August 2018 Honoree
Executive Director - Clean Air: Organizing for Health and Justice
Clean Air is a community organization that builds power by developing grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns in Western New York. It was founded in 2007 by WNY residents who were impacted by environmental pollution and concerned about the impacts to their health and health of their families.
Rebecca told us: "We support resident lead teams in neighborhoods impact by environmental injustice and racism to win tangible changes in communities. We do this by building the community organizing skills of our members, taking collective action, and prioritizing the leadership of working class people and people of color to hold decision-makers accountable.
In Tonawanda we have been organizing to hold the Tonawanda Coke company accountable. Tonawanda Coke is a coke manufacturing plant located on the bank of the Niagara River, in Tonawanda, New York. Clean Air members who live in neighborhoods adjacent to the company’s property have experienced the egregious behavior of Tonawanda Coke for over a decade. Resident organizing resulted in a 2009 raid of the facility by 50 federal and state agents for ongoing environmental health violations. In 2013, a federal jury found the company and Mark Kamholz, environmental manager, guilty of 14 criminal charges, including violations of the federal Clean Air Act as well as violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, in regard to the improper disposal of benzene, a known human carcinogen. Tonawanda Coke appealed this decision. In 2016 The United States Court of Appeals upheld both the March 2014 guilty jury verdict on Tonawanda Coke and the millions of dollars in fines imposed on the corporation for its violations of state and federal laws.
Through our work we have witnessed a 92% reduction in benzene, a known human carcinogen in the ambient air in Tonawanda. That was, until recently.
On July 19th the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s issued a Cease and Desist order to the Tonawanda Coke company. The order was issued following numerous resident complaints and state and federal inspections revealing persistent and ongoing violations following the company’s waste heat tunnel collapse earlier in the year. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has issued 176 violations to the facility since January 2018. The company appealed this decision and has continued to operate. We are continuing to organize to bring this company and its CEO Paul Saffrin to justice."
Throughout the year Clean Air also offers opportunities for people to develop their advocacy and organizing skills. Starting in late September, through a partnership with CEPA Gallery, Clean Air will be holding an 8 week social and economic justice photography workshop entitled Resilience Through the Lens. This series of workshops will teach participants how to use photography to initiate action on an issue and bring tangible change in local communities.
The program will cover the technical basics of taking a powerful photograph, cover the role of photography in the current political climate, and investigate how we can respond to economic inequity and environmental injustice through visual storytelling. The class will take place Thursdays starting on September 20th Registration is available at www.cacwny.org/photovoice. No previous photography experience is required, and cameras will be provided to participants.
Rebecca says she most proud because, "I get to work every day with very smart, passionate people who are rooted in their families and community."
July 2018 Honoree
Papercraft Miracles- Owner
Janna Willoughby-Lohr took a leap of faith in 2013 when she founded Papercraft Miracles, an eco-friendly stationery and bookbinding studio. They create decorative handmade papers, plantable seed bombs, wedding invitations, handbound journals and photo albums, pop-up books, paper flowers and more.
She came up with the idea of the business while in college in 2001. She intended to be an artist but wanted also to make a living at it, so she created a her own major bringing entrepreneurial business and art together. Since then, she has been slowly building up her skills in both fields until making the business official in 2013. Later that year, she and her husband bought a mixed-use commercial building on Niagara Street in Black Rock. It is residence and also houses commercial tenants, and their two studio spaces. In January 2016 after Janna had her first child, she quit her day-job and made Papercraft Miracles a full-time venture. Shortly after that, she acquired the equipment to create a papermaking studio. In summer 2018, they expanded the office and studio space into the lower floor of the building and now have both the basement and the first floor operational. In July, Janna one of the 27 Ignite Buffalo grants through 43 North and Facebook and was awarded $25,000 to help build the business as well as a year of business mentoring and coaching.
