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Conference participants share visions, ideas about progressive issues

Along with a few-dozen other activists and community organizers, Aysja Pryor walked into 113 Ketchum Hall on the SUNY Buffalo State campus Saturday morning to learn about participatory budgeting.

And she did.

The concept is simple: Community members use a democratic process to decide how to spend public dollars.

Pryor and others at Saturday’s CommonBound conference on progressive issues learned about everything from successful efforts in Greensboro, N.C. to let residents decide how to spend a portion of the city budget, to student protests in Chicago that drew attention to the city allocating five times as much money to police as social services.

And then, as so often happened during this weekend gathering, the conversation took an unscripted turn that seemed to prove as beneficial to many in the room as the scheduled session itself.

In the course of a group exercise about how to use participatory budgeting to allocate money for the local police department, Pryor shared information about what her group, Concerned Citizens for Justice, is doing in Chattanooga, Tenn., in conjunction with local members of the Nation of Islam.

The two groups have launched an effort called 10,000 Fearless Men and Women as a community alternative to calling the police to handle minor disruptions.

There’s a telephone hotline for residents to report problems, a car that patrols the area, and even a house in the neighborhood that’s been rehabilitated and turned into a headquarters and also serves as a safe haven for anyone fearing a threat.

It’s too early to tell what the impact will be on crime rates, because the program is only several weeks old, she said, but the community response has been overwhelming.

“When people were given a number to call instead of the police, they started calling it all the time,” said Pryor, 23, who is a community organizer. “It’s amazing.”

Her anecdote drew plenty of inquiries for more information from other conference participants in the room.

One Buffalo woman, known as Miss Della, lingered to chat with Pryor to find out more.

“I say a happy neighborhood makes a happy city,” Miss Della said. “If you go from that perspective, everything will flow.”

And that, in a sense, was the crux of the CommonBound conference, which billed itself as being “about visionary solutions and strategies that put people and planet first.” Many of the weekend’s 100 or so sessions shared only the loosest of connections to topics related to the new economy: fossil fuel divestment, Black Lives Matter, worker cooperatives, urban gardens and bitcoin, to name just a few.

“The breadth is a challenge. On some level, it’s ridiculous. It’s audacious, you could say,” said Jonathan Rosenthal, executive director of the New Economy Coalition, a Boston-based group that sponsored the conference.

“But more and more people doing organizing have learned that without having a larger context, it becomes Band-Aid work.

“The new economy movement is increasingly trying to understand the systemic forces at play. Otherwise, it’s very inefficient – we keep plugging these gaps and they pop up someplace else.”

Rosenthal’s group, working with Buffalo’s Crossroads Collective, brought together about 1,000 like-minded people from across the United States, as well as from several other countries, including Australia, Senegal, Japan and Cuba.

Buffalo was chosen for this year’s conference, organizers said, in part because of the notable grassroots work here over the past decade, with groups like PUSH Buffalo putting the city on the map.

Local activists and organizers presented Buffalo success stories in sessions throughout the weekend. Buses took conference attendees on “new economy tours” of the Town of Tonawanda, featuring the Clean Air Coalition’s work there; the West Side, featuring PUSH Buffalo’s Green Development Zone and the Massachusetts Avenue Project; and the Fruit Belt, featuring the Community First Alliance’s efforts to prioritize the needs of longtime residents amid the development of the medical campus.

Rosenthal credited such grassroots efforts as placing Buffalo on a short list of cities showing great promise for rising above current challenges.

“We’re in a time with rapidly rising inequality, and the environmental crises are getting pretty severe. The U.S. is in a perpetual state of war, and so there is this outpouring of dissatisfaction where we see mass shootings and Donald Trump as a viable candidate for president,” he said.

“And – on the positive side – the flowering and blossoming of so many grassroots things. Our role is to figure out how to connect all these issues so they aren’t fighting for scarce resources, but to create relationships so we have more impact.”