Stephanie Peete figured she would leave Buffalo after graduating from Canisius over a decade ago. But in 2014, she took a job with Say Yes Buffalo, a non-profit organization that provides scholarship money, internships and career opportunities for the youth of the community.
She never left. Peete, a 2004 City Honors grad who was born and raised on the East Side, is now the business partnerships manager for Say Yes, finding internships for students with local employers. It’s important work, something she loves.
Say Yes is known primarily for helping city students pay for college. Most people aren’t aware that there’s a lot more to it than simply giving scholarships.
“Oh, it’s over a dozen signature programs,” Peete said early this week. “We call it Cradle to Careers. I’m the career end of things.”
But Peete decided after the George Floyd murder in 2020 that it wasn’t enough to simply do the work of a thriving non-profit. As a leader in the Black community, she needed to be more of a voice on the East Side, calling out for racial equity.
“Absolutely,” Peete said. “Before then, we were having these conversations with employers, but we were walking a line, being softer in our message than we needed to be. I just said, ‘I’m not going to be quiet anymore.’ Not just me, but so many other Black leaders who maybe haven’t been as vocal publicly.
“We have been a lot bolder in our message. There’s just no more time to wait.”
The notion of a “racial reckoning” hit home in a tragic way on May 14, when a white supremacist walked into the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue and gunned down 10 black citizens.
Peete said she was devastated and angry after the shootings. Three months later, the neighborhood is still reeling from the murders. And she’s still angry.
“I went to a conference back in May (soon after the shootings) and heard Angela Glover Blackwell, a pioneer in racial equity work,” Peete said. “That was her piece of advice after she spoke: Stay angry.
“For me, it’s really important to funnel that in a way that’s going to create change and have a systematic impact in our community. There’s passion behind it. There’s a reason there’s some extra emotion needed.”
The wounds are fresh, the emotions raw and understandable. Evidently, the shooter targeted that Tops store, and that predominantly Black neighborhood.
That Tops is right down the street from the new Say Yes headquarters, a football toss from Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium on Jefferson Avenue. They were planning to move from the old office in the Theater District when the tragedy at Tops turned everyone’s world upside down.
The move had to be postponed as the employees helped the neighborhood deal with the aftermath and the grief. There was also a major Say Yes youth event, scheduled for the following weekend, which had to be put off for a time.
“Students were reporting a lot of trauma,” Peete said, “fear of leaving the house. Buffalo is small. The Black community is even smaller. Everyone’s one or two people removed. Even if you didn’t lose someone or have someone in your family impacted, they knew someone. So, as a community, it was very raw.
“We had to take notice of that and move accordingly. Move back what we can and provide support to students, check in on their emotional health. We had to prioritize what the trauma they were dealing with — new trauma on top of continued trauma, generational trauma.”
Peete was home when the murders took place. She was waiting for her mother, Lisa, to come home. It was customary for her mom, who lives right up the street from Tops, to stop on the way to grab a dessert or something for dinner.
“She was late,” Peete recalled. News reports of the shootings at Tops popped up on her phone. She began calling all the Black people she knew, to see if they were OK. For awhile, she couldn’t connect with her mother.
“She wasn’t there, but for those few minutes I couldn’t find her, it was pure panic. She literally lives right up the street. She goes in there all the time. She has not gone back yet. She says she will, one day. But she’s not ready.
“I have not gone back,” Peete said. “I drove past it this morning on my way here. Maybe I should go in before I leave. I’m not ready yet. I will go in there one day. Soon. I don’t know if it’ll be today.”
She continues to speak out, to channel her anger and sadness in a positive way. Peete was recently featured in the WBFO radio series, “What’s Next”, an illuminating look into the May 14 shootings and racial injustice in the culture.
Peete spoke eloquently for an hour on issues ranging from anti-racism, white supremacy, the need for people of color to find more jobs in the private sector, the role of Black women bringing up white people in America, student loan forgiveness, the problem of extremism, the lack of Black capital …
The most important thing of all, of course, is education. Peete says it’s the foundation for a better life and the key for Blacks to create social capital and economic mobility in a country that systematically held them back.
It’s easy to despair in the aftermath of a community tragedy. But Peete finds hope in the work, and in the young people she helps through Say Yes Buffalo.
“You focus on the wins,” she said. “We talk about going with the willing. We can’t change everyone’s mind, but a lot of people are eager to say yes. We recognize what’s wrong. We recognize we have a role to play in fixing it. We have a willingness to be a part of it.
“We focus on those voices and those people. If you focus on what you can’t get done, it’s soul-crushing. Literally, one conversation with someone can impact so many people, It can be you speaking to 300 people or you speaking to one person. You just have to keep talking.”
The success of Say Yes is resounding. In the 10 years since the program began, high school graduation rates in the city schools increased from 49 percent to 78 percent in the year 2020. The post-secondary enrollment rate increased by 23 percent from 2012 to 2019, from 899 students to 1,108.
There were 2,481 scholars who completed a post-secondary degree from 2013-20. It’s also a point of pride that 68 percent of Say Yes staff are people of color, which is reflective of the Buffalo community.
Peete, who got dual degrees in urban studies and sociology at Canisius, is especially proud of the intern program, which has been in existence for five years and placed more than 250 college students or recent grads in paid internships.
“A lot of students have been able to get full-time offers based off their intern experience,” Peete said. “That’s work we’re really proud of. We have internships across all sectors, not just private. We have a unique relationship with the Bar Association of Erie County. They not only help fund internships, they link us to law firms to host our students. So it’s really fantastic.
“We have some who are working here full-time. One of our alumni is at M&T in a cool role. I’ve seen her as an undergrad, intern, and now she’s an official colleague. She’s on a local board with me.
“So, it’s fantastic to be part of their professional journey.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.