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Season 1, Episode 5: The Legacy of Lead in Buffalo

Podcast

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Host: Justice Gatson Local Audio Producer: Maria Ta

Host: Justice Gatson
Local Audio Producer: Maria Ta

In this episode, local audio producer and artist Maria Ta shares the multidisciplinary community theater project by Ujima Company to educate their community about lead poisoning. Their Legacy of Lead production brings forward the stories of those directly impacted by lead poisoning and educates the community about how concentrated poverty adversely affects the health of communities of color. The second segment, hosted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin of the Partnership for the Public Good, discusses strategies for racial justice and health equity in the fight against lead poisoning in Buffalo homes and neighborhoods with Rahwa Ghirmatzion from PUSH Buffalo,  Jessica Bauer Walker of Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo, and Maria Ta of Ujima Company. This episode is hosted by Justice Gatson, a Kansas City based organizer, who organizes intersectional movements that uplift the voices of the most marginalized groups.

This podcast acts as a final grant report for Convergence Partnership’s 2020 COVID response grants. The Convergence Partnership is a collaborative of local statewide and national funders to advance racial justice and health equity. The Convergence Partnership podcast series introduces you to people and organizations who are building social, political, and economic power.

Justice Gatson: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Convergence Partnership podcast.Today, our partner foundations and grantees will share their stories on how they are working to improve community health and promote racial justice. The Convergence Partnership is a collaborative of local statewide and national funders working to transform policy, practices and systems to advance racial justice and health equity.

Justice Gatson: This podcast introduces you to people and organizations who are building social, political and economic power to advance racial justice and health equity. The series acts as a final report for our most recent grantee cohorts.

Justice Gatson: Buffalo New York has the third poorest city in the country. What we have are some highly racialized inequalities.

Justice Gatson: We have focus together [00:01:00] on solutions that address lead poisoning, but also address housing affordability and. all of that really came to the forefront during COVID

Justice Gatson: Community work is really messy and it requires different types of people coming together.

Justice Gatson: Cultural workers, creative movement workers. Investment should directly go towards them.

Justice Gatson: From the Gulf coast to Chicago, to the San Joaquin Valley to Buffalo and places in between. We are learning how our network is amplifying community power, transforming narratives, and building funder capacity to create a just and inclusive society where all people, especially those most impacted by structural racism are empowered to shape the policies and systems that impact their lives are healthy and can thrive.

Justice Gatson: I’m your host Justice Gatson. Today, we’re meeting with grantees of the [00:02:00] Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. To start off, we’ll hear from a local audio producer about how community organizations are using a cultural intervention to advance racial and health equity. Later, we’ll sit down with Partnership for the Public Good, People United for Sustainable Housing and Community Network for Education, Connection, and Transformation, to have a larger conversation about their efforts as a coalition.

Maria Ta: I’m Maria Ta reporting from Buffalo, New York. Buffalo has lots of fun facts. Like we’re the second largest city in the state of New York. The first being New York City. In 1886, we became one of the first cities with electrically lit streets. And of course we’re home of the oh, so good Buffalo [00:03:00] Wing. But here we just call them wings. Something you may not know about Buffalo and something many residents of Buffalo don’t even know themselves is that Buffalo has the oldest housing stock in the United States. With 64% of our homes built before 1940. Having homes that old comes with a multitude of issues, but one that impacts Buffalo residents from birth to old age is lead. Let’s hear from an expert on this part of the issue.

Orlando Dickson: My name is Orlando Dickson. I am the civic educator for Partnership for the Public Good and my main mission is to teach youth and our partners about self-government advocacy and how to work with people who are active in the government.

Maria Ta: Orlando as a member of Partnership for the Public Good was an important part of our understanding of the lead issue here in Buffalo.

Orlando Dickson: So we have the oldest housing stock in the nation. We might be improving on that slightly, but the last time I checked the median age for housing in [00:04:00] Buffalo was 1953. So lead poisoning what kind of had it’s, you know, comeuppance in 1978. So if most of the housing is 1953, or, you know, that’s the median, then you’re going to have a lot more lead poisoning.

Orlando Dickson: So you got people who are, you know, 50, 60 years old who suffered from lead poisoning. Um, and you got people, you know, whose kids are, you know, 15, but they just live in an old house and they’ve been suffering from lead poisoning. So it’s the generational like, um, spread of lead poisoning is absolutely incredible when you hear about it. It’s, it’s frightening actually.

