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Westmoreland surveys residents on attitudes toward racial, ethnic diversity

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 12:52 a.m.

Westmoreland County's future businesses must include a diverse workforce or risk decline, said Latrobe City Manager Alex Graziani.

“Communities that embrace diversity and ethnic differences ... are the ones who develop more quickly than others,” he said.

As the Census Bureau projects a minority of non-Hispanic whites by 2050, Westmoreland Community Action is working to collect data with Seton Hill University and research how local residents perceive racial and ethnic diversity.

The project, which is the first of its kind in a county that is made up of 94.8 percent white residents, has completed about half of 17 focus group discussions centering on prevailing notions about race, said Carlotta Paige, a program coordinator serving as a consultant with Westmoreland Community Action.

“We will use it to make recommendations and look at the perception of diversity versus the reality,” she said.

The study, “Confronting the Challenge of Diversity in Westmoreland County,” held one of those focus groups last week in Latrobe. Graziani helped to facilitate the event.

The group of six people were directed to frankly answer 10 questions during a 90-minute discussion in Adams Memorial Library.

“For me, it's an important subject,” Graziani said. “Diversity, as we look across the country, is certainly an element of economic growth.”

With the observance this year of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech after the March on Washington and other news events, race “is still an issue in this country,” he said.

Volunteers are sometimes difficult to find for the groups, which are kept “homogeneous” with all white, black, Hispanic or Asian participants to allow them to feel comfortable to speak freely, Paige said.

“It's a challenge because it's a sensitive issue, and in some cases people are reluctant to talk about it,” she said.

Graziani gave an example question: “Do you think we're a county that's open or embracing of people who are different?”

The research completed with information from the small groups will be compiled to help inform a written survey that researchers will circulate to the public, hoping to reach 2,500 people combined through the groups and the survey.

The data will then be analyzed near the end of the year by a team at Seton Hill University led by associate professor David Droppa.

“We will craft a set of recommendations for key stakeholders in the community,” he said.

The study was partially funded by a $4,000 grant by Vibrant Pittsburgh, an organization established in December 2010 to focus on attracting, retaining, welcoming and elevating resources for diverse residents, said Melanie Harrington, president and CEO.

“We think that the information (the Westmoreland study) will gather could end up benefiting more than just Westmoreland County, but also neighboring counties as well,” she said, reflecting regional concerns beyond the urban center in Pittsburgh.

The grant program has awarded more than $100,000 to community groups and projects such as the one in Westmoreland County, said Adriana Dobrzycka, community outreach and inclusion manager.

She said the study was deemed worthy of a grant in order to gauge thoughts about race and ethnicity, especially to facilitate the best way for any necessary improvements in race and ethnic relations.

“It was important to have a study and assessment, really a moment to stop and reflect on the data and the story the data told, then develop action,” she said. “This is the first step in a bigger effort.”

The focus groups, which have been held in Derry, Monessen, Murrysville and Youngwood, will continue through the fall, Paige said. The next is not yet scheduled, but a few more for the Greensburg and Hempfield areas are in the works, she said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or sfederoff@tribweb.com.

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