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Another Voice: To build back better, Buffalo needs a people-centered charter

Another Voice: To build back better, Buffalo needs a people-centered charter

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The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing crises have laid bare how our political economy is set up to reinforce, rather than combat, racial, gender, economic, and spatial inequality. In response, the intersectional racial and social justice organizing that has grown out of Covid-19 and the movement for Black lives has brought national attention to the need to implement new solutions toward a regenerative economy.

However, rising calls to advance social and racial justice have yet to be answered with commitments to structural change in Western New York. In just the past few weeks, a public agency in Hamburg greenlighted nearly $7 million in tax incentives for Amazon to bring a few dozen low-wage jobs. And a probe by New York State revealed ongoing practices of redlining.

Lack of progress toward structural change is not necessarily due to government inaction. Public agencies are actively engaged in meeting urgent Covid-related needs and reforming inequitable policies and practices. Unfortunately, an equitable, sustainable society cannot come from simple adjustments to unfair and discriminatory institutions. The path to a better world is one that collectively and continuously remakes the systems from which inequitable institutions emerge. Change requires a shift from focusing on events, like locally unwanted development projects, to understanding and democratically redesigning the structures that produce those events. Such change is the work not of reformers tweaking current institutions, but of reformers collectively (re-)imagining and (re-)forming new ones.

One reformative change that can begin answering the growing calls for social, racial, gender and economic justice in Buffalo is a rights-based charter. To date, around 200 local governments in 12 states have passed rights-based ordinances or adopted rights-based charters or charter amendments. These tools leverage municipal home rule powers to institutionalize environmental rights, worker rights, rights of nature and democratic rights into local government practices.

Codifying these rights in Buffalo can be a giant step toward a more inclusive and democratic economy and society – and doing so is in reach. By state law, any of the mayor, council or a citizen-driven ballot initiative can create a Charter Revision Commission. Such a commission can begin public education and outreach and collaborate with community stakeholders to draft a rights-based charter.

To read our proposal for Chartering an Inclusive, Sustainable, Democratic City, visit

Russell Weaver, Ph.D., is research director at the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab. Jason Knight, Ph.D., AICP, is associate professor in the SUNY Buffalo State Geography and Planning Department.

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