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Living laboratory: On the High Road in Buffalo

High Roaders atop Buffalo City Hall

The big picture: High Roaders atop Buffalo City Hall. See larger image

Every first week in June, students from Cornell's ILR School arrive in Buffalo for a summer of community service, civic participation, urban immersion and research. They come from all over – from nine states in 2012 – for two intensive months of hands-on experience in grassroots economic development. I direct this paid summer fellowship program, The High Road Runs Through the City, funded by the ILR School.

The city of Buffalo is an ideal living laboratory. It is home to the very first ILR extension office, which opened in 1946. Building on more than six decades of history, High Road fellows get right to work with dynamic local organizations that are helping Buffalo transform from a rust belt to a green economy.

Students' projects are coordinated through the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), a community-based think tank with 125 richly networked partners, each of which is eligible to apply for a High Road fellow. Partner organizations rave about the students' contributions to economic development activities ranging from youth participation in the arts to urban farming and local business development.

After working Monday through Thursday on their individual projects, students meet on Fridays to share and reflect on their work and participate in workshops with community leaders; they then head out for guided walking tours of the city's neighborhoods, commercial strips, innovation centers and waterfront developments. From the historic Colored Musicians Club to the Bioinformatics Center of Excellence; from the city of Buffalo's director of strategic planning and Federal Reserve Bank economists to the founder of Prisoners Are People Too, High Road fellows get to know the places and meet the people changing Buffalo. They experience the unvarnished realities of this metro area, from concentrated poverty and urban sprawl to a world-class arts scene and historic walkable neighborhoods.

High Roaders, as the student fellows have come to be called, explore the city through the lens of the public good. Their work and study reveal the linkages between the worlds of policy and practice, the profit and nonprofit sectors of the economy, and academia and the "real" world. They meet with public officials, testify in public hearings, write for online publications, speak with the press, participate in civic events and live democracy in action.

Over the past four years, 47 students have been awarded fellowships. As the program has grown and attracted more students from across the country, affordable group housing has provided a shared neighborhood home. In summer 2011, High Roaders were the initial occupants of Buffalo's first net-zero (energy neutral) rehabbed house on Buffalo's west side.

Here is a glimpse of some of the High Roaders' recent contributions:

  • Deanna Hall '15, from Norfolk, Va., worked at Habitat for Humanity-Buffalo, researching the effects of home ownership on families who have built their houses through Habitat. "Knowing that my research is promoting the well-being of the city of Buffalo and its residents makes going out on a construction site on a hot Wednesday morning not only fathomable, but a rewarding experience," Hall says.
  • Michelle Lim '14, from Phoenix, Ariz., was a fellow with the Health Sciences Charter School, a partnership between the city's public schools and health care industry unions and employers. Lim worked with employers to develop the framework for an internship program for the school and conducted an employment forecast of the local health services labor market.
  • Buffalo native Tom Wasko '14 expanded service of Buffalo CarShare to low-income residents and students.
  • Carolyn Krupski '15 of Clifton Park, N.Y., drafted a policy brief on a ballot initiative for dedicated funding for public transit.
  • Chris Bain '14 from Dallas worked at GO Bike Buffalo, to engage local businesses in a bike share initiative.
Lou Jean Fleron

Lou Jean Fleron See larger image

The High Road thrives on collaboration, and I am grateful for support from Dean Harry C. Katz and my ILR colleagues and for assistance from Cornell's new Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research.

Lou Jean Fleron is an emeritus extension faculty member with Cornell's ILR School, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and the director of The High Road Runs Through the City,

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