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November 23, 1994

OPINION / Jim Cunningham and Tracy Soska

The results of the recent elections threaten programs vital to small-community survival, and struggling Pittsburgh-region communities like Swissvale, Braddock, South Side, Aliquippa, and hundreds of others are preparing to fight back.

Three days after the Nov. 8 election signaled radical changes in government funding, more than 125 community organizers, assisted by Pitt School of Social Work staff, faculty and students, gathered in nearby Fayette County to plan to toughen programs and protect funding through old-fashioned advocacy. A co-chair of the gathering was Evelyn Benzo, of Braddock, whose local community corporation is renovating empty houses to create low-income homeowners, supporting restoration of historic Braddock library as a community center for children, and bringing outside funds to a town so economically battered that it can seldom afford to pay its police force. Benzo, a leader of the Braddock Enhancement Task Force who was recently elected to borough council, discussed her group's efforts: "We have to keep state and federal funds coming in here or we'll die. Our task force is affiliated with the Mon Valley Initiative and its l6 other community corporations, but we can't move the politicians without a pulling together of community strength from all over the region." From rural Greene County, where the closing and downsizing of coal mines has left much of the population impoverished, Chuck Kuhn and Colleen Nelson came to sound a call for rural and urban communities uniting to sell their case to legislators. Pleaded Nelson, "Our West Greene group is beginning to build a new local economy with small engine repair, mountain crafts, health clinics, country cooking, and other self-employment. Our festivals and bluegrass concerts build markets, but our revival depends on state and federal funds. Right now those funds keep our families alive, and we need them for the capital and technical assistance to make our business projects go." Opportunities for children, job creation, and advocacy were repeated themes at the regional gathering, which attracted community organizers from seven southwestern Pennsylvania counties, including both organizers focused on human service delivery and organizers focused on economic development.

Bringing ominous post-election news from Washington was Bud Kanitz, chief lobbyist for the National Neighborhood Coalition, an alliance of 81 national and regional organizations. Kanitz said bluntly, "The new Congress is going to be led by people determined to chop government support for small communities. The new thrust will undermine progress being made by poverty children, sick elderly, persons with disabilities, mentally ill, and homeless people trying hard to get job training and bridge housing." He predicted there will be strong efforts to kill or cripple such departments as Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services.

Kanitz called on the organizers to go back to their roots, to mobilize wider alliances, and to push on with efforts for youth development, job creation and affordable housing. He suggested "getting the office holders out for neighborhood tours where they can talk directly to people involved and see first-hand the impact of community programs." In one workshop, led by Karen Payne, a human services organizer active in Homewood-Brushton and Wilkinsburg, participants bemoaned negative media portrayals of young people, the decline in extended families, the race hatred that absorbs so much energy, and the disappearance of societal values of honesty and self-sacrifice.

There was strong feeling expressed that funds for youth learning, involvement and creative recreation and job programs are badly needed, especially in public housing and other poverty neighborhoods.

* * * What were the results of the conference? Organizers came away with a growing sense of the need to build communities from the bottom up, to see the strengths and resources they represent instead of the usual problems and needs.

Hopefully, a regional alliance of community builders will emerge from this conference to partner citizen volunteer leaders with professionals, services people with development people, and private sector people with government people. The University community is also challenged to be a more active partner for training, research and other resource support for community-based efforts in our southwestern Pennsylvania region.

Six days after the conference ended, State Representatives Richard Kasunic and Peter Daley of Fayette County spent a day as "homeless men," eating in Uniontown food kitchens and wending their way through the local social service red tape. Their taste of poverty was organized by the county's Homeless Task Force of Fayette Community Action, which was represented at the conference. n (Editor's note: Jim Cunningham and Tracy Soska are faculty members in the School of Social Work. Soska is director of the continuing education office and played a lead role in organizing the Fayette County conference.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 7

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