Maria Ta: Due to the age of homes here in Buffalo, lead based paint has been a major issue and one that has been difficult to tackle when it comes to educating our residents who are impacted by it. This is where partners on the Healthy Homes Initiative come in as a part of their work. The Healthy Homes Partners recognize the need to engage with Buffalo residents. One that would capture their attention and effectively give them the [00:05:00] information they needed. One of the partners of which I am a staff member of Ujima Company was brought on for this very reason. Ujima Company is a multiethnic and multicultural professional theater here in Buffalo.

Maria Ta: I got the opportunity to sit down with several key members of the performance piece that was created as a part of this work.

Marissa Biondolillo: My name is Marissa Biondolilloand I have directed Legacy of Lead the stage version and on film.I actually joined the project because they needed somebody to play Ms. Anderson, the teacher. So I joined as an actor and we had a script that was, I want to say 12 pages long. And it had been a conglomeration of several interviews with community members. So, you know, the pieces of this story are pieces of real life, things that have really happened to people. And so it was kind of an amalgamation of kind of, what’s a, a baseline story that a lot of people could relate to that a lot of people see themselves in.

Marissa Biondolillo: The relationship to the people closest to the [00:06:00] problem is the most important element to why the work that Ujima does is so impactful. We base our device community pieces on real life people and their stories. For this project the stories came from the groundwork. Orlando did through conversations with residents at our city housing court.

Orlando Dickson: So, how I got involved with, um, Healthy Homes and the Legacy of Lead was I conducted interviews at, uh, what I would call eviction court, but what is generally known as housing court, um, interviewing people, uh, at eviction court was really interesting. So, um, my background is I was homeless when I was a kid. I was evicted multiple times when I was a kid.

Orlando Dickson: So I kind of had this kind of understanding of how it was, how it felt. Um, to be homeless and to be evicted. So it was really interesting to like be on the other side of it and being the person, doing the interviewing rather than being interviewed myself and just talking to people, you get this sense of like hopelessness.

Orlando Dickson: Like people didn’t believe that they would, you [00:07:00] know, have a place to live or that they’d ever be able to recover from it. Um, especially those people who, you know their children were affected by lead poisoning. They felt even worse because they’re like, well, this is our home. But at the same time, our home is poisoning us.

Orlando Dickson: We want to keep it. But at the same time, we, we, we probably should leave, but we don’t have anywhere else to go. And so it’s kind of like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and that’s, that’s kind of like the theme throughout all of the interviews was, you know, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place we’re in this place, that’s dangerous to live, but we don’t have anywhere to go. And we don’t have funds to help us leave.

Maria Ta: The Legacy of Lead play generated from the real life experiences of Buffalo residents is among the many community generated works Ujima has done in the past. This type of work does a dual job of educating our creative team, as well as our audiences.

Maria Ta: We develop cultural organizers, not just actors.

Tuhran Gethers: Hello, my name is Tuhran Gethers. I play Jeff Jacobson in [00:08:00] this production of Legacy of Lead. The difference from working on this project and working on a regular piece musical, um, is that this is near and dear to the heart this is real, um, you know, growing up, I can remember not that I paid any attention to it, but I can remember, you know, things about lead, commercials and stuff like that and then, you know, over the years you get complacent. So what is done. it’s an awakening in me about this issue. Cause it’s still here. It’s not not going nowhere.

Maria Ta: Is often difficult to measure the impact of culture organizing work that is using art to mobilize the people around a specific issue. But this was a question I pose to each of the interviewees.

Marissa Biondolillo: I think the arts are so important to conveying a message because I could list statistics to you all day and you would just [00:09:00] kind of say, whoa, that’s a lot, but you wouldn’t necessarily care and when you have an artistic representation of a problem, you see the human impact in a way that I don’t think there’s another medium that can convey it like that.

Tuhran Gethers: What Ujima does is that it addresses the issue in our artistic form. So while you’re educating the people, they also get entertained and that opens the door for a whole lot of other things.

