On June 2, Open Buffalo welcomed two new team members for the summer. Caro Achar and Lauren Lang are students at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), and recipients of the school’s The High Road Runs Through the City service learning fellowship. Both young women are assisting Open Buffalo with research and grassroots organizing through the end of July. Achar and Lang recently sat down with Open Buffalo Scribe Adrienne Hill to speak about their backgrounds, their interests, and what drew them to spend a summer in Buffalo:
How did you come to be interested in economic development issues, and this fellowship in particular?
CA: I emigrated from India when I was seven years old, and one of the first things I noticed about America, in contrast to India, was the capacity for change that exists in the United States. Which, due to rampant corruption in India, isn’t as possible. So, beginning with that, and the fact that my mom’s a teacher, I got very involved in social justice work and union work. And when ILR came around, it seemed like the ideal major to pursue, to keep my involvement going strong in social justice.
In terms of this fellowship, I was fascinated by helping a city that had prospered insanely well in the past, and then had fallen on hard times. And understand how grassroots [organizing] could go towards helping such an organization, helping such a city benefit, by combining community efforts and combining public policy work.
LL: For me, I actually started off [at] Cornell in a different college, and then I started taking a couple classes in the ILR School. And I really liked it. I thought they were super interesting, and they were things that you could actually apply to the real world.
As far as this fellowship—I do a lot of leadership on campus, so it was really important to me to be able to come to a new city and help people who are underrepresented in leadership roles become leaders, and get that skill set, and try and make change themselves.
Lauren, you have said that you come from a city a lot like Buffalo in a lot of ways. What are the similarities and differences?
LL: I come from Cleveland, Ohio, which many people consider to be a Rust Belt city, because it was huge in the steel industry. And since that started being outsourced to places like China, it’s kind of depleted and had to revive itself into new industries, and revamping the whole image of the city. And I kind of see a lot of that in Buffalo. A lot of the [neighborhoods], like Allentown and Elmwood, parallel a lot of the smaller communities that are starting to rise in Cleveland, like Tremont, Coventry. And then, I also see the riverside, or Canalside, here, as very similar to what Cleveland’s trying to do with their riverside. It’s a lot of people who are really passionate about their city, trying to make change.
Caro, you grew up in Houston. How do your hometown and family life influence your work? And why did you choose to focus on labor relations in your pursuit of social justice?
CA: I honestly came from a pretty sheltered area. I grew up in the suburbs right outside of Houston, so my exposure to most of the inner city life was very little affected by the very poor neighborhoods and the very underrepresented neighborhoods. However, because my mom teaches school in inner-city Houston, I did end up getting the exposure to the underbelly of the city. And understanding the unfortunate poverty that comes from those situations, or students’ inability to learn because they’re too busy working a job that’s not paying them wages that they can then give back to their family, and so they have to work another job and don’t have enough time for homework. It’s the cycle of abuse that essentially undervalues and underrepresents members of our society who could do so much good.
When I entered ILR, it wasn’t necessarily with a focus on labor relations. It was a focus on trying to better a community overall, and knowing that I wanted to devote my life to social justice. And then through ILR, and understanding workers’ rights as human rights, I really started to understand how to best benefit the world with the skill set that I had. It’s one thing to see human rights abuses. How institutionalized it is in the labor force is a different crime altogether. To see individuals who are working their hardest to provide for their families, but aren’t being given the wages that they need to do that providing for their families — it’s criminal to watch. It’s criminal to stand by and not participate.
What specific kinds of work and research do you do at ILR, and how do those areas of interest influence your work at Open Buffalo?
CA: I have a couple of minors in ILR; the minor that I’m most interested in is Inequality Studies. I really get to understand the landscape of America, and understand it in the context of someone who isn’t privileged enough to benefit from being at the top.
I took Labor History this year, and it’s genuinely one of the most fascinating classes I’ve ever had. Just to understand the intense background that America has in labor relations, and the vast history it has of trying to better conditions for workers. And then to see how that’s fizzled is a little disheartening, but also empowering, because it makes you think that you can bring America back into a peak for its blue-collar workers.
LL: I was the class president my freshman/sophomore year for 2017, so leadership has always been a big thing in my life. I also hold officer positions in my pre-professional fraternity. I’ve always had some type of leadership role, and that’s something I’m really passionate about. I really love to lead people. So, it’s great to have the opportunity to do [leadership development planning] with Open Buffalo, and I’m really seeing how people here interact with each other in such a great way. It’s such an amazing culture.
What do you hope to learn or accomplish at this fellowship?
LL: Personally, I hope to understand better the grassroots tactics to make change within a community. I’ve never really had much exposure [to that]. So for me, this is a complete different side of the business world.
CA: My major focus at Open Buffalo is the Justice and Opportunity issue area, specifically community-oriented policing. And I really hope to understand how to implement positive change in the “real world,” because I’m a part of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA). We take steps towards bettering conditions for workers, both on Cornell’s campus and abroad, any way that we can. [Learning more about grassroots organizing] is really something I hope to accomplish, and ideally, bring back to places like India, so that they’re not left in a state of destitution with no hope for a better future.
Caro, tell us more about the work you’ve done with COLA.
CA: COLA changed my life. It was perhaps the most important part of my freshman year of college, which everyone says is this whirlwind of clubs and activities and classes. COLA exposed me to this amazing group of like-minded people who were striving for real change.
For example, we ran a workers’ justice campaign on our campus and with the Ithaca community, where the Tompkins County area bus workers, who are integral to Cornell’s functioning, were essentially not being paid the subsidy that Cornell had promised them. So, COLA ran a campaign towards the Cornell administration, essentially asking them to pay the subsidy that they had promised. We did a teach-in, we did a lot of petitioning, we delivered a metaphorical road block to the administration’s main offices, essentially in efforts to better the condition of workers. And we succeeded…. And it was in that moment that I realized that I had to continue doing this for me to ever feel truly fulfilled.