Janna says the biggest challenge she’s faced was procuring a space and the equipment to make paper. She and her husband searched for a property that would suit their needs. She says, “Probably two per week for two years! Until we found just the right one. It was very scary to buy this amazing building with every penny that we had but it was definitely the right choice. Once I had the space, acquiring papermaking equipment is difficult. It’s big, expensive and hard to come by. I happened upon someone selling an entire studio full of stuff (including equipment and materials) and I took another risk and jumped in with both feet! We bought it all and moved it from Indiana to Buffalo.”
Janna is a member of the Black Rock Riverside Business Alliance which works to improve the neighborhood, foster relationships amongst the existing businesses, and to draw new business to the area. She serves on the board of directors of the Buffalo Niagara Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Through NAWBO Janna has given talks in local high schools to groups of young women interested in becoming entrepreneurs and worked to create a student-membership scholarship to allow younger women access to the organization. She teaches countless workshops in paper and book arts to children and adults in the community, including Printing Partner’s program at Journey’s End Refugee School, papermaking with the Ellicottville Central School’s ESPRA (Ellicottville Students Preserving the Reading of America) Club through WNYBAC, papermaking in several community gardens as part of the Read, Seed, Write program through JustBuffalo Literary Center, and bookbinding at the Parkside Day Camp. Janna also donate 10% of the proceeds from the sales of all rainbow colored products directly to Gay & Lesbian Youth Services (GLYS) of WNY.
June 2018 Honoree
Alpine Made, LLC
Owner of New York State’s only organic dairy goat farm and and founder of Alpine Made, an organic soap and skincare business that supports healthy, clean, sustainable living. Not a bad resume but also an evolving one for a business owner and mom who started her career as a USDA inspector.
Kerry Planck might not have originally planned to emulate her grandfather, who operated five different family farms. She pursued degrees in environmental forest biology and a Masters in ecology before becoming an inspector with the US Department of Agriculture. It was in 2009 that she and her then-husband started their family and she reached back to her roots and established her 15-acre goat farm.
In addition to her Alpine Made certified organic soaps and skincare products made with goat milk, Kerry offers workshops for the on the farm. Community workshops include organic/sustainable farming methods (Kerry is a big proponent of respecting the land) and product making (such as scrubs, salves, and soaps) as well as events like a popular goat yoga day that encourages community involvement with farm life (and hey! baby goats are awfully cute!)
Her hard work has resulted in Wegmans carrying Alpine Made products in local stores in addition to Whole Foods Buffalo store (she’s currently in negotiation to place her organic products in NYC Whole Foods stores as well).
Her farm is a 100% woman-owned as well as Hispanic-owned operation in what is traditionally a male dominated industry. The business helps serve the community through collaborations with area small businesses to encourage the growth of the local economy. We participate and host farm events that promote all-around health and wellness (hosting yoga at the farm and bringing her goats out to spend time with the local community to teach about organic farming and sustainable living). She works with business organizations to teach about entrepreneurship and how she built a farm business from scratch.
She participated as a guest speaker (SBA Success Story) in the yearly Straight Talk Series organized by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Buffalo District Office held annually in Buffalo. Alpine Made won two awards in 2016 from the Small Business Development Center (Client of the Year) and SCORE (small business of the year award). Her audio interview in 2017 with SCORE highlighted Kerry’s efforts in building her brand and farm from scratch and how a women and minority owned businesses can participate in community outreach to help encourage others to live their dreams and create their own enterprises, even with no starting capital or resources to do so.
Photo copyright: ©QweenCity and Jillian Barrile
May 2018 Honoree
Founder & President
Sarah Bachwitz is the founder and president of Empower Camp, a new non-profit created to ignite young women’s inner power. It is a non-denominational camp program, open to all cultures, religions and backgrounds for young women ages 14-18.
Empower Camp was founded in the depths of the Gobi Desert. Yes, you read that correctly. The Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Sarah hiked 100 kilometers across the Gobi Desert without the comforts of home and realized that it is not the clothes she wears or her social media or anything else that defines her. Sarah says, “What defines her is her inner power. Her inner power got her through those nine days in the desert and her inner power will continue to allow her to chase her dreams and live boldly.”
