Leadership by example; “action breeds action”
Buffalo native Jennifer Mecozzi has lived on the West Side most of her life. The mother of four has seen many changes in her neighborhood and the city. She’s been involved as a community organizer with PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing) since its early days.
Mecozzi’s title at PUSH is now Logistics and Training Coordinator. In February, she announced her candidacy for Buffalo’s Board of Education to represent the West District.
Karibu News: Why did you decide to run for the school board?
Jennifer Mecozzi: PUSH is focused on housing; education is something our leaders are interested in. After attending our rallies, I learned that my own daughter’s school was in jeopardy. As a community member, I felt almost guilty that I didn’t know that. So, it became personal; I starting going to board of education meetings whether or not PUSH had a rally. I started speaking as a parent. I’m already a bulldog when it comes to my job, now you’re talking about my kids.
KN: So you decided to run yourself?
JM: As a leader and a trainer, I help to build up other leaders, so actually, I was going to look at whether we had someone within our organization who was ready. But, after talking with my community networks, it became clear that I needed to do it. I didn’t know enough about it to have someone else do it. This is my chance to get that education, and bring it back to the community in real time. This campaign has shown me management leadership skills that I might not have known I had. It’s been a wild ride! This is about the kids—whether or not I win, I now have much more awareness of what’s happening in my kids’ schools.
KN: What are your main issues?
JM: Communication. Decisions regarding the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) are handed down without community/parent input or engagement. Instead of asking people for any solutions, the schools are being given up on. Aren’t parents smart enough? Don’t we know what our kids need?
In addition, I’m learning more about statistics and budgeting. There is enough money. They’ve renovated school buildings, but put nothing into the programs. They have taken enrichment and resources away; given BPS parents and students no options. Then they say the schools are failing.
KN: What are the BPS strengths that you see?
JM: Teachers; they’re the ones in the classroom, and they have a huge effect on students. Teachers have been such an integral part of my children’s experience. My son’s teacher recently pointed out some difficulties my son was having, and helped get him physical and occupational therapy through the schools; now he’ll be prepared for 1st grade. A lot of people don’t know about those BPS programs.
I support and advocate for teachers—as people who to go into the schools knowing the situation and still teaching our children.
KN: Where are you with your candidacy?
I’ve submitted more than the required number of signatures required to get on the ballot. So far the signatures I collected haven’t been challenged. And I’ve had a lot of community support—I’ve raised money from the community and all over the country through my national network.
KN: Why have you become such an advocate for yourself and others as “leaders”?
JM: It’s more than just saying words. We bring people to the table, start committees; there are people who are working and uplifting themselves, not just in PUSH. I don’t have money, or a college education. I chopped onions in restaurants for years. Since joining PUSH, I’ve received training, and continue to work towards becoming a better leader and helping others to become leaders.
PUSH is committed to taking care of our own backyard before exploring new things. We keep the focus on the positive. And we have the real, sometimes difficult conversations. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve learned so much.
KN: Where do you see opportunities for more effective community relations?
JM: Leaders within the different language-speaking cultures and neighborhoods on the West Side are doing great jobs. As a nationally and internationally recognized organization, PUSH would like to be an open place to talk about what’s great within each language-speaking community. We want to create collaborations with the different voices.
KN: What else have you done that keeps you connected to the West Side?
JM: One of my proudest accomplishment is working with West Side Ponytail Softball. I’ve coached girls for years. It’s created lasting relationships and a network of girls and families. It’s huge! It’s not about me coaching, it’s about the healthy competition and the team-building.
When they learn that it’s okay to not hit every ball, and not to make fun of the girls who don’t get a hit, they carry that into their existence. We know that at game-time, it’s about who wins. But afterwards, we all go out for ice cream or have a picnic—it’s community-building at this level, it’s so important. The competition can be motivational, and they are still able to help each other.
Jana Eisenberg is a Buffalo-based writer and editor.