In seventh grade, Rahwa Ghirmatzion led her middle school in a lunch-hour hunger strike to protest the termination of the school dishwasher and the addition of styrofoam plates. Channeling the practices of Gandhi (who she had learned about weeks prior in history class), Ghirmatzion and her friends sat in silence during their lunch period, not eating until the principal met their list of demands, which called for the return of reusable trays, and the dishwasher.
“I was worried at the time, thinking ‘If we’re going to have all of these non-biodegradable materials, when we’re old, when we’re 30, there’s going to be garbage piled everywhere,’ ” Ghirmzatzion said. “About a month later, they brought back the dishwasher, and they brought back the trays. We were very effective and sort of having a very logical way, and I didn’t know what then, but we were really just young organizers. That small moment really politicized me.”
This was Ghirmatzion’s first act against environmental and social injustices in her community of Buffalo, New York, and it set her on a life-path fueled by the passion to help those struggling around her.
Now the executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo, Ghirmatzion has dedicated her time to help revitalize the city and give a voice to those often rendered voiceless.
At 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater, Ghirmatzion will examine housing injustices in Buffalo and Western New York and discuss the measures PUSH Buffalo is taking to address such issues as part of Week Seven’s theme, “More Than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.”
Before joining PUSH Buffalo in the early 2010s, Ghirmatzion served as the executive director of the Ujima Theater Company, a multi-ethnic professional theater house focused on preserving and promoting African American performances. In 2018, she entered her role as executive director of PUSH after overseeing several PUSH programs, including PUSH Green and PUSH Blue, as the program director. She is the 2021 recipient of the inaugural Cecil Corbin-Mark Memorial Award from Clean and Healthy New York.
Ghirmatzion approaches the housing crisis and the feeling of displacement with her own experience as a refugee from East Africa.
At 5 years old, Ghirmatzion and her family fled her home country of Eritrea during a civil war. They burned their belongings and camped for 16 days and walked for 16 nights to Sudan from the only life they ever knew. Ghirmatzion came to Western New York at 8 years old with her family, and has stayed ever since.
“There was this thought of feeling displaced, and then having to come to America and start fresh and new,” Ghrimatzion said, “(and of) feeling like not always belonging, especially as a Black child and a Black family, and not having finer context of U.S. history, and first feeling racism. I didn’t have the word at age 9 what racism was, living in the city of Buffalo, but I soon learned quite quickly.”
Ghirmatzion was inspired by Frederick Douglass’ memoir and her education at SUNY Buffalo, and went on to work for the Ujima Theater company to champion African American theater while working with social justice organizations specific to Buffalo. In working with outside nonprofit groups, Ghirmatzion was impassioned by Buffalo’s social injustices and moved to public health to help solve those problems.
She views her past experiences as a tool to dismantle these social injustices through her position as executive director.
“When women lead, when Black, Indigenous and people of color lead, and are actually given authentic, not tokenized positions of leadership, we’re going to do things very differently,” Ghirmatzion said. “My whole thing is, ‘How do I get underneath an issue to fully dismantle something that is not working, but replace it with something that could really take root, … that will be much more sustainable and impactful, but also is rooted in human dignity?’ ”
PUSH Buffalo is a community organization that works with grassroots groups around Western New York to revitalize Buffalo with affordable housing, local hiring opportunities and environmentally-conscious decisions. The organization, founded in 2005, looks at individual communities within the city to better understand what Buffalo needs to succeed.
“What I appreciate about the social determinants of health is we weren’t just addressing the outcome of poverty and racism, colonialism and an extractive economy,” Ghirmatzion said. “We weren’t going to the root of it; we had to think in terms of whether it’s at the neighborhood level, whether it’s at a block level, whether it’s at family level. We had to take a look at built environments that include housing, that includes people’s jobs, levels of education (and) access to other resources — including beauty, art, and access to clean water, clean air and all of these things. It taught me a lot about these health outcomes and the disparities.”
Buffalo is one of the poorest cities in the nation, yet it was once the sixth-largest economy in the United States and one of the largest ports in the world, Ghirmatzion said. PUSH works to tap into the potential of what Buffalo has to offer.
“There’s a lot of wealth that’s been built here (in Buffalo) that has been generational, that’s still here,” Ghirmatzion said.
Her lecture will tackle the history of Buffalo’s social structure and evaluate how the city is doing in terms of adapting to climate change and housing policies.
“I would like to start briefly on situating everyone in a land acknowledgement and to give a little bit of the history of the original peoples whose land we’re standing on,” Ghirmatzion said, “then, (discuss) redlining and racist policies that aren’t unique to Western New York or Buffalo.”
After contextualizing Buffalo’s current infrastructure, Ghirmatzion will focus on PUSH’s efforts over the last 13 years.
“I want to touch on PUSH’s political education and understanding frame that we use, both as a trans-local movement and how we practice our place-based initiative,” she said, “which is the transition strategy framework of how we are currently living in an extractive economy through a values filter and drawing down the resources to the community-based arc to the frontlines of the communities.”
In Ghirmatzion’s first visit to the Institution, she aims to inspire Chautauquans to not only become active members in Buffalo’s social causes, but in their own communities, as well.
“I hope what they get out of my talk is inspiration. Inspiration that when we grow in our common human experiences, that we are much more alike than we are different, that we can, together, manifest this transition that I’m talking about,” Ghirmatzion said. “I hope that some of the strategies that we’re working on in Buffalo are a tool to inspire them, especially if they’re not from this region — that they can take back that inspiration to their respective communities and become involved with organizations that are doing similar types of work, if they’re not already involved.”