you’ve had about community organizing or what community business relationships have been in first place, and let’s build and create something new.”
- Lonnie Barlow
- Aaron Bartley
- Jennifer Mecozzi
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