By Adrienne C. Hill
Scribe, Open Buffalo
When I ask Patricia Elliott what compelled her to move to Buffalo from her hometown of Philadelphia in 2003, she laughs. “Well, I can tell you the truth, or I can tell you a story,” she says. “What would you prefer?”
The truth: Around 2002, Elliott’s then-husband struggled with finding work in Philadelphia, and her father, who was living in Buffalo at the time, invited the family to live with him and try their luck here. Upon arriving, Elliott fell in love with Buffalo’s architecture, and grew to love the city so deeply that she stayed, even after her husband left.
The story: As a child, Elliott heard Rick James wax eloquent about Buffalo’s cold weather in his song “Below the Fun (Pass the J),” and in her words, “the song made me feel like I wish I lived there.” So much so that, during a childhood stint living in Washington D.C. with her grandmother, she told strangers that she was from Buffalo, even though she couldn’t even find Buffalo on a map.
To Elliott, both facts and story point to a single truth: “I figured there must be a work here that some higher power, the Creator, has for me to do, else I would not have even begun to love it when I was a little kid and not even know it.”
A calling to activism
What work, I ask, does Elliott believe she was sent to Buffalo to do?
“I know it’s big,” she demurs. “It’s so big, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to think that you know that you’re going to do something big like this.” Though she does not yet know the full scope of her work, she says it has to do with helping people find their purpose in life. “I believe that we all sat down with God before we were conceived in our mother’s womb, were given a specific assignment to accomplish while we’re here on this planet, and all we’ve got to do is remember it when we get here. I think the hardest thing to remember is our purpose for being, and this is why a lot of people end up in a lot of anguish: because they forget. And so, my job, I believe, is to help people to remember their purpose for being, and help them to find that path.”
Since moving to Buffalo, Elliott has begun pursuing this work in a number of ways: helping operate the Joseph Project Mobile Food Pantry in conjunction with the Buffalo Dream Center, working as a Program Coordinator at the Old First Ward Community Center, coordinating client services at Canisius Women’s Business Center, running a homeless shelter in Lackawanna, engaging in pro-life activism with Last Call Ministries, and, most recently, as an Assistant Director at Community Action Organization.
The project that consumes most of Elliott’s time and passion at present, though, is her campaign to end segregation and guarantee racial equity in Buffalo’s public schools. In October of 2013, Elliott filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the application process for criteria-based schools was racially discriminatory.
“My daughter was in what they call a failing school,” she explains, “and she was not going to get the education she deserved if I left her there. My hands are tied as a parent. I did everything I was supposed to do, so I thought — by applying to the schools in good standing, by taking her to my neighborhood school to see if she could go. And when it came down to it, she was denied at all costs.”
Elliott began her journey by staging a one-woman protest in front of the superintendent’s office for 11 weeks, demanding that her daughter Kimberly be moved to a school of good standing. The district ultimately agreed to admit Kimberly to Emerson School of Hospitality, but, Elliott says, “I’m still standing here, fighting for all children.” As a result of her fight, the Office of Civil Rights found that Buffalo’s public schools are as segregated today as they were in 1964, and the district brought in a consultant, Dr. Gary Orfield, to make recommendations on how to reduce racial disparities in public education.
Joining “Emerging Leaders”
Elliott applied to Open Buffalo’s Emerging Leaders program in order to gain skills for her activism and life’s work, but she says she has gained something even more valuable: confirmation that her activist instincts are strong, despite limited formal training. “Sometimes I struggle with the fact that I don’t feel as smart as everybody else,” she explains. I graduated high school, for sure. I went to college, but I never graduated. I had a lot of work experience, and I’m really, really smart. But I feel like I’m not as smart as everybody else because I didn’t do the traditional four years of college.”
The Emerging Leaders program is valuable, Elliott says, because it gives her a vocabulary to explain the organizing methods she discovered in her work as both a pro-life activist and an advocate for Buffalo’s public school students. “When I was protesting down in front of the abortion clinic, we would have planning meetings. A lot of us would get together and talk about who’s going to do what. And I didn’t know what it was called. So to be in this training, and learn this kind of stuff that we’re doing—I was just so grateful. I’ve been doing this all the time. I just didn’t know what it was. And now I have a way to put the pieces together.”
In the long term, Elliott hopes that the Emerging Leaders program will be just part of a longer process of formal education. Within the next eight years, she hopes to finish her undergraduate college degree, and be well on her way toward a PhD. And, of course, she plans to continue working toward her life’s larger purpose. At present, though, she is grateful for the relationships she is building with other Emerging Leaders. Meanwhile, her work to desegregate Buffalo’s public schools goes on: Her present work focuses on pressuring the school district to implement consultant Dr. Gary Orfield’s recommendations.