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His PUSH fuels life on the West Side

In his heart, Aaron D. Bartley is an activist, though he would prefer being called an organizer.

Since 2005, this Buffalo native has been powering PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing) to rebuild some of the West Side's poorest neighborhoods. The organization -- responsible for the energy-efficient Net-Zero House on Winter Street -- represents the most recent cause in a series of social justice initiatives that drive this 35-year-old.

While a student at Harvard Law School, Bartley led a campaign that won $10 million in wages and benefits for 2,000 low-income service workers at Harvard University. Each year since 2007, Bartley organizes a "Buffalo Takes Manhattan" fundraising bash for all our ex-pats living in New York City.

>People Talk: Were you an activist child?

Aaron Bartley: I was not. I had political ideas shaped by witnessing people in trouble and poverty and the problems that Buffalo has long faced. As a 6-year-old I was playing in the backyard on Englewood Avenue and running up on the lawn of South Campus climbing trees. I went to an elementary school on the East Side -- CAUSE (Coalition for Action, Unity and Social Equality) School -- a '70s cultural experiment where the parents essentially ran the school.

>PT: The seeds were planted.

AB: Yes they were. CAUSE was based on a free-school principle where the children in some ways ran rampant over the teachers. We called them by their first names. We had a lot of control over our curriculum, which meant we could spend days playing Foosball and other days listening to someone read us "Macbeth."

>PT: What did you aspire to?

AB: To excel. I was always looking for the next hoop, whether it was getting a scholarship to go to England after high school or Harvard Law School. At some point my aim shifted when I saw the end point of those trajectories was rather boring and often involved being trapped in offices.

>PT: Your life has become a series of causes?

AB: Yes. We call them campaigns, but there always is another government institution or major force in our world that needs to be challenged. That process never ends. It can be exhausting and enervating, and in a way it propels you forward.

>PT: What has been your shining moment?

AB: The first night we occupied the president's office at Harvard because the entire dining hall system -- about 1,200 cooks, dishwashers, janitors -- emptied out and marched over to where we were and delivered us pizza through the windows. That was exhilarating. Their energy propelled us through the next 20-some days.

>PT: If you must protest, what is your preferred form?

AB: I think the most effective forms are creative, like street theater, dramatization of power. Puppets, color, good signage.

>PT: Were you a Boy Scout?

AB: No, but I was a choir boy, a St. Paul's Cathedral choir boy. That was another environment I learned some leadership skills because I was the head choir boy.

>PT: What is your most effective tool for change?

AB: Leadership development. My job for the last 15 years has been to replicate myself every day, whether it's with staff or community residents learning how to challenge power, how to come up with and realize visions for the neighborhood.

>PT: Why the West Side?

AB: We started on the West Side in part because we saw a community very disorganized, but with incredible energy coming from refugee resettlement. The neighborhood needed a force to unify all those disparate cultures. And then there's the river, one of the most unheralded, unappreciated features of Buffalo and the West Side.

>PT: Has any immigrant group in particular taken to our river?

AB: The Burmese have almost made it a pilgrimage to be down by the river all summer. Hundreds picnic and fish along the Riverwalk from the foot of Ferry to Squaw Island.

>PT: How do you splurge on yourself?

AB: Honest? Once a year I go with my girlfriend to Niagara-on-the-Lake to a hotel with a nice spa. That's splurging. We go in the dead of winter -- great rates and no one around. I have pretty modest consumer habits. I buy old cars, old houses, old clothes.

>PT: What, then, do you do for fun?

AB: I spend quite a bit of time on Allen Street. I like going to see music performed at night. I have a robust social life that intersects with the hip-hop music community, and with the activist community. Buffalo is a very rich place to be pretending you are still young. I look up to people who age with a sense of youthfulness, you know, that energetic spirit they never lose.

>PT: And 10 years from now?

AB: I suspect I'll have a family by then. I'll be living in the same house, and be doing some variant of the same work -- whether it will have expanded beyond Buffalo remains to be seen.

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