Sam Magavern has a disarming, scholastic charm that makes him instantly likeable. As the co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG), he’s intimately involved in the policy struggle for Buffalo to pursue a path of high-road development. Despite this tall order, his lighthearted demeanor keeps him from getting mired in the muck. “You can’t make this stuff up,” he quips, telling of local development politics rife with cronyism and deceit.
After living outside of Buffalo for twenty years, Sam decided to return home with his family in tow. “My wife, fortunately, loves Buffalo, and the kids were too young to have any say, so we came back,” he says with a smile. An attorney by trade, Sam co-founded PPG as a way to connect academic research to real-world applications in the areas of public policy, social and economic justice, and sustainability. He is also a published author whose works include poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and a professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Law.
Sam and Lou Jean Fleron, PPG’s other co-director, recognized that the vast, largely untapped resources of universities could provide incredibly useful information to nonprofits involved in community work, and they set about bridging the divide between academic networks and local nonprofits.
A ‘think and do tank,’ PPG is an organization that provides research, media outreach, advocacy and other support to its 200-plus partner organizations, many of which lack the resources to engage in these activities because they’re so busy with their day-to-day efforts. “We add value to what our partners are doing on the ground,” Sam explains.
PPG is housed at Cornell University’s downtown Buffalo office and works closely with Cornell and other university partners. Each summer, PPG selects 20 Cornell students to intern as High Road Fellows with partner organizations for two months, allowing the students to learn about Buffalo’s challenges and opportunities while supporting partner organizations’ work.
PPG partners range from block clubs to museums to large social services agencies. Any organization that endorses PPG’s work can benefit from the free partnership, which allows them to apply for High Road Fellows and gives them a vote on the yearly Community Agenda.
“It’s my favorite time of the year,” Sam says of setting the Community Agenda. “Our partners come up with proposed planks, and then we have a big meeting where partners vote on their top ten planks.” Proposals must focus on changing local or state policies to promote sustainability, equity, or cultural vibrancy, and they must be linked to an existing or planned campaign. Partners get a chance to work with each other to form and refine their proposals, and the process demonstrates how many issues overlap and affect multiple constituencies.
PPG partners have landed a number of hard-won victories over the years, including passing the “Complete Streets” legislation that makes city streets better for bicyclists and pedestrians, enhancing language access to services for refugees and immigrants, and bringing back recess and physical education to Buffalo public schools. While the partners themselves take the lead, they benefit from the research, writing, strategy, and advocacy tools that PPG provides, as well as from being part of a large coalition instead of going it alone.
“Of course, not every good proposal makes it into policy,” Sam notes pointedly. Some campaigns succeed only after a strenuous, uphill battle, and many campaigns don’t succeed at all. When I ask how he manages to keep going despite the setbacks, his gaze turns matter-of-fact, and he says simply, “This work is so rewarding.” For Sam, public dollars should have public benefits, and he’s going to continue to fight to ensure that they do.
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© Natalie Photiadis 2016