Orlando Dickson: What I see as the benefit for turning these stories into a short play is the digestibility. I mean, people at a play are going to hear the personal story. of you know, this person and how it, how it affected them directly. Rather than, you know, hearing about, you know, a random, you know, incident that could have occurred 20 years ago or 15 years ago, it really brings it to, to like the modern age, especially, um, seeing, you know, [00:10:00] how the, how a child struggles with it, how a parent struggles with it, how a landlord, a good landlord struggles with it, how a bad landlord can affect um, the process of dealing with lead in a home and, you know, even how the court system works. I mean, it’s all included in that Legacy of Lead play and that’s part of why I loved it so much is because it it’s kind of, uh, you know, uh, uh, like a vertical slice of all of the issues included in, you know, this, this short play and, and it’s, it’s very digestible. People can watch it and they’ll, they’ll understand more in that short play than they will an hour of searching on Google. So I think that’s what it really brings. It just opens it, it opens up the conversation to people who might not want to look at peer reviewed studies and 30 page essays. So that’s what I think it does really well.

Maria Ta: And so the work and subsequently its impact continues. To date the Legacy of Lead play has been performed as a live performance piece, [00:11:00] a radio play and even a short film. In order to maximize the number of ways to get this very important message to people. I will leave you all with the final words of the narrator in new Jima, seven minute PSA play legacy of Lead.

Maria Ta: If we all pull together and use our collective power and our collective voice to push our elected officials, we can influence positive legislation around this issue. For all those who have suffered loss because of lead poisoning for Diane, for Shawn….thank you.

Justice Gatson: That was local audio producer, Maria Ta telling us [00:12:00] about the work community organizations are doing in Buffalo, New York to advance racial and health equity. In our next segment community Network for Education, Connection and Transformation, Partnership for the Public Good and People United for Sustainable Housing reflect on the work they have done with support from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the Convergence Partnership.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Hello. My name is Andrea Ó Súilleabháin I’m executive director with Partnership for the Public Good. We are a community-based think tank that works with 315 community groups and nonprofits to build a more just sustainable and culturally vibrant Buffalo, Niagara. We’re here today to talk about the work we’ve done to address racial and health disparities in Buffalo, especially [00:13:00] around healthy housing, safe and affordable housing before, during, and as we emerge from COVID-19. We’re here today with Partnership for the Public Good, Connect and the Community Health Worker Network, Ujima Company, and PUSH Buffalo, all grantees of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo through a Convergence Partnership fund initiative.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Hi, I’m Jessica Bauer Walker. I’m the director of Connect and the Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo and we build relationships, trust,and power for healthier individuals, families, and communities.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Hi everyone,

Maria Ta: this is MariaTa. I am the program director of Ujima Company, which is a multi-ethnic and multicultural professional theater, whose primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation, and performance of African American theater here in Buffalo.