Sarah has 12 years of experience as a camp counselor. She received a Bachelor of Arts in International Business from Ohio Northern University; in 2010 she studied Spanish language and literature with the Study Abroad Program at Universidad del País Vasco. Sarah has worked at HSBC since 2011 where she is currently a senior manager. She founded the HSBC US Young Professionals Association, completed the HSBC Group Graduate Leadership Program in the United Kingdom, and participated in Leadership Buffalo’s Rising Leaders program. In 2017 she was a recipient of Buffalo Business First’s 30 under 30 award.
Photo copyright: ©Jim Courtney
April 2018 Honoree
Women’s advocate and volunteer
Chair, Erie County Commission on the Status of Women Advisory Board
Secretary, YWCA World Service Council
Board member, Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts
Originally from Allentown, PA, Joelle Logue has a BA in Political Science/English from the Pennsylvania State University and an M.A. in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked as a newspaper editor and advertising copywriter but her passion now is as an advocate for women’s issues.
Joelle volunteers with the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, YWCA, and Planned Parenthood to build awareness and advocacy to improve the status of women and seek parity for women in all spheres of life. She is proud of the dedication and commitment each of these organizations takes in seeking a fair and just world when addressing women’s rights.
She believes in the guiding principles and values of each organization: the Commission on the Status of Women is dedicated to eliminating discrimination in any form that may exist on account of gender and providing equal opportunities to all citizens of Erie County. The YWCA World Service Council works for a fully inclusive world where justice, peace, health, human rights, freedom and care for the environment are promoted and sustained through women’s leadership. And Planned Parenthood is creating public policies that protect and support sexual and reproductive health, services, rights and justice.
March 2018 Honoree
Jill Spisiak Jedlicka
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper
Executive Director & Waterkeeper
Jill Spisiak Jedlicka life’s mission appears to be hereditary. According to Jedlicka, “My early environmental career was associated with education and outreach on the Buffalo River. Only then did I start to truly understand the significance of my own family history about this waterway. My great-Uncle, Stanley Spisiak, was known as “Mr. Buffalo River”, and he was a tireless advocate as early as the 1940s. His efforts led to groundbreaking state and federal legislation even before the Clean Water Act, and Stanley is renowned to this day for his early activism and success around Lake Erie and the Buffalo River. He worked with Senator Robert F. Kennedy and also hosted President Lyndon Johnson during his historic Buffalo visit in 1966. Through my work, and the work of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, we honor Stanley’s legacy through our own mission and vision of clean and healthy waterways in Western New York. (Coming full circle, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance – and Waterkeeper Alliance’s Chairman of the Board is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.).”
The non-profit Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper was founded in 1989, and its mission is protect and restore our water and surrounding ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations. Executive Director & Waterkeeper, Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, says “Our work touches 3,250 miles of waterways throughout the 1,400 square mile Niagara River watershed, including Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.” It currently has 29 full-time employees, but originally started as an all-volunteer, grass roots environmental organization called “Friends of the Buffalo River,” and was run by a volunteer board until 2001.
Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper reflects the organization’s second name change (August 2017). As Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper its work has included: creating a living infrastructure network to support life and vitality in the watershed through large-scale sediment remediation, habitat restoration, greenway development and green storm water management. Its most visible success has been its leadership efforts around the remediation and restoration of the Buffalo River, specifically serving as a cost-share partner and helping secure $75 million in local, state, federal and private corporation resources for contaminated sediment dredging and habitat restoration.
In 2015, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper was awarded the inaugural North American Riverprize, and in 2016 in New Delhi, India, it was awarded the Thiess International Riverprize, a global award for river basin management, from the Australian-based International River Foundation. The organization’s priorities for the next few years will focus on five major initiatives: Headwaters, Scajaquada Creek, Living Shorelines, Waterway Restoration, and Education & Outreach.
