My Buffalo Human Rights Law Experience with Open Buffalo: Building the Foundation for Change in Our Community

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By Heather Kuhn ’22

I want to send a huge thank you to Open Buffalo for allowing me to serve as a summer intern with their organization to do the important work of community building. I had the honor of working as an intern at Open Buffalo with a University at Buffalo School of Law Buffalo Human Rights Fellowship award. 

I reached out to Open Buffalo after learning that they were a local social justice organization that focuses on advancing racial, economic, and ecological justice through civic engagement, leadership development, and promoting policy changes to address systemic issues. Open Buffalo has been grooming leaders in the community for years — both adults in their Emerging Leaders program, and youth in their Youth Action program. These programs have prepared leaders to address the issues our communities face, and to give a voice and path towards equity and justice. 

This matched perfectly with my ideals and the other project that I split my time with in the fellowship. My other project involves independent research to incorporate a Human Rights Framework into the Family Regulation System, or FRS (Family Court, Administration for Children’s Services, Child Protection Services, etc.). My project is working to address systemic racism and oppressions in the FRS that leads to family separation. My purpose was to ask parents background questions, and ask what their vision was to make the system a support system rather than a punitive system. With this information, I want to advance a human rights framework in order to meet the needs of parents and families, and to eliminate the issues that lead to the removal of children.  

My work with Open Buffalo has included assisting with their cookouts and free lunch programs, writing and reviewing policy documents for the Mayoral Youth Employment Program (MYEP) and the Emerging Leaders program; researching and drafting a new temporary position in the organization, and interviewing candidates; reviewing and assisting in the development of a racial equity evaluation and training system; working with the youth in MYEP, including creating COVID protocols; attending multiple trainings including Justice Works and the International Institute of Buffalo’s Human Trafficking training; and drafting outreach materials for Open Buffalo donors in a digital fundraising and communications platform. 

In my independent project, I drafted a survey and conducted interviews with parents who have been affected by the Family Regulation System. I gathered information from parents affected by FRS and documented background information that preceded the family separation as well as their vision of how to change the system into one of support. Open Buffalo connected me to a panel discussion hosted by Citizens Action of New York, where I learned about the different forms of multi-layered state violence against these families. I also attended multiple panel discussions and trainings about the surveillance system in FRS that parallels the prison industrial complex. Another organization I connected to was Rise Magazine headquartered in New York City. They steered me towards their resources including studies, early legal representation programs, parent ally training systems, and parent support systems. I also learned about sealing and expunging parents’ records in the State Central Registry. Parent-led organizations around the country are requesting these resources in order to duplicate what they have started. 

Relatedly, Open Buffalo has the long-term plan of opening a legal clinic which will assist formerly incarcerated individuals with sealing and expunging their criminal records. 

I cannot thank Open Buffalo enough for their commitment to create systemic changes in our Buffalo community, and for giving me an opportunity to be a part of their work. I have gained great knowledge, experience, and connections to continue my role in striving towards creating systemic changes to benefit our community.  

Name: Heather Kuhn ’22

Name of Fellowship: Buffalo Human Rights Center Fellowship

Placement: Open Buffalo

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “I have gained great knowledge, experience, and connections to continue my role in striving towards creating systemic changes to benefit our community. ”