Maria Ta: Hello everyone. My name’s Rahwa Ghirmatzion. I’m the executive director of PUSH Buffalo or People United for [00:14:00] Sustainable Housing. We’re a community-based organization that has a place-based initiative on a 30 block square area on Buffalo’s west side. Uh, really doing holistic interventions at the intersection of racial, economic, and environmental justice.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Wonderful. And Jessica, Maria, and Rahwa. It’s great to be with you today as ever. How are y’all doing? (Doing good. Thank you. Yeah, it’s Tuesday. Woo. Doing great.) Our organizations have worked together for many years. And in the last few years, we have focused a lot of our work together around healthy housing and lead exposure in Buffalo.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: And it’s a unique place to work on these issues. Uh, Rahwa, tell us more about healthy housing. Um, the challenges around it overall in Buffalo.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Thank you so much, Andrea. So Buffalo, New York has the third poorest city in the country. Our housing stock is the second oldest housing stock in the country. Built [00:15:00] before insulation was even invented in a cold weather region. And when you consider Buffalo’s economic decline, loss of population. What we have are some really highly racialized inequality. We’re also the sixth, most segregated mid-sized city in America. So these issues are systemic. They are generational. And as we consider the interventions and solutions, it is critical to multi-stakeholders around the table to address these systemic issues and healthy homes is a really big one. So we have to think in terms of addressing lead in the home has been a huge priority. It’s also in our soil, but we have to address issues of things like asbestos other household hazards, even as we think about green efficiency and buttoning up these homes.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thanks so much Rahwa. And so of course, in that context that you just laid out, folks have been paying attention to lead exposure for quite some time. And our city of Buffalo, Erie [00:16:00] county, and our colleagues at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo had a lead safe task force for many years that we all had followed and collaborated with.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: But a few years ago, they brought us in, in a much more intensive way. And I wonder, Jessica, can you tell us kind of what difference has that made? We saw certainly that that coalition was investing a lot of effort and resources into addressing lead exposure, but that the actual numbers, each year of cases and children impacted by lead was not going down as much as anyone wanted to see. So maybe you can tell us more about that.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: Sure. Thanks, Andrea. And we got involved, you know, there was a pretty strong institutional coalition and we certainly need top-down efforts in terms of making systems change, but that really needs to be met by a bottom up approach. And I think we also have to make sure that we’re not addressing issues in [00:17:00] isolation.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: So the work that I do as an organizer and community health worker and the network that we have, we really focus on what we call social determinants of health. So it’s not just one issue, you know, is looking at the myriad issues of what it means to have a healthy, safe, affordable home in community. So I think that we started to build a diverse coalition that included community organizers, housing advocates, community health workers, bringing an artist to be able to tell that story in a way that was community and culturally responsive and trauma informed. A lot of the messaging around lead poisoning in particular was very fear-based. And we know as can be health workers, we try to use a strengths-based approach. So we really were shifting kind of the way that we were working and building this really diverse coalition of different types of practitioners and a bottom up way to be able to meet people and individuals where they were at, and then have some shared language and approach in terms of how we were addressing this issue.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Absolutely. And together, as Jessica mentioned, we looked back at the [00:18:00] messaging and the materials that institutional partners had made in Buffalo around all this. And for example, some years ago there was a TV publication service advertisement on, on lead exposure that said there is a monster lurking in your home and then zoomed in on a little baby.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: And so I know that Jessica you’ve been really strong in saying that fear-based approach doesn’t take into account. The trauma that people have experienced scaring people into action might not be the best approach. And we work to bring in artists to help tell the story in a more inclusive way. So I know Maria, you can tell us about that.

