By SUSAN JONES
Pitt Communities help bring together faculty and staff who have a common purpose, ideology, ethnicity or interest and, as several leaders of these affinity groups said at a recent forum, they give people of color a chance to interact with “someone who looks like me.”
HOW TO CONNECT
Chinese Affinity Group: Email co-chairs Lihong Teng and Haihui Zhang at CAG@pitt.edu
Equipoise: Email chairs Steven Jones, Mario Browne and Lesha Greene at Equipoise@pitt.edu
Pitt Queer Professionals: Email chair Michael Campbell at PQP@pitt.edu
PittWomen: Email co-chairs Jess Townsend and Tanya Gonzales at Pittwomen@pitt.edu
Pitt Disability Community: To get on the email list, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Veterans Affinity Group: Email chair Commander Shawn Ellies at PittVeterans@pitt.edu
“One of the reasons why I joined, selfishly, was through my seven years throughout the University, I have not worked longer than six months total alongside another Black person,” said Steven Jones, a staff member in Special Events and one of the co-chairs of Equipoise, the Black/African-American affinity group. “When I was approached to be a part of the membership here, I felt that was a good thing for me to do, because without this group I felt like there would not be any chance for me to interact on a daily basis with someone that looks like me.”
Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies and co-chair of the Hispanic and Latino Professional Association, echoed those sentiments.
“I joined the HLPA because there aren’t a lot of us like each other in my work environment, and I know we’re out there and feel a little bit isolated in our units and in our departments,” she said. “I think that’s a reflection of the Latino community in Pittsburgh. … When we find each other and we come together, we realize that we are mighty, and we are proud, and we are committed and intelligent people who just need to find one another.”
For the Asian and Asian-American community, the need to find allies is even more important these days given the recent violence in Atlanta and elsewhere. Lihong Teng, a research scientist in the Department of Medicine and co-chair of the Chinese Affinity Group, said it’s very reassuring to see that “Pitt is supporting us, they condemn these acts, and they stand in solidary with the Asian and Asian-American employees.” See more about the University’s reaction to these events in a related story.
Jones, Torres and Teng spoke at the “Fostering Connections, Even While Apart” roundtable on March 18. The event was moderated by Antonio Glaze from the Office of Business and Auxiliary Services and Ron Idoko from the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
Other Pitt Communities represented were the Pitt Disability Community, Pitt Muslim Affinity Group, Pitt Queer Professionals, PittWomen and the Veterans Affinity Group.
Connecting during the pandemic
The groups have had varying degrees of success in connecting during the pandemic. Tanya Ann Gonzales, co-chair of PittWomen, said the group is just now getting back to planning activities. Since many of the people in PittWomen, including Gonzales, are primary caregivers for small children, “I really couldn’t do anything other than just keep us all going, which I think is (something) all of us across the University can understand.”
The group plans to start its book club again soon and hold informal lunchtime sessions. On March 26, the group will host Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer, for a Lunch and Learn event at noon to discuss her time in the federal government, including on the Biden transition team, and at Pitt. Register here.
Mike Campbell of Pitt Queer Professionals said they were able to do some webinars during the past year on the state of the LGBTQ community and on queer fantasy fiction as a response to some of the transphobic remarks by “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling. He pointed to page on an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion website that has more information about LGBTQIA+ advocacy programs on campus. He said recently they’ve been working with student organizations to try to get a center and some paid staff people dedicated specifically to LGBTQIA+ work on campus.
PQP also is working with the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the inclusion office in the Health Sciences to organize Lavender Graduation on April 16. Previously, the commencement event for LGBTQIA+ students was organized by the Rainbow Alliance. “We are bringing it to the whole university and making sure that students don’t have to do their own graduation ceremony,” Campbell said.
When the pandemic hit, HLPA quickly started an informal, online lunchtime chat through Pitt Commons, Torres said. “It was just a moment of commiseration and making sure that as new faculty and staff joined the institution, they had a welcoming platform to come in and sort of connect.” The next one is from noon to 12:30 p.m. April 7. Register here.
Josh Cannon of the Veterans Affinity Group said much of what they do is try to connect veterans and their families to benefits available to them. They also do volunteer events in the community, although the pandemic has hindered that. He said they were scheduled to work at a soup kitchen that caters to veterans last March but had to cancel.
He said they have about 60 members, most of whom have found out about the group through word of mouth, and they always welcome more. They also have been talking with Pitt administration about hiring more veterans.
Equipoise also is focused on bringing more Black employees to the university. “I think that we are hovering around seven to 10 percent Black employment (at Pitt). While the city has close to 25 percent,” he said.
“If you look around us, it’s kind of obvious that most Black staff here are entry level or in maintenance positions … and for faculty members, are non-tenured or adjunct roles,” Jones said. A challenge for Equipoise is to make sure there is more Black representation in leadership roles at Pitt, and Jones said he’s been in several meetings this year that are looking at how to correct that.
Newest Pitt Communities
Two new groups have joined Pitt Communities in the past year — the Pitt Muslim Affinity Group and the Pitt Disability Community.
Chloe Shearer of the Disability Community, who works as a statistician with the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, said when she started at Pitt in November 2020, she realized there wasn’t a group like this here. “I didn’t really see myself working alongside other people with disabilities, whether visible or invisible, and I wanted that community, and it’s so hard to get that during a pandemic like this, so I started this group (in January).”
Some upcoming events include: A discussion of the movie “Penguin Bloom,” about a woman dealing with paralysis, at 4 p.m. March 30 and an afternoon meditation at 2 p.m. April 6.
She said disabled people have long faced stigmas in the workplace and have been disproportionately unemployed, but the pandemic has raised even more issues.
“I think one other challenge this community has faced during COVID has been this incredible frustration, confronting the reality that remote work was possible this entire time,” Shearer said. Those with mobility issues, bad pain days or other challenges “were denied the opportunity to work remotely or for meetings to be done on Zoom. And now that everyone has to do it, it’s suddenly feasible. I do know a lot of people who are very frustrated. They were overcoming all of these obstacles just to do the same work as everyone else, when it really didn’t have to be that difficult for them.”
The Pitt Muslim Affinity Group formed last year just before the pandemic forced the University to send everyone home. Co-chair Ahmed Ghuman, an associate director in the University Counseling Center, said they have about 30 members now, but are really just getting going.
“There’s so many Muslim professionals at Pitt across different departments and UPMC. … When we had one of our early meetings, it was re-energizing. It was inspiring to think there are so many of us,” Ghuman said. “Unless we bumped into each other at our local mosque, we don’t even know each other.”
Right now, they are working with the Pitt Interfaith Office to plan a Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers event during Ramadan in May.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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