John Washington’s title is community organizer at PUSH Buffalo. A former West Side resident, he resides in Cheektowaga. A lifelong “radically minded person,” Washington, 31, was raised to “think about structural oppression, racism, classism, sexism, and patriarchy,” but never thought he’d take an active role. That was until October, 2011. He was intrigued by Occupy Wall Street, which began a month earlier. He considered heading to New York City to join, then he heard about a similar movement starting in Buffalo. His activism and organizing began then. He spoke with Karibu News as he and co-workers conducted a Friday afternoon spring-cleaning in their Grant Street office.
How did you get your job at PUSH?
John Washington: I was volunteering, doing organizing and activism; I was part of the campaign around getting the city of Buffalo to divest money from “too big to fail” banks. These huge banks hold a lot of government money, which they like. Because when the banks lose money, they can say, “We also lost your money. So now, you can’t pay teachers, garbage men, etc.”
The campaign caused the city of Buffalo to move $40 million out. PUSH got involved in advocating for a “responsible banking ordinance”—so not just moving the money out one time, but also codifying it into law. It could be used as leverage to encourage banks to do more for the communities—to help build wealth and resources for them. Buffalo has a long, brutal history of red-lining. [Ed. note: “Red-lining” is the practice of refusing loans to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk because of the racial or ethnic makeup. The phrase refers to areas literally drawn on a map, to show where banks won’t lend.]
Jen Mecozzi [PUSH logistics coordinator] approached me about getting involved; she eventually hired me.
What historic and national figures inspire you?
There are too many to name. But they include Fred Hampton—he was the Black Panthers’ minister of education. He was murdered when he was 21. In his short life, he unified 19 gangs and set up before- and afterschool programs that became models for programs like Head Start. Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Bayard Rustin, Asa Philip Randolph, Tupac. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
Charley Fisher. Jen Mecozzi. My family, including my partner, Mindy Rosso, my mother, and my son, Justice Washington, and [Buffalo-raised] rapper Quadir Lateef.
What are you working on now?
We are working to create a benefits agreement between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) and Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, where the campus is located. BNMC holds about $4 billion in wealth and resources—as an entity, it is committed to improving health; the Fruit Belt is one of the poorest and unhealthiest in the state.
There needs to be a way to benefit the people in the community. Right now, all that wealth and those resources are benefiting high-level developers and others like that. The project is driving up rents; actively pushing long-time residents and community members out.
Many who are coming to Buffalo to work at the BNMC would love the neighborhood—it’s very convenient to the campus and downtown. They are inconvenienced by poverty. There needs to be wealth-building, connections, jobs and benefits for both the young and older people who already live there.
Another issue central to PUSH mission is energy democracy—addressing it with an environmental solution forwards the causes of economic and racial justice. “Energy democracy” is the difference between affordable vs. sustainable housing. With “affordable,” people may still struggle. With “sustainable,” they pay as little as possible for utilities, and also pay an even more affordable rent. We want to change from huge, wasteful, inefficient energy systems to 100% renewable, community-owned systems.
What do you hope to see in Buffalo moving forward?
I hope that the people who have lived here, built lives and families here for generations, can still afford to live here. I’d like to see racial diversity preserved. Right now we’re undergoing rapid gentrification. People are being pushed out of their homes. The city, state and county should do everything possible to help.
What are the biggest challenges Buffalo faces?
Political corruption. Racism, patriarchy, classism; an education system that doesn’t teach people how the real world operates. These structural problems exist around the country and around the world—it’s been known for a long time that Buffalo is behind in addressing some of these.
Any last thoughts?
Yes. My efforts, and organizations like PUSH, exist to prove that, with resources and political will, people of color, people in poverty, women, and LGBTQ people are capable of accomplishing the same goals as the financial and political elite.
We need new investment and new businesses. We need to change the narrative. The people here—those who have been here the longest—must be included in the benefits from all the wealth that’s coming here, not only those who are coming here from outside.
Jana Eisenberg, a frequent contributor to Karibu News, is a Buffalo-based writer and editor.