Maria Ta: Sure. As artists who come to a lot of policy tables, it turns heads often that we are at the table right at the get go. But this is part of the strategic shift that many of my coalition partners here, as well as partners across Buffalo, we’re trying to change the [00:19:00] narrative of how we do work with and for community is that we bring the artists in right from the beginning. So as the artistic partner on this coalition, we were a part of those policy conversations, those strategic conversations in order to inform our work, how best can we serve the goals that we have as a coalition of, of what we want to change and how we want to inform what people are doing and thinking around the issue. And it was through those initial conversations that we were able to generate the idea of creating our Legacy of lead play that was the ultimate culmination of artistic work for this coalition in a seven minute PSA style play that was born out of the actual stories that were collected from our partners over at Partnership for the Public Good. And with multiple stakeholders who were impacted by lead, actually many of our actors who were in the play were impacted by the lead issue in Buffalo, whether they were [00:20:00] parents or students, teachers, the actors, themselves, community members, they were all part of the creation process of how we come together to tell this story. And then how do we share that story with other people? So it was a really powerful moment to engage, not only with high stakes policy makers, strategic thinkers like ourselves, but also the people who are directly impacted by the problem.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thanks so much Maria, and for us at Partnership for the Public Good as part of this coalition, we were really trying to research in practice how does the lead exposure play out for folks? Right? So what’s their experience at inspections? What’s their experience if they end up in housing court with their landlord, trying to get that lead and poor conditions prepared. And as Maria said, our interviews with folks in every stage of this difficult process,Ujima Company used those to generate such a [00:21:00] powerful play. And I think folks really felt their voices were communicated through this play that then was performed to many different audiences to community groups, to parent groups and to philanthropy and high level stakeholders as well and I know part of what’s worked in this whole process is having such a broad range of people involved. And Jessica, maybe you want to speak to that.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: Yeah, I think that that’s really important. Sometimes we think like if we just do this one thing or just have these certain kinds of people that we’re going to be able to make change and community work is really messy and it requires different types of people coming together and building relationships, building trust, and shared understanding.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: And so we’ve started from the beginning where you were working with county sanitarians and city inspectors. Who have a very different approach and very different training and objective. Then we may as artists and organizers and community health workers, but I think the more we come [00:22:00] together and practice working with each other philanthropy, being in the mix as well, you know, bringing philanthropy into those spaces and having them actually participate in some community process as well. There’s a level of shared understanding. So it’s been really interesting to see the very beginning and there being just a lot of dissonance or lack of understanding about the different kinds of practitioners that were in the mix. And I think now several years later, starting to see how broad and deep coalitions are built and in respect for some more of the grassroots community-based work that sometimes we don’t find with institutions and with philanthropy and in the way that we’re experiencing recently. And then I think also for me and for my fellow organizers and community health workers, more respect and understanding for the folks that work in the government as well. Right. Those inspectors and those sanitarians their frontline workers like us too with again, different training and experience. But you know, one of our recent interactions where we had a bunch of people together, the different types of [00:23:00] practitioners, there was kind of the shared understanding and solidarity that we’re all frontline folks. So we’re all going into community. And I think when you can have different kinds of frontline people across different kinds of institutions and systems coming up with shared language and approach, I think that we’re sort of hitting a tipping point for opportunity to be more successful and impactful.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I think that’s really interesting to point out that both the inspectors and community health workers are both frontline workers that go into the homes of strangers, right. And inspectors are there to do their duty of enforcing the code, community health workers are there to offer all kinds of care. I wonder if you can also share with us a big challenge on addressing lead. And health harming conditions in Buffalo has been that a lot of tenants are just wary and worried about letting inspectors and government representatives into their homes for a variety of reasons. And maybe you can talk to us about that and what [00:24:00] difference it can make to have community health workers in the process as well.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: Yeah, I think havingfolks that are of and from your community that have that shared experience and that understanding makes a huge difference, right? We’re able to break down barriers a lot quicker, and we’ve done some cross training with community health workers and community organizers to have more of a shared approach around that too. And I think that Rahwa and PUSH could speak to that as well.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: I think it’s really critical to have that level of cultural competence and understanding who your community members are, right? And so some of the ways that we’ve mitigated a lot of those harms that come into our community are making sure that we have either what we call energy auditors or people that are of and from the community kind of handholding as different construction firms and what have you are coming to do repairs around the Green and Healthy Home Initiative. Other things that we’ve done is we’ve actually partnered with the community health worker network to train folks that are contractors [00:25:00] from the private sector, going into people’s homes to do this work and to see themselves as frontline workers, but to give them the cultural competence and how we treat humans with dignity, especially because as many of the inspectors as many of the contractors that we are working with are coming into these communities and they are not off and from these communities. So they don’t have that cultural competence and that understanding around the nature of this community, who are these people. And so oftentimes people will judge. Things that are maybe different from the communities that then the communities that they come from. So I think those are the reasons why having the multi-stakeholders is critical. We did talk a little bit about these large institutions and particular things like the Department of Health, City of Buffalo, their inability to understand that maybe they are behaving in ways that is not very welcoming or could be potentially scary to a lot of these homeowners, which is why they don’t let them [00:26:00] in the doors to begin with, because oftentimes they might come in to do a lead inspection, but they may see other things in the home. And they’re afraid that they have a checklist, you know, a clipboard with a checklist on it and they may call for example CPS, which is kind of the language that was being used in the Department of Health. So oftentimes our community members have a fear of these types of folks coming into our neighborhoods and coming into our homes. They have a fear, many of them are renters and they may not have first and last months rent and other types of resources to allow them to move.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: Just wanted to lift up quickly to that we do have a contract from the county now, pretty substantial one to do vaccination outreach. And I think that some of this infrastructure on the housing piece built up some more understanding on the part of the county to invest in a neighborhood based approach. And then on the city side with the proactive rental inspection. So just amplifying that we’ve had a hard time, local philanthropy getting funding to do this type of [00:27:00] approach. And I think sometimes that infusion of this type of approach that, you know, we’re not afraid to say community organizing and really address racial equity in new ways.

