Fourteen ILR students spent the summer working to improve the economic climate in Buffalo, N.Y., which the U.S. Census Bureau said was the third poorest city in America in 2009.
The students were participating in a program through the School of Industrial and Labor Relations called “The High Road Runs Through the City,” which pairs ILR students with different not-for-profit organizations in the city of Buffalo. The students lived in the city and worked for organizations such as Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo, Heart of City Neighborhoods and Buffalo CarShare.
As a result of increasing overseas manufacturing, Buffalo’s employment and population has decreased significantly. Vacant lots are often used for drug-related activities and prostitution, said David Huang ’14, who participated in the program.
“The city is kind of like a ghost town,” Huang said.
Five of the students, including Huang, lived in a house in a low-income neighborhood on the west side of Buffalo. During their stay, the students witnessed a shooting, a drug bust and a case of domestic violence.
“People sit on the porch all day because they are unemployed or have menial jobs,” Huang said. “A lot of what they do is collect social welfare.”
The house they lived in was constructed by People United for Sustainable Housing Buffalo, which turned the 105-year-old house into Buffalo’s first energy efficient Net-Zero house — a house that produces more energy than it uses.
“Our house was the best-looking one in the neighborhood. We didn’t fit in at all,” said Huang.
Despite this, the students said they were accepted into the tight-knit community.
“PUSH is doing such great work in their neighborhood, and [neighbors] have respect for PUSH, the project and the people who live in it,” Huang said.
When he wasn’t playing basketball with the neighborhood kids, Huang was working for Coalition for Economic Justice, advocating for a better job creation plan for New York State.
“I worked in a really nice cubicle on the 12th floor of a high rise downtown, and then I went back home to the West side neighborhood. It reminded me of who I’m actually working for,” Huang said.
Lou Jean Fleron, faculty advisor to “The High Road” service-learning project, emphasized the achievements of the Cornell participants.
“Every year the students do more and more in terms of their contributions and making a difference,” she said.
For example, Andrea Thomas ’12 worked with the Heart of the City Neighborhoods, organized a forum on minority and women business enterprise development and then wrote a report and instruction manual on the subject.
Fleron explained that the city of Buffalo was chosen as the site for the service program because of Cornell’s history with the city.
“Buffalo was the very first extension office that ILR had,” Fleron said. “There is a long history of Cornell ILR in Buffalo and it is rooted in experience we’ve had working with unions, lawyers, not-for-profits and educational communities. There is a long tradition of work that has been done here.”
Huang described the program as a positive experience.
“This program made the idea of helping people tangible and gave it real life application,” Huang said. “Many people go abroad to do service, but you can get that humanitarian, not-for-profit experience right here in the U.S.”