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October 27, 2011

Making Pittsburgh ‘most livable’

for everyone

Pittsburgh’s accolades are many and wide-ranging. In recent years the city has been rated highly on numerous lists and rankings, including those that peg Pittsburgh as “a great place to work,” “a wonderful place for community services,” “top 7 in public schools,” “best place to raise a family,” “most affordable city” and the grand-daddy of rankings: “No. 1 most-livable city in the United States.”

John Wallace, the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice and founder of the fledgling Homewood Children’s Village community initiative

John Wallace, the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice and founder of the fledgling Homewood Children’s Village community initiative

“What makes Pittsburgh most livable?” asked John Wallace, associate professor of social work, who spoke on “Making Pittsburgh ‘Most Livable’ for All: Lessons Being Learned From the Homewood Children’s Village.”

Wallace, who is founder of the fledgling Homewood Children’s Village community initiative, delivered the Provost’s Inaugural Lecture Oct. 18, celebrating his appointment as the Philip Hallen Chair in Community Health and Social Justice.

“First of all, comparing Pittsburgh to other cities, our unemployment is low. Our crime rate, using the example of homicides, compared to the rest of the country also is low. Income growth between 2000 and 2009 is 140 percent. We have a low cost of living, and a median home price in Pittsburgh of about $140,000 compared to about $220,000 for the rest of the country. Our arts are small scale, but world-class. These are the metrics,” Wallace said.

But, he said, closer scrutiny of those metrics tells a different story for those — primarily African Americans — living in one of a half-dozen of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods, with concentrations of high unemployment, high crime rates, vacant housing, poor schools and, in general, impoverished conditions.

“The question then becomes: Most livable for whom? What the data suggest is that there are two Pittsburghs,” Wallace maintained.

While city-wide income growth in the last decade was 140 percent, African-Americans’ income increased only 22 percent. The city of Pittsburgh’s homicide rate is 4.8 per 100,000 people, “but if you’re a young African-American male, it’s 60 times greater,” Wallace said. The unemployment rate for whites is 6.3 percent versus 11 percent for blacks.

“When you look at Pittsburgh, you all remember the mills closed in the 1970s. When a city experiences 140,000 jobs lost, and particularly in industry and manufacturing, positions in which African-American men, uneducated men, are concentrated, it has a tremendous adverse effect on communities,” Wallace said.

Among the 40 largest metro areas in America, Pittsburgh has the highest rate of working-age African Americans living in poverty, he said.

“When work disappears, those who can’t afford to leave are stuck. Communities become bereft of people with jobs, people who have to get up and go to work every day. What is it like to grow up in a community where you don’t see people get up in the morning and have somewhere to be? What does that mean when an alarm clock is never set?” Wallace asked.

“These two worlds are so separated that neither knows nor understands largely how the other lives. Have you ever been to LeMont or the Tin Angel? On the other hand, have you ever tried to carry six bags of groceries on the bus? Two different worlds.”

What happened in Pittsburgh, simply, is that the city has concentrations of poverty, he said. Homewood, East Hills, Lemington, Garfield, the Hill District and Glen Hazel are the most challenged neighborhoods, and the most isolated.

Turning to Homewood, where he is pastor of the Bible Center Church of God in Christ, Wallace told the audience why he decided to start the Homewood Children’s Village (HCV), a comprehensive, cradle-to-career community project designed to improve the lives of the neighborhood’s kids.

“My inspiration: I was going to a meeting at the YMCA [in Homewood] and the Y was organizing their summer camp. There were little kids 4-5 years old there, and the counselor said, ‘Okay, everybody get in line.’ And one little boy said, ‘Are we going to jail?’” Wallace recounted.

“There comes a time in your life when something changes. It goes from being just intellectual and interesting to be a calling. When I think about my own son, at 4 years old if he was asked to line up he would never ask, ‘Are we going to jail?’ I asked myself: Do I want for others’ children what I want for my own? That’s a disturbing question. And, second: Am I willing to work to achieve it?” he said.

Wallace looked for answers and was influenced by the acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which, using a holistic approach, serves more than 10,000 children in a 100-block area of central Harlem, New York. By focusing efforts on all the neighborhood stakeholders, including children and families who live, learn, work and worship there, HCZ strives to rebuild the community so children can stay on track through college and go on to the job market, essentially the same goals that Wallace has for Homewood.

“We get inspiration from Harlem. The mission of the Homewood Children’s Village is to improve the lives of children and reweave the fabric of the community in which they live.”

HCV was established as a not-for-profit organization in 2009, and now boasts support from local foundations and community organizations, as well as the United Way, Department of Human Services, Pitt’s School of Social Work, which provides interns, and Pitt’s Office of Research, which provided start-up funding.

