Brenda McDuffie was not born in Buffalo, but she has spent her professional career making the city a better place to live. She retains no Brooklyn-born accent, but the public housing she grew up in remains her inspiration to tiredlessly help disadvantaged residents gain the diverse quality-of-life skills needed to provide for themselves and their families. McDuffie chairs the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, is a member of the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable and, this year, celebrates 20 years as President and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League.
How did your community involvement begin?
I got involved in other segments of the community through recommendations from members of the Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital board, on which I used to serve, perhaps 35 years ago. I was the first woman on their board who had not served on their women's board and I was the first African American on their board.
There was a whole different dynamic on that board than I was used to. I grew up in an environment where we didn't go to doctors, we didn't go to hospitals. Here I am in a room with people who have access to the very best in our community. They'd be talking about a new chef at the Buffalo Club, a club women couldn't go into through the front entrance. There are still tremendous gaps on boards. I still walk into rooms and they're all males and no males of any racial or ethnic diversity. So we have a lot to continue to do.
Did you feel additional pressure as the only woman and the only person of color?
No. I grew up in Brooklyn and, for my junior high school and high school, I was bussed into a community that was predominantly Jewish and Italian and was in these special education classes, because I always skipped grades, but I was always only one of or one of two African Americans. So I always understood my responsibility and I always took it very seriously. I learned to make sure my voice was heard, but that was a maturation process.
That's the beauty of having age - because you build that confidence. I always appreciate people who appreciate people, so my first attempt is to try to talk to you and understand where you're coming from. If we can't agree, then we can agree to disagree, but you will not disrespect me, you will not discount me. You can do it in your own space, but not in the space that we share.
How did you make sure your voice was heard?
I think you have to stand for the things you believe in. When you have the invitation to sit at the table, you have to make sure you use it and you have to bring others along. For example, every board has a nomination process and that's a way of introducing new people to boards. Find out about that process and, if possible, be on that committee to introduce people in your circle who would be good individuals who would bring that inclusion, that diversity and that perspective. If you don't know something, don't be afraid to ask. You probably won't be the only one. That fresh set of eyes, that fresh set of ears or that different approach is invaluable. And guess what? If you're really valued and active on a board, you'll be asked to invite people.
I always had people in my life who gave me great advice. The best advice I ever got is the advice I give people, especially women: take care of yourself. If you want to be able to do all the things you're doing, you have to be well yourself. So try to have balance in your life, too.
How do you find supports - for your career, for your womanhood, for your well being - when there isn't enough?
I have been blessed to have grown in a very close family. We didn't have a lot, but we had each other. From that, I always had friendships because my family was so large. I also have a very strong faith support system, one that I have internally within me and externally with the people I worship with. Sometimes I just talk to the heavens and release! And I also have a small group of what I call my sister friends, because everybody needs somebody to talk to. I literally love to just be at home, listening to good music, having friends and family around, cooking, seeing people eat and enjoying people eat because we'll make our own party.
Could you describe the pin that you're wearing?
This is an Urban League pin and this is the brand of the Urban League. It's a circle and circles usually signify all or all-inclusive. The inside the circle is a modified equal sign. So the Urban League is an organization that really believes that all people should have the access to equity and equality. It's been a wonderful way of me serving this community, being its President.
I am most proud of the work we do making a difference, whatever that difference is: whether it's that connection that allows a family to keep their children in their home so they're raised with their birth parents, whether it's getting that child or those children who don't have permanancy adopted by a family, if it's investing in a young person in high school and they can make a decision to go to college, or seeing someone go into an apprenticeship program and then I pass by a building and they call to say, "Mrs. McDuffie, I'm working in that building" or just "I got a job" or "I kept my home" when I was facing foreclosure. "I came to the Urban League and someone encouraged me." That's what I'm in love with: the difference that we make in the lives of people. Every day I get to hear those stories.
I'm a firm believer: this renaissance will not be able to be sustained if we continue to leave a population of people behind. It has to be that we figure this out as a community: How can we walk into a room and see no women, no people of color? When we look at the demographics of this country, the majority of people living in American right now are children of color, of immigrants. If we're really going to have an embraced democracy, people being able to have quality of life and look forward to a positive future, we've got to do something about those inequities.
I feel like every day I can use my voice, use my knowledge, I can help someone - even if it's a smile, just letting someone know, "You've got a place to come. You've got people in this community who care about you." I think that's what the Urban League has represented in this community - and if it's not happening, I want to know about it.