Maria Ta: Yeah, piggyback on Jessica to say that, um, we got some major support from the community foundation to produce Legacy of Lead as a video because of COVID and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to perform it for however long. So being able to produce it for a substantial amount of money and be able to pay all the artists that are working on it, a living stipend, if you will, during that timeframe was a shift that I didn’t see coming either.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: That’s great. Our groups came together to really help, as we’ve said, the, the lead safe task force make deeper progress on lead exposure. But one of the big messages we’ve ended up bringing back to that coalition is that this isn’t only a lead issue. As you’ve shared Rahwa it’s about the bigger picture, the health harming challenges of housing in Buffalo.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: [00:28:00] So we certainly have. Focus together on solutions that address lead poisoning, but also address housing affordability, other housing conditions, issues, and housing stability, repeated evictions, forced moves, rising rents this much more complex set of issues. And all of that, that we were already collectively working on really came to the forefront during COVID.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: And I wonder Rahwa if you can tell us as our core housing organization with us. How did that play out in your work? We certainly saw more partners, more elected officials, more media who really started to focus on the fact that many of our neighbors before COVID, but also during that most intense stay at home time were really struggling in homes where maybe they didn’t have water maybe a ceiling is caving in the power, keeps getting turned off.. All of those issues. I [00:29:00] know came up in all of our work.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Yeah, thank you so much for that, Andrea, what a great question. I think that what COVID unveiled for us and the existing conditions or the issues around inequality and the disparities within our communities in particular, you know, working class communities and communities of color. So what we saw where we now had stay at home. We had to address populations that didn’t have housing. For example, our homeless population was a critical need. Another need was people that had water, disconnection fees. We had over 6,000 people in our community that didn’t have water where you’re asking people to stay home and to have, you know, cleanliness, you know, you have to wash your hands and all that good stuff in order not to spread this virus. Another sort of big issue is Buffalo being the third poorest city. And many of the jobs that are actually available to people are those frontline or service industry types of jobs in which many of them, as you know, we’re not open during [00:30:00] COVID. So that created a kind of a really just perfect storm of people having an inability to pay their rent, inability to, you know, be able to practice good hygiene behaviors with not having running water. And then of course people losing their jobs. So our organization very quickly did a few things. The first thing that we did is we stepped in to provide mutual aid. That mutual aid was in the form of rental assistance, paying for people’s utility bills and assisting in other ways, including food distribution. But really we saw that as that. Just initial band-aid. We really need to be working on more of the midterm and longer term policies to help address these systemic issues. So one of the things that we did is we also now have a tenant bill of rights that we are trying to pass, and we worked on the rent moratorium that in New York State we are really grateful for is that they had been extended to February of 2022. So we feel like we’re buying a little bit of time, even as we continue to find [00:31:00] different resources to help mitigate these issues in the long-term one story that I will share that has been really positive for us. And just really a beautiful thing is we know that it’s a shared responsibility to address not only the disrepair of these homes, but also that many of our landlords are small mom and pop type of landlords that also just don’t have the expendable funds to make these kinds of repairs. And so how do we work with this population?

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Because many of them did respond to our call for a rental assistance in which PUSH would come in and pay 60% of the rent in arrears and the landlords would forgive 40% of it, which is pretty big. So as we have looked at the American Rescue Plan and how those dollars are being implemented from the City of Buffalo, they did add up to $20,000 that would go to some of these landlords to help mitigate issues of lead and other household hazards in our community. So, you know, I think. The [00:32:00] stories that are coming out of COVID that have been really huge success is that we do have to have multiple stakeholders that we have to have both the carrot and the stick and that these issues in our communities, they are all of our problems and that we’re all in it together. And that we need all of us to be participating in what the solutions are going to be for now and the long term.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thank you, Rahwa. And I know we’ve talked a bit that even before COVID throughout this project around healthy housing, we’ve been really emphasizing to our partners in government and philanthropy if you want this to be effective, meet people where they are, bring your messaging, bring your programs to the neighborhood level. Go door to door. I know Jessica you’ve been working with the City of Buffalo with other partners in government. To do that. Do you see that becoming more the norm in our community, a greater understanding of if you want health and healthy housing [00:33:00] programs to work, meet people where they are?

