Journey to save Main Street America starts with hometown
By LAUREN NEWKIRK MAYNARD
Published June 19, 2014
Amy Kedron will be the first to tell you: No matter where she lives, she will always be from Buffalo.
After graduating from UB in 1998, Kedron left her hometown to earn two master’s degrees at Columbia University. Like other post-industrial cities in what’s known as the “Rust Belt,” Buffalo at that time was suffering from decades of economic decay and depopulation as manufacturing jobs disappeared and familiar storefronts shut their doors.
Then, in 2003, Kedron returned home and discovered a paradox. Buffalo was in a state of economic crisis—but not everywhere. She clearly remembers Elmwood Avenue, the popular shopping strip, bustling with new retail, housing and social activity.
Kedron realized that Elmwood’s success was due largely to the presence of so many locally owned businesses in the area, from independent bookstores to mom-and-pop restaurants.
Seeing her hometown in a new light, Kedron went on to launch an award-winning nonprofit organization called Buffalo First, which is helping Buffalo redefine its economy and culture. At the same time, she completed two graduate degrees at UB, capping a unique educational journey to explore the “Rust Belt revival.”
As a UB undergraduate, Kedron spent a semester interning at the National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives (NCESA), an independent think tank in Washington, D.C. It was there that she discovered the importance of localism, or the role that locally owned businesses play in strengthening their communities. At the NCESA, Kedron studied this and other sustainable economic models, such as cooperatives and worker-owned businesses.
She also learned about the local economic multiplier, or how many times a dollar is re-spent in an area. Recent studies, she says, demonstrate that shopping at a locally owned and operated business can keep up to four times more money in a community versus shopping at a chain.
In recent decades, Kedron adds, Rust Belt cities had grown so poor that national retailers and restaurants avoided investing in them, choosing more lucrative markets instead. But she realized that not having these glitzy shopping districts was actually good for Buffalo because many of its long-established Main Streets were left intact and full of local businesses.
After returning to Buffalo from New York City, Kedron dedicated herself to “social entrepreneurship,” or the use of business principles to advance social change. She enrolled in a joint degree program through the UB Law School and the American Studies program in the Department of Transnational Studies, College of Arts and Sciences.
In 2006, while still a law student and a doctoral candidate, Kedron launched Buffalo First, an organization that advocates for economic, social and environmental sustainability in Buffalo’s business practices.
Now serving more than 175 business members, Buffalo First is supported by hundreds more individuals and groups in Buffalo Niagara. Among its many consumer-outreach programs are popular “buy local” holiday campaigns to encourage Western New Yorkers to shop at independent retailers. It also conducts policy research and lobbies at the local and state levels.
Meanwhile, Buffalo First has joined forces with other grassroots organizations in the area, transforming Buffalo into a national model of localism.
Special majors, special projects
When she began her graduate work, Kedron knew that localism was a relatively new concept for scholars and for consumers, but she says there were many “unique opportunities” at UB to connect her interests in Buffalo’s economy with her academic research.
Having already customized an undergraduate degree in critical race theory and feminist theory, Kedron wasn’t afraid to experiment at the graduate level. As she puts it, “UB has been flexible enough to let me try.”
She chose the dual degree in law and American studies because it allowed her to combine legal studies with applied social research. Running the nonprofit allowed her to study the local business community in Buffalo and then document how local businesses sustain the community around them in economic, social and political ways.
“This project is about praxis: putting academic theory to work at the community level,” Kedron says.
“Much of the social sciences examine people’s relationship to power; this is the essence of localism,” she continues. “When people support businesses, organizations and institutions owned by people in their communities, they are choosing to put power in the hands of their neighbors, not a distant owner, CEO or shareholder. Localism gives communities control and this issue of control is a timeless topic.”
As part of her American studies fieldwork, Kedron observed nearly 400 proprietors from Buffalo’s ethnically and economically diverse business districts. From there, she narrowed the group to 40 merchants and spent the next two years interviewing them.
These individuals were selected for their leadership in the community, their businesses’ cultural impact and their commitment to ethical and sustainable business practices, including using local suppliers, recycling or using renewable energy, and paying living wages.
“Their values became Buffalo First’s values,” Kedron explains.
Outside class, Kedron spent most of her waking moments advocating for her fellow students and for the Buffalo business community.
As an undergrad, she served as vice president and treasurer for UB’s student-run, student services nonprofit Sub-Board I Inc., which helped hone her leadership skills and feed her entrepreneurial streak.
Later on, she was a founding board member for Buffalo’s Partnership for the Public Good, a progressive think tank that helps facilitate community-based research, policy development and citizen-engagement campaigns.
Kedron’s community work has been informed and supported by her academic experiences. Without several graduate fellowships, most from the law school, Kedron stresses that she never would have been able to launch the nonprofit. Among these were awards that covered her tuition and sustained a summer research internship, as well as a dissertation fellowship from the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.
Kedron also credits her time as a student attorney at UB Law’s Community Economic Advocacy Clinic, where she learned how to file Buffalo First’s legal paperwork. The clinic specializes in community economic development.
“I would never have been able to create a project like this anywhere else but UB,” she says.
After defending her dissertation in the spring of 2013, Kedron, who is now living in Florida, hopes to publish it as one of the first books examining localism at the academic level. Her dream job would be to run a clinic similar to the ones she encountered at UB, “where I would teach students how to craft and implement policies that create more progressive communities.”
Place and ownership matter, she says, and that’s what localism seeks to celebrate.