By DONOVAN HARRELL
John Wallace grew up in Homewood, but he officially set foot on Pitt’s Oakland campus for an interview 15 years ago when he was 39.
School of Social Work Dean Elizabeth M.Z. Farmer said this fact is a major motivator for Wallace, who, on Oct. 31, gave his inaugural lecture as the David E. Epperson chair and professor and Center on Race and Social Problems senior fellow for Research and Community Engagement.
“Growing up in Homewood, that shouldn’t happen,” Farmer said. “You shouldn’t live three miles from a world-class institution and not be exposed to and have access to the wonders that are there. I know that has critically influenced how John pursues his work.”
Wallace’s lecture, “Building Bridges from the Cathedral to the Community: The Power of Collaboration for Positive Neighborhood Change,” is part of the Provost’s Inaugural Lecture series, where faculty recognize their appointments to distinguished professorships and endowed chairs. Provost Ann Cudd said Wallace is an exceptional member of Pitt’s community.
Wallace earned his bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Chicago and his master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan. As a co-founder and board president of Homewood Children’s Village, Wallace has spent his career serving black children and communities as a professor, entrepreneur, researcher, pastor and nonprofit leader.
He’s also the founder of the community organizing group Operation Better Block and the Oasis Project — a development division of the Bible Center Church.
His inaugural lecture focused on the many community projects he’s had a hand in, and how they’ve improved the lives of Homewood residents. But he began his lecture talking about his family and how much education meant to them.
As the great-grandson of an enslaved person, and grandson to a steelworker of more than four decades, Wallace said the opportunities he’s been given throughout his life are an “inspiring and exciting thing.”
This drove him to work to secure opportunities for black children in Pittsburgh. Wallace credits a New York community organization called Harlem Children’s Zone as inspiration for the various initiatives he’s started.
The organization tackled barriers that limited educational opportunities for Harlem’s 14,000 to 15,000 black children, including drug abuse, violence, health issues and economic hardships.
“Was it an expensive venture?” Wallace said. “Absolutely. But premature mortality is expensive. Burying babies is expensive, incarcerating people for 20, 30, 40, 50 years is expensive.”
And Pittsburgh’s black communities have their share of hardships from dilapidated housing and high infant mortality rates to violence and low wages.
However, Pitt is in a prime position to help address these issues, and it has through the Community Engagement Centers in Homewood and the Hill District. Wallace uses Homewood facilities for some of his community organizations, he said.
And through Pitt-Assisted Communities & Schools, or PACS, with the School of Social Work, the University has been able to better connect to the community and provide resources. Through several community organizations, Wallace and others have tackled neighborhood crime, joblessness and dilapidated housing in the Homewood community, he said.
He’s also introduced developing technologies to children in the form of the Oasis Farm, a facility designed to study solar energy.
And this is just the start of his work, he said. In the future, he plans to introduce more engineering and science programs to children in Homewood through a dedicated science center
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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