 Jessica Bauer Walker: Yeah, I think this is like such a simple but important aspect of how we work going to where people are and having folks that are familiar to them in community. Right. I mean, there’s been some efforts to do kind of like neighborhood pop-ups or, you know, City of Buffalo has a clean sweep type of program, but it can be really overwhelming too. Right. So I think. It being really skilled practitioners in terms of that engagement and outreach, you know, going with folks that are trusted in the community, working with grassroots organizations, with block clubs, with community-based organizations, you know, PUSHBuffalo, really being known on the west side of Buffalo. So when you see people out in those PUSH Buffalo shirts, you know, Okay, we know who these folks are, right. It’s not the system that’s coming to my door. So I think we need the system support and resources. But I know with, for example, the rent and mortgage assistance programs, people weren’t taking advantage of them because they didn’t know how to [00:34:00] access it. Right. So it’s really important to have intermediary frontline organizations and community organizers, housing advocates, community health workers, who can really go to where people are at have oftentimes been through that process themselves. So they know how to skillfully navigate it. And folks know like we’re not the system, but we know how to get those, those resources from the system that people really need. Right. So I think it’s that multi-layer type of approach where there’s all this great technology. Now we’ve learned how to develop it. During COVID, but nothing replaces that door knocking, going into communities. We try to have an asset-based community development model to where we find those trusted existing partners and work to build their capacity, because there’s really so many amazing community resources.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: A lot of our communities are labeled as, you know, bad, dangerous, unhealthy, but the communities that we often go into are beautiful and resilient, and there’s so much good stuff happening. There’s people that are despite all of the issues that we have [00:35:00] surviving and thriving and supporting each other. So that’s what we’re trying to do is kind of build that infrastructure, invite some of our institutional partners with us in terms of the approach that we use and then have more of a blended and shared model. We’ve been doing as a community health worker network, some outreach with Erie county to support COVID vaccination rates in areas that have very low rates, which is also the communities that have very poor housing stock and need help in that manner too. So we don’t just go with vaccinations and setting a pop-up clinic. We go first and we talk to people, we have a community event and we integrate and you know, that’s been one of the great opportunities with this project is it’s given us an opportunity to practice a bottom up interdisciplinary, holistic type of approach to show that it does work.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: And so we can apply it to lots of different issues, right? So when we go to somebody’s home, we can help them with housing assistance. They also may need. A bag of food. They also may need childcare support. They may need a bunch of other things, right? So I think the more we practice [00:36:00] doing this together, the more progress we made and we really have kind of a whole community approach to support healthy, safe, affordable housing, and healthy and safe families and communities in general.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: That’s wonderful. And I certainly think as well, that one result of these long COVID months and these deeper partnerships that we’ve been building with folks in government is more of an appetite for policy change to say we’ve seen now firsthand, we’ve been going into neighborhoods. We’ve been knocking on doors. We’ve seen firsthand how our neighbors are really struggling. We’ve seen that people don’t have their very basic needs as COVID started. And so it’s time to take some real long-term steps. There’s so much more to do, of course, but we’re real happy in Buffalo that a direct outcome of this work has been adopted by the city of Buffalo and our common council. So in November of [00:37:00] 2020, the city of Buffalo adopted its first proactive rental inspection program. And so starting right around now in September. 2021. The city is beginning it’s really first proactive interior rental inspections. So simply inspectors going into rental homes where there isn’t already a known lead case to do routine regular checks for lead and for health harming conditions. And if a property is found to have those health harming conditions. The landlord will have 60 days to make those repairs. If they don’t pass the inspection, if repairs are still not made, you know, they’ll go through a process where the landlord may be unable to collect rental income for that time, they’ll face a few other penalties, and then ultimately they would lose their certificate of rental compliance and not be able to rent that property. So over time, over the next six years, [00:38:00] all rental properties in the city of Buffalo, will go through that process. And the hope is that it will really help to improve the health of our housing conditions overall. This is not brand new. A lot of our neighbor, cities like Rochester and Syracuse have been doing this for some years so we’re happy to be joining their approach. And also built into the process happily has been community health workers, and a lot of the lessons that we’ve learned so far again, to make sure that when inspectors go to these properties, they’ll be let in, they’ll have respect and cultural competency around the tenants.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: They’ll focus on those real health harming issues that they’re looking for and not be judgmental about the other ways that people live. So that’s a good policy outcome that we are working together with the city on to. So when we look back at this project and what we’ve learned for me and our organization at Partnership for the Public Good, you know, that’s been a big takeaway is the importance [00:39:00] of doing the work in partnership to bring us these policy changes. The impact that working with our government partners at the neighborhood level to really see the conditions block by block, that that really strengthens our work for these large program and policy changes. Jessica, what’s a lesson that you’d like to share.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: I think that we need to have bottom up approaches and really work upstream you know, my work in healthcare and public health, we oftentimes don’t deal with health-related issues until people are very, very sick. And so I think being proactive and being holistic, understanding what public health is and that health is more than healthcare. Health is housing in terms of this project, but really meeting people where they’re at and all different types of ways. So I think that that’s. A really critical lesson. And I think that there’s more understanding around how we move upstream and act in holistic ways and really have that social determinants of health type of approach to move [00:40:00] the mark on a variety of indicators from health and chronic disease to rates of poverty, education and healthy housing.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thank you so much. And Maria, how about you?

