Clean Energy Through Urban Action — #CleanTechnica Exclusive With Executive Director Of PUSH Buffalo

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“It’s an interesting time to be alive,” Rahwa Ghirmatzion, PUSH Buffalo‘s executive director, began during a recent interview with us at CleanTechnica. Mobilizing residents into vibrant neighborhoods with safe, reasonably-priced housing and local hiring opportunities, the organization has many successes, and its ongoing collaboration with the Solutions Project to power the world by the wind, water, and sun piqued our interest.

So we renewed our relationship with Ghirmatzion, knowing ahead of time that we were in for insightful perspectives about the confluence of economic and environmental justice in an urban area like Buffalo, New York.

PUSH Buffalo

PUSH Buffalo works at the grassroots level to create and implement a comprehensive revitalization plan for Buffalo’s West Side, with more than $40 million invested in affordable housing rehabilitation, weatherization, and green infrastructure. PUSH was founded with a vision for placing the neighborhood development process in the hands of residents living in Buffalo’s struggling neighborhoods.

Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker founded PUSH in 2005 to:

  • create strong neighborhoods with quality affordable housing
  • decrease the rate of housing abandonment by reclaiming empty houses from neglectful public and private owners and redeveloping them for occupancy by low-income residents
  • develop neighborhood leaders capable of gaining community control over the development process and planning for the future of the neighborhoodPUSH Buffalo

Moving into a New Era of Urban Environmental Action at PUSH Buffalo

Ghirmatzion took over the leadership reigns from PUSH’s co-founder and executive director, Aaron Bartley, in 2018. As a longtime PUSH staffer, she’s pursued legislative and advocacy campaigns aimed at increasing state funds available to community organizations for the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency. I first encountered Ghirmatzion last June, when it was announced that she’d be taking over as executive director of PUSH Buffalo. I wondered what this last year was like for her in succeeding the organization’s co-founder and establishing her own imprint.

“Everything is really connected,” she offered, acknowledging that PUSH’s “move to feminist leadership” was intertwined with “someone from the community as well as a person of color to lead our environmental organization.” Bartley, Ghirmatzion noted, always had the perspective that PUSH Buffalo needed to rise from its city roots. “He built an incredible institution and understood the heart of the community.”

During this last year of transition, “we went through an incredibly long process — an assessment of where the organization was. We talked to funders and staffers and members of the community. How they structured the assessment process helps me to succeed — I’ve been set up for success. If I don’t do well, it’s on me.”

“All in all,” she continued, “I would say it’s been good so far. I feel supported as we pursue the intersection of racial, economic, and environmental justice and beyond.. We want to take our social enterprises to the next level — who’s going to own the renewable economy of the future?”

PUSH Buffalo accomplished many renewable energy and sustainability projects over just the last year:

  1. Completed construction and moved into our new home and community hub at School 77.
  2. Developed New York State’s first 100% affordable 65-kw community solar system on the roof of School 77.
  3. The PUSH Street Team canvassed the entire 14213 zip code, hitting over 20,000 doors. Through canvassing and events, we connected with over 700 new community members.
  4. Acquired 6 properties for the Green Development Zone Land Bank, including 3 vacant homes and 3 vacant lots.
  5. Trained 12 youth on green infrastructure and sustainable landscaping during a 12-week summer program.
  6. Trained over 50 people in at least one of a dozen environmental workforce certifications.
  7. Placed 17 people in construction jobs with the PUSH Hiring Hall and/or private employers.
  8. Advocated for social equity and affordability principles to be included in New York State energy policies.
  9. Launched PUSH”s first voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign. Registered over 100 immigrant and refugee voters and reached out to over 2,000 people.
  10. Continued changing the conversation around anti-displacement, anti-gentrification, and affordable housing in Buffalo. Local developers have begun to make affordable housing commitments for new development and through the Our Council Coalition named November Anti-Displacement Month.

PUSH Buffalo

Infusing New Neighborhood Life to Abandoned Buildings alongside the Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company

Since our readers at CleanTechnica are interested in everything to do with clean energy, I was curious about some particular projects that Ghirmatzion and PUSH Buffalo have been involved in to promote renewable energy and sustainable lifestyles.

“Our workforce is trained in green construction trades,” she revealed, “which includes solar and geothermal land and land use, affordable housing that is clean and green, remediation like rain gardens, and urban farms that feed but also move stormwater. In 2010 we renovated one of our houses to become net zero. We had 43 workers from the neighborhood.”

PUSH Buffalo’s housing arm, Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company is a non-profit housing corporation dedicated to creating affordable housing units on the Massachusetts Avenue Corridor of Buffalo’s West Side. It was created in 2009 to address the growing housing needs found in the organization’s growing Green Development Zone.

All of its rental properties have energy-efficient features to help lower renters’ utility bills including dense-pack cellulose insulation, on-demand hot water heaters, radiant floor heating, and solar panels. PUSH Buffalo constantly researches and experiments with different models of governance and participation in order to fulfill their organizational vision for community control of resources.

“We’ve worked for the last year to check and improve,” Ghirmatzion continued. “Our School 77 building was the first solar project in the state.”

