Q & A with Sam Magavern, an adjunct professor whose community work lands a major grant - and dovetails with his teaching


Sam Magavern brings people together. As co-director of Partnership for the Public Good, he works to bring people with energy and good ideas to bear on the challenges facing the City of Buffalo.

That spadework has paid off with the recent announcement that the Open Society Foundation has chosen a coalition of Buffalo partners to receive a $1.9 million grant to fund a series of initiatives. The grant, one of three awarded nationwide, will be used to address issues of justice and equity, and develop the next generation of civic leaders. Partner organizations include PPG, the Coalition for Economic Justice, PUSH Buffalo and VOICE-Buffalo.

We talked about the grant and its possibilities with Magavern, whose teaching as an adjunct at the Law School dovetails with his community work.

Tell us about your teaching at the Law School
I teach one class at the Law School every semester. I always teach public policy, research and advocacy; the topics change from semester to semester. The students draft policy briefs and fact sheets and reports on issues facing Buffalo in areas where there’s a live need for what they’re doing.

They learn about these specific issues, they meet with community people, nonprofit leaders, government staff, and then they practice both research and writing skills and public presentation skills. The last class of the semester is open to the public, and the students present on their work.

Is it your hope that these students go on to be activists, wherever they land?
Whatever they end up doing, they’ll use these skills. Almost everyone’s career in the law touches on public policy and on community involvement at one point or another. Maybe they’ll serve on a board or a neighborhood group. Maybe they’ll be litigating a case that has an important public policy dimension. 

I see them volunteering in Buffalo, I see them running for office, so a lot of them do end up using the stuff that they learn. A lot of them are just interested in Buffalo, so they really enjoy seeing more of Buffalo, learning more about Buffalo, grappling firsthand with Buffalo issues.

How has the Law School’s clinical program become part of the community development process?
One issue that rose up as a community priority was economic development, in particular the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. My law students last spring had researched and written on the medical campus, and we used their work in forming our plan. We edited their work on the medical campus into a report that was an appendix to the grant application. 

More broadly, over the years my students have researched and written a lot on poverty, equality, local government, economic development issues, and built up our working body of knowledge. Our website is our library, and it’s got literally hundreds of things that SUNY Buffalo Law students have produced.

It’s fun as you start to see people using the work. I had one student who created a piece on poverty while she was at the Law School with me, and after law school she was working at the Homeless Alliance of Western New York and she had to review funding applications from nonprofits, and one of the applicants cited her work in their application. Another student in my class wrote a piece about development of the Outer Harbor; he was looking for a chance to do some pro bono work, and I linked him up with one of our partner organizations, Citizens for a 21st Century Park, which is trying to get an Olmsted-style park on the Outer Harbor, and he became an advocate for this park.

The law faculty have been very supportive of the work of PPG but also of these various nonprofits in the effort that resulted in this grant. Whether it’s the Affordable Housing Clinic working with PUSH on new housing development and policy, or the Community Economic Development Clinic working on living wage issues, there’s been a lot of Law School involvement in many of these organizations and projects that has sown the seeds for what we’re doing today.

The grant is for $1.9 million over two years. Is it then renewable?
The first chunk is two years but with a very high expectation of a third year, and then after that at least a very live possibility of up to 10. We’re really excited with the network and the knowledge that Open Society brings. They’ve been running a similar effort in Baltimore, and the lead at the Baltimore office is also the lead at this initiative. So we’ll get to learn a lot from her and then from our fellow grantees in San Diego and Puerto Rico. 

The Open Places Initiative “aims to increase the ability of communities to work together to secure greater justice and opportunity for their residents.” How might this happen in Buffalo?
What they’re looking for is systems change. They’re looking for the ability of cities or metro regions to make better policy that results in equality and justice and democratic practice for the residents. They see both a capacity gap, where cities don’t have as much capacity as they should to do this work, and they also see a lot of potential, because in some ways cities are a lot more fertile ground for that work than state or federal government. 

We felt like Buffalo fit that situation to a T. We see a lot of potential for better policy that isn’t happening, in some cases just for lack of capacity. People don’t have the time or resources to do that research, to do the community organizing that results in good public policy.

Talk about the initial program goals of the grant. First, “high road” economic development.
High road economic development means policies and projects that produce benefits for the whole community rather than just increase the wealth of the developers. It refers to practices that create quality jobs with good pay and benefits, create jobs specifically for disadvantaged residents and projects for minorities and women, projects that are green and ecologically sound, projects that reward local business and not just national and multinational chains. 

Next, a program of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is an alternative justice process. The public schools are interested in using it to reduce out-of-school suspensions. There’s something that has often been described as the school-to-prison pipeline, where school discipline and out-of-school suspensions lead to alienation from the school process, bad educational outcomes, involvement in criminal activity, and kids end up in jails and prisons. By using a process up front that tries to get at the root of the problem and tries to keep the kids within the school community rather than sending them away, that’s much more effective for everybody: for the victim, for the offender, for the community as a whole.

We’ve also found some enthusiasm among judges and parole officers for using this for low-level cases that really don’t belong in court. They waste everyone’s time, it’s very expensive, and it gives people criminal records that then prevent them from finding a job, renting an apartment, and a whole host of collateral damage takes place. 

And an initiative on worker equity.
This is about improving conditions for low-wage workers, with a focus on temp work and contingent work and a focus on refugees, minorities and youth. Contingent means, for example, you’re working directly for an employer but there’s no guarantee you’re going to be there next month. You’re brought on for a week or two weeks at a time, or you find out your hours Sunday night and some weeks you get 30 and some weeks you get two. It’s really mushroomed in the United States especially after the Great Recession; a huge percentage of the jobs that have been added are part time, temp or contingent. 

In addition, the grant envisions “building civic capacity.” What’s that?
We’ve chosen four capacity areas: grassroots leadership development; a mobile democracy center that will go to events, community centers and street corners and get people involved in civic life; an innovation lab, which is the research analysis piece; and an arts network, getting artists more involved in these issues in a more coordinated way. 

Why tackle all these issues at once?
This is really about building community in a long-term, intensive way, and so it can’t be just about one issue. Another reason is the way the issues interact and relate to one another. For example, restorative justice has important implications for worker equity and high road economic development because if the kids aren’t graduating from high school or are getting into that school-to-prison pipeline, then where are the workers going to be for the economic development that we want? 

There are very sharp limits to what you can do at the local level, because so much of what happens at the local level is really determined at the national or even an international level. You can’t do everything. But there’s that great Louis Brandeis line that says the laboratories of democracy are the cities. There is real value to trying things out at a local level if you want national and international change.