For almost a decade, Buffalo resident Mary Ann Kedron has been working to revitalize the community she has lived her entire life. As President, board member and co-founder of the Black Rock Riverside Alliance (BRRA), she has helped her northwest Buffalo neighborhood improve economically and environmentally, and helped boost local pride as she did it.
The BRRA has installed community gardens to help feed neighbors, many of whom are economically disadvantaged; certified neighborhoods as wildlife habitats to protect the environment as well as boost ecotourism; brought in grants and partnerships to increase jobs in the community and grow businesses; and hosted events, markets and various projects to increase community interaction — all driven by the desire to improve their neighbors’ quality of life.
Along with the BRRA, Mary Ann also helped found the Black Rock Historical Society, of which she serves on the board as well. The Society works to preserve historical buildings in the area, as well as educate residents on local history. Further, Mary Ann serves on the board of the Buffalo Niagara River Land Trust, which works to remediate contaminated waterfront property in order to return it the community.
Describe your volunteer role with the Black Rock Riverside Alliance.
The Black Rock Riverside Alliance is a community-based not-for-profit that serves four of our communities in northwest Buffalo. It’s Black Rock, Riverside, Grant Amherst and West Hertel. We were established in 2011, and we have been working on the quality-of-life issues in our community since that time. I was one of the individuals who helped start the organization. I’ve been pretty active as a board member. I am currently the president of the organization and worked on a number of committees and just serve whatever role is necessary to move things forward.
What inspired you to start this organization?
The organization started because we went through a very in-depth community planning process. It actually took more than a year. As most people who have been involved in planning processes know, you end up with a lovely document and then that document goes and gets put on a shelf. What we very quickly recognized was there was very little structure within our community to do any type of the project implementations that we so desperately needed. When we did start this, the community was in a pretty unstable state. I think because we have been a part of it and have done so much, it’s become so much better than it once was.
Where have you seen the BRRA improve your community?
We’ve seen new businesses coming into the community. I think that is critically important. We’ve seen significant stability in our housing. There was a time when renters were moving in or out of our neighborhood on a regular basis. What we’re seeing now is a lot more investment in homes and renovations of our homes. We’ve also seen a significant pride within our community. I think pride of place through both education and historical awareness has been a big part of that. It’s really helped us kind of coalesce the community together.
What projects have you done that you are especially proud of?
We have a number of community gardens which are significant to us because it does two things. It gives the community their own green spaces and a place they can sit and either play with their children, or just sit and read a book. We don’t have a huge number of park structures within our community so these serve for that purpose. They also provide a significant amount of food for our community. We tend to be in a food desert. The average income in our community is around $20,000 a year for a family, which as you know, would be below the poverty level. Our people don’t think they are in poverty, per se, so they will come and work in the gardens. They can take anything out of the gardens.
We’ve evolved into a project that we’re talking about, certifying our neighborhoods as a wildlife habitat with the National Wildlife Federation. We’re doing it for the entire city of Buffalo. That brings an environmental awareness to our community. We happen to be a waterfront community along the Niagara River. We are a very significant environmental piece of property, if you will. We have bird ways. We have fishing in our community. We are a Ramsar-designated wetland. Our community needs to understand that it has the potential for a lot more ecotourism and environmental employment. We’re working really hard on educating our community on what they could have, as well as what they do have.
Can you describe your work with the Black Rock Historical Society?
I’m also on the board of the Historical Society and founding member of that. … We spun this organization off from [BRRA]. The Alliance is going in one direction, but the Historical Society remains an important part of our community. We are a very blue-collar community, but we’re a very culturally-diverse community, so telling the stories from the past has allowed us to build some bridges to our new immigrant communities. That’s become a very important conversation recently. I think if we all remember where we came from, life becomes a lot simpler.
We do a number of education series. We are continuously working on some preservation work, because we have a lot of historic homes in our community and historic structures. We’re working with our city on landmark status for a number of our churches and things like that. We use the Historical Society as a mechanism to show people who we are, and what we were, and what we now are. There’s not a lot of people who recognize our part of the city, so it’s a platform to educate others. We’re along the Erie Canal. We’re very much part of New York state’s history.
Can you describe your work on the board of the Buffalo Niagara River Land Trust?
That is a special land trust, because our community has a huge industrial past and there’s a lot of property along our waterfront that is considered contaminated. The land trust mission is take what would be considered contaminated property and actually remediate it and return it to the community. That is a very complex and tedious process, but it’s serving a mission that nobody else is really jumping up and down to serve. Once again, we’re trying to bring a higher quality of life to our community through these mechanisms.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Being an active part of the community. Spending time with the community members. Spending time with people who I would not normally spend time with. I see them on the streets, but actually working in the garden with someone and meeting your community is incredibly special. I have seen children who were three years old when we started in the gardens, to now be 14 years old and still wanting to participate with us. I can’t think of anything more important than those type of mentorships and relationships.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
From a very, very personal experience, I think it allows you to continue to grow. I think otherwise people become stagnant. I think people misconstrue that they’re giving to an organization, when in reality the organization and community is giving back to them.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think I would say to have pride in the community from which you come. Sit down and really learn from the people who are in your community, because each one of them has a story to tell and I think presuming you know them is probably the biggest mistake you could make.
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