PUSH Buffalo

School 77 is an 80,000-square-foot former Buffalo Public School built in 1927, located on the West Side of Buffalo. School 77 was closed and abandoned for nearly 6 years, but PUSH and the community have now transformed it into solar-powered affordable senior apartments and a community center.

School 77 includes:

  • 30 energy efficient, affordable apartments for seniors
  • The home base of PUSH Buffalo
  • The home base of Peace of the City
  • A black-box theater and the home base of Ujima Theatre Company
  • A shared gymnasium with community programming
  • Additional community meeting spaces
  • A 64-Kw community solar array, which provides energy for the building and the senior apartment tenants
  • A green roof, which absorbs rain water and curbs combined sewage overflows
  • Eco-landscaping around the building, which also curbs combined sewage overflows

PUSH Buffalo

Principles + People Power + Community Control + Land Improvement + Housing Rehabilitation = JOBS

“In the spring we’ll break ground on our workforce center,”  Ghirmatzion shared. PUSH was one of the winners of the Empire State Development Corporation Workforce Development Challenge, an initiative that aims to help the Western New York region’s workforce pipeline remain responsive to industry demands. The program is designed to promote and invest in innovative approaches to workforce training for underserved populations. The PUSH Buffalo Community Energy Workforce Development Project will build a Sustainability Workforce Training Center on Buffalo’s West Side, increase the capacity of the existing Community Hiring Hall to train and place workers in the renewable energy sector, and develop a training curriculum that meets the needs of the renewable energy sector.

The Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Corporation purchased the property and formed a partnership between PUSH and YouthBuild to renovate the house while providing training for disadvantaged workers. YouthBuild is an international nonprofit that works with at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who have dropped out of high school to complete their GED while providing training in the construction industry. Two cohorts of 10 to 15 YouthBuild trainees from the City of Buffalo rotate between morning and afternoon shifts: one shift working at the Training House, and the other shift studying for the GED in a classroom.

The Sustainability Workforce Training Center will generate as much energy as it uses through an on-site solar PV system and geothermal heating and cooling system, which will also serve as a learning laboratory for renewable energy trainings. There will be a greenhouse on site to learn about native plant cultivation and agrivoltaics, which is the method of growing plants around a solar array to keep the panels cool.

PUSH Buffalo Gains National Visibility through the Solutions Project

Acknowledging that a significant lack of media coverage echoes disparities with climate-affected communities, the Solutions Project takes the lead on clean energy innovation through philanthropic support. On February 19th, 2019, the Solutions Project unveiled a groundbreaking new funding strategy designed to address racial and gender inequities in climate philanthropy. Embracing a 100% Commitment to Justice, the Solutions Project is celebrating racial and gender justice. To do so, the grantmaker has committed to investments of 95% of its resources in innovative frontline leadership of color, with at least 80% going to organizations led by women. The organization also invites the US philanthropic community to follow its lead by reexamining their own funding strategies and allocations to these groups.

Ghirmatzion explained PUSH Buffalo’s relationship to the Solutions Project. “The Solutions Project is a grantor, but we are also a community participant. We go into frontline communities. They sit down with us and ask what is successful. They bring in media and help us tell our story to the public. The Solutions Project came and, through some really savvy media work, brought us into the national scene.”

“They’ve been walking the walk for some time,” she acknowledged. The Solutions Group has funded indigenous and other nonprofit groups in New York, in part through the Ecosystem Fund that invests in locally-rooted anchor organizations. It expands the influence of state narratives and policies that support a national just transition to 100% clean renewable energy. “They have leadership of women or people of color,” Ghirmatzion continued. “The Solutions Project has been able to uplift that work. They’ve use science-based energy reports to show us that the majority are white-led philanthropic organizations.”

“I think that they’re always trailblazing at the edge of the work as they look for bold, transformative, equity-oriented solutions.”

For example, she talked about how their work with the Solutions Project created pathways to Energy Democracy. Energy Democracy is a political, economic, social, and cultural concept that merges the technological energy transition from extractive to regenerative energy sources with a strengthening of democracy and public participation. It works to build resilient communities while remembering class, power, accountability, urgency, and the wisdom of Indigenous communities. With the Solutions Project, PUSH Buffalo advocated for community solar in a new way. “We took policy — a wonky, 80-page document — and made it digestible.”

I wondered if, as a woman leading the charge to clean energy, has Ghirmatzion ever felt, as Don Cheadle said, all “too often without resources or recognition?”

“Yes and no,” she responded. “It’s hard to say ‘no’ when we’ve had the Solutions Project for the last 4 years. Mark Ruffalo and I co-wrote an article on clean energy for the Council of Philanthropy. Before that, I would say ‘no.’ The Solutions Project’s new 80 x 7 framework, where 95% of dollars will go to people of color and 80% to women, is very bold. Actors in Hollywood make those communities more visible.”

“We’ve had to work at the intersections of economy, environmental, and social justice,” Ghirmatzion reminded me. “We can’t address just one issue — we have to do all of them. What we have are projects that have different impacts. If we can think more comprehensively, we can accomplish more.”

PUSH Buffalo

Images courtesy of PUSH Buffalo

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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 Twitter and Facebook.

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