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McDonald Roberts picked to 'fill in gaps' in Pittsburgh's urban management

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 11:22 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Valerie McDonald Roberts, whom Mayor-elect Bill Peduto tapped as his chief urban affairs officer, poses in front of a blighted house in Homewood on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. She will oversee Peduto’s initiatives for improving neighborhoods such as Homewood.

Valerie McDonald Roberts had no white classmates until she started the sixth grade.

Pittsburgh Public schools were segregated in the 1960s and Roberts, who is black, met her first white classmate when her family moved from Homewood to Wilkinsburg.

“I remember sitting behind a white girl with like light blond hair,” she said. “I reached out and touched it to see what white people's hair felt like. She turned around and we became best friends.”

It is the kind of real-life urban experience that Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto wanted in his closest advisers.

Roberts, 58, will serve as Peduto's chief urban affairs officer and oversee all housing, nonprofit and faith-based initiatives.

Peduto said he plans to tap nonprofit and faith-based organizations to help rebuild and improve the quality of life in Pittsburgh's poverty-stricken communities. He said her education, ties to Pittsburgh and experience as a city school board member, councilwoman and manager of Allegheny County property records made her the perfect choice.

“We knew we needed to find somebody to fill in the gaps where city government doesn't usually go,” Peduto said. “She understands the importance of our places of worship as being community centers and in building community. She has a strong background in housing initiatives and rebuilding neighborhoods, and healing neighborhoods, with nonprofits and faith-based organizations.”

Roberts said her decision to join the Peduto team had nothing to do with the job's $102,500 salary.

“It's an opportunity for me to make a difference and use a lot of the experience that I have to put in action,” she said.

She met Peduto in 1994 after she was elected to council. He was then chief of staff to former Councilman Dan Cohen. She was arguing in council against a proposed curfew for children. Peduto, she said, appeared with a note. She thought it was for his boss, but he passed it to her. On it were arguments supporting her belief that the city would be better served by turning to faith-based organizations, rather than curfews, to stem misbehavior.

“I looked at him differently from then on,” she said. “He had soul.”

Acquaintances describe Roberts as articulate, smart and street-savvy. They say she's fiercely independent and prone to speaking her mind.

“She always showed up and she showed up on time,” said Sala Udin, 70, of the Hill District, who served with Roberts on council. “I always knew her as a champion for the community. She worked with senior citizens and had a strong sensitivity for children. She was a strong advocate for housing in Homewood.”

Roberts said she disagreed with Homewood residents on more than one occasion.

She remembers a battle to prevent the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school from moving from Homewood to Downtown. Residents, who regarded CAPA as a neighborhood jewel, fervently opposed the move. She disagreed.

“They could not expand in Homewood, and that school needed to expand,” she said. “I was probably called a traitor, but I stood my ground.”

Jean Fink, 65, of Carrick, who served with Roberts on the school board, said her former colleague stood up for residents in other ways.

“She would always ask the hard questions: ‘How much is it going to cost? What bang for our buck is it going to be? Can we do it another way?' ” Fink said. “She's good at getting people to work together and she's real conscientious about the public's money.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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