BUFFALO, N.Y. — On Mother’s Day weekend in the United States, families across Buffalo were commemorating a mass shooting of exactly one year ago. Occurring at the only supermarket in the city’s Masten District, the massacre killed 10 people and wounded 3 others.
Zeneta Everhart, 41, whose son survived the shooting on May 14, 2022, is aiming to shake up her small part of the world in a big way through local politics and to upset the all-male city council in an election this month.
While some major media may praise Buffalo, a city in western New York State with an urban population of 276,486 and a metro population of about 884,000, for its seeming renaissance, venture east or west off its manicured main streets and you find populations facing disadvantages that run the full gamut of ills targeted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These deficits are most present in Masten, a neighborhood slightly more than two square miles on the east side of the city, home to about 30,000 people. Buffalo, the state’s second-largest city, will reach racial parity sooner than most other American cities, with 48 percent of its population white and 33 percent Black.
Whites make up 60 percent and Blacks, 12 percent, of the national population. New York City’s own racial demographics, 62 percent white and only 15 percent Black, are closer to the national average. Masten, after a recent redistricting, is 82 percent Black; more than half its population earns below $50,000 a year. Payton Gendron, the white racist who shot up the Tops supermarket and is now serving a life sentence in prison, chose the area for its Black and minority population.
Immediately after the shooting, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement of condolence in which he condemned “racism in all its forms and discrimination based on race, religion, belief or national origin.” In September 2022, Faith Dikeledi Pansy Tlakula, an expert on the UN Committee for Racial Discrimination (Cerd), noted that the rate of firearm homicide in the US is rising, especially affecting Black men and poor communities. Tlakula also noted the committee’s concern over lack of federal coordination regarding human rights and gun control in the US.
Earlier this year, in Buffalo for an event commemorating the first anniversary of the Tops massacre, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN special adviser on prevention of genocide, warned that hate speech and other forms of racism preceded all the legally recognized genocides of the past, including the Holocaust and those in Rwanda and Srebrenica. Nderitu is working with cities around the world through their sports teams to help educate communities against hate through the UN’s Eradicate Hate Global Summit working group. Professional football, hockey and lacrosse teams in Buffalo and nearby Rochester are among those participating in the effort.
PassBlue talked to Everhart, who is running to represent Masten on the Buffalo City Council, about post-massacre Buffalo and how she thinks she can disrupt its stagnant politics. Her platform for the June 27th primary election addresses how racism affects her district. In Buffalo, many political races are decided during the Democratic primary. The city council seats are all filled by Democrats, and there has not been a Republican mayor since the 1960s.
To Everhart, like Nderitu, the solution to countering the systemic racism spurring violent events like the Tops massacre begins in the community.
Everhart’s son, Zaire Goodman, 21, survived being shot in the neck during the Tops rampage. Within months of the massacre, while he recovered, Everhart and Goodman started a book club to teach children about racism, broaden worldviews and increase inclusion. By May 2023, the club had received around 20,000 donated books. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children in the US. “I got lucky,” Everhart said. “I got to keep my son.”
Everhart is the director of diversion and inclusivity for New York State Senator Tim Kennedy, (Democrat, Buffalo). A product of Masten herself, she knows what its residents need. She is a single mother who attended college while working full time raising her son. She is aiming to upend the policies in Buffalo that have long neglected and segregated her neighbors from the renaissance the rest of the city is supposedly experiencing.
“None of our laws on the books should apply in 2023,” she said in an interview with PassBlue. “Everything should be looked at differently, right? Part of my job for Senator Kennedy is to go through a lot of the bills and laws that he supports, looking at them through a racial equity lens. We want to make sure that the bills that he’s putting forward are enabling Black communities and communities of color.”
PassBlue: How is your son, Zaire?
Everhart: Physically, he’s doing a lot better. But there’s a mental part of it all, that’s a longer process.
PassBlue: After the Tops shooting, you created a book club and channeled your activism toward children. How did that idea start?
Everhart: I’ve done some work around guns before, but for me, it’s our education system that’s the start, right? I read through the terrorist’s manifesto. His anger towards Black people and minority groups in this country show how misinformed he is — that’s a problem for me. Because when our education system is not adequately teaching the history of America, how it began, that’s a problem. People are very misinformed about our native brothers and sisters and slavery. People were reaching out to us because they wanted to do something. So instead of taking money from people, we asked them to buy books. We started an Amazon Wishlist that’s filled with books that teach kids about diversity, inclusion and acceptance. And some of the books feature kids, Black kids, kids who need to see the representation, right?
PassBlue: Since the shooting, you’ve joined a group of activists nationally whose families have been involved in massacres, spurring them to run for office, like Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat in the US House of Representatives. But even with your background in activism and politics, you’re staying local. Why?
Everhart: The work that I want to do here in Masten, I’m hoping that it has a ripple effect across the country. I’ve been here my whole life. And quite frankly, things haven’t changed. The state of Black Buffalo has been the state of Black Buffalo for my whole 41 years of life. And that’s a problem. In Buffalo, your lifespan is determined by your zip code. One Masten Zip code, 14215, has the highest rate of every health disparity that you can think of. Poverty, health disparities, all those things — those are policy choices. It’s going to take people like me, who have grown up in these neighborhoods, to change those policies and to fix them and make sure that we’re getting resources funneled and directed into the spaces where they need to be.
PassBlue: Did the Tops shooting have much to do with your deciding to run for office?
Everhart: For years, people have asked me, when am I going to run? I’d say, “No, I don’t want to get involved, I love my job.” I love being on the ground, in the streets with the people. When 5/14 happened, it was like, “O.K., I have to do more.” After that, I still worked but I testified before Congress and went to the White House multiple times. When I testified before Congress in June 2022, I was very deliberate in my statement. I wanted them to hear from the East Side of Buffalo. I wanted them to hear from Zaire. It was very important that they heard it from a person who was directly impacted, but also who has been here and dealt with the issues on the East Side.
PassBlue: Masten has several vulnerabilities — it’s a digital desert, food desert, transportation desert, medically underserved, has even less recreational green space per population than other parts of the city. If you win a seat on the Council, what do you tackle first?
Everhart: I know that I can’t do everything in a day’s work. When I started, Senator Kennedy asked me to put together a blueprint for the East Side, a plan for anything we need to address. I’m still adding things to it, six years later. The No. 1 issue was single mothers and access to everything. So we started the Single Moms Club of Buffalo, bimonthly events for moms and their kids. We go directly into communities. It’s always at a different location. We bring in every resource that you can think of that a single mother would need and give them access to it. Then we try to do something fun, from paint nights, manicures and massages, dance classes. Volunteers take care of the kids while the moms are doing their own thing. I want to open up government. We pay for it. We own that information. And so therefore we should have absolute access at all times.
PassBlue: Your district, like Buffalo, has more women than men in population. Yet it’s been a decade since a woman sat on the City Council. Your background in politics and advocacy gives you insight into the UN’s SDGs and global treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). How can they be used?
Everhart: We need more conversations, and the SDGS and Cedaw can help frame the conversations. Women will participate the more they see people who look like them, like me, in place. That’s how we get younger women and girls involved. They’re hard conversations. They’re uncomfortable conversations. But when you’re uncomfortable, the solutions change society. We need men as part of the women’s movement. We need allies, just like Black people need white people to help them in the issues that we’re dealing with in the community. We need everybody to be a part of this movement.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.