“You cannot, cannot, cannot transform children’s lives without addressing the context in which they live: the neighborhood; the household; the sets of relationships; the social capital that connects them to one another and that connects them to outside of their community. Our vision is to provide opportunity for every child on their terms to the best of their ability to go out into the world and get work.”

Some HCV projects include Bridge to Benefits, which assists families with children in securing available benefits and community services in order to avert financial crises; the Westinghouse Lighthouse Project, which strives to develop young people who are civically engaged, developmentally and academically prepared for college, and the Pittsburgh Prep program, which works via mentors to decrease the school drop-out rate by encouraging attendance, modifying behavior and stressing class performance.

Homewood is a perfect incubator for HVC, Wallace said. The neighborhood’s population has dipped from almost 40,000 in 1950 to 6,600 today. Of those, 2,100 are young; 98 percent are African American.

“Almost 90 percent of the kids have free or reduced-cost lunches; three-quarters of the kids are living below the poverty level. This is really not hard to figure out: Concentrated problems suggest the need for concentrated efforts,” Wallace said.

“But we spend millions of dollars on interventions, trying to figure out stuff that works, but it never gets from the university to the community,” he said. “Our idea is to take the best of what we know and link it end-to-end: the best of what we know about parenting, about early childhood, about how to educate little kids, about issues in adolescence and about getting kids eventually to college.”

That is a steep hill to climb, he said, especially given that these children are starting way behind most of their peers. Last year at Westinghouse High School, only 3 percent of 9th and 10th graders were deemed proficient in science, 7 percent in math. That compares to 40 percent student proficiency in science and 60 percent in math in schools across Pennsylvania.

Wallace noted that the recently established Pittsburgh Promise provides up to $40,000 in scholarship funding to any Pennsylvania higher education institution for qualified city students, that is those who achieve a 2.5 grade point average and a 90 percent attendance rate.

“For poor black kids in Homewood that makes a big, giant, humongous difference,” he said.

But the percentage of children in local high schools who are Pittsburgh Promise-eligible differs widely. At the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts school it is 85 percent; at Allderdice it is 70 percent. At Westinghouse that number dips to 7 percent.

“What are we doing about this? First of all, we convene partners. We’re trying to build an umbrella for all the people and organizations, every program, that deals with kids,” he said. HCV coordinates programs and services to avoid duplication and waste.

“We build capacity. That means connecting someone to someone, it’s raising money, it’s expanding programs. Our conceptual model, how we work, is beginning before birth, working with parents [about what good parenting is],” Wallace said. “And we focus on the two-thirds of children who aren’t in a Head Start program. If we can do for other people’s kids what we do for our own children, we’ll be successful.”

But there are many barriers to success, he acknowledged, recounting a suburban news story involving a squirrel that was run over by a car. Grief counselors were sent to the school where it happened, he said. Meanwhile, in Homewood, where homicide is not rare, “I’ve never seen a grief counselor, ever, in Homewood. Why is that? Perhaps some people’s children are more valuable than others?”

And parents, for instance those working two jobs to make ends meet, often are not engaged in their children’s lives, Wallace noted. “I heard one parent say to a teacher, ‘You’re going to love my son, because I ain’t taught him nothing.’”

What has Wallace learned from his HCV work?

“I learned umbrellas are better than silos. It’s important to come together as a community,” Wallace said. “I learned many kids come to school ‘unavailable to learn.’ Kids’ minds and emotions are elsewhere, often on what goes on before they even get to school, like having to take care of a younger sibling. To address that, teachers have to meet and greet, listen and ask if there’s a problem. Many kids don’t have positive relationships with adults. When you see a young person on the street, rather that clutching your bag, say ‘Good morning, young man’ or ‘Good morning, young lady.’ Simple stuff, but it can make all the difference in their world.”

Poor young people also face logistical problems.

“When kids have to get up at 6:45 and walk to get to school that starts at 7:30 — How many of you would walk two miles in the dark from East Liberty to Westinghouse in Homewood? And we wonder why kids are late. The result turns into a warning, into suspension into — and, oh by the way, you can’t get the Pittsburgh Promise,” Wallace said.

“Academics aren’t enough. Children’s social, emotional issues have to be addressed. All the stuff that we do for our own kids.

“The assumption is not that these children are deficient, it’s not that they can’t learn. It’s that they lack opportunity. Adults need to be held accountable. No excuses. None of ‘Well, the mother’s on drugs, the father’s not home,’ all the reasons we use to explain why kids are failing. The grown folks have to be responsible,” Wallace maintained.

“Kids are nested in families and families are nested in communities. Pittsburgh has about six communities where the vast majority of this drama lives, and our notion is that Homewood is the franchise prototype for how to do this kind of work. Our goal is once we fix those six neighborhoods, we’ll make Pittsburgh most livable for all.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 5

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