Maria Ta: For us, it is, and will always be to invest in your creative workers, in your community, particularly those who are of, and from those communities that you’re seeking to make change in. There are cultural workers, creative movement workers, and all of these spaces and the investment should directly go towards them and training them up to help push forward all of those policies that we’re, we’re trying to change. Ujima is best known for, we don’t just make actors, we make cultural organizers. All of these folks who work on these projects are not just investing their art form, but they’re investing their community take, their impact, being able to take it back to their own communities, to have those kinds of discussions. We’ve seen such massive changes across funding levels and [00:41:00] national and regional funders because of COVID. And we’re hoping that that trajectory continues in that deep investment in the creative communities that we see we’ve done such great work, doing our legacy of Lead work here, and we’re hoping for even greater change for the future.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Thank you, Maria and Rahwa. How about for you and PUSH Buffalo?

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Yeah, everything that’s been said really resonates with me deeply. And I think for us, it’s about, we have to address our challenges at the roots and having the courage to do so. And in order to do that, we have to center the people that are the most impacted, and those who are closest to the problem have the best solutions when you trust the people they become trustworthy. And I think that dealing at the root causes, we really have to address. Basic human rights and human needs. And that is making sure that everyone has access to healthy, livable, affordable housing. It is access to fresh produce and food is access [00:42:00] to quality, affordable water, and more importantly, access to beauty and our public infrastructure and ability to build community.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Beautiful. And how can our listeners learn more about this work? Would you each like to share a website, a social media that you really want them to zoom into? We have worked really through our own organizations as a collective. So in turn, tell us how listeners can learn more and get involved.

Maria Ta: If folks are interested in using the Legacy of Lead for a community meeting, or if you’d like a performance at a board meeting, or you just want us to come in to talk about the style of work that we do and engage in your creative community, wherever you are, you can find us at ujimacoinc.org at any of our social media platforms or ujimacoinc.Org as our website, we would be happy to [00:43:00] connect with you and get you connected with our creative community.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Similarly, I would say that our partner, the Partnership for Public Good has some amazing reports that are community based and researched that we really do use as the evidence-base for a lot of our implementation strategies. And if you’d like to learn more about our organization and the work that we’ve done, you can always visit us at www.pushbuffalo.org, or follow us on any of our social media platforms.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion: Thank you for that Rahwa, you can visit Partnership for the Public Good at PPGBuffalo.org. We have a resource library with Buffalo, Niagara focused research, including a whole lot on housing and healthy housing issues. And Jessica.

 Jessica Bauer Walker: I want to amplify the work of community health workers in relation to this project. I think it’s a really great tool that lots of organizations in different sectors can utilize we talk about community health workers is a, both a workforce and a movement. So you can check out our website at chwbuffalo.org.There’s [00:44:00] also a national association of community health workers now, which has tons of great tools too. So, NACHW.org check them out as well for lots of research and resources related to community health workers.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: Wonderful. And thank you for all of your work for our collective work together. There’s so much more to do, but whenever we come together and reflect, I think it’s great to hear all of the progress that we’re making together.

Justice Gatson: You’ve been listening to the Convergence Partnership podcast, where we hear stories from both our funders and grantees across the country who are working to create racial justice and health equity broadcasting from the Gulf Coast to Chicago, to the San Joaquin Valley. To Buffalo and places in between learning how our [00:45:00] network is amplifying community power, transforming narratives and building funder capacity.

Justice Gatson: To learn more about the Convergence Partnership. Visit us at www.convergencepartnership.org that is www.convergencepartnership.org Stay tuned as we continue telling the stories of our work.