Black Cats and Broken Glass

life with a plebian


Advocates and community organizers, whether they really are or not, try act like they are humble. Dedicating your time and life to the community and others lends itself to selflessness and humility.
For Eric Walker, his start in the world of activism was not so typical. His desire was to be the next leader of a big social movment, a la Che Guevara
“The next legend,” he said.
Patrice Lumumba, the executed Congolese independence leader, and Simon Bolivar, the leader of the Venezuelan resistance against the Spanish Empire were both people who he viewed as legends, and people who influenced him just as well as modern names, like Michael Jordan.
“They all have an uncompromising devotion to winning,” Walker said. “They’re people of the people.”
Yet for now at least, Walker’s surroundings are as humble as those that he advocates for. His car is a beat up old junker, his office is cluttered, and he eats his lunch in a little coffee shop named Sweetness 7. Within its walls, eating lunch overlooked by an iconic, 2 color Obama poster, he sits and contemplates his next moves.
Soft sounds of Norah Jones voice ripple from the speakers. The scent of freshly brewed drinks fill the air like a heavy smoke, and the dim yellow lighting is supplanted by the natural light. Walker sits near a wall, next to what used to be a fireplace or a mantle. Above him rests a Buddha statue and other knickknacks. He speaks with determination, thinking long before saying something.
“I like this spot because it’s isolated,” said Walker. “It’s the safest place here.”
A place to think is necessary for someone as active in the community as Walker. Since the beginning of college, he’s been an activist in some way, hopping from one movement to the other. He’s been part of UB Students Against Sweatshops, and WNY Peace Center to name a few, but what really energized the student activist community during his college career was the Anti-War movement that sprung up after the invasion of Iraq.
Defining Eric Walker and his activist nature takes you deeper into his past.
He divides his life into 2 phases. The early years, when the family was young were the calm times. His father had a good job, his mother had a good job, and he was protected. Simple middle class life in suburbia was his reality.
Then when he was 12, the Nabisco plant in his hometown of Beacon NY shut down and his father lost his job. Soon after, his mother also lost her job.
CEO’s had outsourced his happy childhood.
The toll was too much on the marriage. He joined that growing number of children of divorced parents. He and his siblings moved with his mother to a new home, one not quite so comfortable. His mother made sure, however, that he received a good education. He went to a wealthy High School, where he was one of the only people of color.
After graduating high school, he enrolled in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) so that he could attend college.
“It was like a state sponsored runaway program to me” said Walker.
His first attempt at college, however, was not very successful. He left school for what he calls his “first dropout year,” when he entered out into the real world, and got a job at a shipping and receiving warehouse. It was there he met the people behind the scenes. He met the people who toiled day in and day out to make a living like a “cog in the machine.”
The years he spent working were some of his best foundational years, he says.
“I learned that the only difference between those people and me,” said Walker, “is that they had this feeling of resignation, like they had given up.”
Walker then attended school again, this time graduating in 2003 with a degree in geography.
He soon found himself feeling like one of those cogs, however. Working at a customs brokerage near Sweetness 7, he found that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do.
In fact, as he felt, he wasn’t actually doing anything. He was just working to make money, and that he wanted to be something.
Walker hopes that the work he is doing now might achieve him that greatness. That level of recognition can, in his opinion, infuse his insights into the greater scheme of social justice. Great names remain immortal, and Walker to be one of them.
He could have left Buffalo, as so many others do. Other cities have much larger activism communities and would love to have him among their ranks. Immediately after graduation, he didn’t have the money to move, just another broke college graduate.
When he started to get into activism again after leaving his comfortable customs brokerage job, he was recruited by groups in LA, New York, and Chicago. Buffalo, however, was where he would stay.
“I knew I could make a larger impact on a city that had never known advocacy,” said Walker “It’s about giving democracy back to the people.”
Yet for his grand goals he wishes to attain, Walker remains cryptically humble about his work.
“Anyone who thinks they are doing something great now,” said Walker, “is an ego-f***ing-maniac.”
No longer does he knock on doors to get people out and into activism. His work is centered on coordinating with other groups and connecting with other organizations, making phone calls and organizing rallies.
He doesn’t, however, think that is any less important that footwork on the streets.
“The long eye of history,” said Walker “defines greatness.”

Eric Walker discusses strategies with fellow PUSH Buffalo activists
Walker has come a long way from going door to door

A member of PUSH looks on as Walker explains a section of a book titled “Radical Democracy”

Modern activism works with technology more than any other time in history

PUSH Buffalo’s headquarters also acts as a community youth center

PUSH Buffalo’s first rehabbed house, bought for $8,000

Another property PUSH Buffalo is rebuilding on the West Side. PUSH has around 40 properties total.

The fear of crime still lurks on Buffalo’s West Side

Walker is on the phone constantly in the Winter, when PUSH is most active in trying to weatherize homes.

Even some of the worst homes have been taken under PUSH’s wing.

Story Development

Stories are, in my opinion, the major unit of culture. We as people use them to communicate ideas effectively, explain concepts, and inform others.

Most often, the most interesting stories and the ones with the greatest impact are those about people, and the ideas of people. Fiction has the luxury of being able to make anything like a person, or make anything into a metaphor for a human idea, but in journalism this is not possible.

Yet developing stories for fiction and journalism are not all that unrelated. You have to choose a medium, cultivate an idea, do research and structure the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of journalism is the ability to capture events as they happen. Video presents itself as the best medium for capturing action as it happens in the most raw form. Some of the most compelling journalistic events in recent history have been raw video. The Rodney King incident, for example, sparked national debate about race and police brutality almost completely on it’s own.

Omnipresence is impossible, so it would seem that critera for selecting one medium over another is a difficult task. I would contend, however, that there is a simple test: find the defining aspect of your story. A story about a natural disaster or some sort of high action would warrant video. A story with a strong audio component might warrant a totally audio report. Photos are great for reflection on a single scene, and are especially great at capturing a singular human emotion. Text, to me, is best at bringing together a wide range of related material together in a continuous story.

All this depends on how your story is developed. Steve Buttry blogged on finding and developing a story extensively. One of his most interesting tips is titled “theft,” is somewhat mislabeled (probably for shock value.) Really, he says to find inspiration from other interesting reports and to see if they can be replicated in your area. Even if they aren’t, he says that asking the original author of the article where they got their ideas from could be a great starting point for a new article. I think this is an important lesson to learn, that being original may not entail redesigning the wheel, but perfecting it. Add a new spin, another layer of depth to an idea and you can really come up with great ideas.

Buttry’s recurring theme is finding stories where you least expect them. Social Media, walking around, whatever you’re doing there are fascinating stories waiting to be told. Much like fiction, you’re simply looking to make a story interesting. An old lady tending to her garden may look innocuous, but if she’s been tending that garden for 50 years through all the changes in a west buffalo neighborhood, you’re going to find her to be a story waiting to be tapped. Creativity and vision are the only things that limit where stories come from.

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