Profiles in Sustainability: Harper Bishop

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John Washington, PUSH & Harper Bishop, Open Buffalo

When you’re learning a language like Korean, as an English speaker, it is a huge paradigm shift. Either you submit to the shift, or you never truly learn it. Try speaking like Yoda from Star Wars sometime, put all your verbs at the end of the sentence. It is a struggle and it takes a lot of deliberate practice to get it right, and to do it naturally. The paradigm shift people are now making is from insularity to pluralism and it’s a tough shift.

For all of history, the great cities were crossroads of cultures. Ancient Timbuktu and Alexandria with their legendary libraries, Paris with its homing beacon for artists. Harlem as the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance and the creation of the “New Black Identity.” In modern times, the most powerful cities are all exemplars of this fact: diversity breeds innovation. New York City, Shanghai, London, Singapore, Silicon Valley, Dubai. All are international economic powerhouses and all are crossroads of cultures.

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The place to be in ancient Rome

So, at the heart of it, starving, alienating, bullying the “other” is bad for economics.  I met Harper Bishop several years ago. Like now, he was fired up about social justice and economics.  Today, he works for Open Buffalo, a community movement for social and economic justice. Harper curates the relationships between community groups and individuals and the organizations that work to represent them as well as translating that effort for elected officials and holding them accountable. The Crossroads Collective, a one-of-a-kind alliance committed to building a new economy that centers equity and justice. There are ten powerful member organizations, including the two anchor partners Open Buffalo and PUSH Buffalo, who each contribute their expertise and run campaigns for a common cause: environmental, racial, and social justice.

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Fight for the minimum wage in New York State

Bishop was first introduced to Buffalo’s progressive community through his position as executive director of Buffalo First, a non-profit organization that supported local and independent businesses in Buffalo and Western New York through educating the public about the importance of a strong local economy. At that time, he was advocating – along with CEJ Buffalo, the Partnership for the Public Good, and VOICE Buffalo – for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for Canalside with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC). That was back when leadership in the city was assiduously trying to convince Bass Pro Shops to come and be the anchor for a new development at the site of the old War Memorial Auditorium. Where they brought their insider connections, Harper brought facts. Bass Pro has had a long history of exacting municipal tax abatements that were incredibly favorable for their business, but not the local community. However, report after report has confirmed that as those terms expired, Bass Pro would pull up stakes and invade the next municipality. An all-too-common story of corporatism in America.

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Harper and localists the world over had a different idea of how to generate wealth in communities. That idea is simple and intuitive: keep it local. If the money circulating in Buffalo stays in Buffalo, it will have a greater impact on the local economy. That’s the power of economist call the Multiplier Effect. The Canalside that we all know and love today is mostly attributed to the fact that elected officials and civic leaders began to understand and believe in this logic.

Harper has contributed to many campaigns for economic and social justice over the years: advocating for the passage of Benefit Corporation status in New York, supporting the Fight for $15, democratizing municipal budgeting through Participatory Budgeting and democratizing workplaces through co-founding Cooperation Buffalo.

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On the steps of Buffalo City Hall fighting for community

Harper’s journey finally landed him as the Economic and Climate Justice Coordinator at Open Buffalo, where he began to struggle with residents of the Fruit Belt for a Community Benefits Agreement with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, to reverse the historical and intentional disinvestment from communities of color. “I have learned so much from the people of the Fruit Belt. They are incredibly resilient and have taught me so much about what it means to keep fighting despite everything; They have endured racism, redlining, and then some.”

Harper comes by his admiration honestly. He had his paradigm shifted forcibly in college. These struggles against injustice are viscerally important to him. “I grew up in East Aurora, my family was one of the few blue-collar families in the town. I attended what I consider to be a public school that could have just as easily been a private school. I really had no idea that people lived without until I was outed in college.” He had received a basketball scholarship and as part of the community contract had agreed to not drink alcohol, be in a same-sex relationship, and other items deemed impermissible at a Wesleyan college. It was the first time he’d ever felt the oppression of prejudice. Though he’d grown up in a conservative heterosexual Christian home, a family that voted for Trump, he’d never imagined his sexual orientation would precipitate the loss of his scholarship and the subsequent threat of expulsion from school. This is to say nothing of the follow-on public humiliation and scorn.