Jedlicka says, “Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper’s mission and work is a core component of my personal life, values and pursuit.” She serves as an appointee of Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature on the regional Great Lakes Protection Fund Board, and the New York State Great Lakes Basin Advisory Council. She earned a B.S. in Environmental Studies and MBA in Business Administration from UB, working previously as an Environmental Education Specialist for the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning.
February 2018 Honoree
SoPark Corporation was founded in 1981 by Robert Stevenson with just two employees. It has grown to 78 employees today. And later this year, current president and COO, Rupa Shanmugam will become the majority owner.
Raised in Kampar, Malaysia, Rupa attended the school where her father taught physics, and he was the one who encouraged her to pursue a career in electrical engineering. “I attended and received a diploma in Electronic Engineering from the Federal Institute of Technology in Kuala Lumpur. While attending college there, I was the only girl in the class for three years. For the next five years, I was the only woman technician when I worked in Singapore at Thomson Consumer Electronics, Western Digital and then Carsem in Malaysia,” Rupa shares.
Taking a break from work, Rupa went to Angola, Indiana where she graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Tri-State University (now Trine University). According to Rupa, “I was the only women engineer and later, manager. Through hard work, strong work ethics and having people not only believe in me but mentor me, I have advanced in various roles in manufacturing, from operator, technician, engineer, manager and now president/COO of SoPark Corporation.”
SoPark is Western New York’s largest electronics manufacturing service provider, supplying medical device manufacturers and high-tech original equipment manufacturers with circuit board, electro mechanical and custom cable assemblies, as well as, design for manufacturing services. SoPark is ISO 13485 certified for medical devices and AS9100 for space and defense. For more than 37 years, SoPark has been serving customers in over 15 states and four countries.
Rupa serves on the United Way Boards of Directors and the Women United Advisory Board and is a member of the Employ Buffalo Executive Committee and BNP Manufacturers Council Executive Committee. She is also a committee member with UB Women in STEM. Rupa initiated a program for those students, creating opportunities to work at SoPark and providing them with exposure to STEM by experiencing the electronics industry, operations, production, technical applications, and engineering. This past year, Rupa was instrumental in the formation of the first Western New York Chapter of Engineering World Health at the University at Buffalo.
January 2018 Honoree
Deputy Director - PUSH Buffalo
Rahwa Ghirmatzion was born in Asmera, Eritrea in the middle of a civil war. She came to Western New York as a refugee at the age of eight with her family, after living in Sudan. She was educated in Buffalo Public Schools and SUNY Buffalo State.
In 2016, she became deputy director of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), a community organization that works at the grassroots to create and implement a comprehensive revitalization plan for Buffalo’s West Side, with more than $25 million invested in affordable housing rehabilitation, weatherization and green infrastructure.
In this role, Ghirmatzion oversees the organization’s programs and day-to-day operations, which have grown to include housing construction, weatherization, solar installation, job training, and a youth center on Grant Street, as well as outreach and advocacy on public policy issues facing urban communities. PUSH employs 40 people and has renovated more than seventy-five high quality homes over the past seven years.
Ghirmatzion had served as PUSH’s director of programs, overseeing the growth of PUSH’s social enterprises and community development efforts.
“I’m proud of what PUSH has done to prove that everyday residents can lead the way in building a better Buffalo, with quality affordable housing and pathways to good jobs in emerging sectors like solar installation, weatherization and green construction. But there’s so much work ahead to move Buffalo beyond the legacies of racism and economic injustice that are so visible in our communities,” Ghirmatzion said.
For more than 13 years, Rahwa worked with community-based organizations in Western New York that promote community development. She was executive director of Ujima Theatre Company, a multi-ethnic professional theatre company whose primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation and performance of African American theatre. Ghirmatzion was the recipient of the 2013 Community Leaders Arts Award from the National Federation for Just Communities.