I meet Samantha Nephew for an early morning coffee at Sweetness 7 Café on Grant Street. Born and raised on the Westside, Sam has known the neighborhood since “before it was cool,” and she remembers when the café used to be a Puerto Rican bakery. A graduate of Lafayette High School, Sam got her bachelor’s in Public Communications from Buff State, her masters in Integrated Marketing Communications from St. Bonaventure, and she’s currently pursuing her second masters in Public Administration at Buff State. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I would still be in school, I probably would have cried,” she tells me with a bubbly laugh that I quickly recognize as characteristic.
Sam radiates the deep, down-to-earth intensity that often develops through the combined experience of hardship and intellectual achievement. Sharp, diligent, and informed, she is both impressively self-assured and refreshingly approachable. As a community organizer for Citizen Action of New York, a progressive, grassroots organization centered on empowering black and brown communities, Sam’s job is to earn the trust of people who have historically been disenfranchised and to develop leaders within these communities to advocate for positive policy change.
“The most important thing for me is gaining the skills that I feel like I need to help people,” she says of her work, which focuses on poverty and education in Buffalo Public Schools. One of the biggest problems Sam sees in government is a disconnect between legislators and the people they’re supposed to represent, particularly at the highest level. “In Albany, you don’t see a lot of people that look like me or the kids I grew up with,” she explains.
A member of the Seneca Nation, Sam was raised around Puerto Ricans, blacks, and poor whites. “I’m not ashamed to say it, we grew up poor,” she tells me. “And I think that’s where my sense of justice comes from. So a lot of what I do is making sure that there is a dignity to people that are dealing with poverty because it’s often not their fault. Poverty is extremely systemic… there is absolutely no reason to take away the dignity of someone who works hard 40-50 hours a week to at least make a living wage.”
Sam traces her commitment to the community back to her parents, both of whom were engaged in social justice issues. Sam’s father passed away when she was 19, and then her mother died when she was 20. Many of the people Sam works with now at Citizen Action knew her parents, and her mother was very active in the public schools. Six years later, Sam feels like she’s come full-circle, continuing the legacy of the education work that her mother was so involved in and honoring her parents’ memories through community organizing.
Sam’s work in the Buffalo Public Schools, including the Campaign for Fiscal Equity – a decade-long fight to reclaim millions of dollars owed by the State to struggling school districts – hits close to home. She says thankfully there are many different groups working on different issues, but it’s all a matter of whether they can work together and remember that it’s about the kids and not about politics or adult egos.
“That’s how I’m walking into it, because I was these kids, my sister was these kids. It’s about the kids that are being shortchanged and wrongfully told that the reason why they’re failing is because they’re dumb. No, the reason why the kids are failing in the Buffalo Public Schools is because the adults are failing the Buffalo Public Schools, and I feel like that’s something that we need to continuously remind each other.”
Ultimately, Sam hopes to be in a position where she can affect legislation and use her experience as a community organizer, along with her own lived experience, to bridge the gap between policymakers and citizens. “I’m here for the fight for people that look like me,” she declares intently. “I want to make the Renaissance about everyone, because that’s what it’s constantly referred to, the Buffalo Renaissance. But the people that I grew up with on the West Side don’t see it. It’s like, where the hell is all this prosperity?”
I ask Sam about the solutions for unequal access to employment, education, and resources in general. She pauses and looks at me before responding with her characteristic laugh, “That’s a tall order – how can we fix this entire broken system… I think I need a little more time on the job!”
I don’t doubt that Sam will continue to work tirelessly on solutions. She has the word “passion” tattooed on her forearm in her father’s handwriting. She says that’s the most important thing he taught her. Anyone can see the absolute truth of that.
© Natalie Photiadis 2016