Some see the need; some see the possibility. When Talia Rodriguez ’15 looks at Buffalo’s resilient West Side, she sees amazing potential in people who could be changemaking community leaders.
“We know there are brilliant leaders out there,” says Rodriguez, who runs an initiative called West Side Promise Neighborhood. “We’re trying to deliberately address the gap of experience our leaders might have, and help them develop a vivid and informed understanding of their own leadership.”
The initiative, which is run out of SUNY Buffalo State College’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement, aims to leverage the college’s influence in its community and connect stakeholders with the resources they need. Its primary direct engagement is through a leadership development program, offered free to adults of all ages – “for everyone who seeks to become a creative change leader,” Rodriguez says. “I like to compare it to a long dinner table, a gathering of family all coming together with the same goal: to make the West Side a better place.
I like to compare it to a long dinner table, a gathering of family all coming together with the same goal: to make the West Side a better place. It really has the ability to shape people’s lives – a really fun place where people come together to become a better version of themselves.
“It really has the ability to shape people’s lives – a really fun place where people come together to become a better version of themselves.”
That means reaching out to the neighborhood’s largely Latinx population as well as new immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It also means ensuring that the training meets people where they are, “turning leadership development inside out” with facilitators from the community.
At the center are the community’s hopes for its youngest citizens. “Children are at the core of any neighborhood,” says Rodriguez, who has worked as an advocate in the foster care system. “When people come together and share a positive vision, they think of the world they want for their kids. We seek to support families in creating that.”
West Side Promise Neighborhood is a natural progression for Rodriguez, a fifth-generation West Sider who in addition to a J.D. has a master’s degree in public policy. In telling her own story, she often cites the influence of her paternal grandmother, who emigrated from Puerto Rico in straitened circumstances, then marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and was part of the March on Washington in 1963.
“She taught me that the way we evaluate intelligence and human potential is socially constructed,” Rodriguez says. “When she was born, less than 50 percent of Puerto Rican students were in public schools, and she had a third-grade education. But she came to my graduation. My education at UB Law was really the manifestation of her advocacy."
In law school, Rodriguez says, she learned a lot about administrative law and family law, which she says “helped me better understand my own station in life and the oppression of the people who came before me.”
“It’s a privilege to really have a high understanding of government, politics, the law, and to understand current trends,” she says. “Being at law school introduced me to brilliant people who are going to be lifelong friends. I was excited to be there, and it was an important part of my journey and my understanding of civil rights.”