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The Good Fight

That was enough to cause a huge paradigm shift, and some enlightenment. “Our oppressions are undeniably linked. If you aren’t a white heterosexual Christian male in America, there are a lot of opportunities that aren’t going to be available to you. It made me realized, not right away but through a process, that we’re all connected. Whether it’s undocumented workers, African-Americans and an unjust criminal system, trans women of color persevering just to be themselves and live their truth, our liberation is bound up in one another.” In fighting for the community of the Fruit Belt to have a voice, he realizes that he bears the responsibility of privilege, “As a white trans man, I know that I can step up by stepping back. I feel strongly about fighting with these folks for our collective liberation. And I know that many of those that I work with struggle as people of faith to reconcile my identity. I do think that they support me regardless.”

Perhaps at the heart of sustainability is realizing that someone else’s struggle to survive supersedes your own.  Being white and transgender, Harper still understands that he holds a lot of privilege. “We fought the National Fuel rate hike, not because I can’t afford the additional charges, but because there are so many who honestly can’t.” He also recognizes the weight of a history of discrimination and the effect of things like institutionalized racism. “For this country to begin to heal, we need to understand our history and each other’s struggle.” He mentioned having the conversations around these issues, the way he described it sounded a lot like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela to help South Africa get over its apartheid past.

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Keep the East Side Green too!

“I believe in self-determination and I also believe in reparations.” Harper notes, “Communities of color have been used as dumping grounds for all types of injustices, including environmental, for far too long. Communities of color and working-class people contribute the least to climate change and yet are the most impacted by it.” This is evidenced by the L.P. Ciminelli’s lack of a parking plan, only after the surrounding neighborhood went into revolt. It wasn’t until then that the medical corridor was forced to start thinking about how all the new workers coming to the BNMC were going to park their cars. Another paradigm shift.

Harper points out that the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation isn’t benefiting everyone either. “There are millions of taxpayer dollars that are being awarded through the 43 North competition to bring out-of-town companies to Buffalo. I don’t think people realize that they don’t have to stay in Buffalo or invest beyond what they’re obligated to. It’s obvious to those in the neighborhood where the city’s leadership are and where they are not.”

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Harper also imagines a more inclusive future. “People need to understand that the developer class and power structure don’t care about us, equally. In Allentown, there are building owners that live in New York City who are just waiting for the gentrification of the neighborhood to occur so that they can sell to the highest bidder. They are capitalists first and foremost. The only way to stop the erasure of culture and communities is to come together in solidarity.” He recognizes a new economic era with the recent election of Donald Trump, “The capitalists are launching a hostile takeover, but Donald Trump is one person, and we are the many.”

In a perfect world, he sees Governor Cuomo operationalizing the NYS Climate & Community Protection Act.  If passed, it would be the nation’s most ambitious climate change bill, requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from major sources to zero by 2050.  Operationalizing would create 10’s of thousands of new jobs in the green economy and like California’s environmental initiatives, would help the United States keep its hand in the game of the global green economy.

“It’s important that labor have control over capital instead of what is currently happening which is capital has control over labor.”  Harper gets really fired up when talking about income disparity, “Why are CEO’s making 300 times that of the average worker?  Their work is vitally important, and without it, companies can’t function.” He speaks of a basic truism in economics, the efficient allocation of resources when he insists on better transportation infrastructure, “Buffalo needs to invest more in basic infrastructure and mass transit. If people don’t have access to public transit or bicycle infrastructure, they have less opportunities to jobs and therefore sustainable lives.” To his way of thinking, this is a human scale local living economy.  Appreciating the bustle on the block instead of flying through it, detached from it on the Youngman Expressway that cuts through the middle of the city.

He maintains a willingness to fight for what is right, “Why compromise? We, the people, shouldn’t have to live our lives in a way that our labor and our beings are exploited and we are left fighting each other for crumbs. We need to make sure that people are safe in their neighborhoods. Places like the Fruit Belt, where people have chosen to live, should left fully intact for the next generation to enjoy.” A sigh, and then, “There’s a lot of despair out there, but we gotta give ‘em hope. I’m proud to be part of the solution.”

 

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