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Champions for Change

The Citizen Planning School connects the dots to create stronger communities

Kara Oliver plans to feed a neighborhood in need.

Kara Oliver plans to feed a neighborhood in need. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Jana Eisenberg

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“A thousand small changes headed toward a more sustainable future will move the whole region forward.”
Cristina Delgado (MUP ’13)

Kara Oliver and Paul Perez, 20-something New York City ex-pats who met and became friends in Buffalo, were eager to show their adopted city some love. So last year they applied to One Region Forward’s Citizen Planning School.

One Region Forward is a consortium of public and private-sector organizations promoting smart, sustainable forms of development for Erie and Niagara counties. One of its more recent initiatives is the Citizen Planning School, a free program launched in April 2014 and run by UB’s School of Architecture and Planning along with the UB Regional Institute.

The concept: Recruit everyday folks who have compelling ideas to make their community better, and give them the guidance and resources to turn those ideas into reality. “A thousand small changes headed toward a more sustainable future will move the whole region forward,” explains project coordinator Cristina Delgado (MUP ’13). “We want to help facilitate that move.”

Indeed, the projects from the program’s first year run the gamut in both concept and location. For example, there’s an educational heritage garden in Wilson, N.Y., and a job skills training program for inner-city residents in Niagara Falls. Perez hopes to create a rainwater garden in Buffalo’s Fillmore District, while Oliver is seeking to operate a mobile produce market in an underserved East Side community.

After joining the 200-plus-member 2014 class at the Citizen Planning School, Oliver, Perez and 15 others applied to become Champions for Change, a more intensive track that provides additional support (also for free). Over several Saturdays, School of Architecture and Planning professionals and graduate students gave the Champions one-on-one mentoring and helped connect them to potential partners, including public and private funders.

The first Champions for Change sessions concluded last October with an “Idea Summit,” where Champions gathered to recognize each other’s work, network and receive feedback on their projects from a panel of local nonprofit leaders. Oliver beamed with exhilaration after the event. “This gave me the opportunity to meet people who are doing great things in Western New York,” she said proudly, knowing that she can now count herself among them.