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Heidi Romer: the Bridge Builder and Truth Teller (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Heidi Romer (she/her/ella) spent most of the last 12 years in Buffalo as a passionate change-maker, focused on improving social determinants of health, healthcare access, and food security. She is a proponent of community-based participatory program development. We sat down for a conversation about where Buffalo goes from here. It was such a good conversation that I'm breaking it up over two posts! We go deep into what change looks like for Buffalo, speak some truth to power, and consider why we all need to care. Here's part one of our discussion:

JK: Heidi, you've been in these same circles with me and I know you've been doing this longer than I have. Tell me what community building means to you.

HR: I've dedicated my work to community building and bridge building. I truly believe a conversation can save someone's life. There are so many different ways community can be defined. Community includes the people that live in these neighborhoods. They are your workforce. Your patients. Your clients. It is an ecosystem where people are included, where people have a voice, and where people can thrive. We are better together, I believe this. There is not enough collective support, enough walking alongside each other. So community building, to me, is about bringing people together, it's an opportunity to learn from each other and move forward together. You can bring together people for anything but community building is bringing people together for a purpose!

JK: You've done so many different kinds of community work. What's been nearest and dearest to your heart?

HR: Most recently, I'd have to say the Summer on Super Street Placemaking Initiative. I really loved that. Can you believe there is a corner, Clark & Kent Streets, within the Broadway- Fillmore neighborhood, which we dubbed Superman Corner? These streets are where we held free daily programming from May through September for the community....all the neighborhoods in Buffalo are very unique and there are 14 neighborhoods that make up the East side. Broadway-Fillmore is unique for so many different reasons. It's past culture, it's current culture. Summer on Superstreet provided a variety of free programming for the whole family on greenspace next to 1021 Broadway. You walk into that building and have access to medical care, dental care, physical therapy, a gym, and 10 + behavioral and mental health organizations under the Care Management Coalition. The vision was to create a safe space, a place-making initiative, in the heart of the neighborhood that would benefit those who live, work, play, age, and worship in this community. And attract folks from outside of the neighborhood to all come together to this destination for better health.

JK: You should be so proud of the work you did at Jericho Road Community Health Center. One of the things I'm interested in talking with other activists in Buffalo about is what needs to happen for Buffalo to thrive, given how much trauma Buffalo has been through in the last three years. What do we, and I'm talking the big WE (the government especially, but also the nonprofits and everyday residents) need to do to change Buffalo to a place where people are thriving and not just surviving?

HR: I appreciate that question because when you work in conmunities that are in need, and there are different kinds of need, but when you are working with people face-to-face and hand-in-hand with them, in solidarity with them, I'll say this...

poverty is big business in Buffalo.

I'm sick of it and angry about it! Buffalo is a small city and when I think about all the resources and the brain power in this city, I don't know why we are not the model. The centralized poverty in Buffalo is mind-blowing to me. It is! In 2023 to be walking and working in some of the neighborhoods that are in such crisis, I just don't understand. We have incredible people leading incredible work, well-known companies, and a ton of educational institutions, I could go on listing all of the resources.

Now poverty is poverty, whether we are talking in the city or rural areas. But when I sit back and look at what is happening here, in the city of Buffalo, how could we not say poverty doesn't discriminate? Here, it's too much of doing things the same way. It is a band-aid approach because the crisis is just so much, all of the time. When you work in the health space, you hear things, buzz words like upstream. Upstream, upstream...I'd hear it all the time. And then one day I'm sitting in a meeting and on the wall is a quote by Nelson Mandela and it says,

"There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they're falling in."

That was a moment of realization for me. We do not have that enough in Buffalo. All the programs and resources aren't enough in the world and why is that? These programs are meeting the crisis at the moment. It's not uplifting, it's not empowering, and it's not helping to pull people out of poverty! Buffalo has so many resources. So many nonprofits. There is a ton of money being poured into Buffalo. We need to be asking the right questions. The question isn't, "why isn't the east side getting money?" but "where is the money going?" And I can argue that the need is so great, that a visible and noticeable change won't be easily seen because the needs are so great but that's bullshit. We have to ask the right questions. There has to be more accountability, more shared goals, more collective impact, more movement!

Collective impact cannot be on the shoulders of nonprofits. Neighborhood businesses have to be brought into the conversation. New people have to be brought into the conversation. I see the same people at the same meetings and I ask myself, how can you be the expert on all these things? You're one person but you are the expert on food access, housing, and everything else in between...nah! New people have to be brought in. What about cross-sector partnerships? I don't know if the businesses understand they could be the anchor institution in their community, the heart of their neighborhood, the spark to lead change. We need to make room for them at the table. That was a super long answer to your question!

JK: Well, it was a super big question so it deserved a super big answer! From my perspective, having worked in the food justice space, I agree with you that the same questions are being asked. And people in that space, our community experts, have been providing the answers but they get ignored, and the powers that be just go back to asking the same question they've been asking. If food security in the city can only be answered by how to connect city residents to rural farmers, we are not paying attention to the power and possibility of urban agriculture.

HR: You and I were talking about systems earlier. And I was part of that band-aid approach, right? People need food? Ok, let's organize a food drive. People need coats? Ok, let's get them coats. The storm in December exasperated it. I was in Buffalo, trying to help as much as I could for the Jericho Road patients, staff, and clients because there was no way to find current comprehensive and relevant information in real-time.. It reminded me of when COVID happened. The fear, the stress, the mourning and grieving, the what's going to happen"? But when I can sit back from moving from issue to issue, I can see, like, damn, this isn't getting any better. Nothing is getting better. And the storm made me think of it like this: there's struggling, there's surviving and there's suffering. And I feel like our community is suffering.

JK: And has been suffering!

HR: Right, I can't stop thinking about that. And I don't even know. I don't know how to help. I don't have a solution. And I see a pantry open here and there. And five years ago, I would have been like, yes, people meeting the need! But now, when I see another pantry open and I look at these maps created for food resources and I see hundreds of these dots where people can get food assistance when I look at that now, my view has changed. I'm no longer seeing it as Look at these great resources! Now I'm on the other end and I'm like, What are our leaders doing differently to help pull people out of poverty? How are we going to make sure these generational curses end now?

So when we talk about what needs to change? EVERYTHING. The conversation needs to change. The questions need to change. Being proactive instead of reactive. Thinking about the next generation.

I've never lived anywhere like Buffalo, where you have 6 or 7 generations living in the same neighborhood. It's part of what makes Buffalo such a friendly and welcoming place. But if we look back and ask those folks going back a generation or two about the struggle, it's the same or worse. Our current data will show our health, our life expectancy, and our quality of life isn't getting better.

And so go forward two generations. Are my kids going to be living this same way?

We have to change.

Photos graciously provided by Heidi Romer: Photo 1 is of Heidi sharing the news that she got Habitat for Humanity to build 6 houses on one street! Photo 2 is of the Super Street partners at the corner of Kent & Clark Streets in Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood and Photo 3 is of the Comfort and Joy Giveaway.

Come back next week for Part 2 of my conversation with Heidi Romer.

You can also join Heidi, me, and a group of other fabulous women entrepreneurs on Monday, March 27th at 6 pm for a webinar led by Heidi and Work Renewed to discuss aligning people, purpose, and action in the consulting sphere. You can register here.



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