Road to racial parity starts at home, Pittsburghers say
Katrina Paul says she can still hear her grandma fussing at her. And when she needs strength, she draws from her lessons: Work hard, be responsible, respect others.
Her grandmother's strength and determination “kept me on the right path,” said Paul, 37, of Lincoln-Lemington, who grew up in her care in public housing in Garfield. “She was consistent. She stayed on me; she never gave up.”
It was a lesson in leadership for Paul and, she believes, the basis for her success in life.
She and other Pittsburghers say Americans cannot depend on national leaders or government to fix problems that have separated whites and blacks for hundreds of years. During recent unrest in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., no clear leader emerged to stop the burning and looting by protesters enraged by police killings of black men.
Paul was able to avoid the streets dominated in the 1990s by drug-dealing gangs. She studied, got a job and played basketball, then went on to earn a master's degree.
A business analyst for Highmark Inc., she knew to give her daughters structure and access to activities.
It's important for kids to have role models, she said. “A lot of people blame other people; they're not responsible for their own actions. It burns me up when people make excuses for their behavior.
“You can take a bad situation and turn it into a positive. ... You can't stop because different things happen in your life. You have to want more.”
Experts and ordinary folks agree that racism, disparity, hatred and violence go back generations — and will take generations to resolve.
“I think the mistake we make is we're looking for that prominent national voice or leader on the level of a Martin Luther King,” said Todd Allen, 45, a communications professor at Grove City College and civil rights expert. “That was a special moment in time that we may or may not see again. I look more to the grassroots leaders; they're going to be there long after the cameras and that kind of stuff has left.”
Forty percent of 1,002 black adults surveyed in a 2013 Zogby Analytics poll said no well-known black leader speaks for them. Twenty-four percent chose the Rev. Al Sharpton, and 11 percent cited the Rev. Jesse Jackson. During the recent unrest in Baltimore, Sharpton sat across from Mayor Samantha Rawlings-Blake at a news conference and later asked the Justice Department to “take over policing in this country.”
In many city neighborhoods, people looking for leadership find it in their homes, among their neighbors, in churches, schools and community centers, said Michelle Jackson, 55, of Forest Hills, chief community affairs officer for the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. The authority's tenant councils have leaders who articulate the residents' needs.
Sometimes “people go to the streets” to bring about change, and it has little to do with skin color, said Jackson, pointing to Russia, the Middle East, China and elsewhere. In America, times have changed since the civil rights movement, she said.
“You have like-minded people who can connect and get together with ideas,” she said. “It's easy to connect with social media, the Internet, webcasts, conference calling.”
Responsibility for change falls to all Americans, said state Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who chaired the House Appropriations Committee for 20 years and made a run for governor in 1994. He, too, believes change starts in the home.
“My mom took no hostages; she did not play around,” Evans said. In addition to good parenting, young people need education and employers willing to break down barriers, he said. “We all can play a role. I don't think this is about a program. It's deeper than a program.”
Acknowledge and act
Dewayne Rideout, 57, of Southpointe, a former corporate executive and one-time pro football player, pointed out that someone living in a wealthy, predominantly white community such as Upper St. Clair will have a different life experience than someone in a poor city neighborhood such as Homewood.
The first step is to acknowledge that there's a problem and define it, Rideout said. “The people who have a chance to influence it have to sit at the same table.”
He understands why his white friends see things differently: “ ‘We want to see you get on your own feet and take care of yourself' — this is what my white friends tell me. I'm not offended by that. I understand that's how they see things from where they sit. But when I go into the black community, they're saying, ‘Oh man ...' ”
It's hard to reconcile that kids sell drugs, murder each other and become so marginalized that they essentially establish their own society, Rideout said. Reaching them early in life is important.
Emphasizing ownership is crucial to changing people's situations, especially those who have “gotten lip service and pacification for so many years that it's difficult to believe the notion of an equal society,” he said.
‘You take a risk'
Understanding starts with familiarity, said Bryan McCabe, 38, a white pastor who moved with his family to Homewood six years ago and works with young people and mentors through North Way Christian Community, an organization of multicultural, evangelical churches.
“It starts awkwardly — you have all these preconceived stereotypes about people who are different than you, but you take a risk,” McCabe said. “You come to find out you have a lot more in common than you thought.”
At first, he was nervous, hoping nothing bad would happen to his family in a neighborhood plagued by violence. Now he drives at night with windows down, looking to talk with young people on street corners. He and neighbors hold impromptu block parties.
“There are a lot of people who come in and out of neighborhoods like Homewood who say, ‘We're going to do these amazing things,' ” he said. “That doesn't help build the trust level. Young people actually will trust you if you continue to show up.”
Rideout started the Global Passport Project, which works with students to solve problems and develop solutions that might be pitched to a corporate executive or patented for sale. He tries to match kids from varied social backgrounds.
“These interactions, I think — I'm hoping — will bring a broader understanding of each other, of the problems we're facing — unified versus ‘them versus us,' ” he said. “Students have shown an incredible capacity to solve problems.”
Allen said the same principle can apply to police.
“The narratives that people want to give you are that all cops want to kill black people and all black people hate the cops,” he said. “Neither one of those is true, but if we don't sit down and talk with one another, those narratives become the reality.”
Kip Bryant, 57, of Regent Square, a compliance auditor with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, said change begins with individual actions. People need to see beyond “one group's problems and actually see how it impacts all of us,” he said.
His solution is simple: “Just treat people well. Black or white, male, female — things happen to people. You have to learn to deal with it in a healthy way. ... And be true. Live your life in a good way, and people will watch.”
Paving the way
The Housing Authority has changed its emphasis since Jackson grew up in Aliquippa Terrace, now Oak Hill, in the Hill District.
“We are trying to provide employment and training opportunities. If you're working, in training, in school, you have less time to be hanging out, doing something negative, because you're moving toward the positive,” she said.
More than 800 people are enrolled in the authority's Family Self-Sufficiency program, which aims to move people from unemployment to employment over five years. She said the authority provides after-school, creative arts and audio-visual programs for younger people. It helps them get their driver's licenses, and encourages them to learn a trade or become certified for a job such as a nursing assistant.
“We can build housing all day long, but you're trying to build a home — and the only way to do that is help people become upwardly mobile,” Jackson said. “If they don't know inside what it is to make it a home, it's just a new house.”
Greg Spencer, 67, of Oakland, president and CEO of Randall Industries, a manufacturer of chemical products, said black professionals must push companies to consider black people for executive positions.
He isn't suggesting that a company hire someone because of ethnicity, but “if the system is open enough, you just might find out that an African-American man or woman is the best prepared for the position,” he said.
Spencer is Northeast regional leader for the fraternal organization Sigma Pi Phi, made up of black professionals from across the country. He said the group will soon meet in Baltimore to discuss what happened there.
“Down deep in the Baltimore issue is the matter of lack of opportunities,” he said. “I can't change the region, but one thing that we can do is tap into talent and members of the organization, and think about what we can do.”
Changing troubled communities will take time, commitment and investment, Allen said.
“This problem is the result of generations of neglect,” Allen said. “It's going to equally take generations of dedication and commitment” to resolve it.
Black children who lack exposure to the broader society need a way to make it out of their neighborhoods, Rideout said.
“When faced with few options, the worst options become the options,” he said, “and they lead to incarceration, broken families, no one in the household with capacity to change” the circumstances.