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Influence Survey: Catherine Schweitzer on Informed Citizenry

For this week’s cover story, we polled a number of local folks about positive and negative influences in our region—people, ideas, circumstances. In the days to come, we’ll publish the responses we received in full here. 

Here’s what Catherine Schweitzer of the Baird Foundation of has to say:

This is an interesting assignment and leads into the first response that came to mind – the growth of alternative “news” channels is definitely a positive influence on: 1. the circulation of ideas, 2. including serving as a forum for a deeper conversation about our community, 3. providing access for an ongoing education about issues that affect quality of life, and 4. Opening minds, including my own.
The people of Buffalo who turn out for public meetings are one of the communities best resources. Our citizens come well-informed, prepared to make thoughtful comments on the record, and are tireless in their advocacy to build a great community, ready for a highly livable future. People are our greatest resource. Buffalo has earned the right to be the “Community of Good neighbors”. Having a connected community where people care about others is a great strength, a valuable asset, and a resource that is often overlooked.
There is a strong interest in the built environment and how planning today will shape the community in the decades to come. Given the 3 great designers who organized where/how the  city would grow (Mother Nature, Joseph Ellicott, FL Olmsted), Buffalo is one of very few cities with such a high quality design pedigree. Witnessing the creative energy, emotional and time investment, and genuine caring by hundreds of people who give willingly to multiple public processes each year is actually inspiring. I have to think few cities have this level of citizen engagement. It might be related to having 22 colleges and universities?
A positive circumstance is the generational transfer of leadership underway, from position power (as an example, Group of 18) to personal power derived from genuine leadership. Younger, more diverse, future-directed, more-risk tolerant, including an entrepreneurial spirit, people are serving the community well, demonstrating an inclusive leadership style and talent.
In its darkest days, Buffalo’s biggest team sport was chronic, negative criticism and everyone participated. Verbal competition was not a challenge between what was good or bad, but was instead focused on creatively maximizing one’s negativity and dismissing anyone who found a ray of hope to even casually point out. After a half century of desperation, slowly the negativity has been replaced with a cautious optimism as the economy diversified. Public perception went from not even having a glass, to seeing a half-empty glass, to now investing in what fills that glass and that the glass is increasingly filled with quality initiatives. Adjusting the chatter has been a very positive trend, lifting one’s eyes and spirit to build constructively toward the future.
Others will speak of the physical assets of culture, art, architecture, parks, libraries, festivals and more. Perhaps someone will mention the opportunities of proximity to Canada, our fresh water, affordability of home ownership, and other positive circumstances. If no one mentions it, another asset is a sense of place, a Buffalo-style, a look, feel, attitude that contributes to our livability. Distinctive neighborhoods and the revitalization of commercial corridors is one recent outcome, as is the locally grown food, the exciting array of bakery/restaurant openings, food truck growth and visibility, and increasing number of galleries.
In my opinion, the negative influences are similar to the list from the Vietnam-era – lack of transparency, accountability, silos of information, follow-the-money, who-you-know, internalize-profit-externalize-costs, etc, etc. The threat of public education not educating and preparing young people for a world when everyone will essentially be self-employed is a crisis. Environmental issues are a long standing, multi-generational problem due to the important industrial legacy in our economy (good and bad). With the recognition of global warming and the impact of rising water on the east coast, the severity of storms and draught, and many other aspects of the changing environment, Buffalo may benefit by location/geography, becoming recognized as a safe and sustainable place to live. The first half of this paragraph may be universal truths in all communities, and probably date back to ancient times, so perhaps a healthier view would be to frame community expectations for continuous improvement toward what is possible given available resources and deliberate recognition of the trade-offs required due to those limitations.

  • blair

    CS said: “In its darkest days, Buffalo’s biggest team sport was chronic, negative criticism and everyone participated.”

    That sport is still thriving. I took a plane to DC last week and sat right in front of our illustrious suburban congressman, Chris Collins. He walked on the plane and said, “Wow, a full plane. Everybody can’t wait to get out of Buffalo!”