What happened to Aminah Johnson?
is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “self-sacrificing devotion and loyalty.”
or loyal is defined by Merriam-Webster as “faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.”
is defined by Merriam-Webster as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; INCORRUPTIBILITY.”
Aminah Johnson, a well known tenant advocate in Buffalo, embodied all 3 definitions of dedication, loyalty, and integrity in her role as Tenant Advocate at PUSH Buffalo. She was surprisingly terminated after 15 years of service to the City of Buffalo and Western New York through the organization, but why?
Before we answer that, let’s take a look at who Aminah was and still is. Aminah, a lifelong Buffalo resident who has called the West Side of Buffalo home for more than 30 years, first volunteered for PUSH Buffalo literally at its inception, before the fame and the money. When some of the PUSH founders appeared to have great ideas and vision for what Buffalo could be for low-income people ahead of the city’s ‘renaissance’, Aminah and a host of other dedicated volunteers living on the West Side helped with their time, personal and family capacity, skills, hard work, dedication, loyalty, and integrity to help get the organization off of the ground. PUSH wouldn’t be what it is today, a $20 million dollar neighborhood affordable housing, social justice organization, without her being in the mix at the very beginning helping to make things happen for the organization.
The national and international exposure PUSH has today, being able to tap into enormous national and even international funds of non-profit foundation monies, appearances and/or mentions on The Colbert Report, The Jimmy Kimmel Show (with Mark Ruffalo!), CNN, and many other platforms, wouldn’t have happened without the help of dedicated volunteers like Aminah. But you see, the non-profit industrial complex works much like big extractive corporations like Nike, Amazon, Disney, or Walmart. After they get their clout and make their money, they get rid of you! They throw you away after you have been perceived to have outlived your usefulness.
Aminah worked in a variety of job roles at PUSH since coming on as the first paid staff person nearly 14 years ago. The one that made her really famous in Buffalo, helping to build the PUSH brand as a defender of housing justice, was her role as Tenant Advocate. Aminah did the actual research and footwork to create this position at PUSH because it had never existed before. When she met with community members to talk about housing justice in an affordable housing context, she found out that the problems that low-income tenants and even some small business owners were having with problem landlords went far beyond the scope of what PUSH accomplished and had the scope or expertise to address. The organization was too focused on getting grants or donations to create more affordable housing to address the needs of individual people with bad landlords. Don’t get us wrong, there is nothing wrong with creating more quality affordable housing where it is needed, but PUSH’s efforts will never be enough to alleviate the housing crisis and certainly doesn’t address or challenge root causes. PUSH has about 100 affordable housing units in a city of almost 300,000 people, located in a region (Western New York) of almost 1.5 million people, with poverty and housing injustice scattered throughout.
As the PUSH Buffalo Tenant Advocate, Aminah worked to make the connections that many others in Buffalo and at PUSH Buffalo don’t have with the City Housing Court, including building very strong relationships with Housing Court judges. She built strong relationships with other organizations and agencies that provide human services that may have had a hard time connecting to the lower income people in Buffalo and other poverty stricken areas in Western New York. She did the groundwork by going to places like New York City to learn from older, established organizations like Tenants and Neighbors on how tenant advocacy works to bring those lessons learned back to Buffalo.
Many at PUSH thought that Aminah’s tenant advocacy program wouldn’t work or would fade away. They wanted to focus on writing grants, collecting donations, and becoming the darling of the climate justice movement. But through hard work, dedication, loyalty to her community, and integrity, PUSH’s Tenant Advocacy program was a huge success! Aminah knew the need in the Buffalo area for something like this, as noted by the response PUSH was getting as soon as the word got out in the streets about the program, but more importantly about Aminah’s reputation. The program wouldn’t have worked without her! She was known for looking over each tenant’s case very carefully and would be honest with each tenant based on her experience for doing the job for so long. She told tenants who came to her what they had to do, giving them good advice, and connecting them to the right people and resources to navigate the system. She would visit tenant apartments to take photographs of their horrific living conditions and accompany them to housing court.
This is great stuff, the things legends are made of, but what many inside the non-profit industrial complex at PUSH didn’t like was her outspokenness at injustices inside and outside the organization. Aminah is a go-getter, someone who doesn’t take “no” for an answer, especially if it has something to do with people she considers are getting negatively taken advantage of. While at PUSH, she stood up for herself, her co-workers, and the community. This was something that the PUSH Senior Management Team didn’t like. It all came to a head in late 2020 when Aminah and other employees made inquiries about their department budget at PUSH. After all, PUSH was and probably still is spending money on things that don’t benefit the mission of the organization and the community who they serve. Also, former staff had been unexpectedly fired, switched to lesser pay, or changed to part time work as a result of budget shortages in the past. A group of employees, including Aminah, asked the Senior Management Team to view their department’s budget at the next board of directors meeting. Someone with a lot of ‘power’ at PUSH immediately said “no!”
Perplexed by their simple ask being denied, the staffers decided to address the board directly in an email. At an annual meeting of PUSH Buffalo in 2019, members of PUSH’s board of directors told PUSH members and staff that they could address them at any time with organizational concerns. So, the group thought that it would be no big deal. As it turned out, it was a big deal. Members of PUSH’s Senior Management Team, many making upwards of $100,000 a year, were furious that these feeble, “at-will” employees would have the gall to go over their heads and make requests to the Board directly, about money no less! “How dare they!?” There were some heated conversations and phone calls, threats were made, and in the end Aminah and another employee were terminated over the sin of asking about the money in the religion of social injustice that has apparently taken jurisdiction at PUSH Buffalo. PUSH has since hired a ‘replacement’, but from what we hear from the street, grassroots level, this person is not as knowledgeable about the job and about low-income tenant problems as Aminah is.
Many people keep asking: “What happened to Aminah? She was there from the beginning!” In short, this is what happened: she became one of the many victims of PUSH Buffalo’s toxic work environment.