Community-Driven Renewable Energy: PUSH Buffalo (#CleanTechnica Interview)

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In August of 2018, a new executive director will assume leadership of of PUSH Buffalo, an organization dedicated to sustainable and affordable housing, locally generated renewable energy, environmental remediation, and living-wage, career-creating job opportunities for local residents. Rahwa Ghirmatzion will succeed PUSH’s co-founder and long-time executive director, Aaron Bartley, in ongoing legislative and advocacy campaigns aimed at increasing state funds available to community organizations for the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

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PUSH Buffalo — People United for Sustainable Housing — is a Buffalo, NY, community-based organization, fighting to make affordable house a reality in the city.  “Rahwa has deep roots in the West Side Community that go back to her childhood as a refugee from the civil war in Eritrea,” said PUSH Board and Transition Committee member Nicolalita Rodriguez. “In a few short years, she has also built connections far beyond the community among the organization’s local and national supporters, as well as with movement activists across the country and beyond. This makes her uniquely qualified to run as complex and well-known an organization as PUSH Buffalo.”

In this interview with CleanTechnica, Ghirmatzion talks about working alongside a low-income community of color that is striving to renew itself by tackling issues including energy poverty, the desire for skills training and good jobs, and the need for quality affordable housing. In the 25-block Green Zone on Buffalo’s West Side, a low-income community of color, neighbors are building a future based on a shift to clean, efficient renewable energy with economic and racial equity at its heart.

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Buffalo is a city filled with old houses that challenge their residents with high heating costs generated by long and demanding winters. It is not unusual for a heating bill to come in at the same or higher cost than rent. Hundreds of area residents are working with PUSH Buffalo in efforts to fight against this brutal weather — they’re weatherproofing homes, installing solar energy systems, and working together to gain climate resilience.

Please describe for me a project that PUSH Buffalo embarked on recently in which local energy destiny became a reality, as you described in Energy News.

Our current project at the former School 77 site — it will house all of PUSH Buffalo, a local social justice theater company, a youth service organization, and provide 30 affordable senior apartments. It is PUSH’s vision for local energy destiny that ensures affordability, development without displacement, and equitable energy distribution. The project will have the first 100% low income community solar in NY State. We will use this project as the demonstration project to scale up more community solar projects in WNY specifically for low income residents.

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What does it look like when local Buffalo people are working together to gain control over their lives, residences, and energy?

The people that are closest to the problem have the best solutions. What has made PUSH Buffalo successful is that it centers on the people that are most impacted by environmental hazards, economic disinvestment, and lack of access to quality housing, good jobs, and fresh food. These same people are the drivers of PUSH’s campaigns and development projects. The benefits to this community have made a big impact to ensure a concentration of permanent affordability, pathways to employment in the green and blue economy, and to begin the healing of historic traumas.

How might PUSH Buffalo’s approach to providing clean energy be replicated in other communities, especially with marginalized populations?

Our approach is always to bring residents together and listen to what they need and want. We then work with them to steward the plan they devised and, in partnership, we begin to put together all the pieces to make it a reality. This involves many workshops, teach-ins, planning, fundraising, implementation, and debriefing all projects to see what went well, what didn’t. We use that to make the next project even more meaningful. It’s a mutual give and take process.

What message do you see PUSH Buffalo sending that counteracts the Trump administration’s assault on clean energy?

PUSH’s Green Development Zone is a Just Transition in action. We are “showing” not telling of what is possible. We know that the energy revolution is inevitable, but justice is not. Our work is demonstrating on a human level, development level, and technical level that it’s possible, and we are making it happen in spite of any challenges that we face. We know what we want where we live, and, when we show up in large numbers, people listen, and our bold solutions become real.

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Final Thoughts about PUSH Buffalo and Renewable Energy for All

Climate resilience helps infrastructure development succeed in a changing climate. Poor citizens suffer the most from climate change, as they tend to live in places more exposed to climate risks and have fewer resources to adapt to changing conditions or recover from extreme weather events. Furthermore, the governing institutions which serve lower socioeconomic citizens often lack the tools, resources, and other capacities that they need to effectively serve these populations. When the people themselves have limited power, voice, and access to information, frustration and feelings of helplessness can result.

“Rahwa has gained widespread admiration as a courageous and empathetic advocate for racial, economic, and environmental justice. She is in wide demand as a speaker locally and nationally,” said Clarke Gocker, PUSH Buffalo’s director of policy and strategy. “Among staff, she is known for going to great lengths to ensure that PUSH’s ongoing organizational development is people-centered, equitable, and inclusive.”

Domestic energy poverty refers to a situation where a household does not have access or cannot afford to have the basic energy or energy services to achieve day to day living requirements. Energy poverty cannot be delinked from the broader, more complex problem of poverty in general, but access to energy infrastructures would avoid its most serious consequences and would help to encourage autonomous development.

As executive director, Ms. Ghirmatzion will supervise a staff of 36 and oversee the organization’s imminent move to its new multi-use facility at the former Public School 77 on Buffalo’s West Side, a building rehabilitated by PUSH; and guide multiple programs dedicated to sustainable and affordable housing, locally generated renewable energy, environmental remediation, and living-wage, career-creating job opportunities for local residents.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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