by Diane I. Daniels, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Education is presented in many ways during Black History Month.
On Feb. 11, the forum was through politics.
The Homewood Community Engagement Center and the University of Pittsburgh Library System co-hosted a panel discussion titled, “African Americans and the Vote at the Homewood CEC.”
“As the director of diversity and inclusion initiatives, my goal is to integrate diversity into all aspects of the ULS (University Library System),” said Crystal R. McCormick. “Black History Month is one of many diversity program initiatives that we recognize throughout the year.”
Proud to partner with the CEC, McCormick relayed to the audience that the African American vote is crucial in many ways. “It determines who sits on school boards that represent the students in the school district, determines judges on the bench and who represents us in the Senate, Congress, City Council, and mayor all within our local government.”
McCormick and Pitt Homewood CEC Director Daren Ellerbee sponsored the event with hopes that the panel discussion would garner and foster knowledge and energy for those not yet registered to vote, along with those who are registered but didn’t vote in the last election. McCormick and Ellerbee are calling on as many people as possible to vote in the April 28 Primary Election and the 2020 Presidential Election in November.
Tim Stevens, president and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), served as the moderator of the discussion. Representing Pittsburgh’s East End communities, the Hill District, Downtown, the North Side and Duquesne, panelists included Pa. state Reps. Ed Gainey and Jake Wheatley, Pittsburgh City Councilmembers Rev. Ricky Burgess and R. Daniel Lavelle, and City of Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby.
Involved in politics with the goal to help and better the communities they represent, the panelists agreed that their jobs are difficult and often frustrating. Reverend Burgess, responding to the question of how difficult it is to be a politician, said: “I just came out of my worst campaign ever. Everyone thinks they can do your job. It is frustrating.”
As a legislator, Rep. Gainey said at times it’s a battle against the system as he fights to help the people, but one of the most frustrating things is having to protect his family.
Mayor Nesby labeled one of her difficulties and frustration as not getting adequate support from the county and state.
Issues of concern identified by the panelists included affordable housing, crime and the lack of politicians and the community working together. When Stevens asked how the community and politicians can work together, Rep. Wheatley said the community needs to be re-engaged. “An agenda with action points is needed. We need to move past meetings and the community must step up more. We have to be partners and the political leaders have to do their job,” he said.
Councilman Lavelle suggested that politicians should go into the community more. Touching on the Black Elected Officials group, he acknowledged that once the Black elected officials got on the same page, they’ve been pulling the community together to hear and learn their issues and are coming up with solutions.
“Voters have to hold people accountable that they put in office and stop putting people in powerful positions that don’t have their best interest at heart,” Mayor Nesby said at the forum. Mayor Nesby, a first-term mayor with more than 20 years of experience working within the state and federal system, said that the incarceration rate of Black males is a huge problem in the region.
“We need to get back to grassroots and educate and teach them. We need to get those civic classes and community services back together,” she said. “We need to reinvest back into our communities and provide reasonable employment opportunities.”
As an example, she mentioned the 180,000-square-foot aquaponics facility on 25 riverfront acres coming to Duquesne. It’s being made possible with $30 million of private funding from the likes of investors Hollymead Capital, among others. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in November that Glenn Ford, the founder of InCity Farms, is the lead man bringing at least 130 jobs to Duquesne in the coming year, through aquaponics, of which its definition isn’t known offhand to most people.
Aquaponics is the process of growing fish in indoor pools, then selling the fish commercially. The waste that the fish produce is used to eventually fertilize vegetable plants. As the plants are also grown indoors, there could be hundreds of “vegetable varieties” grown year-round, the Post-Gazette reported. The newspaper also reported that Peoples Gas CEO Morgan O’Brien saw the indoor food industry “as a potential customer for a natural gas system called Combined Heat and Power, in which the fuel is converted to electricity on site—and as a way to help the local economy.”
There’s a chance the facility could bring up to 275 new jobs to the area, on the land that formerly was home to a steel mill. Most jobs would start at no less than a $35,000 yearly salary.
“This is the start of something meaningful and beautiful,” Mayor Nesby told the Post-Gazette in the report.
The ULS, McCormick said, is committed to its vision of encouraging intellectual activity and the creation, dissemination, preservation, and celebration of knowledge and creative expression. It views the library as a place where important conversations happen, curiosity and experimentation are encouraged, collaboration is key, and diversity and inclusion are fundamental.
Ellerbee said she hoped the audience received information that caused them to walk away encouraged and empowered about the future. Recently celebrating their one-year anniversary, the CEC is known to many as a vibrant and welcoming space that creates a front door to Pitt right in the heart of Homewood. The facility fosters collaboration and houses services and programs, with staff dedicated to the neighborhood.
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: SPREADING KNOWLEDGE—Area educators and politicians aim to empower through community engagement. From left: Homewood CEC Director Daren Ellerbee, Pittsburgh City Council members Rev. Ricky Burgess and R. Daniel Lavelle, state Rep. Ed Gainey, City of Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, ULS Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Crystal R. McCormick, and B-PEP President and CEO Tim Stevens. – Photos by Diane I. Daniels)