Activists to Watch: Aaron Bartley

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Aaron Bartley rallies for PUSH's energy efficiency campaign in Buffalo, New York

Aaron Bartley rallies for PUSH's energy efficiency campaign in the city of Buffalo. (Photo Credit: PUSH Buffalo)

In 2004, after graduating from Harvard Law School (where he cofounded the Harvard Living Wage Campaign) and working as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, Aaron Bartley returned to Buffalo, NY, his hometown, to become a community organizer. Many of Bartley’s friends thought that his idea was naïve and quixotic. After all, Buffalo was the quintessential Rust Belt city, devastated by a dramatic half-century loss of blue-collar jobs and population.

Within less than a decade, however, Bartley’s vision has become at least a partial reality. People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), the group he co-founded with Eric Walker, now has an enviable track record of winning victories that have improved the lives of low-income people on the west side, a diverse neighborhood with a poverty rate of 45 percent and a per capita income of $6,650 that includes blacks and Latinos, as well as one of the nation’s largest communities of refugees resettled from Burma, Somalia and Sudan. PUSH has built a solid core of grass-roots leaders prepared to contest for both political and economic power.

“PUSH isn’t just about making noise,” said Mark Sommer, a Buffalo News reporter who has covered the organization. “It’s about having concrete goals and winning victories for people.”

PUSH organizes residents around issues and projects that improve housing conditions and living wage job opportunities, including the establishment of a Green Development Zone that combines cutting-edge green construction practices, green jobs training and community organizing around high-impact sustainable economic initiatives.

Among its recent successes are two state-level community development programs. The Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative dramatically expands access to residential weatherization. Its Green Jobs/Green NY program is projected to create 30,000 such jobs over the next few years. Fueled by the 38-year-old Bartley’s vision, PUSH is also creating an urban land trust to acquire abandoned properties and redevelop them as low-income limited-equity cooperative apartments.

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