Building a bridge between Pitt and its neighbors

Alex Toner and Jamie Ducar near Cathedral


The Office of Community and Governmental Relations has a new set of leaders eager to redefine and expand Pitt’s relationship with its surrounding communities.

Jamie Ducar, the new director of community engagement took over longtime Pitt staff member John Wilds‘ position on Jan. 1. She originally joined the office in 2017 as assistant director of community relations. 

Meanwhile, Alex Toner took the reins of Ducar’s former position on May 13, after serving as records manager with the University Library System and vice president of public relations for Staff Council.

Together, the two, in addition to Lina Dostilio, associate vice chancellor for community engagement, have their sights on being a resource to the Pitt community and want to be a bridge between Pitt and its other community partners.

So far, the office has been hard at work achieving these goals, Ducar said, and the work is exciting and rewarding. 

Some of this work has been through the Community Engagement Centers in Homewood and  the Hill District, which have been well-received by members of the respective communities and the Pitt community, Ducar said. 

The word is getting out about Community and Government Relations, Ducar said, and the office is being utilized more efficiently, internally and externally. This has allowed for Pitt to provide language resources, technical assistance and other programs for underserved communities.

“I think what others can anticipate is new and exciting work coming out of this office,” Ducar said. “And for us to be partnering a lot more explicitly across campus, whether that be with Student Affairs, Off-Campus Living, Pitt Police. We would like to be, I think, really on the front lines of community-facing work to make sure that everybody’s ships are rising, and that we’re going about this the right way.”

And Toner’s previous experiences have offered the office a fresh perspective, Ducar said. 

“It’s really nice to be able to bring somebody on the team that understands a little bit about the way that Pitt works,” Ducar said. “This is a really large institution — very decentralized. And it’s a place that it’s easy to get lost in if you don’t know how to navigate those spaces.”

Toner said his previous roles during his six years at Pitt have allowed him to build broad relationships with various groups in the University, and this new opportunity will allow him to further expand the University’s relationships with Pitt’s surrounding communities. 

“The opportunity to become assistant director of community engagement, and really interface with people in a broader way in a more meaningful way to advance the University’s interest, but also to work to build relationships with community that Pitt is engaged with, I think was really exciting,” Toner said. “I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity.”

And with this new leadership comes new strategies of engagement for Pitt and its surrounding communities. 

So far, Ducar and Toner are further examining the office’s role and looking for new ways to expand its resources. Over the years, the roles for Ducar’s and Toner’s positions have evolved beyond exploring students’ relationships with Pittsburgh into more community outreach programs, Ducar said. The Office of Pitt Serves also has been crucial to the CGR, Ducar added.

Ducar’s and Toner’s overall goals include continuing to expand Pitt Day of Caring, building more allies within the University and continuing to assist Pitt’s surrounding communities. 

Toner said that he’s specifically been focused on work with the Community Assistant Program, which is in its third year. The yearlong program pairs students up, based on their interests, with various nonprofits and community programs in the Hill District and Homewood — such as the African-American Music Institute and Homewood Community Sports — to work on projects. The projects range from community cleanups to STEAM programming and workforce development. 

“It’s not your typical internship,” Toner said of the program, which begins this fall. “It’s really meant to match with a student’s educational, personal interest, to grow civic engagement, leadership. But also, another important thing is to add to the capacity of those partners and really allow them some more flexibility and capacity to pursue their agenda and the work they’re doing in those communities.” 

The Oakland community was added to the program this year to allow for Pitt’s main home to have the same access to Pitt’s resources as the other communities do, Ducar said.

Ducar also wants to see “strong structures for institutional support of community engagement” built at Pitt over the years. This could include Pitt schools, offices and new hires investigating ways to be more active in Pittsburgh communities.

“In that way, our office has even more capacity through a network of allies to be able to do this really, really important work,” Ducar said. “There’s some units that are amazing. And I want to elevate them and celebrate them and pull out those best practices and share out throughout the university. And I think CGR plays a pivotal role for that type of work.”

And while there are a variety of services Pitt offers each community, the office is careful to not overstep boundaries by duplicating services already available.

This requires a balancing act between each community’s individual needs and Pitt’s resources, Ducar said. It also requires that students are knowledgeable and respectful of the surrounding communities they serve and live in.

“We’re a large, powerful institution, and we recognize that,” Ducar said. “And so, part of being responsible is minimizing that power ‘over.’ And instead, we like to have power ‘with,’ and we never want to be in a space where we’re considered to be, I think, a threat to the success of the nonprofits and the service providers that have been serving the community for a very long time.”

Donovan Harrell is a reporter for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.