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. In case you missed it, scroll down and read Part 1 of my interview with Heidi before reading our continued discussion here.
JK: I think there is an over-reliance here in Buffalo on the nonprofits to be the community safety net instead of the government. It's been trauma after trauma the last three years. First, COVID. Then the TOPS massacre. Then the blizzard. There is no space to just address one crisis before the next one comes and there is no safety net but the one created by the people.
Mutual aid networks were convened to respond to COVID. And when the TOPS massacre happened, they were convened again, following the playbook of what was learned. So the activists are doing the work. They are the ones making the emergency preparedness plans and then they analyze what worked and didn't work so they are ready when the next crisis comes along and when it does, they activate. It was mutual aid that saved people's lives in the blizzard but we don't provide resources for mutual aid. It's mutual aid with band aids and on a dime and it's people doing the work. What do you think?
HR: When you work within a community and are embedded within the community, you meet and work with so many different people - - good people doing good work. You get to know about all these moving parts, how things work, who is real, and who is offering nothing more than lip service. I bet if you asked yourself what you thought you knew when you came into the job as the Executive Director at Grassroots Gardens WNY versus when you left...imagine all the things you learned along the way. It's all connected, an ecosystem. Leadership needs to look at our community, our neighborhoods, our landscape and the environment as an ecosystem. They need to see how everything is interconnected and dependent on each other. It's like the analogy of how many people are one check away from losing it all? Or the weights balancing the scale and if you move one, the other flips the scale. That's what its like in Buffalo. We are one catastrophe, one event, one snow storm from getting flipped over and set back.
JK: I didn't see any proactive leadership in the spaces I was in, which is why we started the Vacant Lot Task Force. We (the community) independently convened the people to do the policy work and we spent a year talking to other cities about what they do with their vacant lots. We talked to folks in Philly and Chicago and Cleveland. And you see what the possibilities are. And in some way that creates more despair but also more momentum. Like, if they are doing that in Baltimore, why can't Buffalo have that? What's stopping us?
HR: I have heard that from many community leaders like you. Seeing models in similar cities that really improved and changed things for the better. And it’s difficult replicating things here. I wonder if we are that arrogant that we think we got it figured out? Because we don’t, the recent events and the responses have proven that. One thing that makes me crazy and I see this in the health space and maybe you do too, there is so much data. We have become numb to the data and numbers. Oh, this zip code? Yeah, they're at 47% poverty. This zip code over here, 72% of those under 18 years old live in poverty. I want to pause for a second. These are real numbers. These numbers represent our community. Those numbers translate to your people, your community are suffering. What are we doing about it? Like really doing about? Is our leadership looking at this data as a talking point? Has it gotten lost in translation that there are faces behind these numbers?
Because it's a tale of two cities.
Ask someone that lives on Highland Avenue, Vermont Street, and Doat Street, their current views and future outlooks would be completely different. So let's circle back to your first question: what is community-building? First off, everybody has to be present. Everyone has to matter. Everybody has to care. How are we moving together? It has to be solution-based. Spend energy and brain power on the solutions.
JK: And action right? Implementation of change. Not just having the same conversations over and over. OK, I want to shift from a focus on the big picture to your life now. You also recently left a beloved job in the nonprofit sector to make a change. Tell me about your new venture!
HR: I'm at a place in my life where I've been asking myself a different set of questions. How do I want to live my life now, right now...not when I retire. How do I want to spend my time on earth now with the time I have? How do I want to help people and add value differently? The answers to these questions are what prompted me to make big life changes - new location, new job, new outlook. In terms of my career, I am very excited to share that I am the new managing director for Work Renewed. Work Renewed is a woman-owned and Black-owned boutique firm specializing in executive search, talent and team management solutions, and advisory support for organization leaders. Part of my role is helping leaders enhance workplace culture and foster a greater sense of belonging for their boards, teams and communities. This is how I can continue to help people and be part of meaningful and purpose driven work. It’s an incredible opportunity.
JK: And one of the first things you've done at Work Renewed is convened a webinar series on aligning people, purpose, and action. I was so grateful to be a part of this inclusive culture of consultants that you want to recognize and build up. Why did you want to feature women consultants and their work this past month?
HR: I've had many conversations with new consultants and I'm hearing a similar theme. There is no support for consultants - for networking, connections, and opportunities. It feels as if the seasoned consultants are acting as gatekeepers and are keeping the gates sealed shut instead of taking the gates off the hinges and letting people in- with open arms. There is enough work out here, there is opportunity to collaborate. And when I would connect with consultants - particularly people of color and women - there is no sense of belonging, and just another set of challenges. And it just pisses me off. So, how do we create a space where we can all win? Where we could highlight our talents and expertise and create the opportunity? For me these community conversations are a way to do it, a way to start, a way to bring people together - collectively and creatively. You said it best, it’s not about competition but collaboration. I saw a comment the other day by a women entrepreneur in the tech space and she said, “decentralizing power from gatekeepers and putting it back in the hands of our community.” In this case, we are putting it back in the hands of our community of consultants.
This past week, we just highlighted women consultants in a celebration of Women's History Month. There will be more impact hours for Aligning People, Purpose and Action on Monday, June 26th at 6 p.m. celebrating PRIDE month and in October for Hispanic and Latino Heritage month. And lastly the impact would be creating a directory of consultants where organizations could easily tap into vetted talent within their communities.
JK: Heidi, I am always honored to share space and time together. I appreciate you inviting me into this consultant network and I have always admired your work across communities and projects. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me so deeply.
Check out Work Renewed's Newsletter for more information about what they have been up to in this first quarter of 2023.
Photos graciously provided by Heidi Romer: Photo 1 is of Heidi and the staff at Jericho Road preparing for Project Ramadan. Photo 2 is from the recent webinar presented by Heidi and Work Renewed on building a collaborative community of consultants.