The largest family structure in this country and our community are single parents raising children and they're usually women. So if we don't figure out how to support them - through good quality child care so they can continue their education, so they can get employment opportunities, so they can continue to support themselves and their families - we're not going anywhere. The racism, the sexism and all the "isms," we're going to have to deal with all of those, but we're also going to have to deal with building that foundation and supporting, in particular, women.
As you know, I serve as Chair of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and one of the policies that we put in place was that we wanted companies to demonstrate that women were being paid the same as men and, believe me, we got a lot of pushback. Frankly, if we're giving you public taxpayers dollars, then I have an expectation and I want to be assured that up front, in the contracts that we're going to sign for you to get these resources. Not only do we have to have these practices or policies, we have to enforce them. We have to say, if it's not happening, then we need to have some way to recapture the resources we provided to you. It's sad that we have to do it, but if we don't do it, I think it'll continue to get worse and we have an environment that seems to fester it.
One of the things I became very sensitive about through the ECIDA was that we were doing all of this investment in market-rate housing and, unfortunately, there's a correlation between race and income and we have to have a balance. We have to have a community that's diverse. That's how you get a nice business district in a community, when you have people of mixed incomes living in the community, you have affordable housing mixed with market-rate housing, high-end. You've got to have it all and it works very well, but you've got to be deliberate. Race is an issue and let's be deliberate about addressing it.
If we keep creating communities where they don't have access to transportation and they don't have access to a good quality education, they don't have access to jobs, they can't afford child care....all of us have to live! At the ECIDA table, we've become very aware of that and have spent a lot of time talking about what policies can we adapt to incentivize - not punish - but incentivize individuals to invest in affordable housing. So every project we get, guess what question I ask our developers? What can you do to support the balance?
Same thing with our children. One of the main fundraising organizations in town is giving to our children, but what are we doing to support our seniors? It's a balance. We (the Urban League) have a senior center that we operate. Their average annual income is $5,000, so we supplement their ability to live independently and avoid being placed in a nursing home. We know what sometimes happens in a nursing home, unfortunately. Foreclosure. We know what the two biggest reasons why homes go into foreclosure: people lose their job or medical. It's all connected. So I want to make sure we don't forget one segment of our community while we're trying to address some of the needs for the upcoming segment of the community.
What rules should women be breaking?
I think every rule that keeps us back and out. What I mean by that, any place we see injustice and inequity and/or where our needs are not being met, we need to be organizing and doing advocacy, utilizing our power as a democracy to put in place policies through the people that we vote for and put in office that can affect those changes. Even with steps forward, the inequities are so pervasive in so many sectors.
Tell us about the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable you're involved in.
The Roundtable, to me, is a unique opportunity. I think the work of the Roundtable is extremely important and I know there was a deliberate process that was laid out and I know that things take time, but I wish that there were more. We have a group of corporations that have stepped forward and they have an initiative that they're going to be much more inclusive, but it's a handful of companies. You know, c'mon. I understand peoples' time and distractions, but as a community we should really say, "We've laid out all these indicators of where the disparities are and if we make changes, it's a win-win for everybody. The business case, the economic impact to the community, is very compelling. You can get wealthier and you can also move from poverty into being less dependent upon public assistance - which would help us all, right?
I just wish the work, we could move the needle even quicker. That's probably my frustration. My joy is that we have a Racial Equity Roundtable and we have individuals in this community who clearly understand the importance of addressing the issue. So I'm going to hang in there. Race and ethnicity really have created this divide that has to be corrected if our comunity is to move forward.
The Roundtable is looking at some system change in education, in employment, in the criminal justice system, and all of those are very compelling and very complicated. But one of the things I love about Buffalo is that it's small enough that you can make a difference. If you can get together a group of people who are willing to forget what organization you come from and really focus on what you want to accomplish, it can be done. It can be done. I'm an optimist. Yes, there are bad people in the world, but I don't spend my time dealing with them. I try to find people who are going to get things done. I want to see things done. So I'm a doer. The worst thing about me probably is that I get impatient and want to see things happen quicker, but I respect the process.
Flats or heels?
I love flats and my feet do, too. Heels no more than 2" work, too.
NOTE: Content has been edited. Today concludes our "Savvy Over 60" series for March, but all the stories can be found online. #SavvyWomenOver60