In the seventh grade she held a hunger strike. For three weeks she and 11 of her classmates refused to eat their lunch. Their demands? The single use styrofoam trays that had taken the place of the re-usable plastic trays be done away with. And, the dishwasher that had lost his job because there were no more trays to wash, be given his job back. The school folded and both demands were met.
Spend thirty seconds with Rahwa Ghirmatzion and you will be compelled to make a change.
Born during the civil war in Eritrea, Rahwa’s family fled the violence by walking for 16 days to safety in Sudan. They were then relocated to Western New York and eventually landed on the West Side of Buffalo where Rahwa was educated in the Public School System and started her path to activism.
In 2018, Rahwa became executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), a community organization that 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.
In this role, Rahwa oversees the organization’s programs and day-to-day operations, which have grown to include housing construction, solar installation, job training, and a youth center on Grant Street, as well as outreach and advocacy on public policy issues facing urban communities. PUSH employs 40 people and has renovated more than one hundred high quality homes over the past seven years.
For more than 15 years, Rahwa has worked with community-based organizations in Western New York that promote community development. She was executive director of Ujima Company, Inc., a multi-ethnic professional theater company whose primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation, and performance of African American theater. Rahwa was the recipient of the 2017 Community Commitment Award from VOICE Buffalo and the 2013 Community Leaders Arts Award from the National Federation for Just Communities.
What led you to get involved with PUSH and your passion for the humanities?
I love to learn, I am a life long learner. I’ve always had a passion for social justice. Along with the hunger strike, one of my first direct actions was when I was 15. After the murder of Barnett Slepian and the abortion issue became really hot and heavy in the area, I got involved with N.O.W. in Buffalo. I would get up at 4 or 5 in the morning on the weekends to go lock arms and practice civil disobedience to create a wall and protect the women that were going into the Buffalo WomenServices building on Main Street. And we did this for months. That was also one of the first times that I experienced a retaliation of hate that can come from activism first hand. I had a N.O.W. poster in my bedroom window here on the West Side and one night someone threw brick through it. I remember my mom was really upset and wanted me to stop doing these things, but I told her that it was important for me to continue.
I studied English Lit and Economics at UB and that was kind of a disenchanting experience for me in that it opened my eyes up to a lot of disparities and inequities in the student body. I didn’t have any financial support from my family so I worked full time and went to school full time. It made me really aware of the advantages that were afforded to students that didn’t have to work as hard for their education.
After college, I worked at Ujima theater company. I started as a volunteer, and worked my way up through the chains to executive director. It was a collective so the great thing about it was, it was everyone’s responsibility to learn and do all of the tasks. That taught me how to think multifaceted. I learned all things not for profit. In fact, the only thing I didn’t do there was learn how to direct a show.
In 2009 I had a catastrophic event in my life where I lost my 7 year old son in a car accident. That caused me to re-shift in a different way and sort of put myself back together because everything had shattered. It was time to switch hats, so I was led to public health. Because he had a brain death, we donated organs and I got involved with an organization that accepted organ unit donations. So I spent a couple of years working with outreach programs. Specifically, low income families, people of color, youth groups and other community programs, educating them on how to stay healthy, physically, mentally and spiritually.
One group that I worked with was called Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo. That had an incredible impact on my life. Learning about the social determinants of health. How health is equal to wealth in this country. How your environment, your education, the place that you work, the place that you live, the place that you play, all really matter in the kind of health outcome that you’re going to have.
I was like, this is what I want to do, THIS is me right here.
That really highlighted the importance of how our community environment affects our health and welfare, and the need to protect it and protect those who are most affected by it.
What are some challenges that you see as recurring in the region and should be changed?
To me, the number one problem in Western NY is, there is a huge disparity gap and it is highly racial. We have generational poverty, and really tough pernicious issues that are based on a racial and class disparity. That includes environmental racism, and you can understand this by looking at who are the people first being impacted, who are the sickest, who live closest to the brownfields, and its folks of color and poor working class white folk.
The deep segregation. The segregation in housing and education, we are more segregated now, educationally, than we were before Brown Vs. Board of Education.
When you take all of those structural and systemic issues over the generations it’s an equity issues. A lot of these are designed by policies. So, we need to change our policies.
Do you have any ideas that would be a good start to solving these issues?
Create an equity framework in communities and create affordability. Invest in people that are at the lowest rung. If you invest in those who need it the most, everyone rises. And give those people the opportunity to be a part of the design process. People who are closest to the problem always have the best solutions.
We need more visionary leaders in Buffalo, there is a lack of imagination, a lack of boldness, and a lack of willingness to take risks because it has become more about getting re-elected rather than being about the people.
We need policies that acknowledge the intersection between racial, economic, and environmental justice. We are working on a community and climate protection bill right now that will help invest in this cause.
What can people do to get involved?
Advocate for themselves, the climate change problem is everyone’s problem. It is important to understand your self interest.
There are over 3200 not for profit organizations in Buffalo, every single issue is being covered. Go to ppgbuffalo.org and read about what the actual issues are and get involved with something that speaks to you. Understand your self interest.
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing in Buffalo what would it be?
There would be nine women on the common council.
What is your favorite Buffalo Moment?
The extreme home makeover that happened on Massachusetts Avenue that dramatically changed what was happening in this neighborhood. We had over 5000 people volunteer. They had bigger cities than us that didn’t even come close to our volunteer base. We had so many volunteers that they decided to disperse them all over the neighborhood. Those thousands of people ended up helping the whole neighborhood not just the house that they had chosen for the makeover. Strangers were out there fixing porches, doing all kinds of light work and the community came to life! All the sudden you see people gardening everywhere, people fixing up their homes, and they were staying here, they were excited to be here. You know, people cared enough to show up! We were excited about that, come on, we were forgotten before that.
Your lifelong idol comes to town… where are you taking them?
Oh my God, there are so many.
I’m going to go with a living legend right now, Angela Davis. If Angel Davis comes to town we are going to The Left Bank. I love The Left Bank because it’s a mix between two neighborhoods and you can see the juxtaposition of Buffalo (the past meeting the future)… and also get amazing food. After dinner we’re going across the street to get a drink at Essex.
Who would you recommend as a “Building Block” of Buffalo?
About Building Blocks:
A renaissance is not built solely on the shoulders of the big and powerful, it is the workings of the commoners of society coming together and pushing small blocks up against the big ones to set a solid foundation for change. In the midst of the new, vibrant and ever expanding Buffalo, we find ourselves needing to know more about it! Who are we missing? Who is behind it? Who are the unsung heroes responsible for the rebirth of our great city. Who do you know that has made a difference? We are calling on you to send us candidates for our upcoming series of interviews entitled “Building Blocks.”
What we are looking for:
- Individuals or organizations that have withstood the test of time. The ones who have stayed true to their values in the slow times and have now pushed forth and flourished in the new.
- People who have initiated successful start ups in the areas of business, energy, arts or education.
- People who have given their free time to the betterment of our community.
- People who have created better situations for their fellow Buffalonians.
- Basically, anyone that you think deserves a mention in the progress of our great city.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org subject line “Building Blocks” with any recommendations along with any contact information you might have.
It’s time that the foundation of our rebirth, big or little, be recognized and appreciated for their efforts.
Also see Building Blocks: Anthony Caferro