Black women and femmes say Pittsburgh’s inequity report exemplifies the problem: Black voices are left out.

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India Renae Hunter, a University of Pittsburgh master's student studying public health and social work, voices criticism of a City of Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission Report at an Oct. 14, 2019 public meeting. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

Researchers, nonprofit leaders and advocates who gathered Monday continued to criticize a September report on racial and gender inequity for its predominantly white research team and the failure to engage Black leaders and community organizations already working on similar issues. 

More than 75 people attended the community outreach meeting at the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh in Homewood. The meeting was prompted by a September response to the City of Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission report, which was signed by a group of 19 Black women and femmes after the report’s release. The intention of the meeting was for researchers to explain the methodology behind the report and give an opportunity for attendees to voice their concerns. “The goal of this is to listen, to understand and not to respond,” said Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, founder and CEO of Pinchback Consulting LLC, who helped facilitate the meeting and was encouraging active listening.

The response letter referenced a PublicSource first-person essay by University of Pittsburgh sociologist Junia Howell, who is white and wrote about “racism being a core issue.” The letter said the report “has actually decentered the labor of Black women and femmes, exploited and ignored those same people, while centering white scholars as ‘validating’ Black people’s experiences, which is a manifestation of racism and the appropriation of knowledge and scholarship from Black women and femmes.”

The meeting was a public follow-up to a meeting with the authors of the letter and the commission on Oct. 1. 

Jada Shirriel, CEO of Healthy Start Pittsburgh, said the report is “not the beginning or the end of where these frustrations stem from, or where they continue to go.” 

The Gender Equity Commission’s report was the first of what was planned to be a three-part series; future research is now on hold until the commission decides its next steps, said Kathi Elliott, a commission member and the executive director of the local nonprofit Gwen’s Girls.  

Report co-author Sara Goodkind explained Monday that the gender analysis research did not set out to focus specifically on Black women.

“Sadly and not surprisingly to most people in this room, the results of this report highlight stark racial inequities in Pittsburgh that must be addressed,” said Goodkind, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, the inequities described in the report were not a surprise to many attendees. “For some of us that report was, ‘In other news, water is wet,’” said Felicia Williams, who works for Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner. “So my question is, where are we going from here?”

Writer and designer Tereneh Idia said if equitable policy and power shifts were prioritized, the Gender Equity Commission, which is majority white, would have a different makeup. “Unless some of y’all are willing to lose your jobs, then we’re really not talking about equity and justice,” Idia said.

Goodkind said the research team was open to reconfiguring its makeup or letting others take the lead on the research.

Other concerns voiced Monday included the level of funding to complete the research, the conflation of non-Black minority groups in the research data, the University of Pittsburgh’s role and the report’s alignment with OnePGH, the city’s resilience strategy. OnePGH is Mayor Bill Peduto’s idea to pool funding from the city’s largest nonprofits and corporations and spend the money on Pittsburgh’s social problems.

The city gave the Gender Equity Commission $45,000 to complete the report, a number that many felt was too low. “We Black women work in communities for free and cannot do that and dismantle these systems of oppression for free,” Shirriel said. 

Elliott said the goal of the report was to pressure individuals to increase funding for the commission’s work. 

“Our fight and our frustration is the same as you all’s as far as, where’s the money to do this work?” Elliott said.

Another point of concern: The report combined non-Black minority groups into a single group. Goodkind explained that in the data sets used, the federal government does not release data on minority groups that are deemed too small, in order to protect individual privacy. This included Pittsburgh’s Asian, multiracial, Latinx and Native American populations. The research team grouped these populations together in order to include residents that would otherwise have had to be excluded, Goodkind said. The report was also criticized for using data that only included male and female gender identities.

“I’m particularly concerned about the decision to sweep the whole gender identities and minoritized racial groups under the rug,” said Sueno Viveros, the cofounder of OKRA Ethics and chair of the Infant Mortality Collaborative at the Allegheny County Health Department. 

After Goodkind’s research team proposal was selected, the Gender Equity Commission asked them to alter the proposal to align with the OnePGH initiative, which Goodkind said examined inequalities across health, income, employment and education. The University of Pittsburgh team agreed to change its plan and include a series of reports, the first of which builds off of the OnePGH equity report. Several advocates questioned the inclusivity of OnePGH.

Several attendees also criticized the University of Pittsburgh’s involvement in the research. Dara Mendez, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the university and an author of the response, said ownership of the work should be taken out of the hands of the university moving forward. “I believe this should be a community-owned and operated research process,” Mendez said.

Commission member Megan Block acknowledged the problems of “centering white women when releasing a report about issues that affect Black women and girls” and not ensuring that “Black women are part of every phase of the research.”

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge there were a lot of missteps,” Block said.

Activist Brittani Murray said the solution is to “just invite us into the space.” 

“I’m tired of finding out after the fact that somebody had the audacity to talk about my life like I’m not here living and breathing right now,” Murray said.

Elliott encouraged anyone who would like to be involved with the Gender Equity Commission’s work to email genderequity@pittsburghpa.gov or call the Mayor’s Office within the next two weeks. The commission’s next steps will be subsequently determined.

Notes from both meetings and all future updates from the commission will be posted on the New Voices For Reproductive Justice website.

Correction (10/16/2019): This story was corrected and updated to fix an erroneously attributed quote and provide additional context on the meeting’s format and comments from attendees.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

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